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Diplomatic Immunity (1) : Sir James Melville eavesdrops on Queen Elizabeth I’s music practice, and incurs Her Majesty’s displeasure.
Diplomatic Immunity
Part one

From ‘The Memoirs of Sir James Melville’, with acknowledgements to ‘A Short History of English Music’ (1912) by Ernest Ford.

In 1564, Mary Queen of Scots had recently returned to Edinburgh after the death of her husband King Francis II of France. Meanwhile down in London, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I kept asking Mary’s visiting courtier, Sir James Melville, which of the two Queens was the taller, the prettier, and the more musical?

THE same day after dinner, my Lord of Hunsdon drew me up to a quiet gallery that I might hear some music (but he said he durst not avow it),* where I might hear the Queen play upon the virginals.*

After I had harkened awhile I took by the tapestry that hung by the door of the chamber, and seeing her back was toward the door, I entered within the chamber and stood a pretty space, hearing her play excellently well; but she left off immediately so soon as she turned her about and saw me.

She appeared to be surprised to see me, and came forward, seeming to strike me with her hand, alleging she was not used to play before men, but when she was solitary, to shun melancholy. She asked me How I came there?

* Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1526-1596), Elizabeth’s cousin. He was also Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain, and to keep her court entertained he founded ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, a company of actors which included William Shakespeare, and for which many of Shakespeare’s immortal plays were composed.

* A virginals or virginal is an instrument similar to a harpsichord, in which strings are plucked by a plectrum rather than struck with a hammer as they are in a pianoforte. Unlike a harpsichord, however, the strings run side-to-side, not away from the player, and there is one string per note only, not three. As a consequence, the virginal is of a convenient weight, size and shape to stand on any table top.

From ‘The Memoirs of Sir James Melville’, with acknowledgements to ‘A Short History of English Music’ (1912) by Ernest Ford.

‘Rowland’ by William Byrd

‘Rowland’ or ‘Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home’ by William Byrd (?1539-1623), performed by Ernst Stolz. The piece comes from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which contains keyboard music from a number of composers dating roughly to the period 1562 to 1612.

Find this music (or similar) at

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Picture: By Steven van der Meulen (d. 1568), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth in about 1563 (just before the events in this extract), painted by Steven van der Meulen. She was evidently very keen to know how she compared to her cousin Mary, the Scottish Queen and the widowed Queen of France. “She was earnest with me to declare which of them I judged fairest” recalls Sir James. “I said, She was the fairest Queen in England, and mine the fairest Queen in Scotland.”
By Sir James Melville

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