The Court Reformed?
Music in the Royal Household under Edward IV


There is no large surviving music manuscript from the reign of Edward IV. Around fifty years before Edward IV came to the throne the Old Hall manuscript was compiled, and shortly after his death the Eton Choirbook was created. The absence of any major source for the reign itself, however, has led to the time of Edward IV being overlooked by musicologists.

The Yorkist court of Edward IV and his brother Richard III has suffered in the writing of English history from the 'tyranny of 1485'. In 1485 Henry VII killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and seized the crown, thus founding the Tudor dynasty. The subsequent reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I coincided with periods of English importance in international affairs, the arts and the sciences. The Tudor period, then, is viewed as one of the most important in English history, and is dated from 1485. There is even a tendency to view 1485 as the date when the Middle Ages ended in England and the modern era began. It is clear why the period just before 1485 has therefore been overlooked.

The domination of the Tudor view of history is particularly apparent in the plays of William Shakespeare. As well as being eclipsed by the importance of what came after, the reign of Edward IV is unknown to many because it is not the subject of any Shakespeare play. Although the play Richard III deals with the end of the reign and Henry VI part iii deals much more with the reign of Edward IV than that of Henry VI, it would have been politically inexpedient for Shakespeare to name a play after the most successful recent rival to the ruling family. Thus, a relatively prosperous and successful reign of twenty years has been overlooked. This is a problem for both musicologists and historians. The Yorkist period has been considered merely an insignificant hiatus between the weak reign of Henry VI and the advent of the dazzling Tudors. This discussion will attempt to show that such was not the case, and that the reign and court of Edward IV have much to contribute to our understanding of music in England in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

For much of the twentieth century, historians viewed the royal courts of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as fascinating groups of nobles and servitors revolving round the king but with little or no contact with the outside world. [1] This picture now seems to be flawed, as connections between people within and without the court have emerged. Previously, musicians at court during this period have been considered as pinnacles of a national style, selected by the court as representing the very best of music in England. [2] This is also now questionable, as the structure of music making in England seems to be much more complex than has been imagined.  FN

Frank Harrison, in his classic study Music in Medieval Britain, has considered the royal court in terms of the royal household chapel alone. [3] This is also the case in Roger Bowers's important study Choral Institutions within the English Church. [4] The possibility of interaction between the institutions studied is not addressed. They and other scholars have looked for the names of known composers in the royal chapel and attempted to link compositions in various sources with the royal court. It is certainly valuable to locate known composers and works within a certain institutional context, but the research has often overlooked the social and communal environment in and around which the institution functioned. In the case of the royal chapel this includes not only the other members of the court with whom the chapel members would have spent their time, but also the surroundings of the court itself: London and the areas around each of the royal palaces. [5] Thus there are many more available sources to investigate than might have previously appeared, there being no major music manuscript surviving from this reign. FN

It has also become apparent that the closed view of the royal court and the other major musical institutions is more or less false. Rather than a musician being contracted to a chapel in which he would spend all his time until he either died or moved to another job, it now appears that members of one institution could spend time as a member of one or more others as well.

The life and career of the composer John Plummer is a powerful illustration of this. [6] It is now clear that he was simultaneously a member of the royal household chapel and St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Plummer was a member of the royal chapel at least from 1438, and possibly from shortly after 1426, probably having been born around 1410. [7] He was also, apparently, the first to hold the office of 'Warden or Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal' from 1444 to 1455. [8] Plummer left the royal household chapel towards the end of his career and moved to St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle where he was a verger. There was a significant period, however, when Plummer was both a member of the royal household chapel and the verger at St. George's. This is clear from the archives of St. George's and documents held at the Public Record Office. [9] FN

Plummer's predecessor as verger at St. George's was one Richard Brown who stopped being paid in 1450 and was dead by 1453. The next extant record of payments to a verger is from 1454-55 when Plummer was paid as verger. There is no evidence, however, to show that he had left the royal chapel to go to Windsor and indeed was still styled 'clerk of the chapel' in Chancery documents for over ten years. As Brian Trowell puts it in his Grove article, Plummer was 'nominally a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal' at least until 1467. [10] More importantly, he was still Master of the Children until 1455. It is clear, then, that John Plummer was affiliated to both the royal chapel and St. George's from at least 1454 to 1467. FN

Unfortunately the attendance book for St. George's for the vital years, 1453-67, has been lost. The extant attendance book for June 1468 to July 1479, however, shows that Plummer was in almost daily attendance through those years. [11] It is unlikely, therefore, that he was able to sustain his post for the thirteen previous years without being often in attendance at Windsor. Nor was he likely to have been granted the privileges of a member of the royal household chapel for those years, particularly those while he was still Master of the children of the chapel, without being in frequent attendance. Thus we have an example of a member of two institutions who was often required to move between them and thus who could provide a channel whereby music might also pass from the one to the other. Where there was one example of this happening, there are very likely to have been others. FN

The attendance book for St. George's for 1468-79, does indeed contain much further information concerning members of the chapel who were also affiliated to the royal household chapel. In fact, there were six canons of St George's Chapel at this period who were also part of the royal household chapel. These were John Wygrym, John Hoore, Thomas Downe, Robert Wodemanston, John Dunmowe and William Cokkes. There is not sufficient room to investigate the careers of all these men here, but the most spectacular, that of John Dunmowe, cannot be overlooked.

John Dunmowe was created a canon of St. George's in October 1477. [12] He was already a member of the royal household chapel, first appearing in 1474, and also held a large number of appointments and benefices (including an ambassadorship) during his career in the king's service. Dunmowe had previously been made a Fellow of All Soul's College, Oxford in 1464. [13] A large number of members of the royal household chapel had university degrees, although there were equally many who did not. [14] This illustrates the varying career patterns that they followed and counters the view that they were all tied for life to the royal chapel with no outside interests. It also serves to counterbalance our somewhat music-centred view of chapel musicians: there were some whose main career path lay outside music altogether. FN

In the case of John Dunmowe, then, we have the career of a man who started his life in academia, moved to the royal household chapel with responsibilities at a number of other institutions, and died an ambassador for the king in Rome. The attendance book from Windsor shows that, as with Plummer, Dunmowe was able to appear at least some of the time at Windsor while he was also part of the royal chapel, and when the court was not in residence at Windsor. It is clear that members of the royal household chapel were frequently moving between foundations and thus probably disseminating musical information throughout much of the country.

Having seen that there were members of the royal chapel who pursued careers outside the musical world we must now turn to the question of whether the royal chapel was used to functioning at part strength. The evidence is found in a little-studied wardrobe book from the time of Edward IV, currently held in Princeton University Library as Manuscript 101. This book dates from 1474-75, during which period Edward IV's son Prince George died in childhood. (This was not such a bad thing for him in the long run, since Edward IV's other two sons were later imprisoned in the Tower, and were smothered at either Richard III's or Henry VII's orders.) The Wardrobe book lists the materials allowed to the household for the funeral of the prince and includes the allocation of blue cloth (the colour for mourning at the time) to only eleven members of the royal chapel: the Dean, four chaplains and six 'gentlemen singers'. [15] This indicates that only these eleven would have been present at the funeral, whose arrangements are described in the book, rather than the whole of the chapel personnel, whose number, whilst it cannot be exactly known, was probably at least three times larger. For whatever reason, the whole of the royal household chapel was not used at this melancholy but still important royal event. Probably, therefore, for much of the rest of the time the whole of the chapel need not have been in attendance and could have pursued their parallel careers in other institutions, including St. George's, Windsor. FN

This view is supported by evidence from the Black Book of the Household of Edward IV, a descriptive, and probably prescriptive, work on the household. [16] It states that the royal chaplains were in attendance 'from half year to half year, some at one time and some at another'. [17] The historian R. A. Griffiths has further noted in his book on Henry VI that the whole of the King's household operated on a 'shift system'. [18] Thus there is ample evidence to support the idea that the royal household chapel must have operated some kind of rota. The implications for what could have been performed by the chapel are obvious. The image of a large choir performing mass settings on a daily basis must be abandoned, as must the idea that the total membership of the royal chapel, as given by wardrobe accounts, represented the available performing forces. It is probably impossible to say how many singers were performing the daily services in the royal household chapel, but we may be fairly certain that it was not the 30 or 40 suggested by previous estimates. FN

The picture that emerges is of a court musical establishment that scarcely ever all met together at once. Rather than a fixed number of people in constant attendance, members were frequently away from the court so that the number actually present must have varied considerably, as must the possible repertory. Furthermore, the court musicians would have had contact with musicians across the country and would have been able to share ideas, if they wished to. The court itself was in the process, at this period, of being transformed, as David Starkey has it, from a noble household to a royal court. [19] The great 'standing palace' court culture of the Tudor era cannot have arisen from nothing but must have had its roots in the previous reigns.  The reign of Edward IV, then, was a period of alteration and development, and the existence of this period of change must inform our view of the court. It has also become clear that, when dealing with this period, it is vital to use non-musical archival source material and the wealth of recent historical research because there is so little surviving music. As I hope I have demonstrated, this can produce a wealth of useful information about a fascinating reign that might otherwise have been overlooked. FN

Once the Yorkist court has been accepted as one of importance in the history of music and court culture the implications are widespread. Tudor secular and sacred culture may be seen to have roots in the reign of Edward IV and may be re-examined in this light. The roles of members of the royal chapel as academics, ambassadors and dignitaries of the church have not been sufficiently studied and may reveal valuable new insights. Further research is also likely to bring to light more connections between the musicians of the royal chapel, the rest of the court, the rest of London, England, and even continental Europe. Many of these areas have already been addressed in part by historians although the court's music has not. Interdisciplinarity is becoming increasingly common in the academic world as questions require the input of many types of research, and court studies are a prime example of where many methods of work are needed fully to address the subject. I hope I have shown that musicologists need methodology and source material from the discipline of history in order to tackle areas that have been previously overlooked, and reveal their full significance.

Document references

John Plummer:

Joining the royal household chapel: London, PRO E101/408/25, f. 5v-6

Petitions in 1441 as a member of the royal household chapel: PRO E28/67/48, C81/729/5905 and E28/67/58

Grants for the upkeep of the boys of the royal chapel: PRO PSO1/15/791 and E404/66/94

Wardrobe book lists with Plummer's name: PRO E101/411/13, E101/411/15 and E101/412/2

Early links to Windsor: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, XV.60.8

Acquittance, 15 March 1442: 'Joh(an)ne Plummer de eadem [nova Wyndesore] gentilman', XV.45.172 Lease, 18 May 1449

First payment as verger at St. George's Chapel: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, XV.59.4 Treasurer's Roll of 1454-5

Attendance at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, V.B.2 (attendance book 1468-79)

John Dunmowe:

First known appearance in the royal household chapel: London, PRO C81/844/3716

Attendance at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, V.B.2 (attendance book 1468-79): see f.57r for his appointment


[1] See for example: G. R. Elton, England 1200-1640, 'The Sources of History' (London, 1969) and 'Tudor Government: Points of Contact III. The Court', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 26 (1976).

[2] This attitude persists in David Baldwin, The Chapel Royal: Ancient and Modern (London, 1990) and Timothy Morris, 'Music for the English Chapel Royal, from the Reformation to 1750: a Survey of Available Recordings', The Court Historian, 2:3 (1997): 42-51. Back

[3] Frank Llewelyn Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (London, 1958).

[4] Roger Bowers, Choral Institutions within the English Church – Their Constitution and Development 1340-1500 (Ph.D diss.: University of East Anglia, 1974).

[5] For a discussion of the court and its relations to London specifically see: Fiona Kisby, The Royal Household Chapel in Early-Tudor London, 1485-1547 (Ph.D thesis: University of London, 1996). Back

[6] The discussion that follows is expanded in: Helen Jeffries, John Plummer, the Royal Household Chapel and St George's Chapel, Windsor (MMus dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 1999).

[7] The first mention of Plummer as a member of the Royal Household Chapel is in London PRO E101/408/25, f. 5v-6.

[8] Grants to Plummer for the upkeep of the boys of the chapel are given in PRO PSO1/15/791 and E404/66/94.

[9] The wardrobe lists with Plummer's name are: E101/411/13, E101/411/15 and E101/412/2. Early links to Windsor: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, XV.60.8 Acquittance, 15 March 1442: 'Joh(an)ne Plummer de eadem [nova Wyndesore] gentilman', XV.45.172 Lease, 18 May 1449. First payment as verger at St. George's Chapel: St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, XV.59.4 Treasurer's Roll of 1454-5. See also the Attendance Book of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle: St George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, V.B.2 (attendance book 1468-79). Back

[10] Brian Trowell, 'John Plummer' in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1980), xv, 15 and in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edn., eds. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrel, online version (, 2000). Back

[11] St. George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, V.B.2. Back

[12] Attendance at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle: St George's Chapel Archive, Windsor, V.B.2 (attendance book 1468-79): see f.57r for his appointment.

[13] First known appearance in the royal household chapel: PRO C81/844/3716.

[14] A. B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D.1500 (Oxford, 1959): 606. Back

[15] Princeton University Library, MS 101, f.102. Back

[16] A. R. Myers, The Household of Edward IV: The Black Book and the Ordinance of 1478, (Manchester, 1959).

[17] Myers, The Black Book: 215 (the 1478 Ordinance).

[18] R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI (Stroud, 1998): 296. Back

[19] David Starkey ed., The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War (London & New York, 1987), 'Introduction: Court History in Perspective'. Back

© Helen Jeffries, 2002

BPM Volume 5 BPM Volume 5