The reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), was a much more eventful one, so far as music is concerned, than that of his father. A younger son, Henry was originally intended for a Churchman, and during the lifetime of his elder brother Arthur, his education was shaped towards this end.
When, through the death of his brother, therefore, he became direct heir to the throne, he was one of the most accomplished young princes in Europe. Among other studies, music had received a large share of his attention; and when he became king he possessed much more than the average Churchman's knowledge of music, and this at a time when musical art and science were still almost completely in the hands of the clergy.
Henry did much for the diffusion of music through the force of his own example. A practical musician, he delighted greatly in part-singing; and as nothing is more influential than a royal example. It was not long before the musician king's court was very nearly as musical as himself, and the ability to sing his part at sight came to be regarded as one of the essential accomplishments of a gentleman, a state of things which had not yet become entirely obsolete two centuries later.
Besides Dr. Fayrfax, who must be reckoned as belonging to the reign of Henry VIII quite as much as to that of his father, there remain to be mentioned three other musicians, whose names stand out more prominently than those of their contemporaries. These are John Taverner, John Merbecke (1523-1591), and Christopher Tye. All composers and organists.
Taverner appears to have been a celebrated composer in his day. He was organist of Boston, in Lincolnshire, and in later years held the same post at Christ Church, Oxford. At Oxford he was for some time in a position of considerable peril through his support of the reformed doctrines.
Christopher Tye was Music Master to Edward VI, and probably to the other children of Henry VIII. He was one of the foremost writers of Church music of his time.
Merbecke's claim to remembrance lies in the fact of his being the first to frame a musical setting of the Book of Common Prayer (1550).
Various circumstances contributed to make the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism a gradual and moderate one. Circumstances which were nowhere happier in their influence than in the case of music, inasmuch as they rendered the retention of a great part of the office of the ancient Church possible. The Reformed ritual being thus not so much a new one as a continuous development of the old.
Chief among the writers, who in their work bridged over the gulf between the old ritual and the new (Thomas Tallis (1520-1585), and his pupil William Byrd (1538-1623), hold unquestioned rank. These names carry us from the time of Henry VIII, through the reigns of Edward VI, and Mary, to that of Elizabeth, and the commencement of the most brilliant period in English musical history.