Francis Pilkington might be regarded as an English counterpart to the better known Renaissance-era French composer Clément Janequin. Both were clergymen, the latter a Roman Catholic priest, Pilkington a minister in the English Church; and both devoted most of their compositional energies to vocal music in the secular realm, with only secondary interest in sacred composition. Pilkington was obviously the lesser of the two, though his music exhibits special talent, even if it lacked exceptional melodic appeal and imaginative structural features.
Pilkington was born in England, probably in Lancashire County, around 1570. His father and older brother were in the service of the Earl of Derby, and it is likely that the Earl provided the young Pilkington with extensive musical instruction from his early childhood: the composer accepted a BMus degree from Lincoln College in 1595, making reference to his sixteen years of musical study. By his own account he was an accomplished lutenist, but it was his vocal and compositional skills that would forge his reputation.
In 1602 he was conferred a ‘singing man', or ‘conduct', at Chester Cathedral, and by now was producing his first songs. The first volume of his so-called lute-songs appeared in 1605, but soon it would be more than just the creation and performance of music that occupied him: in 1612 he became a Canon in the English Church and two years later was elevated to the rank of ‘full minister'.
His second volume works appeared in 1613 under the title, The First Set of Madrigals and Pastorals. Beginning the following year he accepted several positions--some held simultaneously--at various churches in Chester. His appointments included curate at St. Bridget's, precentor (cantor or choirmaster) at the Chester Cathedral (a post he maintained until his death), and rector at Aldford Cathedral (1631).
In 1624 his third volume of works was published, a sort of sequel to the previous collection, The Second Set of Madrigals and Pastorals. This effort also contained instrumental works for viol and a Psalm setting. In the mid-1630s Pilkington left the Aldford post to focus primarily on his work at the Chester Cathedral. He had expressed a desire to compose and publish more music, but the 1624 collection was the last to appear in his lifetime. He died in Chester, England, in 1638.