The History of the harp in England
From the Dark Ages to the Victorians:-
"And in his harping, when he had songe,
his eyen twinkeled in his head aright,
as don the starres in the frosty night."
Left, The shadowy external outline of a harper, parish church, Launceston, Cornwall, 16thC.
Right, Sarah with her reproduction English medieval harp
The history of the harp has been written about many times in the past, but often from an exclusively Celtic viewpoint - so much so that the vast majority of people nowadays believe the harp to be an exclusively Celtic instrument. But through years of research Sarah Deere-Jones, who now lectures on this subject around the world, has revealed that the small harp has been in England since the 10th century and by the 14th century had become the National Instrument of England, played and loved by medieval Kings, their wives, their court musicians aswell as common minstrels across the country.
The early English harp
The Saxon word 'hearpe' used in the writings of Bede etc has caused much confusion, and whilst some academics believe this word did indeed mean a triangular framed small harp, most prefer the theory that the word simply meant 'stringed instrument' and referred to a type of Lyre.
Right, illustration from Junious II in the Bodleian Library, and dated from 930, the oldest depiction of a proper harp from England. There is also a splendid stone carving of a clearly depicted triangular framed harp played by a Griffon in the Crypt at Canterbury Cathedral, also from the 10th century. Clear unambigouous illustrations of almost identical harps also appear in the Tiberius psalter and Wulfstan psalters, both 11th century. These wonderful images and others, show that the triangular framed harp was in England before the Norman conquest.
From Left to Right= Darenth (kent)1140, Riccall (yorks) 1160, Barfreston (kent) 1175, Portesham (Hare) 12thC (Dorset)
Evidence of early English harps mostly consists of carvings and other later illuminated manuscripts. Carvings were used to convey symbolism or lessons about the word of God. Similarly illuminated manuscripts are another source of early medieval imagery and huge amounts of time and artistry were lavished on these wonderful creations by skilled craftsmen. There are also fleeting written references, either from the manorial household accounts where visiting musicians were paid or players purchased music or strings, or from the very beginnings of English literature itself - the wonderful writings of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Langland and their contemporaries.
There are a great many church carvings of harps in England from the12th century like those above. The Normans were known to love the small harp, William the conqueror's minstrel Taillefer who was sacrificed at the battle of Hastings, was himself a harper - their other favourite instrument was the Rebec, a type of early violin, and both are often seen together in Norman imagery.
In her book 'The Harp' Roslyn Rensch when referring to European manuscript illustrations says "In English examples particularly the harps may vary in decoration and in number of strings, but certain basic characteristics are evident. The instruments are depicted with increasing attention to detail, and the various representations leave little doubt that a known musical instrument served as the original prototype for many of the drawings".
Left to right, Beverley minster carving 14thC, Beverley minster misericord 1505, Exeter cathedral minstrels gallery 14thC, Manchester cathedral misericord 1505
(Both the porcine harpists above were made by the same craftsmen in Ripon and installed in the seperate buildings above.)
Medieval English harps can be found in a variety of unusual shapes, some have been damaged and are difficult to make out. From left to right-The carving from Christchurch Priory in Dorset (14thc). The next carving from Lincoln Cathedral dated 1275 shows what is often described as the uniquely 'Irish' shape, and the angel (3rd from left), from Tewkesbury Abbey -14thc, is also described as 'Irish shaped' - and there are at least two other 'Irish' shaped harp carvings at Lincoln, and another one at Ware, Hertfordshire dated 1380 which reveal a rather unfounded assumption by the historians describing them! The wooden angel is from the ceiling of Buckland Monachorum in Devon (15thc) and show a quite large instrument, whilst the final photo is of another 'harpist' in Beverley Minster, although this instrument is slightly obscure, it may perhaps be a uniquely french harp-zither instrument known as a Rote?
From left to right, Angel roof boss Tewkesbury Abbey, 14thc. Angel harpist-13th century quire screen, Morning chapel, Salisbury cathedral, Monkey harpist at Winchester Cathedral 14thc, and another roof boss angel from Tewkesbury. Interestingly all the Tewkesbury Abbey harpists show their harps nestling in the covers!
In his book 'The story of the harp in Wales' Ossian Ellis says "Because of the lack of specific verbal and pictorial evidence on the history of the harp in Wales the musicologist and scientific researcher will, no doubt, insist that the harp came from England; yet the circumstantial evidence of the early poets, of the laws of Hywel Dda, and of the stories in the Mabinogion literature, suggest that the harp was known in Wales since time immemorial." Again the problem with the early Welsh literary references mentioned above, is exactly what instrument is meant by the word 'harp' which is, without accompanying illustration, difficult to confirm as shown by historians trying to describe the Anglo-Saxon 'hearpe'.
Wall painting on Longthorpe tower, Cambridge, 1330
Watercolour copy by E Clive Rouse
Angel playing harp, Gloucester Cathedral choir- circa1340
Two waites (town musicians), whilst this piece of furniture originated in Wales, I have found other carvings of Waites playing harps at Launceston and Tiverton.
Cotehele House Cornwall, 1550-70
St Breage church- Cornwall,
Sabbath-warning painting, a symbol for the peasantry of all the things forbidden on the Sabbath, mostly consisting of work related equipment but this tiny harp hides next to Christ's hand. 15thC
Sarah Deere-Jones and Phil Williams play reproduction medieval instruments in a duo here- 'Lammas' Medieval Music Duo
Not every harp you see in a church is medieval!
It is wise to be cautious when you discover one of these little harpists in a church, the Victorians loved the harp as an image and often reproduced them in a medieval style fooling many a casual observer! If you find a harpist, always look up the history of the building and check the carving is truly medieval, and not a victorian or later re-production.
Examples of medieval stained glass are rare- the holding of the tuning key by angels was symbolic of 'authority' or 'order' and are another fascinating clue to how common the harp was at this time - it could only have been used in symbolism like this if most of the illiterate population could understand the meaning of such symbolism.
These are some of the most beautiful early English illustrations of harps and harpists, there are more beautiful illustrations of harps to look out for in the English psalter (c1050), St Albans psalter (12thC), the York psalter (c1170), the Caedmon manuscript (11thC) and the Harley psalter (c1000).
Left, King David as depicted in the Hunterian psalter c.1180 with a beautiful animal head harp.
and Right, Ass playing the harp and King David again in the 13th century Lansdowne psalter with other musicians.
Left, King David in the Ramsey Abbey psalter dated 1380
and (Right) here he is again with other musicians and a loyal hound in the Peterborough psalter c.1310
King David this time with an unusual shaped harp in the Knightley psalter 1380
and Right, the Sherborne Missal which dates from 1400-1407.
References to the harp in England range from the Vita Sancti Dunstani (Saintly life of St Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury written around the year 1000, it refers to a harp specifically - The author says that Dunstan 'as usual took up his cithara which we call hearpa in our language'. This intriguing quote may be the first written reference to the harp as we know it, in England.
In many old English legends the harp is mentioned, from King Alfred "In A.D. 878 when the great Alfred, assuming the character of a harper, with an attendant to carry his instrument according to the custom of the minstrels, entered the Danish camp, where he played before their princes". The same legend is repeated in the 10th century with Aulaff king of Northumberland who disguised as a harper played to King Athelstan.
In a volume of church music dated from 1774 by Martin Gerbert there appears several illustrations of instruments copied from a 12th century manuscript which was lost in a fire in 1768. These include a drawing of a harp labelled 'Cythera Anglica' distinguished from another illustration labelled 'Cythera Teutonica'.
In his poem 'Parzival' completed in 1210, the poet Wolfram of Eschenbach explicitely uses the term 'swalwe' (swallow) to indicate an English harp. -
'The woman Bene took the chief gift of his rich merchandise out of the hands of Gawan, namely a swallow,
which is regarded as an expensive harp in England even today'
(No-one understands why a harp would have been called a 'swallow' it may be a reference to sweet sound, or it may perhaps refer to the gentle curves in the frame of some harps, either way it is a charming association.)
Historical houshold records are also intriguing - for example there is a record of a harper being paid at the abbey of Hyde, near Winchester in 1180, his name was Galfrid, or sometimes referred to as 'jeffrey', but nothing more is known about him. Another famous story tells us of Blondel, the minstrel of Richard 1st, who it is said as his 'harper' found the king during his imprisonment in Austria, by playing outside the castle walls, and hearing the king answering the tune (in the style of a modern aural test no doubt!!) confirmed his presence. There are records from 1271 that Henry 3rd paid Richard his harper, 40 shillings and a pipe of wine, and Edward 1st in 1271 took his harper to the holy land with him, where apparently his minstrel saved him from an attack by an assasin. In the records of Durham Priory, a payment is made to 'Thomas Harpour' in 1335. In the household records of Alice de Bryene, a Suffolk heiress of the late 14th century, mention is made of a payment to a harper who came to a feast at her manor -Acton Hall, on shrove tuesday one year to entertain the household for a few days. Henry 4th is known to have played the harp, and indeed taught his son Henry 5th how to play, accounts still exist which refer to the acquisition of a 'cover' and 'strings' for his harps. An account of the coronation of Henry 5th in 1413 at westminster by Elmham, includes the passage "The harmony of the harpers, drawn from their instruments, struck with the rapidest touch of the fingers, note against note, and the soft angelic whispers of their modulations, are gratifying to the ears of the guests."
There are also references to the tuning of harps, Pierre of Peckham incorporated tuning details in his poem 'La Lumiere as Lais' completed in Oxford in 1267, which explains how harps were tuned in octaves and fourths. Another one by Willelmus, written in about 1400 refers to tuning a five stringed cythera, and another 15th century one 'The Western Manuscript', in Trinity college library Cambridge seen here below, seems to be explaining how to tune in fifths and octaves.
|To set a
harpe fact per [made by] J Stowell] Ffirst ye shall
begyn to set your harpe at the iiijth [4th]
stryng and let hym stond [stand] still for your chef
[chief] tenor and set all the harpe to hym .Then shall ye
set ye vth [5th] above to hym Then
remeve [remove] your fynger to ye same stryng[
There are some fascinating records of harp makers in England although little detail is known about them. All the following are listed as 'harp makers' - John de Toppclyf, York, 1366; William Moreton, Oxford, 1380; Roger, Oxford, 1384; Radulphus, Oxford, 1384; Robert Somerton, London, 1416; John Scot, London, 1416; John Bore, London, 1435; Robert Smyth, Oxford, 1452, John Harryes, Oxford, 1462; Thomas Briker, Oxford, 1467. Many of these harp makers are listed in manuscripts from various universities of Oxford, instrumental music was known as a popular pastime for scholars, indeed the 'Statutes of Queens College' 1340 explicitly restricts the playing of musical instruments at certain occassions! John Bore of London was known to have supplied harps to Henry Vth.
Interestingly in the 1970s a house was excavated in Oxford by the Oxfordshire archeological unit which was thought to be a tenement occupied by Thomas Briker harp maker mentioned above, and in it were found substantial remains of instrument pegs made from bone and coils of wire possibly for use as strings.
Records in Oxford also include an account of the inquest of Gilbert de Foxlee (1306) which hints at the common use of harps at the time -
" On thursday last, the vigil of the nativity of St John the baptist; the tailors of Oxford and others of the town with them, were keeping the vigil in their shops, singing and making merry all night with harps, fiddles and other kinds of instruments".
Durham priory paid a fee to buy a new harp for Thomas Harpour in 1335, and the English wool merchant George Cely himself a harpist, lent Thomas Rede, harper of Calais some money to buy a harp in 1474. In the inventories of students from Oxford there is further confirmation of harps in common use- The goods of John Hosear included 'an harpe' valued at four pence in 1463 (those were the days) and Reginald Stone left 'one harp' among his effects at Vine hall in 1468. Thomas Cooper in 1438 had 'one old harp and a broken lute' . Friars were also among the harp players of the city of Oxford at this time, in 1383 they were attacked in Wyclif's 'Leaven of Pharisees' for playing music on holy days -
' they indulge in veyn songs and knackynge and harpynge' he writes complainingly.
|Far left, unusual
wooden screen carving from Tiverton in Devon showing a
harpist in what looks like the costume of a Wait or town
musician of the Elizabethan era.
Near left, sarah in Tudor costume with her reproduction Gothic harp,
Right, Henry VIII with his harp, from the Henry's Psalter in the British Library, both Henry and his ill fated wife Anne Boleyn were harpists.
Harps are mentioned in Wills and legacies of this time too - John Bount a Bristol landowner left a 'great harp' in 1404, John Parker a doctor in York left a 'Cithera' in 1406, Thomas Cooper left an 'old cithera' in 1438, John Hosear left 'a harp' in 1463, Reginald Stone a bachelor of canon and civil law left 'a harp' in 1468, and Robert Moreton a gentleman left 'an old harp' in 1488. Later In Cornwall a Richard Cleere of Calstock bequeathed his harps to two blind boys in 1606. In 1619 an Irish harp was left in the will of Richard Connocke of Calstock.
There is a reference in Cornwall to a 'wandering' harper called 'Tristram' who by 1574 had a permenant position at Lanherne.
The poet John Lydgate c.1410 in 'The churl and the bird' uses an ass listening to a harp as a simile for someone who will not listen to good advice-
To heeryn a wisdam thyn eris ben half deeff
Lik an asse that listeth on a harpe
Thou maist go pypen in a ivy leeff
(When it comes to listening to wisdom your ears are half dead, like an ass listening to a harp: you might as well go whistling in an ivy leaf.)
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are littered with references to Harpers, they are mentioned in the 'Wife of Bath's tale', the General Prologue, The Friar's tale, The Manciple's tale, The tale of Sir Topaz, and the House of Fame. They also turn up in other medieval works such as those examples below-
"I can nat tabre, ne trompe, ne telle faire gestes,
Ne fithelyn at festes, ne harpen" Piers Plowman/Langland 1332-1400
"mery it is in halle, to here the harpe
the mynstrall synge, the jugelour carpe" Adam Davy 1312
"Ther herde I pleyen on an harpe
that souned bothe wel and sharpe
Orpheus ful craftely.
And on his syde, faste by
sat the harper Orion,
And Eacides Chiron,
And other harpers many oon,
And the Bret Glascurion;
And smale harpers with her glees." Chaucer 15thC, House of Fame.
Sarah Deere-Jones' historical harp performances can be seen here- Historical Harpist
Post Elizabethan period
Elizabeth 1st is often credited with being reponsible for wiping out the Irish harpers, and funnily enough she seemed to have been even better at it on her home ground. An extract from Buntings 'ancient history of Ireland' states-
"towards the end of the 16th century, AD 1596 the 39th year of Elizabeth, a statute was passed by which 'minstrels wandering abroad' were punishable in the same manner as 'rogues vagabonds, and sturdy beggars'. This act, Dr Percy (in his admirable essay on the ancient English minstrels) considers as having put an end to the profession in England." The queens view evidently was that wandering minstrels could broadcast unfavourable views about her rule, they were the internet of their time, - unregulated, unmonitored, and able to move around the country spreading news, information and rumour with freedom. It stands to reason that if this act had such a detrimental effect on harpers in Ireland, it would have made life even more difficult for the wandering harpers in England to carry on with their profession under the more immediate threat of the guardians of her court. During the Elizabethan era and early 17th century in England, religious choral music and early woodwind ensembles became immensely popular, the Viol family and lutes were predominant as far as string instruments were concerned.
Evidence of the harp in England seems to be scarse from Elizabethan times for at least 100 years or so, perhaps as a legacy from Elizabeth's persecution followed by the Puritans who generally shunned most but the most formal types of musical expression. During the late 16th century and 17th century the 'arpa doppia' evolved in Italy where two, and later three rows of strings were used to overcome the problem of changing key. These instruments flourished in Europe and were seen in London, William Lawes the English Baroque composer wrote music for a 'harp consort' and a musicologist of the time writes somewhat vaguely, of the 'English triple harp'.
The emergance of the pedal harp
By the early 17th century the hook harp had developed in Austria, with single action pedal harps coming along shortly afterwards by inventors in Paris, the early English aristocracy couldn't wait to get hold of these lavishly decorated and expensive instruments, and have their portraits painted with them!
Left the Duchess of Devonshire (of Chatsworth fame) with a type of early hook harp, the predecessor of the single action mechanism. Far right, Lady Clarges of Bath (painted by Gainsborough) and near right Lady Elizabeth Spencer, ancestor of the late Princess of Wales.
In 1810 Sebastian Erard, who had fled France to set up workshops in London finally invented the 'double action' mechanism that enabled the harp to achieve all the required keys. (Although before him John Egan an Irish harp maker had designed and built a double-action mechanism of his own). Suddenly these double-action harps were in great demand, and soon there were several other harp makers established in central London, basically copying Erard's designs to grab a part of the new market - Jacob Erat, Fritz Grosjean, Schwieso, John Hobart, Alexander Barry, and Edward Dodd all fought for customers for this new fantastically popular instrument.
Records and letters to and from couriers survive which show us how popular the harp was in England at this time and how many people across the country had them. For example:-
A Mrs Bontein asks for a harp to be forwarded to Cheltenham in 1829 while a Mrs Dowdeswell left a letter from 1825 about how she was learning the harp at home. A Mrs Richards left a letter from 1829 which mentions keeping her harp 'dry', and a Mr John Kenyon in Bath sent a harp to a relative. A Mrs William Lock writes in 1826 about sending a harp from Turners warehouse to Brighton, while Lady McDonald in 1831 asks for her harp to be sent to her at great Melton st in London. A Mrs Ormsby writes to ask that a harp be sent to her from Soho square in 1830, while a Major Pollock of Congleton confirmed in 1829 the safe arrival of a harp.Major Sandys of Shrewsbury despatched a harp in 1833 and writes that he will soon be in town to collect them, while Lady Thompson of Mickleham near Dorking, writes that she wants a trunk sent containing an 'iron harp'.
Meanwhile in London, Bath, Cheltenham, Bristol and Weymouth a growing band of suppliers developed, to name a few:-
Henry Bernoit Etienne (also known as Henry Bray) a teacher of music and supplier of 'silver harp strings' worked in Bristol, Weymouth and Cheltenham before 1835. Jacobus Debeer and Richard Bowler were 'violin and harp-string manufacturers' in Bethnal Green before 1803. George Packer sold harps and many other instruments from his warehouse in Orange Grove, Bath.
And there were many teachers for all the eager students, just as today some were professional players of the highest standards and other lesser known teachers:-
Charles Alexis Baur, professor of harp in London and Cheltenham. Mary Ann Dibden who studied with Boscha and became assistant teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in 1824. Thomas Paul Chipp, professor of harp at Covant Garden. John Balsir Chatterton, born Portsmouth in 1805 and harpist to Queen Victoria, professor of harp at the Royal Academy and teacher of the famous Welsh harpist John Thomas. Neville Butler Challoner, born 1784 in Holborn, professor of harp at the Kings Theatre who wrote the 'new preceptor for the harp'. William Litton Viner,born Bath 1790 professor of harp and wrote an 'Introduction to the pedal harp' in 1823. Thomas Light also professor of harp in Bath, wrote a 'system of preluding for pedal harp' in 1812. Frederick Chatterton (brother of Neville above) a harpist who'se daughter Josephine later established a harp school in Chicago. Sophia Dussek born in Scotland but worked as a harp teacher in London. Mrs T.W. Eliot of Bristol professor of harp, who held regular concerts at the Assembly rooms in Bristol, and Alicia Windsor who performed at the same Assembly rooms in Bristol in April 1832.
In the 19th century wealthy ladies liked to have their portraits painted with their harps, a mark of how proud they were of them. Left is the Princess of Wales (the prince Regent's wife) and his daughter Charlotte, who also became a harpist.
Right is Lady Louisa, countess of Liverpool.
|Left, A young lady playing the harp, by James
Northcote - this artist came form the West country and
sadly although it is not known who this girl is perhaps
she was from one of the many wealthy West country
Right, A young lady playing the harp by Robert Home, Home spent some years painting ex-pats in India and the very lightweight dress fabrics perhaps hint that this girl was the wife or daughter of one of them?
|Left, a miniature of 'Mrs Chalmers' who'se husband
was Major Frances Chalmers of Grangemouth in the early
Right, Louisa Sharp and her sister, their father Mr George Sharp was a professor of music in Bedford and in 1809 Louisa performed in public on the harp in recitals in Huntingdon, Peterborough and Cambridge. She must have been very gifted because although playing in a domestic setting was normal, public performance was considered quite unseemly for young women at the time, and only deemed exceptable in exceptional circumstances.
There are many examples across England of how the harp was used in domestic entertainment of the wealthy in the late 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps the most obvious ones being the instrument's appearances in novels such as those by Jane Austin, Thackeray, George Elliot and Thomas Hardy. Manuscripts survive of dance tunes, both for solo harp and arrangements with other instruments under the common phrase 'for harp or piano'. I have in my possesion an undated manuscript but probably from the early 19th century of arrangements and original pieces by John Parry, Oliver Davies, Augustus Giani and John Hughes, which would have been perfect soiree pieces for evening entertainment. I also have a manuscript of similar date, containing short 'Quadrilles'- dance tunes, arranged for harp and published by a Mr Paine of Bond Street London, who apparently directed a dance orchestra that performed at a club there known as 'Almacks'. This book also shows instructions for dancers under the notes.
Left, Sarah Deere-Jones with her late Regency Erat harp and harp-lute and Phil Williams with his English guitar. The harp-lute was invented by Edward Light in 1802 and was intended for travelling harpists, see www.harp-lute.co.uk for more details of this recently rediscovered instrument.
Right, a painting entitled 'The Grosvenor family' with children dancing to the harp music, a typical Victorian scene from a very privilaged household.
Far right, Elias Parish who eventually became known as the famous harp virtuoso and composer Parish-Alvars, who despite very humble beginnings as a music shop owners son in Teignmouth Devon, went on to help establish modern classical harp technique.
Apart from a vibrant amateur harp scene in the fashionable 19th century towns of Bath, Bristol, Cheltenham and to a lesser degree Weymouth, the West country's main claim to fame in the world of the harp, has to be that of the birthplace of Elias Parish Alvars in Teignmouth, Devon in 1808. He was the second child of Joseph Parish, organist of St James' church in the town, a music teacher and music shop owner. Elias Parish, had harp lessons from his father at the age of 3, and when he was 10, performed his first solo concert at Totnes. He eventually started travelling to London to have lessons with Nicholas Boscha the famous French Harp virtuoso who was the first harp professor at the Royal Academy of Music (although he was later sacked for bigamy and bankruptsy!). Elias travelled and studied across Europe and obtained a phenomenal technique, becoming the foremost harpist of his day. He began writing fiendishly difficult solo pieces for harp which are still considered an important addition to the harp repertoire today, and which earned him the nickname the 'Liszt of the harp'. Elias died in 1849 at the age of forty in unfortunate circumstances. Riots in Vienna over the German confederate wars lead to the financial collapse of his employers, and with not enough money return home he was left destitute and caught pneumonia, he is buried in Vienna.
Elias' pupils included Gottleib Kruger, who in turn was teacher to Hasselmans, leading to the French school - Salzedo, Tournier, Jamet, Zabaleta, Grandjany, & Laskine and therefore the very establishment of modern classical harp technique! A fascinating booklet about his life has been written by John Wilson Smith, and is available from Teignmouth Museum.
Click for information about concerts for Regency Harp and Harp-Lute
Sarah Deere-Jones gives lectures in 'The history of the harp in England' for information about these or historical performances on harps and harp-lute, please send an e mail to - info(at)cornwallharpcentre.co.uk
This page is in continual construction as research is ongoing, please do contribute any comments or information you know of particularly of early history of the harp in England.
Many thanks to contributors and photographers!- Phil Williams, Mike O'Connor, Sean Stewart, Eric Johnson, John Wilson Smith, Katrina Wood, Eve Edwards, Dr Ian Mortimer, Keith Sanger.
Bibliography:- 'Minstrels and Angels' by Jeremy and Gwen Montagu, published by Fallen Leaf Press in California. 'Music and Instruments of the middle ages' by Christopher Page. 'The harp in the middle ages' by Martin Van Schaik. 'Music in the age of Chaucer'. 'The Ancient Music of Ireland' Bunting. The 'Real middle ages' . 'Medieval Lives' . So many more yet to be listed....
info (at) cornwallharpcentre.co.uk
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