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Saturday morning quotes 5.20: Dowland and Context

October 3, 2015

Our weekly posts are unapologetically focused on vocal music of the 16th century and the lute as it was regarded in its golden age; an emblem for all that was civilized and sophisticated, refined and nuanced.  Firmly committed to providing contextual references, we hope we might steer today’s lutenists away from their classical guitarist roots and and toward the sense and sensibility of an earlier time and a more intimate aesthetic.  Many guitarists turned lutenists tend to favor the more extrovert repertory that projects outward, and conversations with conversos often turn toward a discussion of the mechanical technique required to play the flashy pieces.

Likewise, we hope to offer a reality check for those modern instrumentalists who assume that historical figures like John Dowland (1563 – 1626) experienced music just as a modern musician would.  Dowland did not have a run of piano lessons imposed by a strict yet hopeful parent followed by a stint playing rock and roll guitar, then discovering his technique would be improved by studying classical guitar, leading to discovering music for the lute and finally finding a proper instrument and learning to play it.  As we pointed out in our series on Dowland’s training, his musical talent was most likely nurtured because he could sing.  It is unlikely that a member of the artisan class would have had access to an expensive musical instrument strung with enormously expensive strings if he did not demonstrate musical talent in the normal fashion for the times—singing, most likely as a chorister in a parish church or a small wealthy household.

As true today as it was in the 16th century, information is power, and another aspect of Dowland’s musical life was his role as a well-placed servant who was required to keep his ears tuned to the quietly uttered words and random asides falling from loose-lipped courtiers.  The question of “Was Dowland a Spy?” invariably conjures misguided references to Magnus Pym, or even James Bond.  But like many aspects of 16th-century life, spying was not the same kettle of fish.  No spiffy electronic gadgets, no exploding speed boats, probably no trysts with glamorous and scantily-clad double agents.  But as we will see, there was the equivalent of encryption in the form of secret codes devised for the passing of information.

Dowland was known to have traveled to France as servant to Sir Henry Cobham when he was Queen Elizabeth’s  Ambassador to France.  Rumors and lies about diplomatic integrity aside, the role of the 16th-century ambassador was to discover and report information about the goings on of foreign powers, just as it is today.

The choices a king made when appointing his diplomats was taken as an indication of what sort of prince he was: it could tell another court whether he was learned, interested in cultural trends, philosophically skilled, linguistically adept, pious or militarily capable. Consequently, ambassadors’ actions and qualities were read for evidence of what the king or queen from whom he had been sent thought and was. Sir Francis Thynne, who wrote the first English treatise on the role of the ambassador in 1576, therefore recommended that the men chosen to be ambassadors should be ‘learned, well born, free, no bond-man, of good credit in respect of his honesty, of good estimation in respect of his calling… wise, valiant, circumspect, furnished with divers Languages, eloquent of quick capacitie, of ready deliverance, liberall, comly of person, tall of stature, and…adorned with all vertues required’.

Those chosen were usually men of high social status such as dukes, earls or bishops. Such embassies were usually of short duration and were often lavish affairs.  Resident ambassadors were expected to gather information about the politics of the host court and international events; their reports back to England are full of such affairs. In critical moments in England’s international relations, the information ambassadors relayed from the continent could prove critical in gauging how to formulate foreign policy.

– Dr. Tracy Sowerby, University of Oxford, “The Role of the Ambassador and the use of Ciphers

Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530 -1590), Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, was known as the Queen’s spymaster.  Possessing all the traits of an extremely paranoid and manipulative government official, Walsingham invested heavily in agents and double-agents throughout the Continent as well as at home.  As Secretary of State, Walsingham was responsible for filtering all communications between his many minions and the Queen, and was uniquely positioned to understand the intricacies of diplomacy between England and France having himself served as Ambassador to France from 1570 – 1573, managing to survive the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.

Here the story becomes interesting. Sir Henry Cobham (Henry Brooke) was Walsingham’s Ambassador to France from 1579-1583, and among his entourage was a youthful lutenist, John Dowland.  Cobham’s short-term directives included acting as go-between in Elizabeth’s  marriage negotiations with Hercule-François, duc d’Alençon et Anjou (1554 – 1584), also known as Elizabeth’s “Frog”. Walsingham was apparently opposed to the marriage and probably had a hand in ensuring its unsuccessful conclusion.  Cobham was reassigned in 1583 and whether Dowland returned to England with him or stayed on to serve his replacement, Sir Edward Stafford, is simply a matter of speculation.  However, if Dowland did remain in Paris, he would have been involved in the tension and intrigue that ensued between Stafford, a tool of the Cecils, and Walsingham.

Walsingham dictated the terms on which a government agent should report…In addition, as the patron of aspiring diplomats, Walsingham normally managed to provide ambassadors with staff whose first loyalty lay to himself…

The irruption of Sir Edward Stafford into such a sensitive yet ‘safe’ part of Walsingham’s territory created trouble almost immediately. Lord Cobham, the outgoing ambassador, departed without offering Stafford more than a handful of documents, and no details of informants whatsoever. Stafford retaliated by sending copies of all his despatches to Lord Burghley…

– Mitchell Leimon and Geoffrey Parker,”Treason and Plot in Elizabethan Diplomacy: The ‘Fame of Sir Edward Stafford’ Reconsidered”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 444 (Nov., 1996), pp. 1134-1158

Perhaps this little spat is the reason there is no evidence of Dowland in England until 1590, the year of Walsingham’s death.  Perhaps it simply was not safe for him.  While he was in service, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the young Dowland was excused from keeping his ears open and reporting what he may have heard while playing for and near the local luminaries.  This does not necessarily constitute spycraft in the modern sense but merely doing the job of an upwardly mobile servant.  Since Dowland was later known to be well connected with the Cecils, it may very well be true that he remained in Paris and was involved in the shift of power away from Walsingham and towards William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563 – 1612), the dedicatee of Dowland’s 1609 translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Musicae active micrologus.

Just as in a police-state where no one’s phone conversations or e-mail communications are free from the prying eyes of the government and their corporate overlords, no 16th-century letter was expected to reach its destination without being opened and read, sometimes repeatedly.  Creatively devised secret codes were commonly used for the transmission of even the most mundane information.  A fascinating look at Ciphers during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I reveals a host of codes in common use in diplomatic communication throughout the 16th century—the equivalent of encryption today.

These bits of contextual information help us to understand the depth of Dowland’s humanity and the sort of constraints that affected a successful upwardly mobile musician of his time, something to consider when exploring the highs and lows, the nooks and crannies, the bravura and the pathos of his music.

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