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Singing in Secret: William Byrd and his Exeter Contemporaries

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

In 1635, Lieutenant Hammond of Norwich made a survey of the western counties of England. On visiting Exeter Cathedral, he concluded that the ‘rich and lofty organ’, together with the ‘tunable voices and the rare organist’ make ‘a melodious and heavenly harmony’. Evidently, Exeter’s choral music was some of the finest in the country – and remains so today.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the celebrated English Renaissance composer, William Byrd (d. 1623). During his public life as organist at Lincoln Cathedral and then as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, Byrd composed settings for Anglican services. However, from the 1570s onwards, Byrd’s Catholic faith began to inspire his greatest music and he later risked imprisonment and worse to compose music for Catholic services held in secret.

In the meantime, Exeter Cathedral’s long-serving organist, John Lugge (ca. 1580 – ca. 1655), was investigated as a suspected Catholic. A letter sent from John Lugge to his brother, Peter, a Catholic living in Lisbon, had ended up in the hands of the Bishop of Exeter, William Cotton, who decided to look into the matter. Evidently, the Bishop was not keen to dismiss his ‘rare organist’ and assured the Secretary of State in 1618 that though Lugge may indeed have eaten of the ‘forbidden fruit’ of Catholicism, he had ‘spit it all out again.’ Three years later, Lugge’s house was searched but there the story ends, at least in regard to John – in 1635, John’s son, Robert, ‘went beyond the seas and changed his religion for that of Rome’.

Recent research by Andrew Cichy suggests that Bishop Cotton probably also suspected that John Lugge’s assistant, Hugh Facy, was a Catholic. Records of chapter meetings tell us that Facy, who was a pupil of Edward Gibbons, was granted two years of absence from his organ and choir duties with full pay. The minutes give no details as to Facy’s whereabouts during this time or why he was absent – in fact, there is no further mention of Facy at Exeter. We now know that he had left Exeter for the Continent and was employed first at the College of Saint-Omer in Artois and subsequently at the English College at Douai, both havens for English Catholics. Later, another Exeter Cathedral chorister and pupil of Edward Gibbons, Matthew Locke (1621-1677), also went to the Continent where he, too, converted to Catholicism.

Come to Choral Evensong on Monday 16th October at 5.30pm to hear examples of the sort of music that Lieutenant Hammond might have heard on his visit to Exeter, including responses by William Byrd and an anthem by Matthew Locke. Michael Stephens-Jones, our Assistant Director of Music, will also be playing a rarely played piece of music by Hugh Facy.

Our next Library and Archives In Focus will take place in the Cathedral on Thursday 19 October, between 11am and 1pm, and will feature music and documents relating to William Byrd and his Exeter contemporaries.