The conversion of England from the Roman Catholic church to the Church of England by King Henry VIII (and later Queen Elizabeth I) forced those who wished to practice Catholicism to do so covertly, as penalties included fines, scrutiny, torture or death. All vestiges of the “old religion” were summarily prohibited, including the use of Latin (only English was permitted).

In this highly volatile and oppressive atmosphere, Byrd played a dangerous game.
Refusing to conform to the new religion, he composed music for use in Catholic services (held secretly in private residences), more often than not in Latin. He managed this rebellion without loss of life or livelihood, due in part both to his exemplary musical skill and by frequently dedicating publications to the Queen.

It is widely accepted that Byrd intended his Latin motets for use either in these underground Masses, or for publication in books for use in homes, much like madrigals. Either way, the music was most likely performed 1 or 2 singers/players per part, and with female sopranos.

Ave verum corpus is a short chant that has also been set to music by various composers. The best-known versions are certainly the ones by Mozart and Byrd. It dates from the 14th century and has been attributed to Pope Innocent VI.

During the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the sacramental bread during the consecration and was also used during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist and ties it to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.


Hail true body, born of the Virgin Mary.
Truly suffering, was sacrificed on the cross for all,
From whose pierced side flowed blood,
Be for us a foretaste in the final judgment.
O sweet, O merciful, O Jesus, Son of Mary,
Have mercy on me. Amen.

To enjoy the music in all in grandeur, join us on March 31, 4:00 p.m.