The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Waits

Source: William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 547-551. A description from time of the reign of Charles II.

Waits, or Waights, seem originally to have been a kind of musical watchmen, who, in order to prove their watchfulness, were required to pipe at stated hours of the night. The hautboy was also called a waight, — perhaps from being the pipe upon which they commonly played, — but there are early instances of the use of other pipes by Waits, as in a passage quoted by Mr. Sandys, from the old lay of Richard Coeur-de-Lion: —

    “A wayte ther com in a kernel (battlement),
    And pypyd a moot in a flagel.”

This “flagel” was probably a pipe of which the “flagelet” (or, as now spelled, “flageolet”), is the diminutive.

Mr. Sandys remarks that “in the time of Henry the Third, Simon le Wayte held a virgate of land at Rockingham, in Northamptonshire, on the tenure of being castle-wayte, or watch; and the same custom was observed in other places.” (Christmastide, p. 83.) Mr. E. Smirke, who quotes many such cases, in his Observations on Wait Service mentioned in the .Liber Winton, or Winchester Domesday, adds that, in the earldom of Cornwall, they who held their lands by the tenure of keeping watch at the castle-gate of Launceston, “owed suit to a special court, in the nature of a court baron, called the ‘Curia vigilim,’ ‘Curia de gayté,’ or ‘Wayternesse Court,’ of which many records are still extant in the offices of the Exchequer, and among the records of the Duchy.” (Archaeological Journal, No. 12, Dec. 1846.)
The duties of a wayte are thus defined in the Liber niger Domus Regis (published, with additions, by Stephen Batman), which contains an account of the musicians, and others, retained in the household establishment of King Edward IV.:

“A WAYTE, that nightely from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipeth watche within this courte fowere tynies; in the Somere nightes three tymnes, and makethe bon gayte at every chambere doare and offyce, as well for feare of pyckeres and pillers. He eatethe in the halle with Mynstrelles, and takethe lyverey at nighte a loafe, a galone of ale, and for Somere nightes two candles [of] pich, and a bushel of coles; and for Wintere nightes halfe a loafe of bread, a galone of ale, four candles pich, a bushel coles: Daylye whilst he is presente in Court for his wages, in Cheque-roale, allowed iiiid. ob. or else iiid. by the discresehon of the Steuarde and Tressorore, and that after his cominge and deservinge Also cloathinge with the houshold Yeomen or Mynstrelles lyke to the wages that he takethe: An he be sycke, he taketh two loaves, two messe of great meate, one galone ale. Also he parteth with the houshold of general gyfts, and hathe his beddinge carried by the Comptrolleres assignment; and, under this yeoman, to be a Groome-Waitere. Yf he can excuse the yeoman in his absence, then he takethe rewarde, clbtheinge, meat, and all other things lyke to other Grooms of Houshold. Also this Yeoman-Waighte, at the making of Knightes of the Bathe, for his attendance upon them by nighte-time, in watchinge in the Chappelle, hathe to his fee all the watchinge clothing that the Knight shall wear upon him.”

Three waytes were included among the minstrels in the service of Edward III. The musicians of towns and corporations were also termed waits. The city of London had its waits, who attended the Lord Mayor on public occasions, such as Lord Mayor's Day, and on public feasts and great dinners. They are described as having blue gowns, red sleeves, and caps, every one having his silver collar about his neck.

In 1599, Morley thus speaks of them in his dedication of his Consort Lessons, for six instruments, to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen :— “But, as the ancient custom of this most honorable and renowned city hath been ever to retain and maintain excellent and expert musicians, to adorn your Honour’s favours, feasts, and solemn meetings,— to those, your Lordship’s Wayts, I recommend the same, — to your servants’ careful and skilful handling.”
When Charles II., on his restoration, passed through the city of London to Whitehall, he was, according to Ogilby, entertained with music from a band of eight waits at Crutched Friars, of six at Aldgate, and six in Leadenhall Street. Roger North, who lived in his reign, says: “As for corporation and mercenary musick, it was chiefly fiabile” (i. e., for wind instruments), “and the professors, from going about the streets in a morning, to wake folks, were and are yet called Waits, quasi Wakes.” I doubt this derivation, for the meaning of the word seems rather to be “to watch” than “to awaken” (in the glossary to Tyrwhitt’s Chaucer, we find “Wake, v. Sax., To watch,” and “Waite, v. Fr., To watch”); but the passage proves that waits then went about the streets at unseasonable hours, as they now do [1859], within a few days of Christmas, in order to earn a Christmas-box.
In Davenant’s Unfortunate Lovers, Rampiro says :—

... “the fidlers do
So often waken me with their grating gridirons
And good morrows, I cannot sleep for them.”

John Cleland, in his “Essay on the Origin of the Musical Waits at Christmas,” appended to his "Way to things by words and to words by timings,” 8vo., 1766, says: “But at the ancient Yule, or Christmas time especially, the dreariness of the weather, the length of the night, would naturally require something extraordinary to wake and rouse men from their natural inclination to rest, and from a warm bed at that hour. The summons, then, to the Wakes of that season were given by music, going the rounds of invitation to the mirth or festivals which were awaiting them. In this there was some propriety — some object; but where is there any in such a solemn piece of banter as that of music going the rounds arid disturbing people in vain? For surely any meditation to be thereby excited on the holiness of the ensuing day could hardly be of great avail, in a bed between sleeping and waking. But such is the power of custom to perpetuate absurdities.”

In nearly all the books of household expenditure in early times, we find donations to waits of the towns through which the traveller passed. in those of Sir John Howard, of Henry VII., and of Henry VIII.,1 there are payments to the waits of London, Colchester, Dover, Canterbury, Dartford, Coventry, Northampton, and others. Will. Kemp, in his celebrated Morris-dance from London to Norwich, says that few cities have waits like those of Norwich, and none better; and that, besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the viol and violin, they had admirable voices, every one of them being able to serve as a chorister in any cathedral church. One Richard Reede, a wait of Cambridge, is mentioned by Mr. Sandys, as having received 20s. for his attendance at a gentleman’s mansion during the Christmas of 1574.

Some of the tunes which the waits of different towns played, are contained in The Dancing Master of 1665 (among the violin tunes at the end), and others in Apollo’s Banquet, 1669.
The York Waits seem to have chosen a hornpipe tune, which was printed in broadsides, with words by Mr. Durden. From these the following are selected, as descriptive of the custom in that city, about the end of the 17th century:—

“In a winter’s morning,  
Long before the dawning,    
Ere the cock (lid crow,
Or stars their light withdraw,    
Wak’d by a hornpipe pretty,    
Play’d along York city,    
By th’ help of o’ernight’s bottle,    
Damon made this ditty    
In a winter’s night,    
By moon or lanthorn light,    
Through hail, rain, frost, or snow,    
‘I’lmeir rounds the music go ;    
Clad each in frieze or blanket    
(For either heav’n be thanked),    
Lin’d with wine a quart,    
Or ale a double tankard.    
Burglars scud away,    
And bar guests dare not stay,    
Of claret, snoring sots   
Dream o’er their pipes and pots,    
Till their brisk helpmates wake ‘em,    
Hoping music will make ‘em    
To find the pleasant Cliff,
That plays time Rigadoon.
*       *       *       *
Candles, four in the pound,
Lead up the jolly Round,
Whilst cornet shrill i’ tim’ middle
Marches, and merry fiddle,
Curtal with deep hum, hum,
Cries, we come, we come, come,
And theorbo loudly answers,
Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrum, thrum.
But, their fingers frost-nipt,
So many notes are o’erslipt,
That you’d take sometimes
The Waits for the Minster chimes
Then, Sirs, to hear their music
Would make both me and you sick,
And much more to hear a roopy fiddler call
 (‘With voice, as Mdl would cry,
“ Come, shrimps or cookIes buy”),
“ Past three, fair frosty morn,
Good morrow, my masters all.”

The following was composed by Jeremiah Savile, and is on the last page of Playford’s Musical Companion, 1673, entitled THE WAITS :—

The following is called The Waits in The Dancing Master of 1665, and London Waits in Apollo’s Banquet, 1663 :—

Other tunes of the Waits might be added, as Worksop Waites, from Musical MSS., No. 610, Brit. Mus.; York Waits, from the broadsides; Bristol Waits, from Apollo’s Banquet, &c.; but the preceding four specimens will probably be thought sufficient.

Notes From Chappell:

1. Pages 48-49:
In the privy purse expenses of Henry VII., from the seventh to the twentieth year of his reign, there are many payments relating to music and to popular sports [the listing of miscellaneous payments is omitted] .

There is also a great variety of payments to the musicians of different towns, as the “Waytes” of Dover, Canterbury, Dartford, Coventry, and Northampton; the minstrels of Sandwich, the shawms of Maidstone; to bagpipers, the king’s piper (repeatedly), the piper at Huntingdon, &c.; to harpers, some of whom were Welsh. And there are also several entries “To a Walsheman for a ryme ;“ liberal presents to the poets, of his mother (the Countess of Richmond), of the prince, and of the king; to “the rymer of Scotland,” who was in all probability the Scotch poet, William Dunbar, who celebrated the nuptials of James IV. and the princess Margaret, in his “Thistle and the Rose,” and to an Italian poet. All these may be seen in Excerpta Historica (So., 1833), and, as the editor :—“ To judge from the long catalogue of musicians and musical instruments, flutes, recorders, trumpets, sackhuts, harps, shalmes, bagpipes, organs, and round organs, clavicords, lutes, horns, pipers, fiddlers, singers, and dancers, Henry’s love of music must have been great, which is further established by the fact, that every town he entered, as well as on board the ship which conveyed him to Calais, he was attended by minstrels and waits.” Return

An additional note from Chappell: Page 786, Appendix.: Several instances of holding land by wait-service, or by payments for that service, will be found in Blount's Ancient Tenures. Thus, in Norfolk, Thomas Spelman held the manors of Narborough and Wingrave by knight-service, and paying fourteen shillings annually for wayte-fee and castle-guard; and John Le Marshall held the manor of Buxton by paying a mark for ever six weeks for guarding Norwich Castle, and fifteen shillings quarterly for wayte-fee at the said castle.

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