The son of a tanner, he was born at Brome, Suffolk, near Diss, and received the patronage of the Cornwallis family of Brome Hall. Wilbye was employed for decades at Hengrave Hall, near Bury St. Edmunds, where he seems to have been recruited in the 1590s by Elizabeth Cornwallis who was married to the property's owner, Sir Thomas Kitson (or Kytson). Although Wilbye's music is associated with Suffolk, he was also involved with the music scene in London, where the Kytsons kept a town house (first in Austin Friars later in Clerkenwell).
Wilbye never married. In 1628, on the death of Lady Kitson's death, all the furnishings, books, and musical instruments in the house were settled by her will upon the owners of Hengrave Hall, first on her daughter Mary Darcy and then upon her granddaughter Penelope. However, Wilbye left Hengrave Hall to live in retirement at Mary Darcy's house in Colchester, where he died. He is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, in Colchester town centre. (The building is currently the CO1 cafe and Young Christian Centre.)
Hengrave was a recusant household, but little religious music by Wilbye survives, and even less keyboard music (one piece in Clement Matchett's Virginal Book). His main interest seems to have been madrigals. A set of madrigals by him appeared in 1598, and a second in 1608, the two sets containing sixty-four pieces.
Wilbye is probably the most famous of all the English madrigalists; his pieces have long been favourites and are often included in modern collections. His madrigals include Weep, weep mine eyes, Weep, O mine eyes and Draw on, sweet night. He also wrote the poem, Love not me for comely grace. His style is characterized by delicate writing for the voice, acute sensitivity to the text and the use of "false relations" between the major and minor modes.
- Philip Ledger (ed) The Oxford Book of English Madrigals OUP, 1978
- Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Introduction', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9: The Borough of Colchester (1994), pp. 67-76. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=21975 Date accessed: 19 December 2013
- The book was printed by Thomas Easte. In 1600 Wilbye proofread Dowland's Second Booke of Songs for the same printer (the composer being abroad).
- Chisholm 1911.
- Free scores by John Wilbye in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Free scores by John Wilbye at the International Music Score Library Project
- HOASM brief biography of Wilbye