In 1529 the tyrannical King Henry VIII sent the Rev. Dr. Richard Croke, a Hebraist, Greek scholar and vice-chancellor of Cambridge University on a mission to Venice with two aims. The first was to persuade the rabbinical courts that Levirate law could be applied favourably to the monarch´s wish to marry Anne Boleyn after annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The second was to seek the best of Italian musicians to bring additional fame and grandeur to his choral schools at The Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul´s Cathedral. In the first he was unsuccessful (which led to the founding of the Church of England with the king at its head) but in the second he managed to entice with rich rewards fifteen of the best Italian musicians and their families to join the Tudor Court where they became known as the “Newe Vialles” or “Venetian Brethren”. What was (badly) kept as a secret was that all fifteen were descended from the Iberian Sephardim who had sought refuge in Northern Italy following the expulsions of 1492 and 1497, the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the introduction of the Inquisition in Spain (1478) and Portugal (1539).
The leader of this group was undoubtedly Jeronimo Bassano (1480-1549) whose grand-father was a Moroccan Jew named Joshua ben Joseph al-Lorqui (1400-1440) until he became a Spanish converso known as Maestre Geronimo de Santa Fe ; he had two sons named Pedro and Andrea. After the suicide of his brother in a prison of the Inquisition, Andrea fled to Italy in 1492 with his son Jeronimo to live in the village of Bassano del Grappa from which his surname was derived. It was here that Jeronimo created a renowned business for making musical instruments such as bassoons, lutes and pivas. He had six sons (Alvise, Jacomo, Jasper, Anthony, John and Baptista) all of whom became expert musicians and were commanded in 1506 by the Doge of Venice to move to his court where Jeronimo was titled “Maestro Hieronimo of trumpets, shawms and piffero”. Of the six, perhaps the most famous was Anthony Bassano. His five sons (Mark Anthony, Arthur, Edward, Andrea and Jeronimo) accompanied their father to the court of Henry VIII in the year 1540 while a daughter, Lucrecia, married into the Lanier family of composers and artists.
Contemporary to the Bassanos were the Lupo family of viol players who were thought to have developed this instrument into the violin. They also moved to London in 1540 and were headed by Ambrose Lupo who played in the royal consort through the Tudor reigns of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1605). Their music was principally religious consisting of the psalms and motets (eg Ne Irascaris taken from Isiah 64:9-10) many of which were composed by William Byrd but they also took part in a “secular band” which played at banquets and other celebrations using original Italian rhythms for the popular Pavanes, Courante and Allemandes dances. The birth place of Ambrose is not known but he was named as Lupus Italus de Almaliach ; an ancient Jewish family name of Iberia. He married and died (1591) in Cripplegate, London and his eldest son, Joseph, was married in the parish of St. Alphege to Laura Bassano. This was mentioned in evidence given to the Inquisition in Venice in 1577 by Orazio Cogno who stated that heretical works had been distributed by Ambrose to various English aristocrats including Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford whose name has been put forward as an alternative to that of William Shakespeare.
Other members of the group who were suspected as being Marranos included two string players , George and Innocent de Combe who were known to have been migrants from Coimbra as were the Moises family all of whom had been employed in the university choirs. But the question of confirming names has difficulty due to changes being made from Judeo-Arabic through Spanish or Portuguese to Italian and then to English ! According to the historian Roger Prior, King Henry´s consort used one set of names for official business and another for private matters such as inter family declarations of trust. Thus Anthonius Moyses became John Anthony and Simon de Maion became Peregrine Symonds . Further proof of a common Sephardic heritage came about with the discovery by Jewish historian Cecil Roth that a smaller group of crypto-Jews was already present in London before the arrivals from Venice. This included both Sephardim and Ashkenazis who had migrated from Antwerp to follow careers as merchants, financiers and in two cases as musicians.
Hebrews had supposedly been exiled from England since 1290 and not officially re-admitted until 1656 by a tolerant Oliver Cromwell but it was known that during this period small communities of crypto-jews existed in the principal cities and some were linked by illegitimate liaisons to the aristocracy. This became evident to Eustace Chapuy , an ambassador of Spain, who insisted at Christmas-tide 1541 that “certain persons” be imprisoned and their property confiscated . To this a reluctant but diplomatic King Henry agreed but was mortified to find that some of the victims included his choristers (and their instruments) while others had fled to the continent. As a reasonably accomplished composer and poet, the king secured the support of various catholic monarchs to have the order rescinded and in March 1543 his beloved musicians returned and were joined by others so that their numbers had increased at the King´s death to 38 players.
Of course, all of the players were male but it is important to mention that a daughter, Aemelia, of Baptista Bassano and his wife Margret Johnson proved to be an ambitious and intelligent authoress and England´s first female professional poet . Her volume Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) was published in 1611 and preceded by books which criticised the subjective status of women . She had been baptised in January 1569 at St. Botolph church in the parish of Bishopsgate and was a cousin of the court composer Robert Johnson. After the death of her father in 1576 she received a humanist education in the household of the Countess of Kent . This was followed by a period as mistress to the Queen Elizabth´s Lord Chamberlain who was her senior by forty years and conceived by him a daughter . She was then “paid off” with a yearly pension of £40 and married her first cousin , Alfonso Lainier. Her relationship with him is detailed in the diary of court astrologer , Dr. Simon Forman. who noted attempts to identify her as the Shakespeare´s (or de Vere´s) “Dark Lady” probably due to her Sephardic complexion.
From records of Tudor times, it appears that all the musicians of accredited Marrano descent successfully assimilated with Christian society . Many secured their futures by accepting parish livings within the Church or as succentors and precentors of the cathedrals while others entered the professions. In all, they brought much to the existing cultural life of Tudor England and, by marriage, a new wealth to a renascent society . This I will examine in a following article.