Last week my eye rested on a report in the papers of an important discovery made under floorboards in an attic at Oxburgh Hall, a National Trust property in Norfolk. The findings included psalm fragments from a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript from a Book of Hours, a chocolate box dating from the Second World War and, lodged in a rats’ nest, scraps of handwritten music from a sixteenth-century part-book. The first and last of these hint at the fascinating story of the Bedingfield family, the Tudor Catholic owners of the Hall who fell out of favour at court when Sir Edmund Bedingfield refused to sign Queen Elizabeth I’s Act of Uniformity in 1559, which forbade the holding of Mass. This discovery adds to the compelling evidence provided by the existence of a ‘priest’s hole’ in the Hall that the Bedingfields continued to hold secret services after the ban, bringing to mind William Byrd’s visits to Ingatestone Hall in Essex, a property with not one but two priest’s holes.
Although rare, the musical aspect of this story is not unique. The Hampshire Chronicle recently reported on treasures from Winchester Cathedral being put on display which include fragments of medieval music manuscripts that had been used to wrap wills in the sixteenth century, almost certainly a fallout of the aftermath of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. Religious libraries were ransacked, but the parchment used for manuscripts was considered too valuable to be burnt and was instead used for such varied tasks as lining shoes, wrapping fish and binding new books.
The Oxburgh and Winchester finds are not complete pieces of music; in the former case, it looks impossible to identify what the piece of music might be. But even now there is some cause for hope that complete works from the medieval and Tudor periods may resurface, as was the case in 1995 when Mrs Victoria Goncharova of Kazan sent the renowned musicologist Margaret Bent a photo of a manuscript that she had chanced upon while researching the papers of an early twentieth-century Russian pianist in archives in Tallinn, Estonia. At the foot of the parchment were the words ‘quod Dunstaple’ and Dr Bent was able to confirm not only that the music was indeed a previously unknown work of the famous fifteenth-century English composer John Dunstaple, but that it was also a 4-voice canonic setting of the Gloria and quite unlike any of his other pieces that have survived to this day.
On the very rare occasions I have an opportunity to look at old books — by which I mean 400–500 years old — I now always leaf through just in case there is any music hidden within, or even inside the front and back covers. I haven’t found anything so far but I live in hope!
Angus Smith, Choral Ambassador
The works of William Byrd: https://stainer.co.uk/composer/william-byrd/
The works of John Dunstaple: https://stainer.co.uk/images/pdf/ask081.pdf
Eastern Daily Press, Oxburgh Hall: https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/heritage/oxburgh-hall-norfolk-discovery-under-floorboards-1-6796085
Hampshire Chronicale story: https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18457899.fragments-medieval-music-discovered-wrapping-wills/
Hampshire Chronicle music image: https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18457899.fragments-medieval-music-discovered-wrapping-wills/#gallery4