Secular music in 15th century England

The study of English secular music during the later Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance has been severely hampered by the fact that the number of surviving songs in English between 1100 and 1400 is outrageously small. Even so, some conjectures can be made, and so far there has been no evidence that England had a developed tradition of monophonic song, like the Troubadours and Trouvères in France or the Minnesänger in Germany, or that it was affected by the ideas of Courtly Love, so popular on the Continent during that period. Instead, there exist a number of devotional songs or carols (not necessarily for church use but with ecclesiastical themes) and a few scattered one- and two-part secular songs like Foweles in the Frith and Brid one brere.

However, even these early attempts show certain aspects that help define English music, most important of which is the preference for using thirds, as opposed to the fourths and fifths that were the norm elsewhere. Indeed, to the modern listener, early 15th c. English music sounds sweeter and fuller that continental music of the same period. This is due to its use of full triads, block chords or lightly ornamented homorhythmic passages and consonant harmonies that avoid dissonances except as passing notes.(1) In 1440, Martin le Franc, in his book Le champion des dames, recognised an English discrete style, influential on the continent, characterised by “sprightly consonance and a number of specific technical features”.(2) These include the English discant, comprising of two-part, contrary motion counterpoint favouring imperfect consonances, namely thirds and sixths, and the faburden, a parallel homophony in thirds and sixths, both largely improvised. Even though Le Franc was probably referring to religious music, secular music of the period shares most, if not all, of these characteristics. One beautiful song, O Rosa Bella (attributed to John Dunstable but probably composed by Beddyngham), was very famous on the continent and many composers wrote variations or whole pieces based on its tune.

The earliest pieces we have are from the so called Cambridge manuscript (c 1415) and are written in French or Latin and adapted from late 14th c. French and other continental sources. However, English became the official language of the Court in 1362, and when Henry IV became king in 1399, being the first king whose native language was not French, there was in increase in the use of the English language in literature and, by extension, in music.

Deo gracias Anglia
Redde pro victoria

Owre kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyualry;
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherfore Englonde may calle and cry,
“Deo gracias.”

This is the burden and first stanza of what is possibly the most famous English 15th century song, the Agincourt Carol, written sometime during the first quarter of the 15th c. to commemorate the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Carols form the main corps of surviving secular music from the 15th century. They can be found mainly in three manuscripts: the Ritson manuscript, compiled probably between 1470 and 1510, the Fayrfax manuscript, compiled around 1500 and the Henry VIII manuscript, compiled around 1515. The Ritson manuscript comes from the West Country, probably from Essex cathedral and seems to be a general purpose song-book for a provincial establishment. It contains many religious carols written in the traditional medieval style and a few ceremonial ones. It also has two kinds of secular songs: love songs in Burgundian chanson style and some English songs similar to those in the Fayrfax manuscript. The Fayrfax manuscript reflects the taste of the Court under the first Tudor King. The songs are all in English and of three kinds: 2 and 3-part songs on courtly love, larger songs with religious themes (Passions) and topical, satirical and humorous songs.

The word carol originates from the Old French carole, which is a round-dance in which the dancers themselves provide the accompanying music. It is used in this meaning up until the 15th century, when its function begins to change. It becomes more and more a purely vocal piece, but still maintaining the traditional form of a four-line verse followed by a two-line burden. According to R. L. Greene, carol is “a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas and provided with a burden… The burden makes and marks the carol. It is not a refrain (which might appear at the end of each stanza) but a self-contained formal and metrical unit”.(3) It is simple, direct and unpretentious in style, mainly cheerful, using stock phrases and traditional imagery. Its basic form is related to other continental popular forms of the time like the French ballade, the Italian ballata or the Spanish villancico. However, all these were monophonic, whereas the English introduced a unique feature: the polyphonic carols, which first appeared around 1400. These carols were fairly straightforward, usually in triple measure, with parts often moving in parallel thirds or sixths. The burden is in three parts and the stanzas in two. The earliest collection of carols is the Trinity Roll, which contains the Agincourt Carol. During the 15th century, the carols progressed technically and musically, from two to three parts, and increased in rhythmical subtlety and formal complexity.

Carols come in a surprising variety of subjects, but they can be broadly categorised as secular/popular and religious. According to John Stevens “the popular carol, rough and direct, combines a warmth of human feeling with a matter-of-factness and a sense of wonder. The clerical carol, complex and often ornate, dwells with dramatic intensity on the physical and spiritual anguish of the Passion. The one didactic but gay; the other solemnly devotional.” (4) Other researchers divide them in four categories: courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious song (lauda), popular litany or processional song, ecclesiastical polyphonic song.

The language of carols can be equally complex. There are texts purely in English, French or Latin (usually called cantilenae), but also macaronic texts in any combination of these languages. Religious or devotional carols are usually in English with a Latin burden. Many of these seem to have been written anonymously by men of some education and song-craft but not great intellectuals.

Another type of secular music was of the type written for the medieval “miracle” or “mystery” plays, performed in major festivals throughout Britain. It was on the greater part incidental music, but certain composed 2-part songs and instrumental pieces survive. For example, in a York mystery play or “pageant” from the mid-15th century, music was used to add verisimilitude, to add a supernatural dimension as in the Angel’s song and to create diversion as in the Shepherds’ song. There are surviving songs from the York play, and it is interesting to note that they were written in Latin and not in English as one would expect, even though they were intended for public use.

Civic music was functional within a particular social framework. There were lots of minstrels at the King’s court or other large households and town musicians or “waits” and freelancers. The city of Coventry had paid minstrels playing at the various “pageants”, as for example on Corpus Christi Day. Music was used for royal occasions, such as the Coronation festivities and the musico-poetico-dramatical allegories greeting Henry VI on his return from France in 1431. At royal visits to Coventry all available musical resources were conscripted. In 1474 was “myntralcye of harpe and dowsemeris” at the Conduit and “mynstralcye of harpe and lute” at Broadgate, and also “Childer of Issarell syngyng”, “mynstralcy of small pypis” and “mynstralcy of organ pleyinge”.

The tradition of the minstrels goes back to the earliest middle ages, and was continued throughout the centuries until 1500 and beyond. Minstrels had a variety of entertaining skills. They could play a variety of instruments, sing, juggle and mime, all with certain skill as is shown in the popular image of a man playing the “fife and tabor”. Their repertory included singing of narrative poetry and the playing of dance music.

The earliest and most important surviving source of dance music is the Gresley manuscript, compiled c. 1500. It contains a number of choreographies and various tunes to which these could be danced. The melodies are similar to 15th c. Italian dances and everything in the document suggests that there was a flourishing tradition of sophisticated dances in Renaissance England.(5) Although the technical term basse dance didn’t reach England until later, the form evidently existed and flourished here as on the Continent.

Another form of popular music was the ballad. Originally a dance song (the name ballad derives from the Italian ballare = to dance), by the 14th century it meant a distinct song type with a narrative core. The origins of ballads can be traced to the late middle ages, when heroic type ballads served as entertainment. Unfortunately, there are almost no examples surviving that include both music and lyrics. Folk ballads and songs were transmitted by mouth and ear. However, since the earliest surviving manuscript of a ballad is Judas, dating from about 1330, and there exists a large number from the late 16th and the early 17th century, we can safely surmise that ballads were part of people’s entertainment in the 15th century as well. Most of the ballad tunes are “unharmonic”, they use certain rhythmical formulae, gapped scales and formal variety. A ballad has certain defining features, such as impersonality of narrative, incremental repetition and recurrence of commonplaces. The subjects range from apocryphal legends (Judas) to miracles, outlaw exploits, folk history, border raids, encounters at sea and humorous domestic strifes.

In all, English 15th century secular music forms a unique and distinct tradition, focusing on polyphonic music instead of the prevailing monophonic tendencies of the continent, and eager to explore “unusual” harmonies and textures.


  • The New Grove, Second Edition, ed. Stanley Sadie, 2001

  • Music in the Renaissance, Gustave Reese, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London, 1954

  • Music in the Renaissance, Howard Mayer Brown, Prentice-Hall Inc. , New Jersey, 1976

  • Renaissance Music, Allan W. Atlas, W. W. Norton & Co, 1998

  • The Oxford History of English Music, Vol 1, John Caldwell, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991

  • A History of British Music, Percy M. Young, Ernest Benn Ltd, London, 1967
  • Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court, John Stevens, Cambridge University Press, 1979

  • The English medieval Minstrel, John Southworth, The Boydell Press, 1989
    (All illustrations come from this book)

  • The Gresley manuscript, c1500. Copyright Robert Huggett 2002

  • The Gresley dance collection, c.1500, David Fallows, RMA Research Chronicles, Vol XXIX, 1996, p. 1 – 20

  • MUSICA BRITANNICA vol. IV: Mediaeval Carols, Ed. John Stevens, Revised 2nd Edition, London: Steiner and Bell, 1970 (All musical examples)

Footnotes (1) Music in the Renaissance, p 8 (2) The New Grove (3) R.L Greene, Early English Carols (4) Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court, p10 (5) The Gresley dance Collection, p3 Posted by Jehan de Lorraine at March 27, 2004 11:19 AM