By Susan Potts
Pembrokeshire is a special place for many of us, residents and visitors alike, and those of us not born here may consider as lucky those whose childhood was spent here. Such a one was Thomas Tomkins, one of the six most famous composers of Tudor music. Born and raised here, he is perhaps not as celebrated as he might be in his childhood county. There are, however, some possible reasons for Thomas Tomkins’s relatively unsung status.
When I first came across the madrigal ‘Too much I once lamented’, living at the time in Gloucestershire, I knew nothing of its source but the music spoke to me. I was intrigued, therefore, when my fellow contralto madrigalist in our Pembrokeshire group pointed out that Tomkins was born in St Davids. My initial interest has led me to research in Oxford, Paris and New York as well as in Wales. As other researchers will know, the enjoyment of such study is tempered by frustration over missing documentation and instances of misinformation. This article is an outline of what has come to light so far for me, based originally on Anthony Boden’s biography, Thomas Tomkins: The Last Elizabethan, which was an initial main source for me and gave me ideas for further study.
Thomas Tomkins spent his first fourteen years in and around St Davids. He was the son of Thomas Farington Tomkins, organist and Vicar Choral of the Cathedral. Traces of buildings which included the Tomkins household may still be seen in the field opposite Cloister Hall through which a path runs up to Quickwell. Although the Cathedral of St Davids was subject to direction and influence from the Tudor court in London, outside the Close the Welsh cultural traditions were strong and Welsh was the people’s first language.
Within the Cathedral, services were held in both Welsh and English, Latin having been recently ousted from the, post-Reformation church in favour of the vernacular. It had taken a little time for the Welsh dynasty in London to catch on to the idea that in Wales, English was not the language of the people and it was thanks to Elizabeth I, herself a noted linguist, that the language of heaven was incorporated into the religious life of Wales. Later in her reign, the year 1588 was made famous by the Armada but for Wales the year is as famous for the William Morgan Bible. The prayer book and the psalms were translated into Welsh around that time too.
Confusingly, Thomas had an older brother also called Thomas who was made a young Vicar Choral in order to bring some extra pay into the Tomkins household. This happened in 1577 when that older brother was 10 and the younger Thomas was 5 years old. There is a theory, which I first saw in Anthony Boden’s book which gives a plausible reason for more than one Thomas in the Tomkins household. In the past when infant and child mortality was very common in Britain, as elsewhere, it was often the case that a new-born child would be named after its dead older sibling. Many records show this feature. It is comparatively very rare, however, that a younger child would be given the same name as its living sibling. In 1571 the father, Thomas Farington Tomkins, was recorded in the Cathedral Chapter Acts Book A as being required to desist from his wrongful relationship with his Welsh maidservant and to bring home his wedded wife, Margaret. The younger Thomas was born in 1572 and was brought up in the household as the son of Margaret. Boden’s conjecture is that he may have been the illegitimate son of the 1571 liaison with the Welsh maidservant and that she, the maidservant, may have given up her son for raising within the family but made the condition that he was named after his father. The possibility therefore is that the father had two sons named after him, one being his oldest child perhaps named by his wife for him and this later one named for him by his maidservant.
Unfortunately there is much misinformation in the public domain about Tomkins. For instance, a book written by Henry Gee, Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, in 1921 exists without erratum referring to Thomas Tomkins as a Gloucester boy. Tomkins himself, however, in his dedication of Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts to the Earl of Pembroke in 1622 includes the words ‘… I first breathed, and beheld the sun in that County, to which your Lordship gives the greatest lustre, taking the Title of your Earldom from it … ‘ but even without this piece of flattery to a potential sponsor The St Davids Chapter Acts Book A allows any researcher to feel secure with respect to Tomkins’s Pembrokeshire credentials.
While considering theories for which supporting evidence is not robust, there is the pleasing idea that Thomas as a young boy travelled with his father all round Dewisland, noting its geographical and historical features. Boden (pp 27-32) suggests this because a manuscript was found describing the area in the years around or after the Armada. The authorship of the document is in doubt but there are indications that it might have been written by the composer’s father, Thomas Farington Tomkins. It contains the now well-known comment that the rocks called The Bishop and his Clerks would be a good defence against the Spanish navy at no cost to the Queen: a somewhat barbed remark, it seems!
What seems reasonably safe to assert is that while the young Thomas was growing up in St Davids he would have witnessed the lively Welsh culture which included much music. Nowadays when we think of wassailing, it is in connection with the Christmas and New Year season but for Thomas, wassailers could be heard, at every festive occasion including Easter, Calan Mai (MayDay), mid-summer’s day and Calan Gaeaf (the official beginning of winter, November 1st) among others. The traditions of Hunting the Wren and Mari Lwyd are well-known as having been regular events but others, such as Singing the Doorstep, are less widely recognised: this was a custom in which a group of people would gather at the door of a bride-to-be and engage in poetic repartee which it is thought was often sung.
Singing and dancing outside the church was also part of the cultural scene on the many feast days throughout the year. The content of these after-service revelries was not always as decorous as one might imagine. A verse that slipped into Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid shows a punning wit in a naughty little Welsh rhyme, for knowledge of which I am indebted to Meredydd Evans; there was a well-known consequence of such gatherings especially associated with the feast days in May which was a yearly crop of babies born in February who were known as ‘The Flowers of May’.
Music was part of everyday life too, for instance in taverns and after work on farms. For these informal gatherings there would be a small, cheap and portable harp ready to unhook from the wall and pass round the company as an impromptu accompaniment to the singing. Some of the songs were favourites passed on by word of mouth in the area or brought into St Davids by traders and travellers; others were made up as the singers went along, sometimes using rhyming couplets as a form of verse structure. This inventiveness has been a social asset in this area for centuries, continuing forward in time 400 years to when we moved to North Pembrokeshire when we were told by Jimmy ‘Bettws’, our next-door neighbour, of similar rhyming contests which he remembered as happening spontaneously in a Newport inn, then known as The Com [The Commercial, now the Castle Hotel]. The skill of the feat-songs was there carried on as spoken rather than sung couplets, conjured up on the spot, and was a regular feature of pub life just a few decades ago.
There are no available records to show what happened to Margaret Tomkins, whom the young Thomas regarded as his mother, but by 1586 when he was 14, his father had remarried. Thomas’s stepmother was Anne Hargest of Pen Arthur Farm then owned by her relative Richard Hargest and where the young Thomas probably spent time. The Singing the Doorstep would have marked his stepmother’s entry to the family. Pen Arthur farm today covers about 130 acres and records indicate that it would have been much the same size in Tudor time, producing grain as well as raising animals, principally sheep. It lies just a few minutes’ walk up a lane from the Cathedral Close and includes a large farmyard surrounded by stone buildings. In Tomkins’s time there would have been a sizable permanent pool of workers, inside as well as outside, in addition to temporary extra hands at busy times such as harvesting.
In 1586 financial problems, which had beset the family for a decade or more, became acute. The older brother Thomas, whose pay for the preceding nine years as a Vicar Choral had been boosting the family income, disgraced himself in such a serious way (the details of which are not entered in the records) that he was expelled from his Cathedral post. He ran away to sea and was subsequently killed on board The Revenge, Grenville’s ship, in 1591 in the sea battle with the Spanish off Flores. Tennyson’s poem The Revenge recalls those events.
For those interested in the younger Thomas Tomkins there is a frustrating gap in the records which concern the years 1586 to 1594 but it is clear that his family moved to Gloucester sometime during those years. The last entry referring to any of the members of the family appears in the St Davids Cathedral Chapter Acts Book for the spring of 1586 and the first entry so far found in any Gloucester records refers to 1594. Whereas the St Davids records of that time continue with details of payments to those on the Cathedral staff (which, up till then had named members of the Tomkins family), the records in Gloucester for that time are incomplete. The shame of the older son’s behaviour and subsequent expulsion from St Davids and the complaints relating to his employment conditions that the organist father had made over the years there may have combined to make continued living in St Davids uncomfortable.
By 1594 Thomas Farington Tomkins was installed as a minor canon of Gloucester Cathedral and had been given the livings of three parishes in that diocese. Clearly he regarded the young Thomas as exceptionally musical and he apprenticed him to the famous William Byrd who, though living and working in London, owned property not far from Gloucester Cathedral. It is clear that the young Thomas Tomkins appreciated his stroke of fortune, learning much from his famous tutor to whom he later dedicated Too much I once lamented in these terms ‘To my ancient, and much reverenced Master, William Byrd’.
Thomas secured the job of Cathedral organist in Worcester in 1596, aged 24, a position which he held all his working life. The next year on 24th May 1597 in Tewkesbury Abbey Thomas married Alice, widow of the former Worcester Cathedral organist Nathaniel Patrick. In 1621 he was appointed to the Chapel Royal which was based mainly in Windsor but which required its members to travel with their royal patrons around the country. Tomkins is recorded as having been included in some of this travelling though, as far as we know, he never returned to Wales. Thus started decades of combining his commitments to Worcester Cathedral with his prestigious and somewhat onerous position as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Throughout his life he composed both sacred and secular works, many of which were settings of words, English for the most part but with some of his sacred compositions using Latin. No settings of Welsh words have been found to date. His instrumental works included many organ voluntaries but also a ground-breaking keyboard duet A Fancy for two to play which was composed some time before 1630. This piece, along with his friend Nicholas Carlton’s A Verse for two to play on one virginal or organ, is the earliest keyboard duet known to be composed in England; it has four strands of melody which interweave in madrigal-fashion, a feature that comes across clearly when played on the differing pipe-stops of an organ and it prefigures the fugal form.
The mid 1600s brought profound and severe changes to many in England and Tomkins life became harder and sadder, too. His wife Alice had died in 1642 and, as the Civil War came to Worcester, his house was badly damaged and the miseries of severe food shortages and violence were all round him. He was unable to continue at Worcester Cathedral when his role of organist was abolished by the Commonwealth Authorities. When the Puritan Army took over, the organ was broken up and church music was not wanted. During this time he was looking after two young orphaned nephews and had just married a young widow with sons of her own. This phase of his life crumbled further when his second wife died around 1653. Thomas Tomkins had spent the best part of sixty years producing music for regular Cathedral services in Worcester alongside more than thirty years of music at the Chapel Royal for state occasions such as the funeral of James I in 1625 and the coronation of King Charles I in1626. Now he was without work, without pay and without a home.
He was to be rescued from the ruins of his life in 1654. Thomas and Alice had had two children, Nathaniel and Ursula. Of Ursula we know nothing but Nathaniel is thought to have spied for personal gain on people whose houses had offered him hospitality and it is said he had a number of feuds with people in Worcester where he was consequently not liked. He was, however, a survivor. His first wife having died around 1650, he married in 1654 Isabel Lady Folliott who owned a small estate six miles outside Worcester in the village of Martin Hussingtree. It was here that Thomas lived out the rest of his life. Thanks to Isabel, we know he was still composing at the age of 82 because we have a Pavane and Galliard written by Tomkins for her. The manuscript Réserve MS 1122 now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, contains not only existing music he copied out but also some new works of those last years. His increasingly shaky and larger handwriting, with crossings-out and jumped pages, signifies his increasing frailty but the fact that at 82 he was still composing music and that he reached the age of 84 secure in Martin Hussingtree is remarkable for the times in which he lived, spanning the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.
That Tomkins is thought of as an English rather than a Welsh composer stems from the understanding that all his known compositions are understood to have been written in England during his adulthood. His works are included in anthologies of English music since he is regarded as a significant composer in England by compilers such as Hulay and Wulstan, themselves respected authorities. Dr Peter James, an authority on Tudor music, considers that Tomkins belongs in the top four of Tudor madrigalists in Britain, the other three being Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilby whose names are almost certainly more familiar to the general public. (The works of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons are considered by experts to fall outside this more closely-defined category.)
Madrigals by Tomkins familiar to readers may include Too much I once lamented, Oyez, has any found a lad and See, see the shepherds’ queen. He also wrote a great deal of sacred music, including When David heard that Absalom was dead, Out of the Deep and Great and marvellous are thy works. His also wrote instrumental music, both for ensembles of viols and for the keyboard, the organ in particular.
At Martin Hussingtree in his old age, with his efforts and energy no longer taken up by official requirements, Thomas Tomkins may perhaps have revisited memories of his childhood in Pembrokeshire, with Welsh tunes and stress patterns coming to mind, ready to influence his writing. Whether or not such Welsh memories can be found, I hope that this local boy’s compositions, whose works are performed across the world, may become more fêted in his native land.
The research work on which this paper is based was originally developed in connection with my MA in Music through The Open University, Milton Keynes in two parts: the project and the dissertation.
Anthony Boden’s book has played a key part in my researches and I am immensely grateful to him for his work and his encouragement, as I am also to Phyllis Kinney and Meredydd Evans.
1. A. Boden. Thomas Tomkins: The Last Elizabethan. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
2. David W. James. St. Davids and Dewisland A Social History. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981) 159.
3. D. Parry Jones. Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Nursery Rhymes and Games. (1964).
4. Thomas Morley. A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. (London: Peter Short. (specifically the copy owned by Thomas Tomkins with all his writings therein, from the archive of Magdalen College, Oxford), 1597.
5. National Library of Wales (NLW). Collectaenea Menvensia. undated: Aberystwyth.
6. NLW St Davids Chapter Acts Books A and B. Aberystwyth.
7. George Owen. The Description of Pembrokeshire. (Archive material in the Pembrokeshire County Records Office, Haverfordwest, Pembs, 1603. Ed. Henry Owen (Cymmrodorion Record Series: London 1893-1936).
8. Trefor M Owen. Welsh Folk Customs. (Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1968).
9. Iorwerth C. Peate. Tradition and Folk Life: a Welsh View. (London: Faber and Faber, 1972).
10.Tradition and Folk Life: Folk Lore. (London: Faber and Faber, 1972).
11.Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Posis – Puzzles and Riddles.( London: Faber and Faber, 1964).
12. 1964. Welsh Children’s Games and Pastimes: Nursery Games and Rhymes. (London: Faber and Faber, 1964).
13. Pembrokeshire Library. Francis Green manuscripts volumes 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 27. n. pub.
14. All documents in the files relating to Thomas Tomkins in St Davids Cathedral Library, Pembrokeshire.
15. Stanley Sadie, (ed.). 1988. The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. (Repr. London: MacMillan, 1994).
16. Denis Stevens. Thomas Tomkins 1572-1656. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1967).
17. G. J. Williams & E. L. Jones. Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid. (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1934).
1. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris: Réserve 1122 & 1186,
2. Bodleian Library Oxford MSS: Mus. f.20-24, Mus. Sch. C 64-9, Mus. Sch. 93, Mus. Sch. D 212-16, Mus. Sch. D 245-7, Tenbury MS 791, Tenbury 1004, Tenbury 1021, Tenbury 1303, Tenbury 1382 & Rawl. poet.23 (texts).
3. Christ Church, Oxford: Mus.MSS numbers 6, 61-6, 88, 437, 698-707, 1001, 1002, 1018-20, 1113, 1220-24, 1227 (all on film sent to The Bodleian Library during Christ Church Library repair work).
4. Public Library, New York: Drexel MSS 4180-85, 5469, 5611 & 5612.
5. St John’s College, Oxford: MSS 180 & 181.
(N.B. Following the sad demise of the author only limited editing of Susan’s text and notes has been possible. Editor.)