John Sheppard must have been one of the most important English composers of his generation: no less a musician than Thomas Morley praised him fully 40 years after his death.
Yet very little is known about Sheppard's life. He claimed to have been composing music (not just singing it) as early as 1534, indicating a birth year somewhere in the mid-1510s. Some of his Anglican music survives with indications of being written during the reign of King Edward, and he did compose a Mass in the tradition of John Taverner's Western Wynde. The first documentary clue to his life surfaces at Michelmas of 1543, when Sheppard began a new job as Informator choristarum (teacher of the choirboys) for Magdalen College, Oxford. Some historians have claimed that he kidnapped choirboys and imprisoned them, but these heinous acts were in fact the later work of a Richard Shepper; John Sheppard did his work well, was paid, and left in 1547. Sometime before 1553 -- and probably very soon after his departure from Oxford -- Sheppard joined the choir of the Chapel Royal, a prestigious post he held until his death. He applied for an Oxford doctorate in music in 1554, but apparently never received it. His first wife may have been one Jane Sheppard whose gravesite is known. By 1557, the composer was well enough respected in the English court to present Queen Mary with a roll of songs on New Years' Day. During an epidemic in late 1558, he made a will that mentions his second wife, his child Nathan, and his step-daughter Elizabeth, all of whom survived. He was to be given new royal livery for the funeral of Queen Mary and the coronation of Elizabeth I, but died a mere month after Elizabeth's accession. His will went so far as to request burial in Westminster Abbey, another testament to the esteem in which he was held at the time.