Thomas Tallis (1505? - 1585) was an English composer during the Renaissance Period in music (1400 - 1600). He was a prolific composer of sacred music for both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches. His career spanned four monarchies: Henry VIII (with the dissolution of the monasteries), Edward VI, Mary (who re-established Catholicism) and Elizabeth I. Relatively little is known about Tallis's life, particularly about his early years. His year of birth is usually taken to be about 1505 making him eighty years old at his death on 23rd November 1585; he had described himself as "very aged" eight years before. Since his entire career was spent in London and southern England he was probably born in the south, perhaps in Kent. In any case this was the county of his first known appointment, Dover Priory, and the location of the Manor of Minster, the house later leased to him by Mary Tudor.Tallis in Dover The first record of Tallis dates from 1532, as organist of Dover Priory, a small Benedictine monastery consisting of about a dozen monks. It is not know whether Tallis's duties were restricted to organ-playing, or whether he also had the opportunity to work with professional singers. The more affluent monastic houses of the period certainly endeavoured to participate in the fashionable cultivation of elaborate church music by employing a small choir of professional lay singers; such a choir, which was quite distinct from the monks' own choir, would usually have performed in the Lady Chapel of the monastery, because this was often the only part of the monastic church to which the laity had access.Dover Priory, however, was far from wealthy. In the early 1530s its annual income was about £170, less than a tenth of that of a major Benedictine house, and it can hardly have been in a position to spend lavishly on music. On the other hand, the fact that the priory employed a lay organist at all could be taken to imply quite a serious commitment to music. In addition, Dover was a cell or dependent house of Canterbury Cathedral, which was itself a Benedictine priory. The cathedral had a long and lively musical tradition involving not only the maintenance of a professional Lady Chapel choir but also the encouragement of the monks' own musical talents; it seems quite possible that this could have assisted the exploitation of music at Dover. Even so, any choir available to Tallis at Dover Priory must surely have been tiny. There seems to be no record of Tallis's departure from Dover, but the priory itself was dissolved in the autumn of 1535.
Later Life Tallis appears in records again in 1537-8 in London, where he is employed (it is not clear whether as a singer or as organist) by the parish church of St Mary-at-Hill in Billingsgate, a little to the west of the Tower of London. The next reference to Tallis is in 1540 at the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham Abbey in Essex where he was a senior gentleman. On March 23, 1540, Waltham became the last English abbey to be dissolved. After the dissolution of the monasteries Tallis was a Lay Clerk (i.e. a singing gentleman) at Canterbury Cathedral. Tallis’s final appointment was as a senior gentleman at the Chapel Royal from around 1543 onwards. During his time in the royal household Tallis served four monarchs, Henry VIII to 1547, Edward VI from 1547 to 1553, Mary I from 1553 to 1558 and Elizabeth I from 1558 onwards. Thomas Tallis was fortunate in that he was in Queen Elizabeth's favour although he was a Catholic during a period of religious unrest in English history, resulting in the state religion of England switching from Catholic to Protestant. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and William Byrd (Tallis’s pupil) a monopoly in England on printing music. He died on 23rd November 1585 and was buried in St. Alphege’s Church in Greenwich. Tallis’s Music Tallis’s early works were written for the Sarum rite, the liturgy in use in England until the Reformation. The music is large ritual music for the Catholic mass and office hours. The Reformation and with it the new prayer book of 1549 created the need for simpler music and settings of vernacular texts, a need to which Tallis was quick to respond.The accession of Mary Tudor, who re-introduced the Catholic rite, enabled Tallis to return to the large scale English Catholic style of composition, although works from this period clearly show Tallis’s more developed style and the first signs of continental influence which was to affect all English composers in the second half of the 16th century.The act of settlement introduced by Elizabeth in 1559 abolished the Catholic rite for ever and Tallis reverted to writing English services and anthems for public use, though he continued to produce settings of Latin texts which were allowed for devotional use. In all this, Tallis demonstrated a most remarkable versatility, changing and adapting his style to suit the prevailing political environment. Viewed as a whole his music holds up a mirror to the political and religious changes of the sixteenth century.