Thomas Weelkes (baptised 25 October 1576 – 30 November 1623) was an English composer and organist. He became organist of Winchester College in 1598, moving to Chichester Cathedral. His works are chiefly vocal, and include madrigals, anthems and services.
Weelkes madrigal manuscript: Since Robin Hood
Weelkes was baptised in the little village church of Elsted in Sussex on 25 October 1576. It has been suggested that his father was John Weeke, rector of Elsted, although there is no documentary evidence of the relationship. In 1597 his first volume of madrigals was published, the preface noting that he was a very young man when they were written; this helps to fix the date of his birth to somewhere in the middle of the 1570s. Early in his life he was in service at the house of the courtier Edward Darcye. At the end of 1598, at the probable age of 22, Weelkes was appointed organist at Winchester College, where he remained for two or three years, receiving the salary of 13s 4d per quarter (£2 for three quarters). His remuneration included board and lodging.
During his Winchester period, Weelkes composed a further two volumes of madrigals (1598, 1600). He obtained his B. Mus. Degree from New College, Oxford in 1602, and moved to Chichester to take up the position of organist and informator choristarum (instructor of the choristers) at the Cathedral at some time between October 1601 and October 1602. He was also given a lay clerkship at the Cathedral, being paid £15 2s 4d annually alongside his board, lodging and other amenities. The following year he married Elizabeth Sandham, from a wealthy local family. They had three children and it was rumoured that Elizabeth was already pregnant at the time of the marriage.
Weelkes' fourth and final volume of madrigals, published in 1608, carries a title page where he refers to himself as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal; however, records at the Chapel Royal itself do not mention him, so at most he could only have been a Gentleman Extraordinary - one of those who were asked to stand in until a permanent replacement was found.
Weelkes was later to find himself in trouble with the Chichester Cathedral authorities for his heavy drinking and immoderate behaviour. In 1609 he was charged with unauthorised absence, but no mention of drunken behaviour is made until 1613, and J Shepherd, a Weelkes scholar, has suggested caution in assuming that his decline began before this date. In 1616 he was reported to the Bishop for being ‘noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer’. The Dean and Chapter dismissed him for being drunk at the organ and using bad language during divine service. He was however reinstated and remained in the post until his death, although his behaviour did not improve; in 1619 Weelkes was again reported to the Bishop:
Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein.
In 1622 Elizabeth Weelkes died. Thomas Weelkes was, by this time, reinstated at Chichester Cathedral, but appeared to be spending a great deal of time in London. He died in London in 1623, in the house of a friend, almost certainly on 30 November and was buried on 1 December, 1623 at St Bride's Fleet Street. Weelkes' will, made the day before he died at the house of his friend Henry Drinkwater of St Bride's parish, left his estate to be shared between his three children, with a large 50s legacy left to Drinkwater for his meat, drink and lodging. He has a memorial stone in Chichester Cathedral.
Thomas Weelkes is best known for his vocal music, especially his madrigals and church music. Weelkes wrote more Anglican services than any other major composer of the time, mostly for evensong. Many of his anthems are verse anthems, which would have suited the small forces he was writing for at Chichester Cathedral.
Weelkes was friends with the madrigalist Thomas Morley who died in 1602, when Weelkes was in his mid-twenties (Weelkes commemorated his death in a madrigal-form anthem titled A Remembrance of my Friend Thomas Morley, also known as "Death hath Deprived Me"). His own madrigals are very chromatic and use varied organic counterpoint and unconventional rhythm in their construction.
Only a small amount of instrumental music was written by Weelkes, and it is not much performed. His consort music is all sombre in tone, contrasting with the often gleeful madrigals.
David Brown "Weelkes, Thomas" in Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 20 Dec. 2006) www.grovemusic.com
"Thomas Weelkes: a Biographical Caution". MQ lxvi: 505–21. 1980.
- W.K. Ford: ‘Chichester Cathedral and Thomas Weelkes’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, c (1962), 156–72