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In 1525 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey founded Cardinal College in Oxford and delegated the search for singers to John Longland, the bishop of Lincoln. Longland’s search for an instructor of a choir of sixteen boys led him to singer and composer John Taverner, who lived in the Lincolnshire village of Tattershall. But Taverner said he was reluctant because he was already making a good living where he was and had “a good marriage which he should lose” if he moved to Oxford.

Longland suggested that Wolsey hire somebody from his own household and drew up a description of the desired candidate as someone with a good singing voice, an ability to play an instrument, a love of teaching and a knack for it, an ability to work with children, and knowledge of the sacred repertory.

Somehow Wolsey and Longland convinced Taverner to take the job, perhaps by sweetening the deal, since Taverner’s salary, plus food and clothing allowances, added up to much more than a singer at Tattershall received.

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The days were long and the work hard, but, within two years, Cardinal College had a first-rate reputation.

By then, though, Taverner was caught up in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. Early in 1528 he was among several instructors at the college who were implicated in the circulation of Lutheran literature. He was accused of hiding a Lutheran book under the floor boards in the school. Wolsey took Taverner’s involvement in stride, excusing it as the slip of a theologically unsophisticated, unlearned musician.

So the punishment for Taverner was fairly light. He had to walk in a procession while carrying a bundle of sticks as a reminder that a convicted heretic could be burned at the stake. As a final sign of repentance, Taverner and his associates were expected to throw a book into a bonfire.

Soon afterward, the fortunes of Wolsey and his school began to decline, and within a few years John Taverner had become a widower, remarried, and retired in relative comfort.

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