The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 614-15

Waits, who were originally watchmen, are constantly mentioned in the old chronicles and romances. They seem to have grown into common use as musicians on festive occasions, and are often found in combination with haut-boys. The itinerant players, who are at present known under the same designation, are very degenerate representations of those whom even our grandfathers knew, and the old custom of serenading people in their sleep (or rather out of it) for a week or fortnight preceding Christmas, with a view to a subsequent gratuity, has almost gone out of fashion, so far as the great towns are concerned.

The duty prescribed to the ancient wait in the Black Book of Edward IV., 1478, was to pipe the watch nightly, from Michaelmas til Maundy Thursday, four times within the Court, and in summer nights three times, and to make good cheer. He was to eat in the hall with the minstrels, and was to receive for his supper half a load and half a gallon of ale; in summer, two candles and half a bushel of coals; in winter, half a loaf, half a gallon of ale, four candles, half a bushel of coals; and moreover, during actual attendance in Court, fourpence halfpenny a day, or, if he was not thought worth so much (which was left to the discretion of the Steward and Treasurer) threepence only. He was entitled to his livery, like the minstrels; and during sickness, an extra allowance of good might be given to him.

Part of his duty was to secure all doors, and to guard against thieves, fire, and other dangers, and to attend at the making of Knights of the Bath. This personage was a Yeoman wait, and under him was a Groom Wait. Pegge's Curialia, 1818, p. 101-2. Some curious additional information on this subject may be read in Chappell's Popular Music, 49, 547.

Edward IV., as it appears from his "Black Book," 1478, kept thirteen minstrels and a wait in his household. Of the former, one was a verger or chief, "that directeth them all in festival days," says Pegge, "to their stations, to blowings and pipings to such offices as must be warned to prepare for the King and his household, at meats and suppers, to be the more ready in all services; and all these sittings in the hall together, whereof some use trumpets, some shawms, and small pipes, and some are strange-men coming to this court at five feasts of the year, and then to take their wages of household after four pence halfpenny a day, if they be present in Court; and then they to avoid the next day after the feasts be done."

Two of the regular minstrels were to attend the king when he went on horseback, and sometimes his majesty had two of the "strange" minstrels likewise in waiting. These officials were entitled to receive, besides their board (including four gallons of ale among them every evening) their clothing, or twenty shillings a-year in money instead. There is this curious passage a little further on: "The King woll not for his worship that his minstrels be too presumptuous nor too familiar, to ask any rewards of the Lords of his land, remembering the example of King Henry the Second, who forbad his minstrels and gleemen, so long s they were in his service, from asking any gratuity at the hands of any one, inasmuch as the Kings nobles, out of the affection they bore to his person, would rather give what they had to the poor."

The provision just quoted exhibits a remarkable change in the character of the jongleurs of Edward's time, and the state of the profession, from the lofty privileges and almost unbridled license enjoyed by the ancient troubadours in all parts of Western Europe, especially in the country, which was the cradle of the Provençal poetry and literature.

In the Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII. under 1532 are the two ensuing entries: —

    "Itm the xi daye (of October) paied to the waytes of Caunterbury in rewarde . . . . vijs. vid."

    "Itm the xix daye (of November) paid to the waytes at Caunterbery in rewarde . . . . xviijs. viijd."

In 1582 we find Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, writing to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London, to request that his servant might be admitted to a vacant place in the City Waits. Extracts from the Remembrancia, 1878, P. 275.

In a small volume published about 1830 there is an account of the Dustmen and Harp Waits of Pentonville, who favoured the locality with performances on the harp and violin, and distributed a circular announcing their merits, and their intention of paying a call at houses later on in the expectation of a farther diffusion of those favours which had enlivened their houses and cheered their hearts for a series ofyears. They described themselves in this document as "Wandering Melodists and Christmas Waits," and expressed a hope that their sprightly notes of melody, awaking sweet Echo on the dull Ear of Night, had stolen on the gentle slumbers of their patrons, and had again lulled them to repose with the soothing cadanza of the Lullaby. Martyndale, Familiar Analysis of the Calendar, (1831), p. 269.

Miss Baker says, writing in 1854: "The Corporation of Northampton, within the remembrance of my informant, had a band of musicians, called the corporation waits, who used to meet the judges at the entrance into the town at the time of the assizes. They were four in number, attired in long black gowns, two playing on violins, one on the hautboy, and the other on a whip and dub, or tabor and pipe."

Note: Also see from William Hone's The Every Day Book: Waits and The Waits from William Chappell, Popular Music, p. 547-551 (1859). The mention of them at page 49 is only in passing (e.g., payment and that Henry VIII. has several of them with him on many occasions).

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