The story of John Dowland

If only we had a penny for every time we’d been asked about John Dowland! The former servant rose from the French lower classes to become one of the most influential composers of the Renaissance era. Interestingly, he was not French. It was believed he was born in Dublin, Ireland, although exact records of his early life are hazy. Others think he was born in Westminster, England, so it feels like it’s anyone’s guess where exactly he came from. He seemed to declare himself as Irish, however, as he dedicated the song “From Silent Night” to a fellow Irishman. Here is his story – or what we know of it, anyway!

He was a dab hand at the lute

If you think composer, you think Beethoven or Mozart, and with that, you’d presume they were playing the piano. Not dear Dowland though, he was famous for playing the lute. His tunes are like easy listening folk instrumentals, and it would be fair to say they are very relaxing. Some of his published songs include; “Fine knacks for Ladies, cheap, choise, braue, and new,” and, “White as Lillies was hir face.” Classics.

He was suspected of committing treason

Reports claim that Dowland undertook several covert assignments in Denmark and France for Sir Robert Cecil. Cecil was the 1st Earl of Salisbury and the Secretary of State, and he was the person who uncovered the Gunpowder plot. No doubt Dowland’s involvements helped lead to the capture of Guy Fawkes and ensured the Houses of Parliament remained intact. Although his participation in the affair led to calls of treason, thanks to his staunch Catholic beliefs which contravened the British Protestant faith. Large parts of Europe were split into broad Catholic and Protestant factions, and Dowland was residing in Italy when he stumbled across some British ex-patriots plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.

He wanted a role at court

Fearing the accusation of treason by proxy, Dowland fled Italy to distance himself from the group in Italy that wanted to kill the Queen. He found himself in Germany, penning a letter to Robert Cecil proclaiming his innocence. Sadly, for Dowland, he never got a role in the Queen’s court. Not resting on his laurels, he found himself working for the king of Denmark, whose sister married the future King James I of England. In the end, he managed to get himself a place on the royal court.

His music isn’t just for the Renaissance

There have been several modern artists who have tried to put some life into John Dowland’s back catalog. Perhaps the most famous artist to do so would be Sting. In 2006, Sting released an album that featured Dowland’s songs, it was titled “Songs from the Labyrinth.” The album features Sting reciting poems from the Elizabethan period to help listeners gain a sense of what it would have felt to be alive at that time. Reinforcing the suspicions of treason, Sting also recites the letter Dowland sent to Robert Cecil in 1593, outlining his various travels around Europe and a denial of the treason charges against him.

So those were some little nuggets of information about the surprisingly famous lute composer, and secret agent, Robert Dowland. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across some of his famous songs and wanted to find out more, or maybe you’d seen his name mentioned in a history textbook and wondered if there was more to him than met the eye. Now you’ve got your wish!