History

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15 OCtober 2009

Below is a significant piece on the Cambridge Town Waits to add to the Historical Records page when you do your next update. Regards, Alan Radford.


Cambridge Town Waits

From the 15th century, Cambridge maintained a band of town minstrels or waits. The treasurers' accounts, which frequently enter payments to minstrels accompanying royal and noble visitors to the town, first mention the town minstrels in 1484 when 16s. 4d. had been spent on their vestments. Similar payments are noted under 1489, 1491, 1494, 1500, and 1501. The livery was generally of sanguine woollen cloth, but once the cheaper tawny was used. They were apparently three in number; in 1511 the Bassingbourn churchwardens' accounts record the payment of 5s. 6d. to three waits of Cambridge who had accompanied the performances of the play of St. George on their round of the neighbouring parishes. The chief wait, John Martyn, has a fee of £2 and a gown priced 10s. in 1512, and the subsidy records show him to be a man of substance, having movables worth £40 to £100 and with two apprentices. That the position conferred prestige appears from the provision at a Great Common Day in 1552 that if Bennett Pryme does not wish to continue to be a wait along with John Richemond and John Clerke, they are to co-opt a third minstrel with the approval of the Mayor, the consent of the whole house being needed for any change.

The waits' silver collars are mentioned in 1551 and 1564 when two new ones were made, indicating that their number had been increased to five, probably in view of the queen's visit of that year. Tudor magnificence, it may be conjectured, in this as in other matters, had taxed the resources of the townsmen too heavily: in 1622 it was agreed that the fee to the town waits should cease, but it was restored the next year. It had been a retainer rather than a salary; special payments were made on special occasions, such as the celebration of the capture of Edinburgh and Boulogne in 1544, the proclamation of James I's accession in 1603, the treasurers' feast in 1608, and the visit of the High Steward, Lord Clarendon, in 1664. They played when the charter of Charles II was read in 1685, when William III visited the town in 1689, and when war was declared on Spain in 1761. They took part regularly in the Mayor's procession at Sturbridge Fair (to the number of 12 in 1727) and it is possible that the discontinuance of that procession in 1790 was the death blow to the official town music. When in 1799 the victory of the Nile was celebrated it was the Band of the Volunteer Associations which paraded the town.

The Cambridge town waits are of more than local interest as being the field of activity of the Gibbons family. In 1567 William Gibbons 'musitian' was appointed leader of the town waits and given charge of their five silver collars. Possibly he had been brought in three years before for Elizabeth I's visit; but he married a Cambridge woman and settled in the town, where eight of his ten children were born, where, in 1576, he was paid by the Vice-Chancellor for keeping a dancing school, and where, in 1574 and 1578, he was a vestryman of Holy Trinity. He was buried there in 1596, but between 1583 and 1588 he was living at Oxford, probably his native town, and served as one of the city waits there. He was a householder and a freeman of Oxford. Thus it was in Oxford that his youngest and most famous son, Orlando, was born and baptized in December 1583; though as the family returned to Cambridge in 1588 Orlando's musical career began with his admission to the choir of King's College Chapel in 1596, and it was at Cambridge that he took his bachelor's degree in music.

From: 'The city of Cambridge: Constitutional history', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3: The City and University of Cambridge (1959), pp. 29-68.

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