Photo of  Robert Athol
By Robert Athol
Image of Musicians by Agostino Tassi. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
Musicians by Agostino Tassi. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Archive of the month: Cambridge Waits

Scattered throughout the College’s 16th, 17th and 18th century financial records are multiple payments being made to Waits. But who were these Waits and what did they do?

Waits were small bands of musicians, usually not consisting of more than about five men, who sang and played instruments and were employed by a city or town. In the instance of Cambridge, there is evidence that, at times, there was a separate band of University Waits in addition to the Town Waits. Many Colleges in Cambridge engaged these Waits to perform on particular feast days, many of which fall in December around Christmas. Although it appears Waits generally performed at Jesus on 2nd February for Candlemas, they were also occasionally employed to perform at special events, including Christmas plays, for which there is evidence in the Archives.

1612 payment to the Waits by Jesus College.
1612 payment to the Waits by Jesus College.

The entries in the Archives simply mention general payments made to the Waits, but through much research undertaken in this area, particularly by the Records of Early English Drama project, we know the names of some of these Waits, many of whom will have performed in College in both the Hall and Chapel.

Some of the earlier Cambridge Waits include William Gibbons, who was appointed Master of the University Waits in 1566 and then a Town Wait before moving to Oxford, returning to Cambridge in 1589. John Murton was Master of the Town and University Waits simultaneously from 1576 until 1582 when William Bird (not the famous composer) became Master of the University Waits from 1582 until 1591. Gibbons then appears to have returned to Cambridge to become Master Wait again until his death in 1595. Gibbons was also father to several children, some of whom became famous musicians in their own rights including Ellis Gibbons, Edward Gibbons and Orlando Gibbons.

Orlando Gibbons. Faculty of Music Collection, Oxford University.
Orlando Gibbons. Faculty of Music Collection, Oxford University.

Stephen Wilmott was Master Wait at the time of the visit to Cambridge by Charles I when Prince of Wales in 1612 (described below) and on Wilmott’s death, John Browne took over as Master.

The money made from being a Wait appears to have been supplemented with income from other occupations and positions. Music school teacher (Wilmott), Launderer (Browne) and combined Innkeeper and Dancing School Master (Murton and Gibbons) are just some of these other known additional professions.

References relating to the clothing worn by Cambridge Waits survive, including for their ‘collars’ which were their symbols of office and their livery, most of which are found in the Cambridge Town Treasurers accounts, now in Cambridgeshire Archives.

Instruments played by Waits would vary, although mainly included woodwind instruments such as shawms which, with their piercing sound, were able to be heard in large crowds and at distance, particularly important if Waits were leading long ceremonial processions. For example on the visit of Charles I to Cambridge when still Prince of Wales, the Royal party processed down Newmarket Road towards Cambridge, where ‘lowd musique was plaied [by the Waits] uppon the top of Jesus College’. It can reasonably be assumed that this was from the top of the Gatehouse Tower and at a time when there was almost nothing around the College at that time but open countryside and a good view up Newmarket Road, the music played must have travelled quite some distance to welcome the Royal party.

This video of the present day York Waits, gives a good impression of how a procession led by Waits in the past would have looked and sounded.

Although theatrical performances stopped whilst Cromwell was Lord Protector, regular payments to the University Waits can still be seen in the accounts throughout this same period, so the tradition of music accompanying College feasts continued. Regular payments to the Waits continued to be made into the 18th century, until 1774 when the last payment to the University waits appears in the College Accounts.

Last payment to the Waits
Last payment to the Waits

The disappearance of payments to the University Waits from the College Accounts reflects a declining significance in the importance Waits played in ceremonial events and College and University life. The Victoria County History for Cambridge mentions that the last event with which the Town Waits were associated is the procession of the Mayor of Cambridge to his tent at Stourbridge Fair in 1790. By the time a similar procession took place in 1799 to celebrate Nelson’s victory on the Nile, the music was performed by the Band of the Volunteer Associations of the town, suggesting that after a history spanning hundreds of years, the Waits of Cambridge had played their last.