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This evening I attended a screening at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds of Tony Britten’s new film ‘Draw on Sweet Night’, a biopic of the great Suffolk composer John Wilbye, who worked for the Kytsons of Hengrave Hall between 1592 and 1628 and thereafter for their daughter, Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with the director. Back in the 1990s, an A Level project on John Wilbye was the first serious piece of historical research I ever attempted, as a result of which I consulted the meagre historical record of the man in the form of a few letters and papers in Cambridge University Library and the Bury St Edmunds Record Office. At the time I was volunteering at Hengrave Hall and giving guided tours, and becoming increasingly fascinated by Hengrave’s musical heritage. Had I been told, back in 1998, that a feature film of Wilbye’s life would one day be made, I would have dismissed such a thought as a mere daydream – but the film is real.
I am not in a position to comment on the film’s artistic merit, nor would I wish to, so the purpose of this review is to assess the film’s historical plausibility. I was relieved to note that, at the end of the credits, Britten included the disclaimer that most of the film was ‘glorious conjecture’. However, some of his conjectures are better grounded than others, and after seventeen years of studying the Hengrave manuscripts I have a reasonable idea of what was going on at Hengrave at the time the film is set. It is worth noting at the outset that the idea that Wilbye conducted a love affair with Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers is an old one, dating back to the biographical speculations of Edmund Fellowes as long ago as 1914. The idea that Wilbye also conducted affairs with Lady Elizabeth Kytson and Arbella Stuart is unique to Britten’s film and, needless to say, entirely fictitious.
‘Draw on Sweet Night’ was filmed at Kentwell Hall rather than Hengrave, which seems to have been a sound decision for two reasons; in the first place, Kentwell still has its moat and ancillary buildings, both of which have disappeared at Hengrave; and secondly, much effort has been put into restoring Kentwell to its original Tudor state and Britten was able to call upon the services of the volunteer Kentwell re-enactors as extras. Thus I was happily able to disregard the fact that Hengrave is a stone-built Henrician house while Kentwell is a brick-built Elizabethan one.
Some of the more plausible conjectures in the film are the close collaboration between Wilbye and George Kirbye, the Jermyn family’s madrigalist at Rushbrooke Hall, the possibility that patrons could have written the words to the madrigals, and (to some extent), Wilbye’s dispute with Elizabeth Kytson over setting a Latin mass. Scholars have long recognised strong similarities between the music of Wilbye and Kirbye, although they were not quite as geographically close as the film seems to imply. The idea that Mary Darcy could have written the words to some of Wilbye’s madrigals is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility – Sir Phillip Sidney has also been suggested as a possibility. It is highly likely, in my view, that Wilbye was a church papist – he originated from Brome, the same village as Elizabeth Kytson (née Cornwallis), and he set some Latin religious words to music during his time in Lady Elizabeth’s service. At the time, Hengrave employed singers and the chapel contained a cushion suspiciously embroidered with an image of the Virgin Mary – small-scale polyphonic masses, such as William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices were sung in recusant settings, and an argument between Wilbye and Lady Kytson over this issue is eminently plausible.
A further plausible event is Elizabeth Kytson’s absolution by a Catholic priest on her deathbed and subsequent Catholic funeral. The church at Hengrave was a family mausoleum from 1589, and it is conceivable that a priest could have conducted a Catholic funeral there without bringing the immediate notice of the authorities. However, the film committed the now all too common error, in the scene of George Kirbye’s wedding, of vesting the minister in a stole and placing a cross on the altar – two things that would never have been seen in a Church of England church until the 1850s.
An aspect of the film that is far less plausible is the negative portrayal of Sir Thomas Kytson the Younger as a religious conformist and disloyal husband to Lady Elizabeth, when the evidence suggests that he was a committed recusant given to occasional ostentatious displays of conformity when the authorities were looking in his direction. There is no evidence to suggest that he and Lady Elizabeth differed in their religious opinions. Indeed, Sir Thomas belonged to that hard core of East Anglian Catholic gentry who traced their adherence to the faith back to Mary’s reign, when a teenage Sir Thomas witnessed Queen Mary’s arrival at Hengrave on her way to Framlingham to claim the Crown.
Britten’s sympathetic portrayal of Mary Darcy is at odds with the evidence; in the film, Lady Mary says that she does not want to allow her children to return to their heartless father Earl Rivers at St Osyth, whereas in reality Mary sent her daughter Penelope (the future Lady Penelope Gage) to live with her father at St Osyth. As a mother, Mary had favourites and seems to have preferred her daughter Elizabeth over Penelope. My impression of Mary from her surviving letters is that she was a forbidding, calculating and domineering woman – more so than her mother Elizabeth Kytson.
During my research into John Wilbye all those years ago, one of my most important discoveries was that Wilbye was not, as David Brown still thought in his article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a lifelong bachelor. In 1628 he married Elizabeth Butts, the widow of Nathaniel Cullum of Thornden, which would make sense as that was when he was formally released from the service of Lady Kytson by her death. Since Fellowes’ thesis of a romantic entanglement with Lady Rivers was based on the idea that Wilbye went to live with her in Colchester in 1628, the fact that Wilbye got married in the same year tends to undermine it, and the general picture of Wilbye depicted by Tony Britten in the film. But then, as Britten pointed out after the screening, it is hard to imagine that someone who composed Wilbye’s passionate madrigals was ‘a dry old stick’.