His part in clarifying the early history of the waits

James Merryweather
11th May 2004

Published on this website 14th May 2020


Waits researchers are very reliant upon a few early works to give them an initial understanding of the origins of the waits. I hope we have all read Langwill and Bridge which both provide an very useful overview of the entire history of waits, but do we ever question their conclusions, drawn as competently as was possible at the time, from what today should be regarded as a limited data set. These early and mid 20th century scholars were even fewer in number than we 21st century waits enthusiasts, but more importantly, they did not have the access to town and city records in extracted, translated, annotated, indexed and printed form we have today thanks to the Records of Early English Drama series. Even thought the R.E.E.D. collections stop at 1642, we have enough people scattered around the country to be able to do what I did in York and record waits references 1643-1835 in as many towns and cities as we have can.

Therefore, I suggest we should re-read what the earlier authors wrote with care and not presume that their conclusions were entirely correct. Thus, we should question such fundamental assertions as Langwill’s

EARLY HISTORY It is clear that originally waits were night watchmen in palaces, castles, camps and walled towns, who ‘piped watch’ upon a musical instrument at stated hours, for changing the guard, in case of alarm, or merely to awaken certain persons at appointed hours by soft music at their chamber doors.

One of the earliest references to waits occurs in a treatise De Naturis rerum, by Alexander Neckam . . . etc.

It is from such discussions that we have come to believe that the musical waits, whose history tends to dominate our interest, were the direct descendents of a nationwide body of watchmen. Because the watchmen blew a horn, or perhaps a trumpet of some sort, it was obvious, therefore, that they were already musicians who could gradually but irrevocably have left their watch duties to become civic entertainers. This is a naïve view of evolution and is probably unsupported by fact. But we must investigate this, particularly since the waits of a significant number of towns, who we know were musical ensembles, also kept the night watches. Were these night watches functional perambulatory vigils or was it an archaic name applied to a popular nocturnal reassurance and wake-up service?

Since the early history of waits seems to depend largely upon Neckam’s 12th century description, what can we make of it today? We are told that Alexander Neckam (1157-1217) described waits in De Naturis Rerum:

“Assint etiam excubiæ vigiles (veytes) cornibussuis strepitum et clangorum facientes”.

Let there be watchmen (waits) on guard making a loud noise and din with their horns.

There are several major problems with this quotation. No author tells us how “(veytes)” appears on the page. Does it truly occur in the text, written there by the original author or is it a later insertion? Are the parentheses real or have they been put there to indicate the latter case? No author queries whether this word is indeed another spelling of our word “waits”, which seems to be the universal presumption. Why does veytes begin with ‘v’ rather the more conventional ‘w’ or even possible ‘g’? If so, it is the only example of this strange spelling? The fatal flaw is that, although three or four of us of us have several times scanned modern editions of De Naturis Rerum thoroughly for the passage, nobody has found it. It seems not to exist or has been given an incorrect attribution. Once a scholar had quoted it (the earliest seems to be in Hill, 1915), it was copied from author to author without ever checking the original source!

So, we should, like all good scientists, resort to the null hypothesis and try to obtain evidence and erect arguments to disprove that:

The musical waits did not descend from horn-blowing watchmen.

I have been recently looking at the history of waits in Kentish towns using the R.E.E.D. volume KENT: Diocese of Canterbury . I began with records from the Cistercian Abbey of Boxley near Maidstone of payments made between 1353 and 1399 to a piper called Robert, of Maidstone. Among other questions, I wanted to see if this 14th century piper might prove to have been a wait. The exercise was interesting, but the answer was no and the records shed no light on his activities, although consideration of the Dover pipers’ duties might offer some clues (see Appendix II).

Next, I looked at Dover which has many references to pipers (see Appendix III). Would they turn out to have been called waits and what was the history (to 1642, the R.E.E.D. cut off point)? This was fascinating, because there was a nearly complete set of annual accounts of payments to named pipers from 1365-6 until they and their descendents were finally replaced by the Town Drummer in 1588.

From the outset it was clear that the piper’s recorded function was to sound the horn to assemble the council and make proclamations. Essentially, he was the town crier. There is an important, tantalisingly close, possibly conclusive, reference to waits very in 1369-70:

In .ij. cornubus empties pro vigilatoribus.
On two horns bought for the waits.
[Translation by the R.E.E.D. editor.]

This introduces an important argument which we will address more fully elsewhere: whether by this date the term “vigilatoribus” (vigiles, vigilators etc.) referred to early musical waits or late non-musical watchmen. There can be little if any doubt that the vigilatoribus in question were the Iohn Rustlere (who was also known as Iohannis pipere) and Alan Trumpour were the pipers held a post which later became known as the wait. However, it was another 100 years before the English word “wayte” was applied to the Dover piper/vigilator (for whom we have no evidence that he played music) and we must look to other town records where there are some clear indications that “vigilatoribus” in its many forms was the word used in Latin texts referring to waits who we know were musicians. Whether or not the Dover piper, watchman or wait had other, perhaps musical, duties is impossible to say. However, he only sounded the horn about four times a year for which he was paid extra, above his annual or quarterly stipend. Surely, if retained on a salary, he did more than just blow a horn from time to time. What were his other duties? At this time, was Iohn Rustlere the musical piper and Alan Trompour (Trumper) the town trumpeter, and they both occasionally sounded their horns? Indeed, they were provided with one apiece.

The Dover piper – pipere/pyper – in Latin (piparij/piparii plural) – is also called ffistulatori (ffistulatorij/ffistulatorii) or fistulator, which does rather suggest he was a woodwind player – or does it? Keith Polk discusses payments to continental town pipers called pfeiffer-posauner (piper-sackbut player) as well as the more proper pfeiffer-schalmeier (piper-shawm player) in which case ‘pfeiffer’ more closely meant stadtspfeiffer, i.e. wait, than player of a woodwind instrument. So, the Dover piper could similarly have been a piper-horn blower and the term piper a lot looser in meaning than we would at first presume.

Our special interest is kindled by a record of 1473-4 when the term “wayte” first appears and it is placed in the same form and position in the payments as previously recorded livery of the fistulatori:

1472-3 . . . pro vestura communis clerici ijorum seruiencium & fistulatoris   xxx s.
1473-4 . . . for clodyng for Ϸe Clerk sergeauntes & wayte   xxxiiij s.

In 1474-5 we have payments to Iohn Buk (fistulatoris) “for ij horn blowynges”, “A horn blowing”, “for his ffee”, “to hochon (Hugo Hawkyn) for pyping” and “to the wayte for his ffee”. In following years Hugo Hawkyn is the named fistulatoris, also called Ϸe pyper and also paid “for horn blowing & cryez”. “the wayte” occurs in subsequent records along with the usual payments to the named piper or fistulator and, at last in 1482-3, we have two named “communium fistulatorum Iohannes heyre & Robertus Aleyn” and a fee paid to “ij waytez”. Also, there are entries: “paid to Robert Aleyn wayte for his wages” and “paid to Iohn heyre wayte in part of his wages”.



Dover supported waits. Were they musicians? There is absolutely no reason to suppose they were. The post seems to have been for one man even though there were two of them from time to time. They were certainly paid separately and differently when there were two, so it is probable that they shared the post or at least the horn blowings (see Rustlere & Trumpour above). The term fistulator (in Latin or English) was used alongside wait until 1535, after which horn blowings were performed by other men who seem mainly to have been the town sergeant. In fact, references to waits cease temporarily in that year, though just one more, Thomas Clarke, appears for the short period 1558-63. Then there are is a single reference to “the towne waytes” in 1570 and a strange reference to a volunteer in 1605. We do not hear of him again and I think we can presume he was not considered to have been a real wait.

Item forasmuch as mathewe wooden of the said towne musician hath of his free and voluntary will offered his service unto this Corporacion to be the Common wayte of the towne, and doeth not demaund any wages or livery for his duty and paynes therein to be taken, yt is therefore agreed & consented, that he shall doe & performe the same at tymes meete and Convenyent.

As for the ancient practice of making starting civic events and proclamations in Dover with a blast on the “Brason horn”, it ceased for ever in 1609-10.



We cannot say whether or not the Dover pipers, who indeed did turn into waits, if only in terminology, were musicians other than in that they blew, sounded or winded the town horn. However, they must have spent the bulk of their time doing something for their 20 s. annual salary which is roughly the same as one wait’s wage in other towns at the time e.g. Plymouth paid four waits £4). Since there is no evidence whatsoever that they played a more demanding instrument for entertainment (it would seem a good idea for a single wait to be a bagpiper like Henry Halewood of Liverpool) I think we should conclude that they were signallers, announcers, indeed the equivalent of the bellman or town crier in other towns and cities.

As waits, they were not the equivalent of the waits who were certainly employed for music in so many other towns and cities, but Dover adopted the name around the time these bands were developing in the 15th century.

The horn-blowing Dover piper-wait did not survive beyond 1570-1 (“the towne wayttes”, interestingly plural). However, one wonders whether musical waits were appointed after the English civil wars when other towns re-appointed their waits, dismissed earlier because of civic poverty. With the restoration, a new atmosphere pervaded the nation and entertainment became of great importance, so new waits might have been needed in Dover too. The R.E.E.D. volumes do not contain records after 1642, so the original documents after that date will have to be searched, recorded and analysed to provide the answer. If anyone needs encouraging to take on the task, they can be reassured that the manuscripts, unless in lousy handwriting, will be in relatively modern English, therefore decipherable to the modern wait’s eye.

One thing is certain, waits were never watchmen in Dover, though just once in 1535, by which time the term wait was in common usage, wait is given in Latin as communem vigillatorem. This will not mislead us but we must next look for watchmen and vigilators in other town records (for they are to be found e.g. Beverley, Cambridge, King’s Lynn are all promising) and trace their evolution. This will be the next step in proving or disproving the direct descent of watchmen to waits, but if you understand Darwinian evolution at all, you will know that straight lines of direct transmogrification of one animal or plant into another of more advanced form is at best simplistic. The same is probably true in the less complex evolution of watchmen, waits and other related town officials, and we must look out for sideways development or several different evolutionary pathways radiating from early ancestral originals.



Assint etiam excubiæ vigiles (veytes) cornibus suis strepitum et clangorum facientes.

Let there be watchmen (waits) on guard making a loud noise and din with their horns.
De Naturis Rerum. Alexander Neckam, Abbott of Cirencester (1157-1217)

The above is alleged to be the earliest reference to waits,providing evidence of their ancient connection with watchmen.Until I have seen it in its original context, I have grave doubts.


Anon. (1915). The Waits. Notes on their origin and history. In: Hill, AF ed. (1915) and republished by Crewdson, HAF ed. (1971) in The Worshipful Company of Musicians. 162-173.

Bridge, JC (1928). Town waits and their tunes. Proc. Br. Mus. Assoc. 63-92.
The passage above was quoted, inadequately referenced, in Hill, 1915 and repeated by Crewdson (1971).
It was copied verbatim by Bridge, 1928 (who said he got it from Hill). Langwill, 1952, quoted it again, but with a slightly different introduction and translation:
Assint etiam excubiæ vigiles (veytes) cornibus suis strepitum et clangorum facientes.

Let there also be on guard watchmen (waits) making a loud noise upon their horns.

Langwill, L (1952). The Waits. A short history. Hinrichson’s Musical Year Book. vol. VII. 170-183.
also quoted by Janssen, Carole Ann (1978). The waytes of Norwich and renaissance civic pageantry. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of New Brunswick. who says: “Quoted in Eric Blom, ed., Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1954), IX, 127. I have been unable to locate this reference in De Naturis Rerum”.

The Passage. Bridge states that he copied this Neckam passage from Hill, 1915 (and they are identical), but neither gives a full reference. Langwill does not give his source and his reference is no more informative. What I’d like to know is its location and context in De Naturis Rerum. After carefully scanning every page more than once (also De laudibus divinae sapientiae just in case), I have failed to find the passage in the edition I’ve been looking at (ed. Thomas Wright, Longman, London, 1863. Morrell Q42 BRI 8 vol. 34 Quarto), and I can’t find anything to suggest that Neckam ever put words or passages in parentheses. Carole Ann Janssen (1979. The Waytes of Norwich and an Early Lord Mayor’s Show. RORD (Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama) 22:57-64.) also looked and failed to find the passage. James Cummings has also tried and failed. Wright quotes several different copies that he worked from and there are some minor differences, e.g. different spellings and word changes.

veytes. Could it be that “(veytes)” has been copied from an edition/copy, produced later than the mss. worked from by Wright, and in which “(veytes)” is an editorial addition/clarification? As far as I can ascertain, there has only ever been the Rolls edition anyway (Wright). I have never before encountered waits spelled with a “v”, although in Germanic languages, “w” and “v” are the interchangeable. A very convenient example in this discussion would be Watch (English), Wächter (German), Vakter (Swedish) and Vekter (Norwegian).

I’d like to consider the passage without “(veytes)” as a reasonable quotation of Neckam’s original text but, I get the feeling that this much quoted passage is either erroneously attributed to Neckam or is entirely bogus! Until it’s found again, I would never quote it without careful qualification. Even if the passage does exist and Neckam has indeed mentioned late 12th century watchmen and their use of the horn for signalling, we can assume no more. There is no evidence in this passage for watchmen-musicians or, more specifically, waits.




James Merryweather, 9th May 2004

Extracts from the records of St Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Boxley, Maidstone, Kent. (in R.E.E.D. KENT: Diocese of Canterbury).

1353-4    Roberto pipere de Maydstane & Socio suo xij d

1354-5    Roberto pipero de maydstane vj d

1355-6    Roberto pipere de Maydynstane. vj. d

1360-1    Roberto pipere viij d

1364-5    Roberto pipere de maydetan & filio suoper uices xxij d

1365-6    Roberto pipere xij d

1366-7    Roberto Pipere & filio suo xviij d

1371-2    Roberto Pipere xij d. (also walthero harpour xij d)

1372   Roberto pypere de Maydestan die ascentionis domine xij d

1372-3    Roberto pipere de Maydestane per .ij. vices ij s (also Ade fiddeleste & simone fiddeleste socio suo de south_ _ _ce .ij s also willelmus Letherose Cithariste .ij s)

1380-3    Roberto pipere ij s

1381     Roberto Pypere alia vice ij d

Roberto Pypere alia eodem die xij s

1385-99     Roberto Pipere de Maydestan xij



1.Is Pipere(o) his Roberto’s surname (therefore of little significance to us) or his profession?

2.If the latter can we assume he was a musician who played a pipe, therefore a woodwind player? Bagpipe is unlikely because bagpipers are often (usually?) called bagpiper.

3.Is there any indication Roberto Pipere was the, or a (with his son), town wait of Maidstone?



1.The name of Roberto Pipere is always qualified with his place of origin, Maidstone. In the 14th century Boxley would have been just outside Maidstone.

2.There are mostly musicians and other entertainers in these records.

3.The identical second ‘name’ of Ade and simone fiddeleste (fiddler?) is apparently, as we might presume for Roberto Pipere, their profession.

4.Willelmus the Cithariste is given a surname Letherose (or is it a description of his appearance: leather hose?) but his profession Cithariste is still appended.



1.Piper probably refers to Roberto’s profession.

2.There is no evidence that Roberto was a town wait. However, it is not impossible. He was evidently in regular employment for 32 years, a stable career such as we see in the other (well-behaved) waits we know in other towns. We have indications of piper meaning wait elsewhere. York, 1363: Rogerus Wayte, piper; Doncaster, 1457: “Allan Pyper and Willaim Pyper are elected Pipers or Wayts”; Liverpool, 1595: “Thomas Brookfelde a pyper beinge admitted a wayte of this Towne”.

3.Can we find other evidence to reinforce the argument that the name or description of a ‘piper’ meant he was a town wait rather than just a woodwind musician? Please add to the evidence and let us continue the discussion.




Iohannis Rustlere (Iohannis Pipere)     1366-7 – 1381-2


Alani/Alano Trompour/Tromblour     1366-7 – 1376-7


Hawkyns     1376-7 –


There is a gap in the records 1384-1423

Henricus(-o) Mellere/Melle/Meller     1423-4 – 1438-9

ffistulator/ffistulatori(s)/ffistulator ville

Geruasio Mayster    1423-4

Willelmo(-us) Brewer     1438-9 – 1441-2

Iohannes brewer    1439-40 – 1441-2

ij fistulatorum(es)/ij ministrallorum/Ministralli ville

Thomas Sprot    1442-3 – 1447-8

Ministrallus ville/ffistulatoris

Willelmo ffreman    1449-50 – 1450-1


Thomas Tournour     1452-3 – 1457-8


Iohannes Brewer     1462-3


Iohannes/Iohn Bukke/Buk/Bucke/Buke     1467-8 – 1474-5


Hugo/hew/hugoni Hawkyn/hochon/hockon     1474-5 – 1477-8

ffistulatoris/Ϸe Pyper(e)/Ϸe Pypare/

Iohannes/Iohn Vykary/vicary    1478-9 – 1481-2

ffistulatoris/wayte/the Pypare

Iohannes/Iohn heyre/heyere/heire/heere     1482-3 – 1503-4


Robertus Aleyn    1482-3 – 1485-6

ffistulatoris/fistulator/communis ffistulator/ffystulator/wayte/waite/Ϸe waite/Ϸe piper

Robertus Barrett    1497-8


Robert(us)/Robert Taverner(e)     1504-5 – 1511-12

ffystulator/Commo(e)n wayte/wayte/the wayt/the waite/Robart the wayte


the wayte     1512-13


Commen wayte/the wayte of the Towne     1513-14


the wayte of the Towne     1514-15

Willelmus Bayly     1515-16

the (towne) wayte

Willelmus Bayly filius     1515-16


Robert(us) Taberer     1519-20 – 1521-2

fistulator/the (towne) wayte/the wate of the towne/the common wayte

Ricardus/Richard Piers     1521-2 – 1526-7

ffistulator/comon wayte/the commyn waite/pyper/the Towne wayte

Thomas/Thomam Clerk(e)     1531-2 – 1535-6

commen wayte/the Towne wayte/communem vigillatorem

Anon     1557-8

the wayttes/the wayt

Thomas Clark(e)     1558-9 – 1563-4

The waight/wayt/waight or waite or waytte for the towne/town waytte

Anon     1570-1

the towne wayttes



Langwill, Lyndesay (1952). The Waits. A short history. Hinrichson’s Musical Year Book vol. VII: 170-183.

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Bridge, JC (1928). Town waits and their tunes. Proc. Br. Mus. Assoc. 63-92.

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Neckam, Alexander. De naturis rerum. In: Alexandri Neckam De naturis rerum libro duo, with the poem of the same author, De laudibus divinae sapientiae. Thomas Wright ed. Longman, London, 1863. Kraus Reprint (facsimile) New York, 196-. “Rolls series” vol. 34.

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Gibson, JM (2002). R.E.E.D. Kent: Diocese of Canterbury. 3 vv. ISBN 0-8020-8726-4.

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Polk, Keith (1992). German instrumental music of the late middle ages. Cambridge, CUP. ISBN 0 521 38521 0.

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6. 1609
1607-8 “paid to Georg Siseley for the last horne blowing 4 d.” and 1609-10 “paid to Goodman Siseley for . . . winding the Brazon horn.”

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Merryweather J.W. (2004). Mersey beat. Henry Halewood, bagpiper and town wait of Liverpool in the 16th century. Chanter. Spring 2004 18-20. also

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8. SOUTH _ _ _ CE
Probably Southwick, Surrey

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1498-9 “for ij hornblowings & in ale & cakes vj d.” (not significant, just interesting).

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the wayte iij yards – another useful study. Number of coats can be related to length of cloth and to cost of cloth to determine the number of waits when it is not stated.

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