William Byrd (1540 or late 1539 – 4 July 1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called virginalist school) and consort music.
Our knowledge of Byrd’s biography has expanded in recent years, thanks largely to the research of John Harley (Harley, 1997). Following the discovery of a document dated 2 October 1598 in which Byrd’s age is given as ’58 years or ther abouts’ it now appears that he was born in 1543. The older dating 1542–3 is derived from Byrd’s will (endorsed on 22 November 1622) which describes him as ‘in the 80th year of my age’. It now becomes clear that it must have been drafted about three years earlier than the date of endorsement. Byrd was born in London, the son of a Thomas Byrd (not Thomas Byrd of the Chapel Royal) about whom little is known. Byrd had two brothers, Symond and John, and four sisters. It is clear from a reference in the prefatory material in the Tallis/Byrd Cantiones of 1575 that Byrd was a pupil of Thomas Tallis, then the leading composing member of the Chapel Royal Choir. Byrd also worked in collaboration with two other Chapel Royal singingmen, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on one of his earliest compositions, a contribution to a joint setting of the alternatim psalm In exitu Israel composed for the procession to the font at the Paschal Vigil. As an item for the Sarum liturgy this was presumably composed near the end of the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558), whose Catholic beliefs impelled her to revive Sarum liturgical practices during her brief reign. In view of these contacts it is reasonable to speculate that Byrd was a Chapel Royal choirboy, though the surviving records do not name the choristers individually.