Possibly born in Lincoln, where he was organist and choirmaster from 1563 to 1570, Byrd is known to have been a pupil of Thomas Tallis . While employed in Lincoln he began to find his feet as a composer, assimilating the genres of the time and investing them with his own style. His evolution as a composer is evident in his works for voice and viol consort - they begin as elementary settings of verse but progress to incorporate continuous counterpoint in the accompanying parts. These may be the first examples of the verse-anthem form, and some would conjecture that Byrd was the inventor of the form.
From 1570 to 1580 Byrd held the post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in London, for which he wrote extensively. His greatest works in the field of church music were the volumes of Cantiones Sacrae, the Short Service and the Gradualia, masterpieces of Renaissance English vocal counterpoint. The Cantiones were also his calling card, printed as a business venture by himself and Tallis and ostentatiously dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. This dedication was to be dug out later to persuade Elizabeth to give them compensation when their business venture lost them money!
Byrd's position in London allowed him to fraternize with nobility, and he set texts written by many prominent figures of the time. It also allowed him to meet Alfonso Ferrabosco, a secret agent and composer who introduced Byrd to Flemish counterpoint, a resource Byrd seemed to be the only English composer to make full use of. From 1591 to his death he moved to Essex to be close to his wealthy patrons.
Byrd wrote extensive keyboard music and is featured in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. He wrote much music for domestic chamber ensembles, such as music for viol consort, and used familiar forms such as galliards, pavanes, grounds and fantasias.