William Byrd was born in London in 1540. Two of his brothers became choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral and, around 1550, he himself may have joined the boys of the Chapel Royal. His early musical training was overseen by adult members of the chapel, among them Thomas Tallis, who taught him keyboard playing. By March 1563 he was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral, a post secured on favourable financial terms and supported by the grant of a rectory.
In 1568 Byrd married Juliana Birley at Lincoln. Two of their children were baptised in the fenland city in 1569 and 1572, the year he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal to replace Robert Parsons, who had recently drowned in the River Trent. Although Byrd left Lincoln, high-placed supporters persuaded the cathedral chapter to continue paying him a quarter of his salary in return for ‘church songs and services’. Soon after moving to London, the Byrd family was extended by two more children.
Although Byrd by now enjoyed the support and friendship of several courtiers, the Catholic Lord Paget and Edward Somerset among them, his domestic circumstances and inflationary economic conditions forced him to lobby the queen, in partnership with his old teacher Tallis, for an exclusive licence to publish and import music. Byrd’s joint venture was not a success, although later publishing enterprises proved profitable and also underlined the composer’s high status.
In the 1580s Byrd worked tirelessly to produce a succession of Latin motets, keyboard pieces and songs, later anthologised and issued in several lavish publications between 1588 and 1591. His output also included music for viol consort, for which there was a growing market, works for the Anglican liturgy, and many contrapuntal pieces and dances for keyboard.
Byrd’s adherence to the Catholic faith brought him into potential conflict with the Elizabethan state. His house and servants were watched; he and his wife were cited for recusancy, or failure to attend church regularly. In 1585 the family home at Harlington was searched and soon after Juliana Byrd was outlawed. Despite the difficulties caused by his religious convictions, Byrd continued to enjoy the protection of Elizabeth I. In 1593–4 he moved to the Essex village of Stondon Massey, close to the homes of the Catholic Petre family. Again, records show that the Byrds were routinely fined for recusancy. The composer was not deterred, however, completing many Latin works for private Catholic devotions, three Mass settings and a series of fine motets among them, and boldly publishing these in his two Gradualia collections of 1605 and 1607.
Byrd probably sang at the funeral of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I in 1603; certainly, he remained a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under the new king and took part in royal entertainments. In 1608 Byrd’s wife died and was buried at Stondon. His later years were actively spent overseeing the copying of manuscripts by other composers, preserving his own works in such published collections as Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets and Parthenia, and preparing second and third editions of his earlier publications. In 1614 he contributed four songs to William Leighton’s The Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule, his last works to appear in print in his lifetime. Byrd died at Stondon on 4 July 1623 and was buried next to his wife in the village church.
Profile by Andrew Stewart © BBC