Windebank’s ‘Virginall’: a footnote to Gerbier’s diplomatic correspondence.

The work of a seventeenth century diplomat did not consist entirely of court intrigue and delicate political negotiations. Building up a network of personal contacts, and undertaking private commissions for patrons – actual and prospective – could take up a good deal of time, and Gerbier’s reputation as a general connoisseur of the arts meant that the preserved correspondence from his years in Brussels as Charles I’s Resident includes numerous instances of this. Some years ago, I came across an example that particularly intrigued me, as it related to one of my own interests. W.N Sainsbury’s “Papers Illustrative of the Life of Peter Paul Rubens….” (London 1859) is  fascinating book in its own right, and since the compiler included a selection of Gerbier’s letters, it is also arguably one of the first publications after Walpole’s time to draw the attention of historians to Gerbier and his career. Sainsbury included a handful of letters from 1638 between Gerbier and the Secretary of State Sir Francis Windebank that referred to one such private commission: the purchase of a ‘virginall’ for Windebank’s family. The letters gave the impression that this had been something of a failure for both Gerbier and Windebank – Gerbier found an instrument and sent it to London, but Windebank complained that it was ‘unserviceable’.  The episode was referred to in most 20th century books on the history of keyboard instruments, but had not been completely explored, or satisfactorily explained.

Since I already had an interest in early keyboard instruments, I though it could be worth looking into the issue, even if it only produced a footnote to Gerbier’s diplomatic career.  It turned into possibly the longest footnote in history: I spent a good deal of time over the next five years investigating it. Several visits to the National Archives (- the earliest to the old Public Record Office in Holborn, still much as it had been in Sainsbury’s day -) quickly showed that Sainsbury had only published a small portion of the relevant correspondence. Windebank and Gerbier exchanged letters at least once a fortnight, and evidence for the purchase of a ‘virginall’ turned up mainly in the footnotes and margins of Gerbier’s diplomatic reports, and Windebank’s responses. (All shelfmarks given here of course refer to documents in the National Archives.) The first reference came in a letter of January 8th, 1638 (- I shall use new style dates throughout -) from Windebank to Gerbier, (SP77/27 f.626v). The Secretary of State wrote:

‘If there be any good Virginalls in those parts, as I have understood there are, I wold gladly gett a good instrument, & I desire you to let me know if it may be don. In the meanetime I desire you likewys to sende me som Virginall stringes of the sizes according to their note.’

Windebank’s wording is rather vague. He was correct in thinking that the southern Netherlands was a good place to look for a keyboard instrument – Antwerp was the home of the Ruckers family, whose instruments enjoyed an international reputation. But he is not at all specific about the kind of thing he wants, and the additional request for some virginal strings gives no clue as to the gauge or quantity required. One does not get the impression that Windebank was himself a player: like Gerbier he was the father of a large family, and in 1638  several of his children were still living at home with their parents at their house in Drury Lane. It seems reasonable to suppose that the family’s ‘Virginall’ had seen better days, and really needed replacing. Meanwhile they would make do by fitting some new strings.

It seems that Gerbier immediately applied  himself to fulfilling his boss’s request. He must have done his best to oblige by return of post, as on January 12th Windebank  wrote back to him. (SP77/28 f.17r)

‘I retourne you many thankes (sr) for the Virginall stringes, for wch I remain your debtor till you sende me yor bill. for the virginall it selfe, I desire you before you sende any, to lett me know of what size you intend it, there being as I am informed of sondry proportions for bignesse. I beseech you pardon the trouble and comand freely (sr) yor most faithfull servant, Fran. Windebank’

It sounds as though Gerbier had not only despatched a selection of strings, but also begun looking for a possible instrument. Windebank sensibly asks to be informed as to the ‘bignesse‘ of it, before it’s sent to him – presumably to make sure it will fit the room for which it is intended. The search did not take Gerbier long: in his letter of January 30th, he gives a detailed description of an instrument he feels can be thoroughly recommended: (SP77/28 f.31r)

‘The Virginal I do pitch upon is an excellent peece, made by Johannes Rickarts att Antwerp, its a dobbel staert stuk as called, hath foure registers, the place to play on att the inde, the Virginal was made for the latte Infante, hath a faire picture on the inne-side of the Covering, representing the Infantas parke. and on the opening att the part were played, a picture of Rubens, representing Cupid and Psiche, the partie askes 30 ll star-lings. those virginals wch have noe pictures cost 15 ll, Yr. honr will have time enuf to consider on the same, cause I can keepe the virginal long enuf att my house   humbly take my leave and rest….’

And here are images of the original:

letter 1


letter 2

It’s worth looking closely at this description. Despite his expertise in the visual arts and a variety of other areas, Gerbier’s professional correspondence, his private writings, and his published works scarcely any musical references. (Though of course he includes Music in the curriculum of his Academy.) He once bought a violin for Buckingham while travelling through Italy, but does not seem to have played himself, or to have been particularly musical. (Compare him, for example, with Sir Henry Wotton, whose writings often refer to music, and who always took his bass viol on diplomatic trips abroad; or William Trumbull, former Resident in Brussels and The Hague, known for his compilation of works for the lute.) Yet he has described what is clearly an important instrument in some detail – albeit without mentioning one or two significant point, such as the compass. It is made by Ioannes Ruckers, who like other members of his family produced harpsichords and virginals at his Antwerp workshop. A near neighbour of Rubens, he supplied instruments for private homes, churches and the royal courts of Europe. The instrument Gerbier found carried his name. But what kind of instrument was it?

In 17th century England, the term ‘Virginal(l)’ was in general use to describe all plucked keyboard instruments of what we would now call the harpsichord family – the longer, ‘wing’-shaped instruments, as well as the rectangular box-type that we now refer to as a virginal. Here, for example, is a rectangular virginal; a modern reproduction by Bunt White,  based on those of the Ruckers family:

 Virginal after Ruckers

The keyboard is on the long side of the case, and runs parallel to the strings. But Gerbier refers to a ‘staert stuk‘, the Flemish name for what we now call a harpsichord, with the keyboard (‘the place to play on‘)  at one end of the case. The harpsichord pictured below , by Michael Johnson, is also based on a Ruckers, dating from 1637. The strings run perpendicular to the keyboard, and the case is shaped to follow the string-band.

R7-2email copy

However there is one important difference. Gerbier refers to an instrument with ‘foure registers‘ which means that the harpsichord he has found has two keyboards, one above the other, each of which can engage the two sets of strings; the ‘standard’ strings at ‘8 foot‘ pitch, and the shorter set of strings that play an octave higher. The double-manual instrument allowed the player to transpose as he or she played, in line with the musical practices of the time, and would have been especially useful to a professional musician.

One of the most significant features of this harpsichord is that it was made for ‘the latte Infante’.  Gerbier was of course writing several years after the deaths of Albert and Isabella, and there is obviously a possibility that since Ioannes Ruckers was the official harpsichord builder to the royal court in Brussels, this was an instrument commissioned by one of the Archdukes. This becomes more likely in view of the elaborate case-decoration including a picture of Cupid and Psyche by Rubens himself, and it has been suggested that the subject was particularly familiar to Archduke Albert. (See Duerloo, L and Thomas, W. Albert and Isabelle. Brepols 1998. P 189.) The landscape on the main lid – showing the park of the Coudenburg Palace – brings to mind well-known paintings of the park by Jan Brueghel, with whom Rubens so often collaborated.

This impressive provenance came at a price! The current owner of the instrument was asking for £30 in payment for it, and Gerbier put this into context by informing Windebank that a plain one would be half that price. Perhaps Gerbier had already bought it, rather than miss the opportunity to acquire such an instrument for Windebank: he notes that it is at his own house, and that Windebank therefore need not feel pressed to make a decision. And the high cost made him hesitate, writing to Gerbier on February 12th in a cautious tone: (SP77/28 f. 50r)

‘In a ltr a part you are pleased to give me a testimony of yor care of my privat little businesse concerning the Virginall, for wch I return you my most affectionat thankes. If the Instrument for sounde & goodnesse be right, I do not much respect the accessories of ornament or paintings, & therefore if you can meete wth a very good one plaine and without these curiosities, I shold rather make choice of such a one. But I will advise wth yr good friende & myne Mr Norgat whose skill in these businesses is excellent: & then I will take the liberty to acquaint you with my further desires. Presenting my true love to you, & making it my suite to you to use me as freely as by yor many civilities you have obliged me to be ……’

Windebank clearly preferred substance to style. He was not too interested in pricey decoration – even if the artist was Rubens! But he proposed talking it over with Edward Norgate, and promised to get back to Gerbier on the matter once he had done so. Norgate – a friend of both Gerbier and Windebank – was the obvious choice as a consultant on the issue. Like Gerbier a practitioner of miniature painting and heraldic illustration, he was considered an accomplished keyboard player, with the additional role of Keeper and Tuner of the King’s Organs. Yet it seems Windebank made his decision without consulting ‘yr good friende & myne’, as he wrote to Gerbier on March 12th: (SP7/28.f.106v)

‘If the Virginal you mentioned in yor former be as good for Use and Musick as you represented it to be for show I pray you (sr) do me the favour to sende it and I will give satisfaction for it whensoever you shall appoint.’

He also added a hasty, marginal note to his letter of March 20th: (SP77/28 f. 136r)

‘ of the virginal I write unto Mr Norgate’.

There is no record of him having done so, or of Norgate offering an opinion. Indeed on March 26th, Windebank ended his letter to Gerbier by noting: (SP77/28.f. 141r)

I present my true love to you and rest (sr) after many thankes for your remembrance of the Virginall whereof I have not yet spoken with Mr Norgate,

Having agreed the sale of the instrument, Gerbier now had to consider how best to despatch it from Brussels to London. Even today, the transport of a harpsichord is not always a simple matter to arrange, and in 1638 it must have been even more difficult to move one so far without risking theft or damage en route. Not until May 9th was Gerbier able to identify a reliable courier – someone who had previously worked for his predecessor in Brussels, William Trumbull. He noted in his Letterbook (- the rough copy of the letter that would then be written up for Windebank – ) : (SP105/15. f. 261v)

‘If I finde the party who acquainted wth late Mr Trumballs proceedings touching the moneys due by these business, his passage may be of use. I will charge him with the safe convayance of the Virginall.’

It is not certain that this courier was in fact entrusted with the instrument, as the final draft of the letter referred to the man, but made no mention of the harpsichord. Gerbier found some means of transporting his purchase to Drury Lane, but must have been somewhat shocked to receive Windebank’s letter of July 30th, which closed with this disappointing paragraph: (SP77/28. f400 r/v)

‘The Virginall wch you sent me, is com safe, & I wish it were as usefull as I know you intended it . But the workman that made it was much mistaken in it, & it wantes 6: or 7: keyes, so that it is utterly unserviceable. If either he cold alter it, or wolde change it for another that may have more keyes, it were well: but as it is, our Musick is marr’d. Nevertheless – I am exceedingly behoulding to you for it, & do acknowledge as many thankes to be due to you as if it had bene the most exquisit peece in the worlde: In that quality I beseeche you (Sr) comaunde yor most faithfull and obliged true friend to serve you / Fran: Windebank.’

As far as Sainsbury was concerned, this was where the story ended, and it is at this point that one really wishes Edward Norgate had been consulted, as Windebank originally planned. He would no doubt have told them that there were some significant differences between the keyboard instruments made in England, and those produced in Flanders. Much as Windebank appreciates all the trouble that Gerbier has been to, the expensive, made-for-royalty instrument with a Rubens on the lid is ‘utterly unserviceable’. It has a compass that is too small, and appears to be unsuited to the music the Windebank family wants to play.  On receipt of this letter, Gerbier seems to have responded by making the journey to Antwerp, and discussing the matter with Ioannes Ruckers himself. On August 7th he wrote to the Secretary of State to report the outcome: (SP77/28. f435r)

‘ I have yr hons letter to me of 20/30 July, to wch I have no more to say. but that I must take patience the Virginall proves not according expectations, iff yr honr causeth the same sent to me agayne well conditioned; and a Just meseaure of the keyes desired annother Virginall to be, I will cause this to be sould as itt can, and annother made forthwth by Mr Rickaerts, the same and the best Master here; who saith this virginal cannot be altered, and none elsce made here on saille. Humbly take my leave and rest….’

Although he was unwilling to adapt the instrument to suit an English player, Ruckers, (who well deserved Gerbier’s description of ‘the best Master here‘, ) obviously understood the problem. He occasionally undertook special orders for instruments with a non-standard ( – that is, non-Flemish -) keyboard compass, and would be happy to make one, if Windebank would like to specify what he needed. There was no instrument in the English style available for immediate delivery, but making one would not be a problem, if the customer were prepared to wait a few months.

Windebank was inclined to admit defeat at this point, and on August 13th wrote: (SP77/28. f. 439r.)

‘for the Virginall, I desire you not to trouble yor selfe, seeing the fault was myne that did not give better instruction.’

Gerbier, however, was not willing to give up! Windebank had supported and encouraged him in his often frustrating years in Brussels, and Gerbier clearly felt a strong sense of commitment to seeing the task through. In a postscript to his regular letter, on 31st August, he wrote: (SP77/28. f.475r)

‘I desire to have the virginal back, that yr hr maybe served in that particular as in all others according the Zeale and duty of as above /  Bgerbier.’

It is not possible to say for certain whether the unsatisfactory instrument was returned to Flanders, or remained in England. There is no sign of a harpsichord answering Gerbier’s description of it among the hundred or so Ruckers instruments that survive, and I found no further archival mention of it. Gerbier travelled to London that Autumn, and was knighted by Charles I during his visit. It is quite possible that the matter was discussed, but no record of such a conversation remains. What is clear is that Gerbier pressed ahead with the idea of commissioning a new harpsichord from Ioannes Ruckers – presumably one with the desired additional 6 or 7 keys. And by April 30th 1639, Sir Francis Windebank’s new ‘Virginall’ had arrived in Brussels: Gerbier wrote with some satisfaction to the Secretary of State to say: (SP77/29. f161r)

‘The long expected Virginall is finisht. wilbe here tomorrow and then sent forward for England.’

We cannot tell by what means it reached its destination, or precisely what the Windebank family thought of it, as the State Papers tell us nothing – probably the relevant message was sent on a separate piece of paper, removed by Gerbier from his diplomatic letters. But on July 2nd, a couple of lines in his regular despatch to Windebank provide a satisfying resolution to the story: (SP77/29. f268v)

‘I am very gladd the virginal well come to hand, and that itt proves as good I did wish the same to be for yr faire daughters usse.’

Eighteen months after Sir Francis made his first enquiry about the possibility of obtaining a Flemish ‘Virginall’, the Windebanks seem to have exactly the kind of instrument they wanted.


In a sense – and certainly as far as Gerbier is concerned – the story ends there. It confirms how persistent he could be in pursuing an objective until he met with success, and how committed he was to meeting the needs of his ‘patron’. It offers a glimpse of his networking abilities – he very quickly found a fine instrument for Windebank, although we don’t know who sold it to him, and may even have approached Ioannes Ruckers through his contacts in the Antwerp art world. The saga of the ‘virginall’ related in the letters also provides a reminder of the wider activities of diplomatic representatives at that time.

Yet this ‘footnote’ to Gerbier’s time in Brussels really requires a couple of footnotes of its own. Despite having elaborated the story of Gerbier’s purchase of a harpsichord, as revealed by the documentary sources, we have not answered some of the questions posed by the whole episode. Why was Windebank so unhappy with the first instrument Gerbier found for him? Was he right to assert that his family could not play their music on it, for want of ‘6 or 7 keyes‘? What can we deduce about the first harpsichord and its original context? Has the new instrument that Gerbier ordered survived? I shall briefly try to suggest some answers to these questions, without getting too involved in the organological or musicological details.

Windebank – or perhaps his daughters –  would certainly have found the Flemish instrument rather different in appearance from their ‘old’ Virginal, which was presumably English. Not because it was a harpsichord rather than a rectangular virginal, but because the two keyboards of the Ruckers instrument were not aligned, and also had a different compass and tuning system. The picture below shows a one-manual harpsichord, with a C-d3  keyboard, and a ‘normal’ chromatic compass. Each key has its strings tuned a semitone from the next, as we expect to find in a modern piano for example.


However, the first instrument Gerbier sent them would resemble the Ruckers harpsichord in the Edinburgh University Collection, which you can see by clicking here:  Ruckers Harpsichord. 

The two keyboards are offset. The lower appears to have a compass of BB-f3, and the upper a compass of B-c3. In fact, the bass ends of the keyboards are tuned in the ‘short octave’ manner, with the bottom B tuned as C; C# as D and E♭ as E. The naturals are tuned to their usual notes, but the first accidental in the bass is B♭. This must have been confusing to the Windebanks, as the practice – although common in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain – was not generally used in England, and the lack of bass accidentals would have concerned them. They would also have found the pitch of the harpsichord slightly different from the standard pitches in use in England – something that might cause complications when accompanying voices, or other instruments. A skilled player –  for example Edward Norgate – would have been able to compensate easily, by transposing the music and moving between the two keyboards, but it is probable that the Windebanks’ daughters did not have this kind of expertise. Norgate could have accessed the equivalent bass notes to the GG and AA available on some English instruments of the time. Windebank’s insistence that he required another 6 or 7 notes suggests his old instrument may well have had these – very likely by tuning the two lowest accidentals (C# and E♭) to the low GG and AA. To summarise, we can say that the instrument first sent to them from Flanders would have had an unfamiliar keyboard layout, and a compass that appeared to preclude playing their usual pieces.

It is often suggested that much of the English keyboard repertoire of the time called for a greater compass than that offered by the C/E-c3 keyboard on which most Ruckers instruments were based. A considerable number of English pieces survive in both manuscript and printed sources from the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. I analysed the compass of music in 16 collections, dating from 1591-1663, covering the Virginal Books of amateur players, as well as the work of the great keyboard composers such as William Byrd. While some pieces call for the low F# and G# missing on a short-octave keyboard, with a few also needing the low AA, it was clear that more than 80% of the music surveyed was suited to the short-octave C/E-c3 keyboard. And so while it is understandable that the Windebanks were confused and put off by the first Ruckers harpsichord sent to them, it is also interesting to realise that had they persisted with it, they would probably have found it far from ‘totally unserviceable‘!

The 2-manual ‘transposing’ harpsichords made by the Ruckers family were highly regarded for their exceptional musical qualities, and continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century. Their origins in Antwerp, where harpsichord makers and painters were all members of the Guild of St. Luke, makes it unsurprising that the instrument described by Gerbier as having been made for ‘the latte Infante‘ should have been decorated by Rubens. There is a similar instrument in the collection of the Musée de la Musique in Paris, with lid paintings with subjects from classical mythology, ascribed to Jan Brueghel and Hendrik van Balen. (‘Apollo and Marsyas‘ and ‘Orpheus Playing to the Animals.‘ ) The harpsichord has been dated to 1617.  It was clearly made for a distinguished customer – possibly Louis XIII or Marie de Medici. If Gerbier is correct in asserting that the commission for Windebank’s instrument came from the Brussels court, then it was probably made at around the same time. (Albert died in 1621.) There were after all, close links between the courts of Brussels and Paris, and their respective keyboard players, John Bull and Jacques Champion, are known to have been friends. Click here to see a picture of the Paris instrument.

Ioannes Ruckers was appointed harpsichord maker to the Archdukes in 1614, and it is interesting to note that between 1614 and 1617, the court painters – including Rubens, Brueghel and van Balen – were working together on commissions for sets of allegorical pictures on the theme of The Senses. The best known of these is the one sent to the Spanish court, and now in the Prado. The artists included in these complex compositions many objects from the Coudenberg Palace, including furniture, paintings, and even Isabella’s parrots. They also include images of a 2-manual harpsichord – clearly from the Ruckers workshop – and so carefully depicted in three different pictures that it is hard to believe they show anything but the same instrument. Each bears a painting of the ‘Annunciation of the Shepherds‘ on the front section of the lid, the motto ‘Acta virum probant‘ on the keywell flap, and the same marbled paper decoration on the case. You can see one of these depictions in Rubens’ and Brueghel’s  ‘The Sense of Hearing‘ if you click here.  It seems that the painters prided themselves on providing an accurate and detailed image of an actual harpsichord – an idea supported by the discovery of a full-scale oil sketch for the Annunciation of the Shepherds, by van Balen. This is almost certainly the preliminary painting for the decoration of the harpsichord lid itself.

It therefore seems quite likely that this harpsichord was one of three commissioned by the Archdukes from Ioannes Ruckers, and decorated by the finest painters of the Brussels court, between about 1614 and 1617. Two were for the use of Albert and Isabella’s court musicians, and the third very probably went to Paris. Windebank’s, with its secular paintings –  a landscape and a mythological subject – may have been for ‘chamber’ use, and the other, with its religious painting, for the Archdukes’ chapel. We do not know how one of them came to be sold, but in view of the financial difficulties that would soon see Isabella selling her jewellery, it may be that like other valuables, the harpsichord was sacrificed to raise funds. In 1638, its subsequent owner was prepared to part for it for the princely sum of £30 sterling, when Gerbier made it known that he was looking for an instrument to send to London.

Whether or not the two-manual harpsichord was returned to Flanders as Gerbier wished, it seems to have been subsequently lost. But what about the successful, second instrument ordered from Ioannes Ruckers? Such ‘special orders’ were rare. For his English customer, Ruckers would have made a single-manual harpsichord; not the double manual, ‘professional’ model. It would have had the extra ‘6 or 7’ notes Windebank wanted, giving a compass of probably C-d3. The instrument was made and delivered in 1639, and curiously the catalogue of surviving Ruckers instruments includes a harpsichord of just this date and compass. It is to be found in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, minus its mechanical parts, which were removed at the Kirckman factory, and lost in a major fire there. The instrument had belonged to George III, who having ordered a more up-to-date harpsichord from James Kirckman, allowed him to take the old one. It seems that the Ruckers may have belonged to Charles II, though the provenance is uncertain. Sir Francis Windebank made a hurried flight abroad at the start of the Civil War, never to return, and it is always possible that one of his children presented it to the King at the time of his Restoration. It seems unlikely that it will ever be proved, but the circumstantial evidence does imply that Windebank’s ultimate ‘Virginall’ may well survive in the V&A. Click here to see a photo of it.


A more detailed account of these events  can be found in the following two articles:

Woods, Paula: The Gerbier-Windebank Letters: Two Ruckers Harpsichords in England. The Galpin Society Journal LIV (2001) pp 76-89.

Woods, Paula: Windebank’s Virginall – a Lost Ruckers Harpsichord. Harpsichord and Fortepiano. vol 9 no.1 Spring 2001. pp 16-23.

The first article is concerned with interpreting the archival sources, while the latter focusses on the organological and musical aspects of the story. I am grateful to the editors of both periodicals for kindly allowing me to adapt some of the material in order to recount it here. I should also like to thank The National Archives for allowing me to include images of some of the documents involved.

For anyone wishing to explore the design and manufacture of instruments by the Ruckers family, the definitive work on the subject is:

O’Brien, G: Ruckers. A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition. Cambridge University Press. 1990.