It was a beautiful, balmy early-summer evening, last Friday: perfect for watching the sun set over the North Downs. But not before listening to some ethereal, Elysian music inside All Saints Church, Boughton Aluph, in the borough of Ashford. I had taken my two sons there for the annual Stour Early Music Festival, to listen to William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Arvo Part, performed by Harry Christophers’ Sixteen.
Whilst that last sentence makes me sound like the ultimate hot-housey mum, the truth is: my babysitter was taken ill …. and I wasn’t going to miss a concert for which I’d bought tickets many months before. How did I persuade the kids? I told my 12 year old, a Terry Pratchett disciple, that the great man, TP, had said he wanted to die in his garden, with a glass of brandy in his hand, listening to Thomas Tallis. Eldest son was intrigued. I promised my 8 year old a rare can of coke. Youngest son was delighted. Their mother experienced a rare moment of successful parenting (or bribery. Call it what you like).
The concert was titled “The Choral Pilgrimage 2016”. All Saints’ Church is a thirteenth century Grade I listed pilgrims’ church, built on the site of a Saxon church. A fireplace located in the South Porch originally catered for pilgrims going to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. The church sits on the Pilgrims’ Way, an historic route taken by pilgrims from Winchester to Canterbury. So the concert was drawing upon the pilgrim heritage of this part of Kent, playing Tudor composers’ sacred music. Arvo Part is still alive, of course, but his music also has a medieval quality, “shot through with flashes of modernity”* and all the composers meet on the common heritage of their Christian faith.
© Eric Marinitsch / Arvo Pärdi Keskus
But, when seeking out further information on Thomas Tallis (to keep my eldest son’s attention … ) I was amazed to learn of more specific heritage links between Tallis and Byrd, East Kent and Ashford. Thomas Tallis was Byrd’s one-time teacher and occasional collaborator and Tallis lived in Kent: first as organist at Dover Priory in East Kent (now Dover College) and then thanks to Queen Mary, who granted him a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income.
Although educated as St Paul’s Cathedral Choristers, when adults William Byrd’s brothers and father were immersed in the thriving London world of trade and finance, and his sisters married into that world as well. In London, they lived very near the great Elizabethan merchant, Thomas Smythe, who was a colleague of the Byrd brothers. Thomas Smythe’s nephew, Philip, married William Byrd’s sister, Martha. (Keeping up?)
Thomas Smythe married Alice, daughter of Sir Andrew Judd, Lord Mayor of London, and founder of the Judd School and Skinners School in Tunbridge Wells, West Kent. When Sir Andrew died, he bequeathed to his son-in-law the Lord of the Manor of Ashford. Thomas lived near his new Manor, at Westenhanger Castle in Hythe, on the East Kent coast. When Thomas himself died on 7th June 1591, he left an annual provision of £40 for the poor of Ashford. As per his instructions, he was buried in St Mary’s Church at the heart of Ashford Town centre.
On Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, in March this year, St Mary’s Church performed both Tallis and Byrd. St Mary’s Church and All Saints Church have continued the musical and historic heritage of Ashford into the 21st Century.
Thomas Smythe’s monument, St Mary’s Church, Ashford
* page 5, The Old and the New, Stour Music Programme 2016, ©John Milsom.
[Much of this post’s information about William Byrd and Thomas Smythe come from The World of William Byrd: Musicians, Merchants and Magnates by John Harley]