England has long been called Our Lady’s Dowry despite her official departure from the Catholic Faith during the 16th century. In 1534, King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, severing himself and the English from the Catholic Church. While many people stayed true to Catholicism, with hundreds of laymen, priests and religious suffering and dying for the Faith, Henry set into motion several radical changes that would cripple the remnants of English Catholicism. His Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 was as much a political move as a spiritual one, for the large tracts of land owned by the numerous monasteries were largely sold to help fund Henry’s military campaigns. It is not simply a grave tragedy that these English monasteries were stolen from the Catholic Church for military gain, for within the walls of these monasteries were countless treasures of art and music. Few choirbooks survived this pillaging, save for three examples: the Lambeth Choirbook, the Caius Choirbook, and the Eton Choirbook, the last of which we will investigate in today’s article.
Of these three choirbooks, the Eton Choirbook is the largest, containing 64 surviving pieces, while many others contained are incomplete or damaged. This collection of works, prepared for use at Eton College in the early 16th century, represents a wide swath of composers from the Tudor-era and even earlier, reaching back as far as the mid-15th century, but also more contemporaneous compositions written as late as 1500. Within the Eton Choirbook, the second most repeatedly set text is the Salve Regina, with 15 settings, second only to the Magnificat, which is set 24 times.[i] This prayer is familiar to many Catholics, often prayed at the end of the Rosary or after Low Mass, and is known as “Hail, Holy Queen” in English, although these pre-Tridentine English compositions will often set as a troped variation of the text. This variation also explains why some of these settings are so long, for the text is longer than what is typically prayed in the post-Tridentine Church, as seen below.
Hail, queen of mercy,