The quite exceptional and unquestionably English motet Sub Arturo plebs / Fons citharizancium names fourteen English musicians and its composer, J. Alanus. It is a brilliant and exuberant piece, extremely cleverly constructed, but with a kind of earthy energy more characteristic of English than of French composition.


The motet first became widely known with Brian Trowell’s brilliant unmasking in 1957 of its Latinised versions of English vernacular names, which led him to date the motet to the celebrations at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, of the Order of the Garter in 1358, following the victory at Poitiers. In the 1950s little was known of 14th-century English music, but discomfort was soon expressed with such an early date given the piece’s advanced musical style. Roger Bowers added new singer identifications, noting their wide chronological span, and arguing that some of the datings must refer back to musicians of earlier generations. He suggested a later date, in the early 1370s, still treating the terminus ante quem as the death in late 1373 of the royal chaplain Johannes Alanus or Aleyn (not an uncommon name) whom he assumed to be the composer. But despite the evidence of names and death dates that underpins even that later dating, the motet seems too advanced on transmission and musical grounds given the greater knowledge we now have of musical style during this period. It stands out as earlier by at least a full generation than its closest musical companions, English or otherwise, which date from after 1400.


If the composer J. Alanus is correctly identified with the John Aleyn who died in 1373, Sub Arturo can be no later. But the name (akin to the modern ‘John Allen’) is a common one, so it is possible that it refers to another, later, Johannes Alanus, such as (but not necessarily) the John Aleyn who became a minor canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and died in 1437.


Some of the names cited in the motet’s texts may also suggest a later date: first, the best candidate for ‘Johannes de Exonia’ (John Exeter)) lived until 1419. Second, the only available candidate for ‘Ricardus Blithe,’ a member of Henry V’s chapel, lived until 1420. These two composers, perhaps the youngest and most recent, are named together in stanza 4. A younger Blithe would fit well with a later compositional date if the motet’s roll of honour indeed looks back to earlier generations of musicians.


It has to be admitted that most of the musicians named can still be plausibly identified with the 14th-century candidates proposed by Trowell and Bowers, but it is the latest not the average dates that must count for the piece’s dating. I would now go further than Bowers, set aside the Alanus who died in 1373, argue that the motet was retrospective from the position of its latest named musicians, and move the composition date into the 15th century.


While the top line (triplum) of the motet praises Alanus’s contemporaries and recent forebears, his motetus gives a potted history of music, beginning with Genesis. It is thus retrospective in a more extreme sense than the triplum. The roll of honour of seven ‘greats’ praises Jubal (here ‘Tubal’, due to an old confusion), Pythagoras, Boethius, Gregory the Great, Guido of Arezzo, and Franco of Cologne, inserting himself mock-modestly (‘minimus’) as the seventh. He does so using the borrowed authorial form of ‘B. de Cluny,’ the composer of an earlier, related, ‘musician motet,’ Apollinis eclipsatur. There are many verbal echoes in Sub Arturo plebs of Apollinis and a third motet naming musicians, Musicorum collegio, as well as striking musical cross-references. The three motets (and others of this family) also have correspondences in their proportions, further affirming their close verbal and musical interconnectedness.


The motet has a largely syllabic fit of words to music, while its proportions are controlled by exact numerical relationships between its three sections. Each of these is based on a statement of the same borrowed melody in the tenor, but with each successive statement being two-thirds the length of the previous one, i.e. 9:6:4. Every note of the motet is locked into place by thrice-heard rhythmic patterns in each voice part, corresponding to each of the three statements of the borrowed melody in the tenor; no 14th-century motet even approaches this complexity.


Only two other motets, both English, both after 1400, have the unusual overall proportions 9:6:4, likewise achieved by mensural change: Alma proles [recorded by the Binchois Consort on ‘Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster’ (CDA 67868)] by Henry V’s chaplain John Cooke, and the anonymous and incomplete motet Carbunculus ignitus lilie.

I have linked Alma proles / Christi miles to the post-Agincourt celebrations in 1415 and the preceding peace process. But neither it, nor anything else attributed to the royal chaplains Burell, Cooke, Damett and Sturgeon, seems to have made its way across the Channel. Conversely, the absence of the assertively patriotic Sub Arturo from the royal English manuscript Old Hall may be surprising, when that manuscript offers a range of other motets including, as later additions, Agincourt-related pieces and, anonymously, Dunstaple’s Veni Sancte spiritus / Veni creator [also to be recorded on the Binchois Consort’s new disc], which I have dated to 1416 or before. Alma proles, like Sub Arturo, states the tenor three times, governed by three different mensurations. The tenor is aligned with the upper parts, but more straightforwardly so than in Sub Arturo. The mensural affinity between Sub Arturo and Alma proles regia suggests a possible relationship with the musician motet Alma polis religio. Such play on similarity of verbal incipits between motets is a feature of that repertory.


In conclusion, I am proposing, therefore, that Sub Arturo sits most comfortably in the 1410s, on grounds of musical style and notation, its relation to other compositions, and also the dates of its sources. This means that the valiant fights of the English under ‘Arthur’ could possibly be added to the number of motets that refer to the military successes of that decade, and that ‘Arthur’ could even refer to Henry V.


Margaret Bent, All Souls College, Oxford







Sub Arturo plebs uallata

plaudat melos; laus ornata

psallatur Altissimo.

Anglis conferentur grata

euentu piissimo.                                  5


En milicia cum clero

floret; musicorum uero

chorus odas iubilat,

e quibus modo sincero

  1. de Corbe emicat, 10


cuius non preuisas posco

res, quas J. de Alto Bosco

reserat theorica,

qua fulgens uernat, ut nosco,

  1. Marconi practica. 15


Piis placent ac tirannis

res Ricardi Blith, Johannis

necnon de Exonia,

arte cuius multis annis

fulsit Cantuaria.                                  20


Sed G. Mughe, radix florum,

det generibus melorum;

Edmundus de Buria

basis aurea tenorum

est, quem fouet curia.                          25


Princeps bellicus probauit

quas Oxwick G. res creauit,

rutilantes oculo,

Episwich J. quas gustauit

mire uocis modulo.                              30


Flos Oxonie miratur

Nicholaus, qui uocatur

de Uado Famelico;

  1. de Miresco iungatur

his triplo mirifico.                                35


Prepollet G. de Horarum

Fonte lira; uox non parum

mulcet aures Simonis

Clementis, os cuius clarum

manus nitet organis.                            40


Practizat Adam Leuita

precellenter. Quorum uita

sana diu uigeat,

ut et illis, qua finita,

porta celi pateat.                                  45




Fons citharizancium

ac organizancium

Tubal predicatur,

musice primordia

sculpans ut historia                                    5

Genesis testatur.


Pondera Pictagore

numerorum decore

artis uernant legem,

quam rimans Boecius                                10

propalauit latius

regum laudans Regem.


Doctrina Gregorii

gesta Dei Filii

canit omnis ordo;                                15

Guido fons inicia

lineas et spacia

dedit monocordo;


sed Franco theorice

dat mensuram musice                                20

quam colores ligant.

Fontes hi sunt seculi

adhuc quorum riuuli

cuncta regna rigant.


Huius pes triplarii                                      25

bis sub emiolii

normis recitatur,

ut hi pulsent dominum

quorum numen nominum

triplo modulatur.                                 30


Illis licet infimus

  1. Alanus minimus

sese recommendat,

quatenus ab inuidis

ipsum sonis ualidis                                    35

horum laus defendat.


Translations by David Howlett


Let the people protected by Arthur (also ‘under the North Star’, near the seven-starred constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, ‘the Bear’, which is the etymological root of the name ‘Arthur’) applaud song; let embellished praise be sung to the Most High; pleasing things will be conferred on the English in a most holy result. Lo, the military flourishes with the clergy; the chorus of musicians, moreover, shouts its odes, from whom John of Corby shines out in unblemished fashion, whose compositions not seen before I invoke, which John Hauboys unlocks in his Book of Theory, from which the radiating practice of Thomas Marcon springs, as I know. The compositions of Richard Blithe please holy people and kings, also those of John of Exeter, with whose art Canterbury radiated for many years. But let William Mugge, the root of the flowers, contribute to the types of songs; Edmund of Bury is the golden foundation of the tenors, whom the court favours. The warlike prince approved the compositions which William Oxwick created, glowing golden to the eye, which John Ipswich savoured with the melody of his wonderful voice. The flower of Oxford is wondered at, Nicholas who is called ‘of Hungerford’. Let Edmund de Miresco be joined to them in a wondrous threesome (or triplum). William of Tideswell excels on the lyre. The voice of Simon Clement soothes the ears not a little, the bone of whose hand shines bright upon the organ. Adam the Deacon performs excellently. May the healthful life of these men flourish for a long time, so that for them, when (this life is) finished, the gate of heaven may lie open.



Tubal (properly, Jubal) is proclaimed the source of harp-playing and organ-playing, fashioning the beginnings of music as the story of Genesis relates. The weights of Pythagoras by the beauty of numbers make the law of art spring, which Boethius examining opened out more widely, praising the King of kings. By the teaching of Gregory every order sings the deeds of the Son of God. Guido (of Arezzo) the source gave principles, lines, and spaces to the monochord. But Franco (of Cologne) gives to the theory of music measure which the colours bind. These are the springs of the age, whose rivers still water all the realms. The ‘foot’ (tenor) of this three-part piece is (sung once and) repeated twice under the rules of hemiolus so that those, the majesty of whose names is sung in the triplum may importune the lord. To them the lowest, least, John Allen recommends himself so that the praise of these men may with mighty sounds defend him from envious men.