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By 1593 the strain was obviously beginning to tell and the Byrds moved to a property at Standon in Essex, close to the estates of Lord Petre, a Roman Catholic peer. Even so, between 1592 and 1595 Byrd published his three settings of the ordinary of the mass, the masses for three, four and five voices. Some continental influence is shown as these are some of the earliest English masses to set the Kyrie, generally the English tradition was to use a plainchant Kyrie. It seems incredible that Byrd should have published these masses, at the height of the persecution of Roman Catholics; his only concession was to miss off the title pages. But he needed to publish them to achieve his aim.

The masses can be seen as a gesture of support for the Roman Catholic community; written for performance during Roman Catholic masses. Catholicism survived underground because of the support of the Catholic peers who would provide a mass centre that could be used by their households and the local Roman Catholic community. These mass centres could be in discreet chapels but they could also be in remote barns or out-buildings. Anywhere where a watchful eye could be kept.

It is important, I think, to bear in mind the nature of these underground services. Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century was not a casual religion; services were not of the form of a group breaking of bread in the way of the twentieth century. The Tridentine rite had only been introduced in the late 1560s and many of the English clergy dated from Mary's reign and would probably have still used the older, more elaborate rite. For those of us used to the twentieth century's rationalising simplifications, it is good to remember that the complex Tridentine rite was itself introduced as a rationalisation and modernisation. The mass as celebrated by English recusants would have consisted of the celebrant silently, privately saying mass, with the responses said only by the Deacon, the congregation acting as generally silent witnesses. Only occasionally, at the ends of prayers would the priest raise his voice to the point of audibility and then the congregation would say/sing the response. There were two major factors in the services, the artefacts needed for the service and for dressing the altar and the provision of music which was sung whilst the priest was inaudibly saying mass. The provision of these two (artefacts and music) would have been a problem for recusant; both were significantly incriminating but difficult to do without. Artefacts had to be hidden when not in use and music required musicians and access to written music.

Music must have been a serious problem for recusants; until the break with Rome and the suppression of chantries and foundations, there would have been a reasonable supply of reference copies of psalters and the like providing the music needed for services. Not just settings of the ordinary, but the copious amounts of plainchant needed to cover all the propers (the introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, communion and other sentences, all of which change according to the day and festival). Even with musicians with a good memory, services must have started to seem rather barren and bleak under the persecution.

At first the simple survival of the service itself was important, just being at mass was a great source of succour to Catholic individuals. But, just like the Arts in England during World War Two, there was a gradual realisation that it would be desirable that they survive in some, altered format; so we can imagine Catholics privately gradually attempting to restore some elements of visual and aural splendour to the services.

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Copyright © 1 January 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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