Very little is known of John Dowland’s early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London. Irish historian W. H. Grattan Flood claimed that he was born in Dalkey, near Dublin,[2] but no corroborating evidence has ever been found either for that statement or for Thomas Fuller’s claim that he was born in Westminster.[3] There is however one very clear piece of evidence pointing to Dublin as his place of origin: he dedicated the song “From Silent Night” to ‘my loving countryman Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland’. The Forsters were a prominent Dublin family at the time, providing several Lord Mayors to the city.[4] In 1580 Dowland went to Paris, where he was in service to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court, and his successor, Sir Edward Stafford.[5] He became a Roman Catholic at this time.[6] In 1584, Dowland moved back to England where he was married. In 1588 he was admitted Mus. Bac. from Christ Church, Oxford.[7] In 1594 a vacancy for a lutenist came up at the English court, but Dowland’s application was unsuccessful – he claimed his religion led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I’s Protestant court. However, his conversion was not publicised, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from having a court career in England.[5]

From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark,[8] though he continued to publish in London.[9] King Christian was very interested in music[10] and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court.[11] Though Dowland was highly regarded by King Christian, he was not the ideal servant, often overstaying his leave when he went to England on publishing business or for other reasons.[10] Dowland was dismissed in 1606[10] and returned to England;[11] in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I’s lutenists.[12] There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626.[13] While the date of his death is not known, “Dowland’s last payment from the court was on 20 January 1626, and he was buried at St Ann’s, Blackfriars, London, on 20 February 1626.”[14]

Two major influences on Dowland’s music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day.[15] Most of Dowland’s music is for his own instrument, the lute.[16] It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute.[17] The poet Richard Barnfield wrote that Dowland’s “heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense.”