IMG_20171031_182647003 (2)The end of October was very busy, what with several Historical Association meetings in London as well as two public engagements.  The first of these was a speaking engagement at Ewecross, but the second was something a bit different – a 45 minute performance of Tudor ballads at the John Rylands Library event to commemorate 500 years since the Reformation. 31 October 2017 marked 500 years since the theologian Martin Luther supposedly pinned his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.  Whether or not this particular aspect of the story is apocryphal, Luther’s propositions for the reform of the church were certainly written around this time – he sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz in an attempt to start a dialogue about the theology of, for example, confession.  The 95 theses famously attacked clerical abuses such as the sale of papal indulgences – official documents which reduced the amount of time a soul would spend in purgatory being punished for their sins.

The Rylands event was called ‘The Reformation: Who Gives a Fig?’ and my performance was one of several aspects of the evening.  Opposite me, library staff were operating their printing press, printing mock papal indulgences for visitors to the library.  And the evening finished with a debate bIMG_0697etween one of my former

supervisors, Dr Ros Oates, Manchester University historian Dr John Morgan and  Canon Dr David Holgate from Manchester Cathedral, which unfortunately I couldn’t stay for.  The purpose of the evening was to examine the relevance of the Reformation in 21st century Britain.

John Rylands reformation evening

With thanks to Michael Smith (@infante_miguel)

My part was to sing a selection of ballads related to the Reformation in England, and I took my husband along to help out.  I decided to approach it chronologically, starting with Down in Yon Forest, a pre-Reformation carol thought to come from Derbyshire and based on the Corpus Christi Carol.  I then sang extracts from the Pilgrimage of Grace ballad that I’ve done a lot of work on – The Exhortation to the People of the North – followed by a setting of the first of the Cromwell flyting, Troll on Away. In both these cases, the tunes have been lost (indeed there is some debate over whether the Pilgrimage of Grace ballad was intended to be sung at all), but I set them to tunes that fitted: ‘Wilson’s Wild’ and ‘Half Hannikin’.  We then sang two songs from the reign of Queen Mary I.  One was a pious Protestant ballad focussing on sin and the nature of forgiveness, and the other a piece of vitriolic anti-Catholic satire which I asked my husband to sing as it simply doesn’t suit my voice.  To bring home the ironies and contrasts of this period, we sang three verses of a hymn that was written in the mid-sixteenth century by one of the most acerbic anti-Catholic polemicists in England, William Kethe.  The tune, which was taken from the Genevan Psalter, has become known as Old Hundredth, as it was used by Kethe for his translation of the 100th psalm:  All People that on Earth do Dwell.  It would go on to be not only one of very few 16th century English hymns still sung to this day, but also one of the most popular hymns of the 20th century.

Rylands 1

We had great fun with The Ballad of Constant Susanna. We then moved on to the 1570s, and Elizabeth I’s reign. I performed a few verses of a loyal ballad set to a psalm tune, before rounding off my performance with Steven Peele’s satirical ballad A Letter to Rome to Declare to the Pope, John Felton his Friend his Hanged in a Rope.

The surroundings of the John Rylands Library were absolutely gorgeous, and the acoustics were stunning.  It was really nice was to see several familiar faces in the crowd, too.  It was lovely to get back to performing again, and if anyone wants an evening of the Reformation in popular song, please get in touch: it was a project I’d love to repeat.