The year is 1619, and on a routine Sunday at Chichester Cathedral the service of Evensong is happening. But suddenly, it is rudely interrupted.

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One of the choir members, a lay vicar named Thomas Weelkes, begins to ‘curse and swear most dreadfully’, as an eyewitness report puts it, and ‘so profane the service of God as is most fearful to hear, and to the great amazement of the people present’.

Weelkes’s bizarre behaviour was nothing new. ‘Divers times and very often’ he had previously disrupted services, coming ‘either from the tavern or alehouse into the choir’ in a besotted condition ‘much to be lamented’.

Weelkes was, to put it bluntly, an alcoholic, and just two years earlier had been sacked as organist and choirmaster at Chichester Cathedral after 15 years in position. Perhaps out of pity, he was allowed to remain as a singer in the choir.

Things had once been very different. Weelkes arrived at Chichester Cathedral sometime in 1601-02, when he was in his mid-20s and already the fêted composer of three books of madrigals. The Chichester job was a major improvement on his previous post at Winchester College, and Weelkes soon cemented his position in Chichester society by marrying into a well-off local family. A flourishing professional career seemed to beckon for the young and aspiring composer-musician.

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Chichester Cathedral was, though, a combustible working environment. Well before Weelkes arrived, there was turbulence and insubordination in the choir he had been hired to manage. One of his predecessors as choirmaster had, it seems, assaulted the verger and threatened to shoot anybody who tried to oust him, and two lay singers had been involved in a nocturnal scuffle where a knife was brandished.

Attempts were made by the Cathedral authorities to quell the maverick conduct. One decree stipulated that ‘none of the vicars choral, lay vicars, singing-men or Sherborne Clerks shall be a fighter, common brawler, quarreller or drunkard either within the Close or within the City’. Another choirmaster was admonished for ‘haunting of alehouses’ and a ‘singing-man’ was ordered to desist from going bowling instead of turning up for services.

Despite this history of open lawlessness, Weelkes’s early years at the Cathedral were seemingly placid, and he composed a good deal of excellent choral music. But trouble still rumbled in the choir. In 1605, its members were banned from bringing their dogs with them to services, and later advised there should be ‘no unreverend gesture nor unseemly talking’ during worship.

Perhaps inevitably, given the toxic environment he worked in, Weelkes’s conduct eventually buckled too. In 1613, a decade into his tenure, he was sanctioned for drunkenness – though the popular tale of how he was once fined for urinating on the dean from the organ loft is probably a myth.

By 1616, the ‘insufficiency and defect’ of the choir and the ‘disorderly, scandalous or defamed persons’ it harboured were cited against him. Absenteeism among singers was rife, and Weelkes had allegedly done little or nothing to stop it.

The axe finally fell on 16 January 1617, when Weelkes was dismissed from all of his positions at Chichester Cathedral. ‘He hath been and is noted and famed for a common drunkard and a notorious swearer and blasphemer,’ read the citation. ‘His usual oaths are that which is most fearful to name, by the wounds, heart and blood of the Lord.’

Weelkes reportedly accepted the verdict without comment. Though reinstated as organist at the Cathedral five years later, and continuing in the choir as a rank-and-file member, his career as a composer and musician never properly recovered. He died in London in November 1623, aged 47, leaving just five shillings to each of his three children.

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Main image: Thomas Weelkes memorial © Bashereyre at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Authors

Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.