According to Edmund Howes’ 1631 revision of John Stow’s Annales, originally published in 1580: "In the fourth yere of Queen Elizabeth, John Rose, dwelling in Bridewell, devised and made an Instrument with wyer strings, commonly called the Bandora, and left a son, far excelling himself in making Bandoras, Vyoll de Gamboes, and other instruments." Since Elizabeth succeeded in November 1558, this dates the bandora to 1561 or 1562.
The bandora – sometimes pandora – is highly unusual: large, strung with wire (brass strings for the lower pitches and iron for the upper pitches) in courses (pairs), and with a deep sound which would make a statue sigh. The bandora may originally have had 5 courses, but by the time of William Barley’s A nevv Booke of Tabliture for the Bandora in 1596, it had 7. It is tuned in relative pitch like a modern guitar, except the 6th course would be tuned up to relative G rather than E, and the 7th course would be down to relative D. For actual bandora pitch, now drop the whole guitar down a 5th, giving a top course of a. Being a deep-sounding instrument, the bandora played a vital role at the lower end of the broken consort (also called the mixed or English consort), for which much renaissance and early baroque music was written. The mixed consort was a mixture of blown, plucked and bowed instruments, typically lute, cittern, bandora, treble viol or violin, bass viol, and recorder or transverse flute. The bandora also has a small surviving solo repertoire. Hear it and swoon: it is breathtakingly beautiful.
When William Barley published his bandora tablature in 1596, the instrument had straight frets, as you can see from the front cover reproduced on this page. In 1588 the orpharion had been created, modelled on the shape of the bandora and the tuning of the lute; but the orpharion had a sloping bridge, a sloping nut and fanned frets. Soon after Barley’s publication, the bandora would follow suit.
The bandora was very popular specifically in England. The lute was the most important of all European renaissance instruments, judging by volume of music, esteem and iconography; but in 32 surviving examples of English household inventories between 1565 and 1648, in which musical instruments of any kind are mentioned, bandoras and orpharions are listed as often as lutes.
The wide pitch range of the bandora, and the fact that it used wire strings, was both its origin and its downfall. In mid-16th century Germany, Jobst Meuler had invented a process for producing wire which would take much higher tension than the then-standard brass, which meant wire could now be produced with more reliability and a much wider pitch range, thus paving the way for the bandora and then the orpharion. His wire was so superior, in such demand, and his fame so widespread, that the top musicians craved it for their bandoras, orpharions and citterns. Meuler died in 1622 during the Thirty Years' War. Like all string makers of the day, he kept his methods secret so no one else could copy his product. Since no one else’s wire matched his quality and he had died, neither bandora nor orpharion could be effectively re-strung. The instruments continued for another three decades or so, probably while players still had string stock or otherwise were able to put up with inferior strings. Then, alas, they faded from use.
Bandora playing A Preludium by Anthony Holborne, c. 1590-95