What to take to university is a question foremost in the minds of thousands of freshers up and down the country. Christopher Page’s latest book ‘The Guitar in Tudor England’ reveals that 16th century students faced similar dilemmas – though their packing lists were rather different.

In the hands of an amorous young man, the guitar was a means of courting young ladies who would flock to the player “lyke beez to hunny”

Sometimes, it’s only when you arrive at college that you realise precisely what is vital for student life. In a letter dated 18 June 1562, a servant wrote that his master, an undergraduate at Oxford, needed “a gitterne and bowe and arrows the whyche I thinke to be necessarye for hym…” The servant’s name was Thomas Madock and his master was John Somerford. Madock’s letter is addressed to Charles Mainwaring of Croxton, who was probably Somerford’s guardian.

Gitterne is an old word for guitar – alternative spellings (a ‘foreign’ instrument guaranteed a great proliferation) include gittern, quinterne and even gyttron. As instruments that were highly portable, and relatively easy to learn to a modest standard, guitars became increasingly popular in the second half of the 16th century, vying with and eventually overtaking other stringed instruments such as the lute.

Madock’s letter is one of many details that make Christopher Page’s latest book The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History compelling reading for anyone interested in the ways in which people acquire and use things, and their skills with those things, to define and maintain their place in society – and, of course, to have fun.

In researching the book, Page has scoured archives that range from the patent rolls of Bloody Mary in the National Archives at Kew to household inventories on the Isle of Wight. In doing so, he creates a rich and often entertaining picture of the Tudor world seen through the lens of a ‘newfangled’ musical instrument.  He looks not just at the history of the uptake of the guitar, and its contribution to courtly and popular music, but also at representations in art and architecture, most notably its appearance among the decorative motifs of the exquisite Eglantine Table (a piece of furniture made in Italy to celebrate marriages between powerful English dynasties).

Page’s book is the second in a three-part series devoted to the history of the guitar from 1547, when Henry VIII died, to 1837 and the accession of Victoria. It shines a light, in particular, on the rise of guitar-playing as one of the constructs of masculinity. Madock’s comments that a gittern and bows and arrows are “necessarye”, and that his charge is “verye desirous” to obtain them, are revealing: the implication is that without these must-have items his master is unable to fulfil his potential as a gentleman of not just means but also taste and talent.

The bows and arrows requested in Madock’s letter were for sport. Most towns would have had a butt – an area for the practise of archery – a fact recorded by names of streets and fields. Laws requiring archery practice date back to the 13th century: England needed men trained to use the longbow. By the 16th century, archery was recreational.  But, along with fencing and dancing, music-making and archery were accomplishments expected of well-born and aspiring young men.

The guitar’s emergence as a fashionable plaything was rapid. In the 1540s it was regarded as “strange”, derived from the French meaning ‘foreign’. Some years later the first traces of imported guitars appear in the records kept by the Port of London: a list of stringed instruments includes the duty to be paid on “Gitterns the dosen”. Early on, the guitar trade was dominated by a single individual, a draper named John White who imported instruments from Antwerp. Soon the role of the gittern as part of a “young man’s lyfe” guaranteed a thriving trade in guitars and guitar strings.

Inventories held by the University of Cambridge suggest that in the period 1535-1605 around a fifth of its members (chiefly scholars and fellows but also domestic staff) owned a musical instrument. Mental health was taken seriously: music-making was an antidote to melancholy brought about by the rigours of study in a town pestilential in summer and perennially damp in winter. Music practice is described as a form of “pleasant learning” that brings real benefits to the young man “for the refresshynge of his witte”.

Music, according to the Tudor guitarist Thomas Wythorne, enlivened the spirits, bringing a “fors with it lyk unto A heavenly inspirasion”. Guitar-players had other advantages too. In the hands of an amorous young man, the guitar was a means of courting young ladies who would flock to the player “lyke beez to hunny”. In the Paris of the 1540s (far more fashionable than London) lovelorn serenaders did “nightly walke the streates before their louers gates, tearing the poor strings of their instruments”.

Guitars made an initial impact at the luxury end of the market. Henry VIII (responsible for the completion of King’s College Chapel and the founding of Trinity College) was probably the first named owner of one under the name of ‘Spanish viol’. His daughter Elizabeth I (who visited Cambridge and berated its scholars for their torn and soiled clothes) was presented with a boxed set of three as a New Years Day gift in 1559. The record of the gifts shows that she asked to have them brought to her. A portrait of her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, features a guitar, complete with musical score, in its elaborately decorative border.

The instruments were also purchased by men of learning. The 1591 probate inventory of Thomas Lorkin, Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, included an extensive library of 631 volumes as well as “a lute with a case and 2 Gittornes”, with an overall value of 20s. Fourteen years later, the inventory of his son-in-law Edward Liveley, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, also included “In the studye… a gitterne in a case”.

As imports from Europe, guitars were both luxury goods (thus highly desirable) and foreign (thus potentially dangerous). Similarly, the social profile of the instrument trod a thin line between the exclusive and the popular. Once affordable, the guitar became a favourite with apprentices (who came from a wide spectrum of society). In Cambridge, the butler of Peterhouse College (as it then was) owned a guitar as well as a small number of books – an example of a townsman able to invest in his own improvement.

Sixteenth-century apprentices, like students today, were notorious for boisterousness. High spirits brought out some of the worst aspects of their elders. In 1554 a consortium of employers in Newcastle issued ‘An Act for the Apparell of Appryntyses’ to counter a woeful decline in moral standards. The wayward young men concerned were upbraided for their fancy clothes and beards, drinking and dancing, the pursuit of harlots, and playing “gitterns by nyght”.

The last word should go to the wholesome-sounding Dennys Bucke, whose probate inventory was drawn up in 1584. Bucke was a yeoman – a tenant farmer renting good arable land in north Norfolk. Itemised room by room, his belongings point to the emergence of a middling sort with the financial wherewithal to lift themselves to a new level of prosperity. Few of Bucke’s things speak of luxury; most are practical. But he is the possessor of a gitterne.

The presence in Bucke’s gitterne in his “parlor chamber”, along with “fower fetherbedds” and a “warming pann”, hints not just at a comfortable life for its recently departed owner and but also to a flourishing long-term future for the guitar itself as an instrument of the people. The guitar has never looked back.

The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History by Christopher Page is published by Cambridge University Press.

Inset images: The guitar shown in marquetry on the Eglantine Table, now at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Probably made to commemorate the marriage of Elizabeth (Bess) of Hardwick to George Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1567. Photograph by Marzena Pogorzaly (Cambridge University Press); 'An instruction to the Gitterne', f. 15 r-v (Cambridge University Press); Detail from a portrait of Robert Dudley (The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge).


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