The Surviving Salve Reginas in England

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,

Our life, our sweetness and our hope, hail!

To you we cry, exiled children of Eve,

To you we sigh, groaning and weeping

In this vale of tears.

Therefore, as our advocate

Turn your merciful eyes towards us

And after this exile show us Jesus,

The blessed fruit of your womb.


Virgin mother of the church,

Eternal gate of glory,

Be for us a refuge

Before the Father and the son,

O clement!


Clement, holy virgin,

Sweet virgin, O Mary,

Hear the prayers of all

Who piously cry to you,

O holy!


Pour out your prayers to your Son,

Crucified, wounded,

And scourged for us,

By thorns pierced, with gall for drink.

O sweet Mary, hail![ii]

While there are also many settings from continental composers at this time of the Salve Regina, the abundance of Marian texts within the Eton Choirbook speaks to English Catholicism’s devotion to Our Lady, something that was greatly compromised after Henry VIII’s revolt.

The first setting of Salve Regina we shall listen to is from John Sutton. Little is known of his life, but he was known to live in the 15th century. The last reference to him is from 1476, when he was made a Fellow of Oxford’s Magdalen College.[iii] Only one of Sutton’s compositions survive. In this seven-part setting of the Salve Regina, Sutton displays musical tendencies common in the earlier part of the English Renaissance, with much florid motion and long melismatic (more than one note per syllable) lines. Sutton’s setting is also the longest of the four settings in this article, lasting over fifteen and a half minutes in performance. This is in stark contrast to the music of recusant composers such as William Byrd, whose compositions were performed in clandestine Masses, and the music was generally shorter to accommodate these dangerous gatherings.

The second setting comes from Walter Lambe (1450/1 – 1504). He is the third most represented composer in the Eton Choirbook, with eight works included, and his pieces also appear in the Caius Choirbook.[iv] Lambe is of a later school of composition compared to Sutton, for his works are somewhat less florid, but there are also more examples of false relations (simultaneous or adjacent notes that share the same letter name, but a different ‘sign’ and therefore a different pitch, such as F-natural and F-sharp). This use of false relations will become a signature sound in the compositions of later English composers such as Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585) and William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623), who exploited this unusual sonority in many of their works, long after it died out on the continent. Lambe’s music still uses some “old-fashioned” techniques, such as the use of a cantus firmus (a “fixed” melody, usually from chant, which would form the basis of the work), but his music still sounds very English compared to the last setting we shall look at.

Robert Wylkynson (c.1475 – c. 1515) stands as one of the latest contributors to the Eton Choirbook, and, seeing as he was a choirmaster at Eton College, he likely helped to assemble this book. Sadly, only four of Wylkynson’s works exist,[v] but as his nine-voice motet will attest, he was a skillful composer of great imagination. Two settings of the Salve Regina exist from him, one for five voices, and another for nine voices. This latter setting is one of the few settings that I have encountered from this period that is set in a major key or mode. The previous two settings quote the ‘solemn tone’ version of the Salve Regina chant, which itself is in a minor mode. This also speaks to the ‘simple tone’ version of the Salve Regina in fact being a later melody, and therefore not an authentic chant. While I could not find a score of this motet online, it appears that Wylkynson’s setting does not make any quotation of chant, which shows a shift in English polyphony away from the cantus firmus technique, in which more freely composed material is used instead. This shows an awareness of changing attitudes occurring in continental Europe at the time.[vi]

The English Reformation stands as a tragedy, not only of religious proportions, but also one of great artistic loss. Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries undoubtebly led to the destruction of thousands of manuscripts of music, as well as artwork and religious artefacts. Thankfully a few collections survived, such as the Eton Choirbook, which stands a testament to the creativity of the composers of the English Renaissance, but also of their devotion to Mary, hence, England was once called “Our Lady’s Dowry.”

(And, we might add, now is again called by that most glorious title. See the piece on Our Lady of Walsingham, and the recent re-consecration of England. Editor)

[i] “Eton Choirbook.”  ChoralWiki. Accessed October 7, 2020.

[ii] “Salve Regina.” ChoralWiki. Accessed October 7, 2020.

[iii] “John Sutton.” ChoralWiki. Accessed October 7, 2020.

[iv] “Walter Lambe.” HOASM. Accessed October 7, 2020.

[v] “Robert Wylkynson.” ChoralWiki. Accessed October 7, 2020.

[vi] “Eton Choirbook.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 7, 2020.