Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was the first monarch whose Accession Day on 17 November (the day when Mary I died and she became Queen) became a yearly occasion for celebration. Although never at official holiday, at Whitehall, noblemen honoured Elizabeth’s Accession Day with a tournament open to paying spectators, followed by a private banquet and entertainments in the evening. Across the country there was bell-ringing along with prayers, sermons, bonfires, the giving of alms, and even pageants performed in the streets. Poetic tributes to the day frequently evoked images of singing, music-making and dancing. George Peele’s poem Anglorum feriae (1595), for example exhorted nymphs: ‘paeans singe and sweet melodious songs; / Along the chalky cliffs of Albion [England]’ and described how ‘court and country carol in her praise / And in her honour tune a thousand lays’.
This all-encompassing harmonious image was far from reality, however. The occasion was never uniformly celebrated. Some localities never honoured the day, while others did no more than ring their bells. Church services, when held, were not necessarily well attended, while few towns put on civic festivities and these were not held every year. Moreover both Puritans and Catholics complained that the celebrations were idolatrous in their worship of Elizabeth.
Nevertheless, this musical imagery was not merely political metaphor, but inspired by the social phenomenon of Accession Day singing around the kingdom that had been developing since the late 1570s. Many songs would have circulated orally and been learnt by copying the ballad-seller or through communal singing in church, home or alehouse. Some, however, can be traced in extant manuscripts, single-sheet broadside publications, prayer books and records of further, now-lost publications in the Stationers’ Register (a record book in which publishers could document their right to print a particular publication). Such genres spanned diverse social classes and contexts: from the educated to the illiterate, from street to church; from private household devotions to civic festivities. At times this singing was was officially encouraged by church and government, but it was also fuelled by the local enthusiasm of civic or parish authorities, individual households and commercial printers.
The first known Accession Day songs appeared in a series of official prayer books that provide the format for special church service to commemorate the day (A Form of Prayer, with Thanksgiving, to be used Every Year, the .17. of November). The 1576 edition merely appointed to psalms to be sung, but the following year the royal printer, Christopher Barker published A Prayer and Also a Thanksgiving unto God for His Great Mercy in Giving, and Preserving Our Noble Queen Elizabeth for Accession Day 1577 by by ‘I. Pit, minister’, which provided a specially created text designed to be sung to the tune coin churches for for Psalm 81.
By the time of the 1578 edition of the Accession Day service book (the twentieth anniversary of Elizabeth’s Accession) it contained three more special songs, two to be fitted to psalms and one with the tune unspecified but suggestive of a carol tune with refrains. Congregational singing was a remarkable new tool for promoting a sense of communal harmony in the post-Reformation Church and now it was being applied politically to bring together the subjects of a kingdom in loyalty to their monarch (and Head of the Church) on Accession Day.
Commercial printers too capitalised on the anniversary by providing their own songs, including the printer Richard Jones with A Song for Each Subject that in England Bear Breath (1578, no longer extant). Other printers aimed at a more elite audience. For the 25th anniversary in 1583, Abel Jeffes printed William Patten’s Ann: Foelicissimi Regni Reginae Elizabeth: XXVI which included a Latin psalm alongside the English version adapted for the occasion and printed a tune for it to be sung to (a rare occurrence in single sheet songs!) Nor was this singing necessarily restricted to Protestant households. The manuscripts of Edward Paston – a Catholic who maintained a Mass centre at Appleton – contain three versions of William Byrd’s consort song ‘Rejoice unto the Lord’ which commemorated 28 years of Elizabeth’s reign and was probably originally composed for celebrations at court in 1586. Religion, it seems, did not prevent the Pastons from joining the festivities – despite their obvious Protestant tone.
From the late 1580’s Accession Day song publications were both more frequent and more widespread, with eight different printers issuing song sheets in the final 15 years of the reign. This market for songs seems to indicate the popularity of celebratory singing among the population, beyond the official songs of the Accession Day prayer book. Furthermore these commercially printed songs were now less overtly religious in tone than those from earlier in Elizabeth’s reign. Rather than being described as ‘psalms’, ‘prayers’, ‘godly ditties’ or ‘anthems’, they were now simply ‘ballads’, and rather than place their emphasis on praising or thanking God, these songs now declare that they will show ‘the happiness of England for her majesty’s blessed reign’ or tell of England’s ‘abundant blessings’. Similarly, psalm tunes were being replaced by ballad tunes. A Pleasant New Ballad of the Most Blessed and Prosperous Reign of Her Majesty for the Space of Two and Forty Years (1600), copied into the Shirburn ballad collection, was sung to the tune of ‘The Queen’s Hunt’s Up’. The lyrics evoke the bells and drums typical of civic festivities that might be held in celebration, which were also spreading as Elizabeth’s reign progressed. The following verses describe Elizabeth’s achievements as queen, including how she has defended England with naval forces, maintained castles and fortifications, and been called to help foreign kings.
Yet the paradox is that as Accession Day singing seems to have been increasing in popularity, England was becoming less and less harmonious society. The 1590s brought successive harvest failures, sharp rises in food prices, outbreaks of disease, heavy taxation, increasing crime and unemployment, intensifying factional rivalries at court and signs of civil unrest in the country with London riots and a failed uprising in Oxfordshire. Yet there was no obvious decline in civic celebrations or song publications, which continued until the very last year of her reign. Should we see this singing then as a genuine expression of an existing social harmony or as an attempt to create such unity in the face of mounting unrest? The expanding market for printed Accession Day songs was now commercial rather than governmental, responding to the popular mood rather than official direction. The growth in civic festivities, however, was led by local authorities. The increased potential for disorder may have caused civic leaders to see Accession Day as an important occasion on which to reinforce a sense of loyalty to the queen in the hope of maintaining order. Elizabeth’s popularity need not have been great for people to have welcomed an opportunity to liven up a cold, wet November. Nor was singing necessarily an unqualified expression of English harmony. The more insecure a community feels, the greater the need for people to assert their unity, even though this may be more hopeful than actual. As foreign threats and domestic difficulties increased, there was perhaps a growing need to believe in England as a harmonious kingdom unified by its queen. A subtle mixture of continued royal esteem but growing anxiety, of popular will and encouragement from local leaders, is the most likely explanation.
You can find out more about music-making for Elizabeth’s Accession Day in my article: ‘Creating Harmonious Subjects? Ballads, Psalms and Godly Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 140 (2015), 273-312 (available here).