We know very little about Tallis’s youth. He may have started his career as organist at Dover and then Waltham Abbey. After the Dissolution of the monasteries he had a job at Canterbury Cathedral for a short time, but he was soon made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and he had a job in the royal household until his death, working for four monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I.
Tallis was organist and composer. He had to write music for the royal chapels. He was given the lease of a big house in Kent and a salary of £91 12s a year (12s is 60p in modern money) which was a very good salary in those days. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth I gave Thomas Tallis and William Byrd a licence which meant they were the only people allowed to print and publish music in England (music printing was a very new invention at the time). Tallis owned a house in Greenwich were he died in 1585.
In the early 16th century church music was often very polyphonic voices imitated one another and sang different things at the same time. However, tastes were changing and Tallis wrote church music which was much simpler. In a lot of his music the choir sing chords homophony homophonic writing instead of using the older polyphony. For a short time, during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, polyphonic music was in fashion again. This was the time when Tallis wrote an antiphon “Gaude gloriosa Dei mater” and a mass musical setting|mass “Puer natus est nobis”. These two works are once more very complicated polyphonic works. After that his works become simpler once more, but he was always keen to try out new ideas from the continent of Europe. He wrote some very fine anthems. Many of his works are settings of Latin words, but he also made settings of English texts.
One of his most beautiful works is called Spem in Alium. The choir divide into forty parts i.e. the choir need at least 40 people to sing it, and even then everybody would be singing a different line. It is possible that he wrote it for Queen Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday in 1573, but we cannot be sure.