5. “the waits of Southwark”

In the Induction to Beaumont’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) a Citizen interrupts the Speaker of the Induction, complaining about the ill-treatment of citizen characters and demanding that his apprentice, Rafe, should play a part in the play. When the players (reluctantly) agree, the citizen’s further demands show us some aspects of the lives of ‘waits’ – professional musicians employed by boroughs and cities to provide music, usually outdoors.  The citizen has enquired of the Prologue-speaker, “what stately music have you? You have shawms?”  When no shawms are forthcoming the citizen declares “Rafe plays a stately part, and he must needs have shawms.  I’ll be at charge of them myself…” and he gives the Induction-speaker two shillings to hire ‘stately music’ to accompany Rafe, who is to portray the Knight of the Burning Pestle. The Citizen exclaims,

Let’s have the waits of Southwark; they are as rare fellows as any are in England, and that [ie, the two shillings] will fetch them all o’er the water with a vengeance, as if they were mad.

He believes that, for two shillings, the Southwark waits will travel “o’er the water” (ie, across the Thames) to perform a gig before the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre.  This might surprise us because waits, in the employ of a borough or City, supposedly had their hands full performing their civic responsibilities. Presumably the Southwark waits did travel o’er the water, were in attendance at this performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and performed as the Citizen had requested.

At Norwich, full records of the waits’ terms of employment, liveries, salaries, instruments and duties allow comprehensive insight into the lives of these busy professional musicians (see REED: Norwich 1540-1642, pp xxxvi-xliii). The Norwich waits performed only rarely outside the city, in nearby localities, and apparently had their hands full at home.  Going further than Norwich, some employers explicitly forbade their waits to travel altogether, or limited them to narrow horizons. An example is Coventry, whose Leet Book, on 4 April 1467, recorded the decision “þat þe waytes of þis Cite þat nowe be & hereafter to be shall not passe þis Cite but to abbottes & priours within x mylees of þis Cite” (REED: Coventry, p 45). Consequently, not one reference to Waits from Coventry performing elsewhere is to be found in Performers without Patrons. In contrast, the Southwark Waits did travel, as seen in Performers without Patrons: in Southhampton, on 26 January 1592/3, occurs the record of a payment of 12d: “geven in reward to the weightes of Southwark”, and in Coventry the Southwark Waits similarly received 12d on 30 March 1616. (Our Citizen in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by the way, paid twice that amount.)

(A small note about nomenclature – distinctions between waits, musicians, and minstrels are not always clearly drawn in early records whose scribes differed in their habitual usages. For example, in 1408 “the minstrel waytes of the city” were so designated in Norwich.  There are 31 ‘musician’ entries in which the performer(s) are recorded as being “of” somewhere else; I have not included these as waits, because obviously not all musicians who travelled were waits although some may well have been. I have followed scribal practices, so if one wishes to survey all aspects of the musical life of a locality, the filter for ‘Performer type’ in your filters should be made inclusive of all desired types of musical performers.)

At Coventry, whose own waits were forbidden to travel, the City paid travelling companies of waits sixty-eight times between 1583 and 1641-2 (the second-highest incidence in Performers without Patrons). Five of these are “composite” records as defined earlier. This is a fairly busy schedule! Many of the visiting professionals were from nearby localities (eg Leicester, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Derby), while others came from farther afield (eg Southampton, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Ripon, Hertford). This evidence can be viewed, in Performers without Patrons, by filtering for ‘Performer type=Waits’, and ‘Location=Coventry’. Among locations that paid companies of Waits on numerous occasions (which one can find by removing the filter for ‘Location=Coventry’) we find three northern households.  The Walmesley household at Dunkenhalgh, Lancashire, enjoyed 36 visits, and the Ingram of Temple Meads household in the Yorkshire West Riding had 25 visits. Just behind in the visit-count is the household of Lord William Howard at Naworth, Cumbria, with 24 visits between 1613 and 1634.  These households also paid companies of professional travelling players, so this evidence of waits simply fills out the picture of entertainments at these private venues. Among boroughs, besides the 68 visits to Coventry already mentioned, we find 29 visits to Cambridge and 125 visits to Carlisle. (These results can be seen by adjusting the filter for ‘Location=’  and that for ‘Performer type=’ in Performers without Patrons.)

Carlisle’s tally is remarkable when one considers that it was, beyond doubt, the most remote borough in England, over 95 miles (150 km) north of Liverpool/Leeds, close to the Scottish border. Its civic records are late, beginning in 1602-3, so the numerous visits occurred between that date and 1640-1.  A large number of visits in a span of only 38 years! Waits’ visits are interspersed with payments to other troupes, some to companies with patrons (“vnto my lorde morleyes players”) and others without (“vnto Certaine players in december”) – both these references are taken from the accounts for 1602-3, and are matched in that year by three payments to visiting waits, from Penrith, Cockermouth and Lancaster. In the list of 125 visits by waits the vast majority are troupes from nearby locations, but two companies stand out: waits from Bristol were paid 5s to leave Carlisle without performing in 1614, but they were back again the next year and were paid 2s 6d for a performance. (The differences in the payments is inexplicable but intriguing!) The waits from Canterbury appeared in Carlisle, on 1 March 1613/4, and were paid 3s 4d for their performance. One can only wonder what drew these troupes to travel 360 miles (580 km) from Canterbury, or 275 miles (442 km) from Bristol. Also, one can only wonder about the timing of these visits – what was so special about 1613-14?

Other journeys of over 100 miles saw waits from London at Temple Newsam, a stately home now situated within the City of Leeds (197 miles, 317 km), and waits from Southampton at Barnstaple, Devon (141 miles, 226 km). Two other troupes of waits made multiple visits to the same places. Lincoln’s waits were an active troupe, recorded twice at Cambridge in 1549-50, and again in 1561-2 (their travels in 1549 also took them to Canterbury, a distance of 199 miles (320 km). The waits of Ripon were recorded five times at Coventry for performances between 1631 and 1637 – a distance of 145 miles (233 km).  One longs for enough evidence to be able to reconstruct itineraries of these far-flung travelling performers – we can be confident that waits from Canterbury would not travel 580 km to Carlisle for a single performance, earning a payment of 3s 4d! But we cannot construct itineraries because the records are too scanty. All one can say is that these long journeys were the outliers, and that the normal pattern of travels (as one can see by sampling Performers without Patrons) seems to have involved more frequent, more local journeys, as we might expect. But to sum up, evidence of over 400 performances by travelling waits allows us to declare that they were not just “local” musicians, but often were travelling professionals. ‘Let’s have the Waits of Southwark’ indeed.