Carol Kimball states in her book Song: A guide to art song style and literature, "British song has a history of peaks and valleys. Music flourished during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, languished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and regained its strengthen and quality in the twentieth century."
Also, Lutes were important with Early song in Britain for composers like Dowland, Johnson, Purcell... etc.
GREAT! That about sums it up for now. Let us go through some composers and a few pieces they wrote - lickity split and all.
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)
Charles II returned from France and was determined to recreate the splendor of the french court in England. He hired Purcell as a composer to do just that. His collection of songs is Orpheus Brittainicus. Favorite librettist was Dryden.
Music for a while (Dryden)
Hark! The ech'ing air (Dryden)
Sweeter than rose (Norton)
Bess of Bedlam
Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughn Williams reclaimed english folk music for extinction and influenced a generation of British composers to research and contribute to the "Folk Song Movement".
The house of life (Rossetti) - song cycle
Songs of Travel (Stevenson) - song cycle
On Wenlock Edge (Housman) - song cycle
A Sea Symphony (Walt Whitman)
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953)
Quilter composed 112 songs which happen to be excellent beginner literature for English Song.
To Julia (Herrick) - song cycle
Go, lovely rose (Waller)
O mistress mine (Shakespeare)
George Butterworth (1885 - 1916)
Buttersworth was influenced by Vaughn Williams and was one of the followers of the "Folk Song Movement" He collected folksongs. He enlisted in WWI and was killed in 1916 - so sad!
Shropshire lad (Housman) - song cycle
Eleven folk songs from Sussex (Housman) - song cycle
Love blows as the wind blows (Housman) - song cycle
Gerald Finzi (1901 -1956)
Finzi had an extremely traditional song style. Elgar and Vaughn Williams were his influential figures. His songs are published in sets and cannot be clearly designated as cycles but were carefully ordered for poetic unity.
A young mans exhortation (Hardy) - song cycle... maybe!
Before and After summer (Hardy)
By Footpath and Still (Hardy)
Earth and Air and Rain (Hardy)
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
Considered the 20th centuries most distinguished and gifted composer. Opera being his most important contribution. Britten looked back to Purcell and revived Purcells works. Some say he helped in the interest of the early music movement. Peter Pears influenced hi output for solo voice. In 1965 he was awarded the highest honor in England, the Order of Merit. He also started a school called the Britten-Pears School.
Les Illuminations (Rimbaud)
Winter Words (Hardy
The holy Sonnets of John Donne (Donne)
Realizations of Henry Purcells songs
Songs from the Chinese (Waley)
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Blake)
Tit for Tat (Walter de la Mer)