Poet, musician, and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the reigns of three Tudor monarchs, William Hunnis was very much a part of the creative and cultural nucleus of sixteenth-century England. As C. C. Stopes writes, “the thread of his life led him into the most interesting associations in the Court and the Tower, in the Chapel and the City; in Music and Divinity, in Literature and Society” (xi-xii). He wrote several plays for performance in the Revels at court. Only one survived, entitled Jacob and Esau and even this attribution is questionable (White 292). His poetical works include Certayne Psalmes (1549), The Hive full of Hunnye (1578), Seven Sobs of a Sorrowfull Soule for Sinne (1583), and Hunnies Recreations (1588). He was a contributor to the Paradyse of Daynty Devises, a popular sixteenth-century poetic miscellany, and organized the Kenilworth festivities of 1575, which probably provided inspiration for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Although his parentage, place, and precise date of birth (probably c.1530) are uncertain, Hunnis probably grew-up serving as a page of Sir William Herbert, who later became the Earl of Pembroke (Stopes 2). It is likely that as a member of the Earl’s household, Hunnis first became acquainted with music, poetry, and the prestigious art of sonnet-making, at which he seems to have been particularly adept (Stopes 2). By 1549, he had turned from sonnet-making to more serious religious poetry, and published Certayne Psalmes chosen out of the Psalter of David. Having turned from the revels of his youth towards religion, Hunnis entered the Royal Service sometime between 1550 and 1553 and was assigned to the Chapel Royal. Soon after the accession of Mary Tudor, Hunnis, a staunch Protestant, grew disillusioned with the new Catholic monarch. In 1555-56, he became involved in a widespread plot to depose Mary and replace her with Elizabeth. This plot came to nothing, and Hunnis was imprisoned in the Tower for his troubles. Having cooperated with his captors, Hunnis evaded execution. Following the accession of Elizabeth (1558), he was released and restored to his former position through the agency of the Earl of Pembroke (Brennan 12). With Elizabeth on the throne, Hunnis’s career progressed rapidly: he became custodian of the gardens and orchards at Greenwich in 1562 and Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1566. In 1568, Hunnis was granted a coat of arms (Sharp 262). Despite his relative success, Hunnis was beset by financial difficulties: his own money, and the property he received through two marriages, seems to have vanished in the service of the Queen (Stopes 274).
Seven Sobs of a Sorrowfull Soule for Sinne, as the lengthy subtitle indicates, is a ‘comprehension’ of the seven penitential psalms into English meter. In composing a ‘comprehension’ of the psalms, Hunnis took a great deal of liberty, offering a poetic paraphrase, not a proper translation (Freer 71). Hunnis probably also wrote the music printed with the Sobs (Stopes 211). Although not on par with the psalm translations of George Herbert, Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Sternhold-Hopkins psalter, Mary and Sir Philip Sydney or Sir George Wither, Hunnis’ 'comprehensions’ offer an interesting contrast. The Seven Sobs, like Hunnis’s life and achievements, retains importance because it is so “strenuously interwoven…with the literary, political, and religious developments of the sixteenth century” (Stopes 278).