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Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Music - Composer biographies – the cases of John Dunstable and ‘Roy Henry’

Roger Bowers (University of Cambridge)


Thursday, 21 February - 5:00pm to 7:00pm



It may be not the most glamorous component of musicology, but the establishment of the biographies of composers remains an essential task. In the case of John Dunstable there seems at present to be a surfeit of material, much of it contradictory, fugitive, and inconsistent; there are too many John Dunstables. In the case of ‘Roy Henry’ the name is idiosyncratic, and there are only two possible candidates; nevertheless, even that is one too many.

Dunstable may be shown to have been a musician engaged at the top of his profession, but of character otherwise conventional for his time. He was fortunate to merit employment by members of the top aristocracy, and by them was temporarily rewarded even with crumbs of loot falling from the table of the French wars. Meanwhile, as merely ‘Mr John Dunstable, of London’, a detail of his long association with William Trokyll, his parish priest at St Stephen, Walbrook, does now encourage the rehabilitation of an item of biographical information long known but lately rather disregarded; and this in turn engenders some speculation about his earlier career.   

For the composer a date of death in 1453 can now be confirmed, so that he may be distinguished from a thuggishly unprincipled county gentleman of the same name who died in 1459. This Dunstable (who may in fact have been close kin of the composer) enjoyed both landed estates in Essex and on the Cambridgeshire/Hertfordshire border, and property interests in London. Also, from a position in 1427/8 on the outer affinity of a great lady, Joan of Navarre, Queen dowager of England (as widow of Henry IV), he had emerged by 1436 as a major purveyor for her – at a very high price – of some commodity currently highly desirable, most probably security.

Realistically, ‘Roy Henry’ can be only King Henry IV or King Henry V, of England. There is at present no ‘smoking pen’, and this issue can be resolved only on a balance of probabilities. Indications are that the case to be made for Henry IV is much the stronger. In view of his conspicuous concern both for the consolidation of the role of his Chapel Royal in general, and also for the welfare of its most junior members; of his receipt during 1392/3 of some personal attention from one member of the ensemble of five French singing-men who formed the core of the household chapel of his father, John of Gaunt; and of his description by a well-informed contemporary as micans in musica, it is not easy to see how a countervailing case even stronger can be built for Henry V.