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Music Off Stage: Waits and Minstrels

Music not only played an important part in plays; the records show that it was an important part of life in local communities as well as in great households and in royal courts. Lords such as the earls of Northumberland and Cumberland regularly invited musicians to perform and employed them as household staff.

Town waits were often invited to play in great houses too. They were minstrels employed by towns and cities to provide music on ceremonial occasions: church feast days, visits of royalty and nobility, and even when soldiers marched off to war. In our region, records survive of town waits in many places, including Durham, Newcastle, York, Beverley, Hull, Leeds, Doncaster, Rotherham and Richmond.

According to the Ordinances (regulations) of the Beverley Guild of Minstrels, Beverley was the headquarters for all musicians in the north-east region. The ordinances say that no minstrel should perform in public without becoming a Guild member, and that all north-eastern minstrels will gather for a great annual meeting at the Cross Fair held in Beverley in May. The surviving copy of the ordinances is a revision dated 1555, but clearly states that the Guild and its rules, and the musical culture they reflect, go back many years.

What is a ‘wait’?

We’ve all heard of minstrels and bands, but the word ‘wait’, when used in the context of a musician, is an odd one. Where do you think it comes from?

‘Wait’ derives from Old French guet, a watchman, and came into English in the late 13th century. The usual instrument for a domestic watchman piping the hours was apparently a small shawm, a ‘wait-pipe’. The last-known use of ‘wait’ for a domestic watchman-piper was in Edward IV’s household ordinances of the early 1470s.

In the 15th century the band of three or four shawms, sometimes with a trumpet added, was the standard loud ceremonial and dance-band. Transfer of the description ‘wait’ from the household minstrel-watchman to any shawmist led to such pipe-bands being called ‘waits’. These included bands employed by nobles, but from the 15th century onwards the great majority of ‘waits’ were civic minstrels employed by corporations.

Waits in Beverley

While Beverley was an important centre for all minstrels to meet, the town’s official minstrels were always important to the life of the community.

Records of Beverley’s appointment of waits go back to 1405-6, and the importance of music to the town is seen in the survival of three chains and badges (‘scutcheons’) issued to them by the town as a sign of their official status. Two were much later combined to make a chain for the Mayoress; the third remains single. Though repaired and remodelled over many years, the chains are a tangible reminder of the waits’ importance. The only other waits’ chains surviving from the 15th century are those of Exeter, although 16th examples survive at Lincoln and Cambridge. The Beverley chains are on permanent display in the Guildhall in Beverley – where the waits probably played before the town authorities at special dinners.
The Minstrels’ Pillar in St Mary’s Church, Beverley, records the important donation made by the minstrels toward the rebuilding of the church after its central tower collapsed in 1520 – over thirty years before the date of the surviving Guild Ordinances. This contribution, and the impressive carving, suggests a well-established group with funds at its disposal – perhaps gathered from members around the north-east region.

The life of a town wait

ERA MS BC/II/7/1, f.29v. Photograph by permission of East Riding Archives.

This manuscript, a minute book of the Beverley town authorities, shows the appointment of three Beverley waits, William Johnson, Symon Herfurth and John Wardelow, from May 1438 to April 1439. Their shared salary would be 36s. 8d. (£1.66, though worth much more then). When Symon Herfurth moved away and was replaced by a boy – a musical apprentice – the total salary dropped to 33s. 4d. (£1.33). Waits often earned more by touring, and even by practising other trades.

Beverley, Governors’ Minute Book 1436-1470 (ERA BC/II/7/1), f. 29v:
Appointment of Beverley town Waits, 13 May 1438

Spiculatores [left-hand margin]

Willelmus Iohnson Symon Herforth & Iohannes Wardelowe retenti cum communitate in officium spiculatorum Beuerlaci xiij die Maij anno supradicto . capiendo. nomine salarij sui vsque festum sancti Marci Euangeliste proximum futurum Capiendo nomine salarij sui de denarijs Communitatis [xl s] xxxvj s. viij. d. Et quod quilibet dictorum spiculatorum habebit I scutum de Communitate & Iurati sunt quod seruiant Communitati in officio suo prescripto vsque festum sancti Marci supradictum &c Et liberantur predictis Iohanni Wardelow & Willelmo Iohnson Spiculatoribus ij. scuti Communitatis argenti per plegios Iohannes Colton yoman presens & Nicholaus Brompton [vt ip] absens/ Postea Symon Herforth supradictus deuillauit/ pro quo. dicti Spiculatores habent I puerum loco dicti Symonis pro quo puero. allocabitur pro labore suo vj. s. viij d. vsque festum sancto Marci proximum Et sic dicti Spiculatores habebunt pro se. & puero suo hoc anno tantum xxxiij s. iiij d.

Waits’ appointment: translation

Waits [left-hand margin: the Latin manuscript says ‘spiculatores’, a technical term unique to Beverley, used to denote the Waits over several decades in the fifteenth century.]

William Johnson, Simon Herforth and John Wardelow hired by the Community in the office of Waits of Beverley on the 13th day of May in the year above stated to receive as their salary until the feast of St Mark the Evangelist next to come [25 April 1439] to take as their salary [40s.] 36s. 8d. of the money of the Community. And that each of the said Waits will have 1 scutcheon of the community and they have been sworn that they will serve the Community in their office above written until the aforementioned feast of St Mark the Evangelist etc. And 2 silver scutcheons of the Community are delivered to the aforesaid John Wardelow and William Johnson, Waits, by sureties John Colton, yeoman, present, and Nicholas Brompton, absent. Afterwards Simon Herforth left town, for whom the said Waits have 1 boy in place of the said Simon, for which boy they will be allowed 6s. 8d. for his work until the next feast of St Mark. And so the said Waits will have for themselves and their boy this year only 33s. 4d.

Waits played instruments like these. Do you know what they are?

These instruments are SHAWMS. A shawm is a double-reed woodwind instrument: the two reeds are bound together in the top of the instrument and vibrate against each other in the player’s mouth when the shawm is blown: the oboe is a descendant of the shawm. The medium-sized shawms illustrated were most commonly used in groups of three or four to provide loud music, but there were both larger and smaller sizes. The smaller, treble, instrument was apparently used by the household watchman (vigilis, or ‘wait’), gaining the name ‘wait-pipe’. In the late 13th century Edward I’s four vigiles evidently formed a shawm band, and so presumably played the larger shawms in musical performances as well as the smaller ‘wait-pipe’ for calling the watch at night.

In recent years shawm-bands have come into their own, with some very fine players giving public performances. Some of these can be found on the website of the International Guild of Town Pipers.


  1. I am an archivist of the modern Mystery Plays as performed in York since 1951. The archive is held at the National Centre for Early Music in York. I am interested to see this REED NE website, and there are excellent images and material. However, there is an error on the page about the performance of the Crucifixion on the green at Durham (page 206 of REED website). John Hoyland is pictured as Christ; this production was one of the wagon plays in York in 2014. The Company of Butchers which performed is the York Guild, based in Jacob's Well, Trinity Lane, York. There is an entirely wrong link to the London livery company embedded in the text, please remove it.
    1. Dear Margaret, Thanks for getting in touch about our past York "Crucifixion" post. This particular performance was one we sponsored in Durham for our 2016 summer play festival ("Theatrum Mundi": The performance was a rerun on Durham's Palace Green of the production we originally saw in York in 2014, again directed by Tom Straszewski and featuring most of the original cast. We will make the relevant changes to the post as you've suggested. Do let us know if you spot anything else that needs our attention, and please let us know of any upcoming news and events from our friends at the NCEM! With very best wishes, The REED N-E project team

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