John Bull Biography (BBC)
Long before the invention of the popular personification of Englishness, another John Bull established a reputation that was recognised far beyond his home country. A portrait of the man, painted by an unknown artist in 1589 and now held by the Faculty of Music in Oxford, is surrounded by a rhyming legend that offers a flavour of his character as a musician and composer: "The Bull by force / In field doth Raigne / But Bull by skill / Good will doth Gayne". The portrait also notes that it represents Bull at the age of 27, providing a likely birth-date for him of around 1562.
It has been argued that Bull was born in Old Radnor, Radnorshire; certainly, he unsuccessfully petitioned Elizabeth I in 1589 for a lease on land in Radnor Forest. Young John became a member of Hereford Cathedral choir in 1573, studying there under the organist John Hodges. The following year he left to join the Children of the Chapel Royal, where his progress was greatly encouraged by his teacher, the organist William (alias John) Blitheman, and by William Hunnis, Master of the Children.
Thanks to the patronage of the Earl of Sussex and his second wife, Frances, Bull was recommended for the job of organist at Hereford Cathedral, to which he was duly appointed on 24 December 1582. Despite the inevitable conflicts with his new employers, Bull continued to work in London and, in 1586, was sworn a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He obtained his BMus degree at Oxford in July 1586; a later chronicler recorded that he would have continued towards an Oxford doctorate "had he not met with Clownes & rigid Puritans that could not endure Church music". It appears that he was connected with King's College, Cambridge, and received his MusD at Cambridge in 1589. Two years later he succeeded Blitheman as organist to the Chapel Royal.
Bull's perennially straitened financial circumstances were not improved in 1592, when he was mugged in the street. He achieved temporary security in 1597, becoming the first Public Reader in music at London's newly established Gresham College. His position there was undermined by several clashes with the college's authorities. He survived, however, as a Gresham professor until 1607 when he was forced to resign after fathering a child and also made to marry the girl's mother. Bull continued to serve the court under James I as the king's organist, in the musical retinue of Prince Henry and as music master to Princess Elizabeth.
In 1613 he faced the serious charge of adultery. Bull lived up to his name by responding with physical violence to the consequent admonitions of a clergyman. His conduct was noted in a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the English envoy in Brussels: "The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals." In August 1613 he quit England for good, soon entering the service of Archduke Albert in Brussels. Bull claimed that he had fled to escape religious persecution, but James I's envoy assured the archduke that his new musician "did in that dishonest matter steal out of England through the guilt of a corrupt conscience". Although he was dismissed from the archduke's chapel, Bull convinced the Mayor of Antwerp that his Catholic faith had led to his exile. In 1617 Bull became organist at Antwerp Cathedral, remaining there until his death in March 1628.
Profile by Andrew Stewart © BBC
John Bull Tracks