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Coventry Waits

For the entry of the three-year-old Prince Edward, heir to the throne and subsequently Edward V, into Coventry in 1474, he was greeted “with mynstrallcy of the wayts of the cite”.

'The City of Coventry: Social history to 1700', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8: The City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick (1969)

The Corpus Christi procession started early on the morning of Corpus Christi, the crafts, dressed in livery, proceeding in twos, preceded by torchbearers and attended by their journeymen. The senior company, the mercers, came last, immediately before the Host, which was the special responsibility of Corpus Christi Guild. Trinity Guild was also represented, its priests bearing equally valuable processional crosses, canopies and candlesticks. The mayor and civic dignitaries, probably robed in their scarlet and green gowns, armed guards and some of the principal actors also took part in the procession. The streets were decorated with boughs and noisy with the ringing of bells and the music of the waits. The plays were probably performed after the procession, the heavy pageants being dragged into position in places where there was enough space for the spectators and for performances which sometimes spilled over into the street. Gosford Street, Greyfriars, New Gate, Jordan Well, the Conduit, Cross Cheaping, Little Park Street end, and Richard Wood's house provided such stations and it has been suggested that there were ten stations, one for each ward, although in his latest work on the subject, Hardin Craig thought ten were too many.

Music was often an important part of the pageants. At Prince Edward's reception in 1474, the four pageants were accompanied by minstrelsy 'of the waits of the city', 'of harp and dulcimer', 'of small pipes' and 'of organ playing'. The pageant to welcome Prince Arthur in 1498 included 'angels censing and singing, with organs and other melody'. Songs, like the well-known Coventry carol in the shearmen and tailors' pageant, were probably an integral part of most of the plays and there are payments for singers and musicians in the accounts of the cappers, drapers, smiths, weavers, and carpenters. The singers were often clerks and there were probably some independent minstrels, but most of the music was provided by the city waits. The earliest reference to the waits is an entry in the leet book under 1423, recording the appointment of four men as city minstrels and giving details as to their payment. Although this entry is sometimes cited as evidence for the first appointment of city waits, it clearly implies the existence of earlier waits. The 1423 men were to have 'as others have had afore them'. They were paid by quarterage, a rate of 1d. from every hall and ½d. from every cottage each quarter. Trinity Guild provided them with rent-free cottages, and they also received payment from the guilds and crafts for each occasion upon which they were hired. These included, besides playing in the pageants and processions on Corpus Christi day, festivities on Midsummer eve, and the annual feasts held by each guild. Any occasion calling for general rejoicing included the waits, from the reception of royalty to the triumphal procession of the rioters who had torn down Bristow's enclosures at Whitley in 1469. (fn. 16) The waits must have been in demand throughout a wide area, for in 1467 a leet order restricted them to within 10 miles of the city, unless high-ranking ecclesiastics should ask for them. One of the places which sometimes employed them was Maxstoke Priory.

There were probably always four waits, the chief of whom was a trumpeter, and the rest played pipes, and probably drums and a stringed instrument - perhaps a dulcimer, later a violin. Organs and regals or small organs were favourite instruments in the 16th century. The waits wore the city's livery - coats or cloaks of green and red and silver escutcheons and collars or chains.

The Puritans found that James I, like Elizabeth, disappointed their expectations. In 1611 they were ordered, in a letter from the king himself, to receive the sacrament kneeling, 'to the grief of many'. Ten years later James refused to approve the new charter until he was satisfied that the orders of the church were being observed. The bishop informed him that there were 'not above seven of any note who do not conform themselves'. This was almost certainly an understatement and Laud's measures caused particular dismay. After recording the order in 1635 to turn the communion table into an altar, the writer of the city annals remarked 'God grant it continueth not long'. During part of the 1630s and early 1640s there were orders for the wearing of scarlet on festival days, defined in 1640 as All Saints day, Gunpowder Treason day, Christmas day, New Year's day, Candlemas, Easter day, Whitsun, Trinity Sunday, Coventry Fair day, and both Great Leet days. These 'festival days', however, must have been drab affairs compared with those of the past. Even the waits, who had survived longer than the rest, had been discharged in 1634 for being 'troublesome'.

Processions to greet royal visitors to the town were similarly composed of the mayor and aldermen, the city companies, and the waits, supplemented by trumpeters and drummers. When James II visited the city in 1687 the streets were decorated with branches, Turkish carpets and tapestries hung from the newly white-washed houses, and the mayor and aldermen and companies, all in their gowns and carrying streamers, conducted the king to St. Mary's Hall, where he was confronted with such a feast of fish and sweetmeats that the table collapsed under the weight.

Most of Coventry's chief citizens remained Protestant and anti-Royalist in sympathy, and many of the measures of the Puritan years, like the compulsory attendance at church and the closing of shops on Sunday, remained. Nevertheless, there was a conscious reaction against Puritan repression at the Restoration, at least on the part of those in power, and probably among many of the people as well. The Restoration was celebrated with feasting, bonfires, and conduits running wine. Grew and Bryan were ejected, the lectures suppressed, and maypoles brought back. In 1662 the font and organ were restored to St. Michael's and the king's brother, later James II, was entertained by the city council. The pageants were never revived but there was some attempt to recreate the pageantry and gaiety of an earlier period. Waits were appointed in 1674 'to play in the city as the waits formerly did, during the pleasure of the house' and the Great Show Fair, the successor of the Corpus Christi Fair, was celebrated by feasting at about the same time. The year 1678 saw the permanent establishment of two institutions - the waits and the Godiva procession. The four waits, whose instruments were two trebles, one tenor, and a double curtell, were placed on a regular footing. They were to be paid 20 nobles a year, given cloaks every two years, and were to wear the city's badge. Their duties were to play at all public feasts and fairs and to play through the streets from 2.0 a.m. until dawn during the winter from Michaelmas to April 22. The waits continued on this basis until 1706, when their wages were stopped, and after that on a voluntary basis.

Some at least of the city plate, together with the waits' insignia, was ordered to be sold in 1711 at a moment of financial crisis.

Although the city waits ceased to be paid wages in 1706, and their silver chains and badges were sold in 1710, they continued on a voluntary basis and were still active in 1869.



Also see: 'A Dissertation on the Pageants Or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry by the Trading Companies of That City' by Thomas Sharp (Google Books)



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