Music and Instruments of the Elizabethan Age: The Eglantine Table

Music and Instruments of the Elizabethan Age: The Eglantine Table
Ed. Michael Fleming and Christopher Page
The Boydel Press, Woodbridge, 2021
Hardback, 310 pages, 245x176x31mm, ISBN 978 1 78327 4212


Visitors to the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire (architect Robert Smythson’s Renaissance masterpiece of “more glass than wall” fame) may have noticed a large highly decorated table in the bay window of the spectacular upper floor High Great Chamber. This is the Eglantine Table (or Aeglentyne), probably commissioned for the 1568 marriage of Bess of Hardwick to her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, followed the year after by the marriage of her two children to his two. The 3.0mx1.3m oak table includes detailed inlaid depictions of a lute, bowed instruments, recorders and other wind instruments, a gittern and cittern, together with sheet music, playing cards, backgammon and other gaming boards, and various armorial devices, including the aeglentyne/eglantine, a white briar rose.

This collection of essays explores this rare depiction of musical instruments and musical sources reflecting Elizabethan musical life, generally accepted as the Golden Age of English music. The writers include leading scholars from a variety of specialisms covering specific aspects of the table. The first Part covers the botanical images, gaming boards and the writing implements, with the longer Part II covering the musical details. The final Part gives a broader view of the musical aspects of the table’s decoration as it relates to Elizabethan musical life. An annex described the 1998 restoration of the table.

The editors of the book (an instrument maker and a music academic) make several contributions themselves, with other principal offerings from the likes of John Milsom, Matthew Spring, and Jeremy Montagu. Apart from the obvious musical interest, there are nuggets of other information that I found fascinating. One such is the Table’s chess board the design of which reflects the Indian origins of the game, originally played on the board of a different game. The rest of Patrick Ball’s ‘The playing cards and gaming boards’ chapter makes for interesting reading, with its description of the historic background to the various games and cards depicted on the Table. Jason Scott-Warren’s chapter on the writing implements relates the two pen-cases on the Table to the wider aspects of writing and the possible symbolic relevance to the family.

John Milsom’s chapter on the music in staff notation includes analysis and transcriptions of the two books and two scrolls of music on the Table, notably the sacred song ‘O Lord in thee is all My truste’. Three versions are compared with that on the Eglantine Table in a five-page transcription. The four rounds are also transcribed. Perhaps curiously, given their prominence at the time and the fact that they are the only instruments that Bess of Hardwick is known to have owned, there are no depictions of keyboard instruments on the Table. The only other principal instruments of the time not represented are the pipe and tabor and the sackbut/trombone.

The well-produced book includes 16 high quality colour plates gathered together in the middle of the book, along with numerous figures and musical examples interspersed with the text. Helpfully, footnotes are where they should be, at the foot of the relevent page, rather than hidden away in an appendix.

Introduction to the Eglantine Table
Part I: Silent Things
The Table: models and artistic context
Botany, the Table and Hardwick New Hall
The playing cards and gaming boards
The writing implements
Part II: Music and instruments
The music in staff notation
The book of lute tablature
‘A full and lively pourtraiture’: The Table as evidence for Tudor musical instruments
The bowed instruments and bows
The gittern or guitar
The cittern
The lute
The harp
The wind instruments
Part III: Broader Views of the Eglantine Table
The Table and the music of the 1560s
Pipers, Fiddlers and the Musical Lives of the Majority
Tables of the Mind
Appendix 1: The renovation of the Eglantine Table by Tankerdale Ltd, 1996
Appendix 2: The Table in the context of furnishings in Bess of Hardwick’s houses