William Lawes, son of a lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral, showed (like his older brother Henry Lawes) musical promise at any early age.
He found an early patron in Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who brought the young chorister to his Wiltshire estates to study music with his private music master, the renowned John Coprario. William likely met the future King Charles I (r. 1625-1649) through Coprario. William and his brother were both named musicians "in ordinary for the lutes and voices" for Charles' court; the honor came to William in 1635, though it appears he was composing personally for the King at least as early as 1633. While in Charles' service, Lawes contributed vocal and instrumental music to the life of the court, as well as music for the Masques popular in Caroline England. William Lawes went with the King to Oxford in 1642 and enlisted in the royalist army (a portrait in Oxford depicts him in Cavalier garb). Though for his safety Lawes was made a commissary in the King's personal guard, he suffered a fatal gunshot wound while relieving the siege of Chester in 1645. King Charles reputedly mourned for Lawes as the "Father of Musick."
Though none of William Lawes' music appeared in print during his lifetime, his brother released certain of his psalm settings and sacred canons in the Choice Psalms of 1648, and the influential published collections of John Playford beginning around 1650 furthered both the dissemination and popularity of his music. He wrote prolifically and idiomatically for the consort of viols. His suites and fantasias meld the fluidity of late Renaissance counterpoint with the more "mannered" chromatic colors of the late madrigal; he did in fact know some of the works of Marenzio and Monteverdi. His other chamber music (especially involving violins), on the other hand, displays an early Baroque idiom of paired strings and basso continuo. Some scholars of his music speculate that this Italian style reached him though Coprario's tutelage.
Despite his large instrumental output, and an even greater number of secular songs and Anglican anthems surviving from his pen, William's greatest legacy may have been his dramatic music. Between the years 1633 and 1641, he contributed music to at least 25 courtly Masques and other dramatic productions. The English courtly Masque at this time comprised a composite art form with music, dance, drama, and scenery, comparable to the Lullian Ballet de cour in France. Early in the century, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones were leading collaborators in the Masque. The genre climaxed in the spectacular Triumph of Peace (1634) by James Shirley, to which William Lawes contributed music. His achievement in stage music made possible the later work of Matthew Locke, John Blow, and eventually Henry Purcell himself.