1. William Alabaster’s deposition of 1599 has striking similarities in tone, and type of information offered, to a letter of four years earlier sent to Robert Cecil by the internationally-famous lutenist John Dowland [d. 1626]; calendared for the English Historical Manuscripts Commission among Cecil Papers, and given in a modernised version in Diana Poulton’s standard monograph on the composer. A fresh complete transcript here may sharpen awareness of Dowland’s plight and that of others in his shoes, since this fulsome testimony is usually undervalued by musicologists. Without probing any factual information mentioned by Dowland (which might well be disputable), there has been a curious reluctance to take his confession of being an “obstinate papist” at its face value, as more in fact than a temporary phase. This unwillingness, to allow Dowland to be anything other than an Anglican may stem from an unspoken fear that the reverse could taint the national standing of one of the three finest songwriters in England since the Renaissance. But the letter is well-nigh unique for any great artist, in being so explicit about career and core beliefs; it is also the only one extant for Dowland in person.
2. Of course, problems in interpretation remain, in deciding what such frankness served. For historians to examine Dowland’s words in their context could be invaluable in fleshing out an admittedly odd picture: an English Catholic abroad writing home explicitly to incriminate himself to a powerful Privy Counciller, a sworn enemy of Jesuitism. The letter is still no apology, except in reluctantly stating the writer’s reasons for having overstepped the bounds and travelled to Italy, when granted leave only to visit German states. Dowland was maybe hoping to redeem trust and secure freedom from molestation, if or when he returned, by such detailed explanations. On exact reading, he did not recant; instead, he cannily promised little more than conformity thenceforward to the law (in effect, to observe the minimal statutory duties of church-attendance). If he did return unmolested, probably early in 1597, his career stayed far from smooth. His First Booke of Songes or Ayres (1597) inaugurated a vogue in England for published songs to the lute and bass-viol continuo; but from 1598 until 1606 he was again mostly abroad, in a highly-paid post at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. There, in 1602, a colleague of Cecil approached him for privileged information about Danish policy: it is unknown what co-operation he gave. There were two interludes in England; the first in 1601 ostensibly devoted to purchases and securing employees for the Danish court, the second in 1603 - 4 giving time once more to angle for a court place at home. A little-acknowledged factor here was that the new Stuart queen consort, Anne of Denmark (Christian’s sister), had become a Catholic convert while in Scotland. Dowland was quick to approach her and dedicate to her a peerless dance-collection entitled Lachrimæ (John Windet, for the author; London, n.d. [1604]). But even under the initially relaxed regime of James I, he was clearly deemed untrustworthy; maybe unacceptable at court during the lifetime of Cecil. From 1606 he was footloose, and the precise nature of his occupation in the next half-decade is unknown. His fourth and last songbook, A Pilgrimes Solace (1612; following the third after a large gap of nine years), contains printed epithalamia plainly devised for the newly-married dedicatee, Theophilus Howard, Lord Walden, as well as a bloc of religious songs with a recusant flavour that may have suited his crypto-Catholic parents, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk. The clan of Howards, that dominated English court life post-Cecil, lost its influence amid various scandals after 1615. But as yet in 1612, Walden’s father was acting Lord Chamberlain with power to secure a court posts. By no chance, one came Dowland’s way within half a year of the songbook’s issue, on 28 October 1612. It marked the end of mention in public affairs, and regrettably also of his composing career, except for two short anthems in Sir William Leighton’s The Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule (William Stansby; London, 1614).
3. The fact that the letter of introduction from a priest that Dowland mentions receiving ended up adjacent in the same archive of correspondence with Cecil strongly implies that Dowland himself turned it in corroborate his statements.
4. This letter and accompanying material are registered as Cecil Papers Vol. 172 nos. 91 - 93. A modernised text, with some slight omission, is printed by Diana Poulton, John Dowland (Faber & Faber; London, 1982) pp. 37 - 40 with plate 1. The letter is presented here both in a diplomatic transcription and in a text version (with abbreviations spelt out, modern punctuation introduced, etc.). For the diplomatic transcription the following editorial symbols are used: | indicates lineation of the original; {{ }} lacunae through wear; < > material inserted by the writer of the original; { } material supplied editorially; [ ] and italic editorial comment. The original slashed abbreviation p (for par/per/pro, also pad) is retained.