|John Dunstable’s epitaph – stating that he had “secret knowledge of the stars” – had been recorded in the early 17th century, and was reinstated in St Stephen Walbrook in 1904.|
John Dunstaple (or Dunstable, c. 1390 – 24 December 1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late medieval era and early Renaissance periods. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a near-contemporary of Leonel Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School.
The spelling “Dunstaple” is preferred by Margaret Bent, since it occurs in more than twice as many musical attributions as that of “Dunstable”. The few English musical sources are equally divided between “b” and “p”; however, the contemporary non-musical sources, including those with a claim to a direct association with the composer, spell his name with a “p.” Both spellings remain in common usage.
Dunstaple was probably born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. His birth date is a conjecture based on his earliest surviving works (from around 1410–1420) which imply a birth date of around 1390. Many of the details of his life are conjectural. Nothing is known of his musical training and background. He was clearly a highly educated man, though there is no record of an association with either Oxford or Cambridge universities. He is widely held to have been in the royal service of John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, the fourth son of Henry IV and brother of Henry V. As such he may have stayed in France for some time, since the duke was Regent of France from 1423 to 1429, and then Governor of Normandy from 1429 to his death in 1435. He owned property in Normandy, and also in Cambridgeshire, Essex and London, according to tax records of 1436. After the death in 1437 of another patron, the Dowager Queen Joan, he evidently was in the service of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the fifth son of Henry IV.
Unlike many composers of the time, he was probably not a cleric, though there are links with St Albans Abbey (see below); he was probably married, based on the record of women sharing his name in his parish, and he also owned a manor in Hertfordshire.
In addition to his work as a composer, he had a contemporary reputation as an astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician (for example, a volume in the Bodleian Library, largely in the hand of William Worcester, acknowledges that certain information within it had been copied from Dunstaple’s writings). Some of his astrological works have survived in manuscript, possibly in his own hand
Dunstaple’s connections with St Albans Abbey are at least twofold:
The abbot John Whethamstede is associated with the Duke of Gloucester (who was buried at St Albans following his death in 1447), and Dunstaple’s isorhythmic motet Albanus roseo rutilat, possibly with some of the Latin words adapted by Whethamstede from an older poem, was clearly written for St Albans, possibly for a visit to the abbey by the Duke of Bedford in 1426.
Whethamstede’s plan for a magnificent library for the abbey in 1452-3 included a set of twelve stained glass windows devoted to the various branches of learning. Dunstaple is clearly, if indirectly, referred to in some of the verses the abbot composed for each window, not only music but also astronomy, medicine, and astrology.
He died on Christmas Eve 1453, as recorded in his epitaph, which was in the church of St Stephen Walbrook in London (until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666). This was also his burial place.