Solved! The Elusive Case of Mr Ludford and His Music Manuscripts

The musical mystery of Nicholas Ludford, the composer of five centuries ago, has just been solved. As The Cardinall’s Musick bring out his complete works, Rob Ainsley tells the story of the case.

A few years ago, at New College, Oxford, builders found a piece of paper used long ago to cover a crack in the wall. It was a fragment of a four hundred-year-old musical manuscript. Such a fate, sadly, was common for most of England’s great religious music after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the late 1530s. Priceless music books were torn up and used as account rolls, as book binding, even to wrap fish.

Only two choirbooks from Henry’s reign survived intact. The so-called Caius and Lambeth Choirbooks (respectively now in Cambridge and London) have been a tantalising puzzle for music researchers for several decades. The size and weight of paving slabs, they contained wonderful vocal music in gloriously illuminated manuscripts, both written in the same hand. Most of the music was by two composers but the bare surnames were the only information given. Who were ‘Ludford’ and ‘Fayrfax’? How had the books survived? And what did the music sound like?

They would have remained just another footnote in musical history had it not been for David Skinner, an Oxford academic and co-director, with Andrew Carwood, of the early music group The Cardinall’s Musick. We now know the story of the books and more on the life of the composers. Best of all, we can hear the music from the Caius and Lambeth choirbooks on disc.

Skinner and Carwood met as lay clerks at Christ Church, Oxford, seven years ago. With The Cardinall’s Musick they embarked on the project of recording the music of pre-Reformation England. At that time they knew virtually nothing about Ludford or Fayrfax beyond some bare-bones biographical information unearthed by researchers in the 1950s. Skinner’s excavations, between 1993 and early this year, went further. In the archives of Westminster in London he found Ludford’s will and a number of documents – most undisturbed for centuries – relating to the composer’s employment and personal life. Public records offices provided more information. Gradually Skinner pieced together Ludford’s career. He was a leading composer of his generation: he worked as verger and organist of St Stephen’s, Westminster from about 1521-47, providing music for this royal chapel; after the Reformation he became involved in parish life and was a churchwarden of St Margaret’s.

The mystery of the books
That would have been enough. But Skinner was still intrigued by the history of the books. Why had they survived? More research provided the answer. Enter Edward Higgins, a prominent Tudor lawyer who was awarded a canonry at St Stephen’s in 1518 for his services to Henry, before retiring to the job of Master of Arundel College, Sussex, in 1520. Higgins clearly recognised that in Ludford, England had a composer who deserved to be preserved for posterity. So, once in Arundel, he generously paid to have an enormous choirbook produced, which would include four of Ludford’s Masses as well as the works of other Westminster composers, to be presented to St Stephen’s. It was a showpiece item, beautifully illuminated and bound; it took up over 20 sheep’s hides and must have cost the equivalent then of a year’s rent on a house in central London.

Friends in high places
For Higgins’ own college at Arundel (where two of his brothers lived, one of them a singing-man of the college) he paid for the production of a comparable book to that given to St Stephen’s. This was a working volume, with pages big enough to be readable by the whole chor, who would stand around the open book when performing from it.

At the Reformation, most noble families were forced to surrender the contents of their private chapels to the crown. However, the Fitzalans were close friends of Henry, and managed to buy back the property and possessions of their college at Arundel, including their books, for a nominal sum. Their choirbook went through various libraries before ending up in Lambeth, where it is now. The Higginses managed to retrieve the other book from St Stephen’s – perhaps with the help of the Fitzalans – and eventually it was passed to Caius College, Cambridge, where it is today.

Skinner was finding all this out as the recording project was progressing, and at each new session, the singers in The Cardinall’s Musick would get progress reports on his findings. ‘The great thing about this project has been that performance and academic research have been working together’, he says. ‘The singers could sense the discovery and I think it really comes across in the music.’

Case closed, Inspector Skinner.

What was life like for Ludford in the 1500s?
Thanks to David Skinner’s research – some of it completed only this year – we at last know something about the man behind the wonderful music on the ASV discs. Nicholas Ludford was born around 1490 and died in 1557. he was buried in St Margaret’s Church next to his first wife Anne, who had died in 1552. In 1517 he lived in what is now Whitehall, near Big Ben. His will makes it clear he died a staunch Catholic, and he appears not to have written any church music after the Reformation. The passionate nature of his music, and his clear devotion to his wife, hint at a devout man of great emotions.

Fast food, 1500s-style
We can guess at what Ludford’s daily routines were from other accounts of the time. In the early 1500s Westminster was the centre of government, a self-sufficient community of 3,000 (England’s total was three million) moated off from London. Ludford lived a few minutes’ walk from St Stephen’s Chapel (part of the old palace of Westminster which was destroyed by fire in 1834), where he spent his working days. The streets around it were packed with shops. A loaf of bread cost a farthing (a quarter of a penny), a gallon of ale a penny-halfpenny. You could buy a whole cooked chicken for threepence, and even fast-food – pies, pasties and so on. If you had money, you weren’t hungry: the average daily wage was fourpence for a labourer and sixpence for a craftsman, while Ludford was comfortably off, living in free lodgings owned by St Stephen’s with an annual income of more than £10 a year (46 pence a week).

Thou shalt have a fishy…
The Ludfords would have eaten well. (We don’t know if they had children; there were Ludfords in Westminster until the early 1700s, and the name survives today in parts of the country.) Two meals a day was the norm then, a huge one at about 11am, and another big one at around 5pm. Beef was the staple meat, with lots of offal and black pudding. Fish was obligatory on Fridays and Saturdays, and virtually so on Wednesdays, and the Ludfords would sit around a table with perhaps half-a-dozen different fishes (including cod, shellfish, skate and herring) nibbling at whatever took their fancy.

Save water: drink beer
And they drank well too. The normal intake of ale for a middle-class man was a gallon a day, and up to a quarter of household expenditure was on drink. Given the quality of the water, which induced diarrhoea instantly, it’s no surprise people avoided it (though they used it for cooking, with predictably explosive results). Ale had the consistency of thick porridge, often sweetened with spices, and the new ‘beer’ (with hops) was coming in from the continent. Anne would have drunk ‘small ale’ or ‘small beer’, which tasted like flat shandy.

Singers in Ludford’s day were regularly paid for services performed outside their normal jobs in wine and ale. On several occasions the churchwardens of St Margaret’s invited singing-men of the Abbey and of St Stephen’s to bolster their own choir on great feast days, giving them money for their services for the sole purpose of exchanging it at the local pub. (The Cardinall’s Musick say they do not find the concept unfamiliar!)

Mine’s a pint thanks, Nick
There were around 20 pubs in Ludford’s street. Ludford probably drank at the King’s Head or the Black Eagle, which like most of Westminster’s taverns would provide drink and snacks such as Welsh rarebit, plus games like skittles and ninepins.

Violent crime was rife and you didn’t stay out after dark. It was dirty and smelly; lack of bathing meant most people had lice and fleas; open sewers promoted diseases like typhus, malaria and ‘the sweat’. Despite this Ludford appears to have enjoyed a successful, long and well-fed life. Westminster in the 1500s was dirty, noisy, dangerous – but also lively, prosperous, and full of music. Maybe life wasn’t quite so different then!

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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