Walter Bitner

Home » Music » Early Music » “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

“To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

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There is no known attributed portrait of John Dowland. This miniature of an unidentified subject, painted by Isaac Oliver (c1565-1617) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was suggested as a possible likeness by Roger Traversac in The Lute Society’s PDF Colour Supplement to LUTE NEWS no. 116, December 2015. “Anno Domini 1590 . . . 27th year of his age” describes this man as the correct age for Dowland, who was born in 1563. (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XIV

…happy they that in hell
feel not the world’s despite.

~ John Dowland
Flow, my tears

The English musician John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is the central figure in the history of the lute. Composer, lutenist, songwriter, translator, publisher, traveler, academic – four centuries later, Dowland appears larger than life, and in many ways his dreams and accomplishments eclipse those of his contemporaries. Yet Dowland was very much a man of his own time, and his ideals and struggles reflected the concerns, crises, and aspirations of the Elizabethans even as his music expresses universals that resonate deeply with musicians and audiences today.

Diana Poulton published her exhaustive biography John Dowland in 1972, and brought out a revised second edition a decade later. She spent more than thirty years researching this book and it has remained the primary source of information on Dowland’s life and music for nearly half a century.


Information about the life of John Dowland is more plentiful than that concerning many other distinguished composers of his time. This is largely due to the fact that he was far from reticent about his own affairs…a number of facts emerge uncontradicted in his own writings or confirmed by independent evidence, that can be accepted without hesitation…however…much about his life is still obscure…

~ Diana Poulton
John Dowland, second edition (1982), p. 19


John Dowland’s central position in the history of the lute. This is not meant to be a comprehensive timeline but only indicates a few important personalities and events to illustrate that Dowland is at the very heart of the lute’s story from a temporal perspective. (click to enlarge!)


His Mysterious Origins

He was born in 1563. It is not known where he was born nor is anything known about his family heritage or upbringing, although speculation and research (especially by Poulton) has sought to shed light on this. Dowland revealed some details about his life in prefatory material to his own publications, but remained mute on these points. Considering that Dowland spent his professional life in service to the landed gentry, nobility, and eventually royalty, he may have wished to minimize any attention paid to his own humble origins.

Poulton uncovered sixteenth and seventeenth century records of several Dowlands in England, even hunted (unsuccessfully) for evidence to back up a 1906 claim that Dowland had been born in Ireland. Ultimately she concluded that “the Dowlands belonged to the upper ranks of the artisan class” but found no evidence strong enough to make a case for John Dowland’s ancestry or place of birth.

Peter Holman and Paul O’Dette, in their 2001 entry John Dowland in Grove Music Online found nothing to add to this non-account of his pedigree beyond their remark that “he wrote that he had studied music from childhood, and this was presumably in an aristocratic household”.


…the ingenuous profession of Musicke, which from my childhoode I haue euer aymed at, sundry times leauing my natiue countrey, the better to attain so excellent a science.

~ John Dowland
The First Booke of Songes or Ayres (1597)


Whatever his upbringing, John Dowland was a brilliant man and had an excellent education. He was, of course, a thoroughly cultivated musician according to the highest sixteenth century standards, and became not only one of the finest lutenists of his time (if not the finest), but one of the foremost composers, and is generally acknowledged today as the first great songwriter in the English language. Dowland was also a polyglot: he was fluent at least in English, Latin, and French, and had at least some working ability in Italian, German, and Danish as well. He was employed in an ambassador’s household abroad – in what capacity we do not know – when he was still in his teens. Dowland went on to earn multiple university degrees.



Flow my tears by John Dowland ~ Valeria Mignaco, soprano; Alfonso Marin, lute Recorded live at Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven, Belgium, July 2007


His Conflicted Conscience

He first appears in 1580, by his own description, as a servant to Sir Henry Cobham (1537–1592), a veteran diplomat of the English court. Cobham was Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador to the King of France (Henry III) from 1579 – 1583, and Dowland accompanied him there to Paris for some or all of that time. Hence by the time he was 16 or 17 years old, Dowland was already working (in what capacity we do not know) in the household of the ambassador to the ruler of the most powerful country in Europe. We do not know when Dowland returned to England, but Sir Henry was succeeded as Ambassador in 1584 by Sir Edward Stafford (1552 – 1605). By his own admission, Dowland converted to Catholicism while in France.

The “Armada” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c 1588. The Spanish Armada set sail for England on July 12, 1588 and was defeated by English fire ships on July 29. Dowland was home in England during these weeks of dread, naval preparations, and ultimately celebration over the armada’s defeat – he had just received his first academic degree from Oxford at the beginning of the month.

This was a profound step, compounded by the fact that it was taken in Paris less than a decade after the perfidy of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of (Protestant) Huguenots had been assassinated there by Catholic mobs. Protestant Elizabeth I had been Queen in England since 1558, and Dowland had been born into the tumultuous Elizabethan world of religious intrigue, violence, and retribution. The Northern Rebellion of 1569 occurred when Dowland was a child – more than 750 English Catholic rebels were executed, and Queen Elizabeth had been declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, in a Papal bull that released her subjects from allegiance to Elizabeth and threatened any Catholics who obeyed her with excommunication too. The atmosphere of paranoia that proceeded around questions of religious conviction and loyalty to the crown were very real and of deadly importance in Elizabeth’s England, and a large part of the history of her reign is a history of how she and her advisors foiled plot after plot to usurp her.


Dowland’s religious conversion may have been sincere and deeply considered: he was young, most likely impressionable, and accounts of his behavior indicate that he had a volatile temperament. However, in his 1595 letter to Sir Robert Cecil he wrote of his conversion, describing how in Paris fifteen years earlier, several English Catholic expatriates he had met “thrust many idle toys into my head of religion, saying that the papists’ was the truth & ours in England all false, and I being but young their fair words overreached me & I believed with them.”

Dowland’s dating his conversion to 1580 may have another significance. In that year, the English Parliament passed the Religion Act 1580, making it high treason for an English subject to withdraw allegiance from the Queen or from the Church of England, or to persuade someone to do so. Under the new law, conversion equalled treason. If Dowland had in fact converted later than he declared, backdating the event would have been an attempt to commute a personal decision that carried a death sentence to an unfortunate, but less serious legal offense.

Although he claimed to be Catholic, it did not prevent him (like his contemporary William Byrd) from composing sacred music for the Anglican Church. In fact (unlike Byrd), there are no known settings for the Catholic liturgy by John Dowland.


Dowland’s first compositions to appear in print were six settings he contributed to The Whole Booke of Psalmes, originally printed in 1592 by Thomas Este. This is Psalm 2 (above) from the third printing in 1604 – Dowland’s first setting to appear in the volume, hence bearing his name “I. Dowland, B. of Musick.” (all of his settings that follow in the book are attributed to “I.D.B. of M.”) This book was in general use for more than 20 years and was reprinted three times. A performance of Dowland’s setting for Psalm 100 from The Whole Booke of Psalmes may be heard here. Of the ten composers whose settings were used, Dowland was the only one acknowledged as having a degree: Dowland’s academic credentials were not common among the musicians of his time, and he wore them proudly. (by all means, click to enlarge)

John Dowland’s setting of Psalm 100 from The Whole Booke of Psalmes.


Spiritual considerations aside, there were not many worldly opportunities to entice a young Elizabethan Englishman to convert (unless he was in the pay of a foreign monarch), yet abundant difficulties. Being Catholic and English during Elizabeth’s reign brought at the very least uncertainties to his life, possibly presented barriers to his professional advancement, and potentially posed mortal dangers.


The quads at Christ Church, Oxford

He was awarded a Bachelor of Music degree at Christ Church, Oxford, on July 8, 1588, in the same class as Thomas Morley. He must have returned to England at some point between 1583 and 1588 but it is not known when he did so. It seems likely (in order to complete requirements for his degree) that he may have been back in England to witness the furor that surrounded the unmasking of the Babington Plot in 1586, a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, free Mary Queen of Scots from imprisonment, and place her on the throne. Mary was executed on February 8, 1587. These events must have impressed Dowland with appreciation of the grave peril awaiting anyone associated with Catholic plots of treason – conspiracies that arose continually throughout Elizabeth’s reign, encouraged and funded by her antagonists on the continent.


The most sacred Queene Elizabeth, Her Galliard from A Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610) performed by Magnus Andersson, 9 course lute by Lars Jönsson


His Thwarted Ambitions

By this time, Dowland was already well-known and celebrated enough in England to be included in a list of famous musicians printed in John Case’s Apologia Musices, published also in the same year: 1588. Dr. Case (c1540 – 1600) was a philosopher and physician at Oxford, and had been a chorister at New College and Christ Church. HIs Latin Apologia was a defense for the inclusion of music in religious ceremony. Dowland wrote a serene pavan in Case’s honor.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) “rainbow” portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

John Dowland was born into the world that orbited The Virgin Queen – Elizabeth I ascended to the throne five years before he was born and reigned until her death in 1603, when Dowland was 39 or 40. He was an Elizabethan through and through. The time, place, and culture he lived in was a unique setting of fast-paced and profound social change, religious upheaval, new technologies, global exploration – a small but magnificent island realm at odds with and in danger from the rest of the world… and if the Queen was its muse, Dowland sought to become its Orpheus. His contemporaries established colonies in the New World, circumnavigated the globe, defeated the Spanish and stole their gold, created art and literature that would be admired ever after throughout the world, and maintained an independent Protestant state in defiance of the Pope. Small wonder he had such a burning desire to win fame and glory.

For an Elizabethan in search of recognition, prestige, and riches, all roads led to the Queen. Dowland named a galliard he composed for Elizabeth, and several of his songs either appealed to her directly or alluded to her and others at court, through the elaborate conventions of metaphor and symbolism that were part of the flattery culture that surrounded the Queen –  a culture she encouraged and cultivated.

Most likely it was Dowland’s setting of George Peele’s (1556- 1596) poem His golden locks time hath to silver turned (published in The First Booke of Songes or Ayres seven years later) that was sung for the Queen at a ceremony in 1590. Perhaps he accompanied Robert Hales, the Gentleman of the Privy Chamber who sung it? We do not know. This is the first documentation of his music that we have – he was 27 years old.

aerial view of Sudeley Castle and gardens, where Dowland played for Queen Elizabeth in 1592

At some point in the late 1580s or around 1590 he got married, but absolutely nothing is known about Dowland’s wife, not even her name, beyond the fact that she bore him children. We know neither the number nor the genders of their children besides Robert, who was born around 1591, and would follow in his father’s footsteps professionally.

The first certain record of his playing for Queen Elizabeth is in 1592, at Sudeley Castle while she was on progress in Gloucestershire.

One of the customary entertainments was prepared in her honour and was mounted with lavish expenditure. It was entitled ‘Daphne and Apollo’ and was presented in the grounds at Sudeley. When the scene was set, two musicians, ‘one who sung and one who plaide’, were placed on either side of a laurel tree, and the song ‘My heart and tongue were twinnes’ was performed. Some dialogue follows and then there is a scene between Melibæus, Nisa and Cutter of Cootsholde, in which this remarkable passage occurs:

Nis...You, sirra, that sit as though your wits were a woole-gathering, will you have a question or commaundement?

Cut. No question of a Queen, for they are hard to be answered; but any commaundement, for that must be obeyed.

Nis. Then sing. And you sir, a question or a commaundement?

Do. A commaundement I; and glad the I am!

Nis. Then play.

Do. I have plaide so long with my fingers, that I have beaten out of play al my good fortune.

…Taken in conjunction with the presence of the song ‘My heart and tongue were twinnes’ there can be no doubt that the contraction ‘Do.’ stands for Dowland himself…The little scene seems so disconnected with the ‘argument’ of the entertainment, such as it is, that the possibility can hardly be overlooked that it was introduced to allow Dowland to make a plea before the Queen against the real or imagined neglect which, even at this early date, appears to have become something of a fixed idea in his mind.

~ Diana Poulton
ibid, pp. 29-30


[Dowland published his song My heart and tongue were twinnes twenty years later in A Pilgrim’s Solace (1612). A second song which followed the dialogue above ‘Hearbes, wordes,and stones’ survives as the text only in the script quoted above – the music is lost.]


When the “Queen’s musician for the Lutes” John Johnson died in 1594, Dowland applied for the vacant post but was refused. Frustrated in every attempt to realize his dreams at home, he left for the continent.


Forlorn Hope Fancy by John Dowland, performed by Bor Zuljan, September 2015 ~ 8 course lute by Jiri Cepelak


continued in
“I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II
(coming soon)


*       *       *

The Lute:

I ~ Meet the Lute

II ~ Francesco da Milano

III ~ The Medieval Lute

IV ~ Petrarch’s Lyre

V ~ Renaissance Lute

VI ~ Baroque Lute (coming soon)

VII ~ Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

VIII ~ The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

IX ~ The Capirola Lute Book

X ~ Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

XI ~ Attaingnant’s Lute Books

XII ~ The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII

XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music

XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II

XVI ~ “An Earnest Desire To Satisfie All”: John Dowland, Part III (coming soon)

XVII ~ Simone Molinaro


XVIII ~ Diana Poulton



i ~ The Lute: A Bibliography

ii ~ The Lute: A Discography

iii ~ Lute Recordings:

       a ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part I

       b ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part II

       c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

      d ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)

iv ~ John Dowland In His Own Words

v ~ The Lute Society of America Summer Seminar West, 1996


1 Comment

  1. […] ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II XVII ~ Simone […]

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