Sermon preached at the fifth special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (29 October 2017) by The Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor

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Sermon preached at the fifth special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (29 October 2017) by The Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor

Focusing on the reign of Elizabeth I, The Reverend Rosemary Morton discusses the Queen's love of music and the rise of some of England's most famous choral composers during her reign, adding: "this music isn't just a relic, it's a living tradition."


The events of the Reformation in England tell a story of political and religious power, of impatience and jealousy, and of bloody violence and bitter division.

When Mary I died in 1558, Elizabeth ascended to the throne. And she inherited a bitterly divided country. Her father, Henry VIII, had rejected the authority of the Church from Rome and declared himself 'Defender of the Faith'. He took control of all the land and property that belonged to the Church, and in the space of just five years got rid of over eight-hundred monasteries.

However, Henry was a contradiction – he actually rather liked the Catholic Church, and especially its music – its complex and ornate polyphony. But Henry's criticisms of the Catholic Church meant that he had opened the door for reformers to criticise everything about the Church, even the music he loved so much. And it was this polyphony which the reformers saw as ostentatious and decadent – a symbol of everything they believed to be wrong with the Catholic Church.

The destruction of the monasteries, on which Henry was so keen, had the side effect of risking the almost complete silencing of simple plainchant music in worship as there were suddenly far fewer people to sing it. But the polyphonic music that Henry loved, and which was only heard in the grandest of settings, remained reserved for the ears of the wealthy and powerful.

Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Henry advising him that religious music should take a more simple form, just one syllable per note, but Henry loved the beauty of the sung Latin mass and so in 1543 he summoned Thomas Tallis (England's finest Catholic composer) to the Chapel Royal to write music for his chapel, and you can hear the move to a simpler style in Tallis' music of that period, although the texts are still in Latin.

Edward, Henry's son, had received such a fiercely Protestant education and so fervent was his dislike of the Roman Catholic Church, that on his ascension to the throne he quickly set about getting rid of every last bit of Catholicism in England. The appearance of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer brought the whole liturgy in English for the first time, and allowed the people to join in singing the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and the psalms to simple chants. Edward was not a fan of complex choral music, so much so that under his reign choirs were disbanded and church organs burnt and destroyed, and Tallis (though still a Catholic himself) wrote in a more austere and pared down style, with texts now in English.

But Edward's death aged just fifteen stopped his reformation in its tracks, and Mary came to the throne with a very different agenda. Mary wanted to take England back to total Catholicism, and she expected obedience. Tallis, now composing for a Catholic Queen, returned to elaborate settings of Latin texts. Mary' s agenda was clear, and her tactics fierce. Her decline into terminal illness served only to drive her anti-reformation agenda harder. Although all of the Tudor monarchs had brought about change through violence, this escalation was unprecedented.

All this meant that in 1558, when Mary died and Elizabeth took the throne, there was understandable nervousness about what this might mean for the Church and for the faithful.

Elizabeth reinstated the 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer. Her church was going to be Protestant, but not quite like Edward's version of that, because in music things were different. Elizabeth kept the music that Mary had, and which she herself liked. She saw it as central to worship, and even passed laws to protect music in the church. "For the comfort of such that delight in music", she said, there could be music played before and after services in the morning and evening, and it was with this resurrection of Evensong that Elizabeth's ideas about church music found their ultimate expression.

Despite her brother Edward's apparent rage about church organs, Elizabeth was determined to protect them, and to protect church musicians in general. In Elizabeth's reign we see the organ being used as a solo instrument in a more virtuosic way, and also with voices for accompaniment. She declared that there should be "no alteration to the assignment of living for those musicians who are employed in the Church", and believed that the sound of the organ glorified God. But she also knew that this would antagonise hard-line Puritans. Organs were often found on rood screens or in lofts and so, the Puritans believed, detracted from the true worship taking place below.

Elizabeth insisted on having the finest musicians working in her Chapel Royal. The Catholic Thomas Tallis, who started working under Henry is, remarkably, still there, though now quite old and he brings forward his young protégé William Byrd. Byrd was also a Catholic, but it is interesting to note that this didn't bother Elizabeth, as she was more interested in skill than in religious affiliation. It was under Elizabeth that the partnership of Godfrey Goodman and Orlando Gibbons are formed – the librettist and composer of today's anthem. This type of anthem, the verse anthem, was a particular feature of the time of Elizabeth and perhaps reflects through music, her approach to the Church. In the verse anthem we hear the alternating passages from the soloist and the choir, the combination of these two is dramatic and expressive, but the text is always clear.

Elizabeth was very much her Father's daughter in many ways, though perhaps she was more shrewd in her approach to the Church. Whilst Henry had thrown his toys out of the pram because the Roman Church wouldn't allow him to do what he wanted, he didn't (if I may be permitted to mix my metaphors briefly) throw out the baby with the bathwater. He loved the Catholic faith; he just didn't like other people telling him what to do! Similarly, Elizabeth trod a delicate line between the desires of the hard-line reformers and those of the adherents to the Roman Church.

Elizabeth wanted to see, hear and smell Church, for it to be a full sensory experience, just like the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, but crucially not Roman Catholic in that although there was a great reverence towards the sacraments, everything was in English.

Elizabeth was astute too – the music and worship in the Royal Chapel weren't just for her enjoyment. She knew that music in worship glorified God, but she also knew that she could use it to glorify the Royal Court as well, showing the Tudor monarchy as a jewel amongst the European royalty. It was a kind of 'soft power' – the iron fist in a velvet glove kind of power, where beautiful music masked a ruthless determination. Some of the Puritans in Elizabeth's government were suspicious however, and saw Evensong as nothing more than badly disguised Catholicism trying to sneak back into our chapels and churches. They wanted the abolition of what they described as 'curious singing' and the playing of the organ. A bill to this effect in 1563 in parliament was defeated by just one vote, demonstrating just how contentious these issues were and how bitterly divided the nation still was, and a clear signal to Elizabeth that there was real and fierce opposition.

In public, however, Elizabeth enforced the Puritan line, with executions for those practicing the old faith, including Catholic Priests. So Catholics held masses in secret, and this included William Byrd, the darling of the Chapel Royal. Byrd supported the secret worship of the Peter's family, his patrons, by composing a comprehensive repertory of choral music to be sung in their private chapels. Works first heard in these private chapels, such as Byrd's mass for four voices, are now considered to be some of the finest examples of Tudor music. Elizabeth, it seems, was prepared to overlook the fact that Byrd was a practicing Catholic as long as he kept it under the radar, and this special treatment reflected her desire to find a middle way when it came to religion – unlike her siblings.

The events of the Reformation in England tell a story of political and religious power, of impatience and jealousy, and of bloody violence and bitter division. But out of this grew the English Choral tradition that we know and love, and which is the hallmark of Anglican worship. Elizabeth was in many ways her Father's daughter, and though this may not have always been a good thing, their shared love of music preserved the music of the Church, and drove it on to new heights.

It was the combination of Elizabeth's power and intelligence and her love of music that brought us Choral Evensong as we now know it. But it doesn't end there – this music isn't just a relic, it's a living tradition. Although the words of the service have remained unchanged for five hundred years, its music has evolved – some of the best known and loved British composers, such as Vaughan Williams and Britten, have written music for Evensong, and new music is still being composed to this day.

Long may it continue.