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OU on the BBC: Sacred Music - Tallis, Byrd and the Tudors

Updated Wednesday, 5th December 2012

16th Century England saw some of the greatest worship music being created - and there was more than just Byrd and Tallis.

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Virgin Mary Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: In the penultimate episode Simon travels to sixteenth-century England - a country in turmoil as a succession of monarchs change the national religion and Roman Catholic worship is driven under ground.

Through a succession of period documents and manuscripts Simon tells the story of Thomas Tallis and his younger colleague William Byrd, the composers at the centre of England’s own musical Renaissance in the Tudor Age. He discovers the uncertainties of the life of a church musician in the sixteenth century, subject to numerous shifts of religious doctrine and worship from one monarch to the next.

His journey takes him to some of England’s great cathedrals – Canterbury where Tallis was a singer, to Winchester where Mary Tudor was married and to Lincoln where Byrd started his career as the organist. In the account book of Lincoln Cathedral library he discovers one of William Byrd’s elaborate signatures and reflects on the composer’s powerful personality and sense of faith. He also visits many of the places in London and the Home Counties associated with Tallis and Byrd - attempting to find the houses they lived in, the churches where they worshipped and, ultimately, their graves.

In an encounter with Andrew Gant, the current choirmaster of Her Majesty’s Chapel, he discovers how as members of the monarch's own personal choir – the Chapel Royal – they were both close to the heart of state politics yet both retained strong, and sometimes open, Catholic sympathies at a time when it was dangerous to do so.

In the church at Waltham Abbey, where Tallis once worked as organist, singers from ‘The Sixteen’ under the direction of Harry Christophers perform some of the key works of both composers – contrasting their Catholic work in Latin with their pioneering English language works for the new Church of England.

First broadcast: Friday 21 Mar 2008 on BBC FOUR. For further broadcast details, and to watch online where available, please visit

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