A group of musicians plays instruments that include viole da braccio, lutes, and a cittern on the late sixteenth-century frieze that ornaments the Great Hall at Gilling Castle. Photo: David Klausner. For more background on Gilling Castle, click here.


By the early sixteenth century, the term ‘viola’ had come to designate a wide variety of bowed string instruments. To distinguish one type from another, the playing position was generally indicated as well. The viola da gamba is held between the legs (gamba). The middle member of the violin family, played with the instrument supported by the upper arm or shoulder was called viola (or ‘lyra’) da braccio.

Just as Italy became through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the principal source of fine violins and members of the violin family, so England became the centre of production of fine violas da gamba in the workshops of such masters as John Rose (d. c 1562) and his son of the same name (d. 1611), Henry Jaye (c 1610–1667) and Barak Norman (1671–1740). For further reading, see Michael Fleming and John Bryan, Early English Viols: Instruments, Makers, and Music (London,  2019). 

There is substantial evidence for the ownership of viols by the wealthier members of the North Riding gentry, as in the Fairfax household inventories at Walton and Gilling Castle. The inventory taken at Walton on 3 April 1624 records ‘in the open presse a base violin & the singing bookes.’ That the bass viol and the ‘singing books’ are housed in the same place suggests strongly that they were used together for family music. A further inventory at Gilling on 22 June 1624 notes ‘In the dyning parler, a violl chest . . . ‘ and ‘[i]n the wardropp two standing bedsteed{es} one presse a violl Chest . . .’ The presence of a chest of viols in the splendid ‘dyning parler,’ where they would be played below the musicians’ frieze, is a strong indication of the central place music held in the Fairfax family’s life.

The most significant evidence of viol-playing in the Riding lies in the career of Christopher Simpson of Egton, son of the Christopher Simpson who led a company of travelling players from their base in Egton across the North Riding as far as Pately Bridge (West Riding), where a Christmas performance of an anti-Protestant play led to a decade-long case in the court of Star Chamber. Christopher the younger was born around 1604–5 in Egton, or possibly in the nearby hamlet of Westonby. Little is known of his early life, but excellent musical training must have been available, perhaps from the local schoolmaster, Edward Nickson, though this cannot be substantiated. A recusant like his parents, Christopher served in the royalist army; after the Civil War he took up residence in the house of Sir Robert Bolles of Scampton, Lincolnshire, who became his patron. Bolles’ son John became Simpson’s pupil and the primary object of his pedagogical works. Simpson’s principal publications, The Division-violist (London, 1659) and The Principals of Practical Music (1665) – both of which went to a second edition – established him as England’s leading viol player.  
Viole da gamba, figs 1–3, and viola da braccio, fig 5. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 20.

Detail of musician playing a viola da braccio from the Gilling Castle frieze. Photo: David Klausner
Viole da gamba illustrated in Simpson’s The Division Violist. A marginal note calls on viol-makers to take notice of Simpson’s detailed instructions on the size and shape of the instrument and bow. Image: Christopher Simpson, The Division Violist (London, 1659), sig C. Wing: S813.
‘How the Viol is Tuned and Applyed to the Scale of Musick.’ Image: Christopher Simpson, The Division Violist (London, 1659), sig C2. Wing: S813.


The word ‘pipe’ is notoriously ambiguous. In the context of REED, it is most likely to refer to one of two instruments: bagpipes or the three-hole tabor pipe.

Most communities in early Britain had a local form of bagpipe, its size and shape usually dependant on the animal (lamb, goat, sheep) whose skin was used for the bag. Some bagpipes had drones, which provided a constant background to the tune played on the chanter; others did not. Because pipers were often itinerant, many of the more successful bagpipe designs did not remain local.

The three-hole tabor pipe is a fipple flute, similar to a recorder, but with only three holes, for the thumb and first and second fingers. It is usually played with the left hand alone, using the pipe’s harmonics to produce a scale. The instrument is known as a tabor pipe because the one-handed playing technique allows a small drum or tabor to be suspended from the left arm or elbow to accompany the pipe. The use of a percussion instrument and melody instrument played by the same person made the tabor pipe an ideal accompaniment for dancing.

The North Riding records offer a few examples of payments to pipers: the Bursar’s Accounts for Whitby Abbey, 1394–5 records of a payment of 13s 4d to ‘harpers and pipers on St Hilda’s day;’ in 1611, the accounts of Sir Henry and Sir Thomas Bellasis at Newburgh Priory include a disbursement of 6d to ‘to a piper at ffreec head.’

More frequently, however, pipers appear as transgressive figures, named in visitation books and at Quarter Session proceedings as the cause or agent of local disobedience.

The churchwardens of the parish of Wensley are taken to task in Bishop William Chaderton’s 1595 visitation for refusing to ‘helpe to reforme the abuse of pypinge and dauncing’ and, more than this, for actively enabling the piper, William Harrison, by bringing a chair into the churchyard for him to sit in. Archbishop Richard Neile’s 1637 visitation of Appleton super Wiske sees the piper William Steward charged for providing the music for a ‘stang,’ a traditional public shaming ritual in which the subject is carried in procession around the village, accompanied by ‘rough music.’

Local authorities lean heavily on innkeepers for harbouring pipers, as in the Quarter Session records at Normanby (1606), Thornton Watlass (1606), Kirby Misperton (1614), and Farlington (1631). Pipers are also charged directly here for corruptive/disruptive influences, as at Hutton Buscel in 1614, where pipers are found playing for local youth at Midsummer, and at Hovingham in 1622, where the unfortunate Raph Theaker, ‘piper,’ is sentenced to the stocks for playing on the Sabbath.
Bagpipes, figs 7–9. The bagpipes featured in Praetorius’ Syntagma Musicum have two drones. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 11.
The fourteenth-century image of a bagpipe in the Luttrell Psalter has one drone. Image: BL Add. 42130, f 176.
Tabor pipe, fig 5. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 9.
Tabor pipe. Photo: David Klausner


The cittern has a flat back like a guitar, rather than a curved back like a violin. It is strung with wire like a mandoline, rather than with gut or horse-hair, and usually has between four to six double courses, each course consisting of two strings tuned in pairs. Played (unlike the lute) with a plectrum, the cittern could be used as an accompanying instrument, or as a substitute for a melodic instrument like the violin.

The cittern became one of the most popular instruments for non-professional players with the publication in 1597 of Anthony Holborne’s The Cittharn Schoole. A considerable number of citterns survive, along with collections of solo music and accompaniments for voices. Frequent literary references indicate that a cittern was a common accoutrement to a barber shop to invite customers to entertain themselves.

The 1611 inventory of household goods at Brandsby, Richard Cholmeley’s family estate, includes ‘1 cetherran [cittern] with a bourden case,’ and a cittern is one of the instruments featured in the Gilling Castle frieze.

Cittern, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 7.
Sixteenth-century cittern music. Image: Anthony Holborne, The cittharn schoole (London, 1597), sigs D1v–D2. STC: 13562.


The orpharion was a wire-strung plucked instrument tuned like a lute, with a flat back and scalloped body. It became very popular, with frequent references in both musical and literary sources. Two examples survive, a highly decorated instrument by John Rose the younger, dated 1580, and an instrument by Francis Palmer, dated 1617.

The orpharion appears often in household inventories from the period; the North Riding offers an example in Sir Thomas Fairfax’s inventory at Walton, 3 April 1624. The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby of Hackness offers an indication of its use. On 26 January 1599 she records that ‘after diner I dresed vp my Clositte and read and, to refreshe my selfe being dull, I plaied and sunge to the Alpherion.’

Orpharion, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 17.
The orpharion is one of three stringed instruments featured in A new Booke of Tabliture, a collection of musical instruction and notation printed by William Barley, advertised as ‘Collected together out of the best Authors professing the practise of these Instruments.’ Image: William Barley, A new Booke of Tabliture (London, 1596). STC: 1433.


In contrast to the cittern and orpharion, the lute has a deeply curved back and is strung with gut strings rather than wire. Although early forms of the lute were played with a plectrum ­­– like the Middle Eastern oud from which it was derived – by the sixteenth century the lute was always played with the fingers. Lutes came in a wide range of sizes, but most had six double courses. The accounts of Sir Henry and Sir Thomas Bellasis at Newburgh Priory record payments for lute strings in 1608, 1609, 1611/12, and 1612.

Lute, fig 3. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 16.
Detail of lute player from Gilling Castle frieze. Photo: David Klausner.


Harps were for the most part the province of professional harpers. References rarely distinguish between the various shapes for the instrument, predominately that of the Irish harp (or clarsach), and the European harp.

Bede’s account of ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ in the Historia Ecclesiastica (c 680, Latin and Old English) offers the earliest reference to a harp (and indeed to any instrument) in the North Riding records. Until he was visited by the Lord in a dream, Caedmon, as Bede tells it, ‘had never learnt anything of songs . . . therefore sometimes, at a feast, when it had been decided for the sake of mirth that all in their turn ought to sing, he, when he saw the harp approach him, would rise from the midst of the dinner and, leaving, return to his house.’ Here the harp (or, more likely lyre, with strings of equal length) figures as a shared instrument for performance in a non-professional context.

Paid harpers appear in the records as early as 1394–5; the monastic rolls of Whitby Abbey, which survive in a nineteenth-century antiquarian transcription, record payments of 12d each to the respective harpers of Lord de Ros, Lord Scrope, and Lord Peter of Buchan, as well as to ‘one harper and his fellow,’ and to a harper ‘on the Sunday before the Purification.’ The Richmond Mercers, Grocers, and Haberdashers’ Minute Book shows payments to harpers in 1580/1 and again in 1593/4, and a ‘blinde harper’ figures amongst several entertainers cited in the 1611 accounts of Sir Henry and Thomas Bellasis.
European harp, fig 1; Irish harp, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 18.
European harp, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo: David Klausner.

Virginals & Regals

Although the term ‘virginals’ tends now to be used for a small harpsichord, either rectangular or polygonal, in the seventeenth century the term could indicate any keyboard instrument sounded by a plucking mechanism.  The virginal’s flexibility as a solo instrument or an accompaniment to vocal music made it very popular, and many inventories indicate the presence of a pair of virginals in gentry households.

The small bellows-blown organ known as ‘regals’ (usually in the plural, like ‘virginals’) appears with some frequency in household inventories, but its purpose in the household is not entirely clear. In Germany, regals were frequently used in churches in place of a full-sized organ, but there is little or no evidence of such use in England, although the possibility remains that regals served the same purpose in the provision of music for private services. If this is so, it would be interesting to map the references to regals in household and probate inventories to see if there is any correlation between sectarian divisions (Catholic/Protestant) and the use of regals.

The probate inventory of George Neville’s goods taken at Wells in 1567 lists ‘one pare of Regalles’ and ‘one pare of virginals,’ valued at 20s and 10s respectively, both located in ‘The Parlour.’ Both instruments also figure in the 1624 inventory of Sir Thomas Fairfax’s household: ‘a paire of virgenalls’ in the ‘great chamber’ at Walton, and ‘a paire of Rigalles’ at Gilling Castle.

Virginals, figs 2 and 3. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 14.
Regals, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 4.

Want to know more?

Baines, Anthony. Bagpipes. Occasional Papers on Technology 9 (1973).

Fleming, Michael; Bryan, John. Early English Viols: Instruments, Makers and Music (London, 2016).

Galpin, Francis W.; Dart, Thurston (rev). Old English Instruments of Music. 4th ed (London, 1965).

Praetorius, Michael. Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia Documenta Musicologica XIV (Wolfenbüttel, 1614; rpt Basel, 1958).

Sadie, Stanley (ed). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. 29 vols (New York, 2001).

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