SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry minstrels fees livery pension officers socio-religious guilds
Subject: Minstrels at Coventry
Original source: Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book
Transcription in: Mary Dormer Harris, ed. The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 59, 200.
Original language: Middle English, Latin
Location: Coventry
Date: 15th century


[1. Payments for services, 6 October 1423]

They ordain that Richard Waite, for the good service he has given to the city of Coventry and for the long time he has spent in that service, shall have during the rest of his life [a pension of] 13s.4d from the Trinity Gild, 6s.8d. from the Corpus Christi Gild, and 20s. from the wardens of the City.

Also, they have retained Matthew Ellerton, Thomas Sendell, William Howton and John Trumpere as minstrels for the city of Coventry, and [agreed] that they shall have the same [salary] that others have had before them. They shall also receive each quarter from every [dwelling] place with a hall 1d, and from every cottage a halfpenny; and may receive a better reward depending on their performance. And they ordain that two men from every ward shall be available to them each quarter to help them collect their quarterly fees.

[2. Minstrels' uniforms, 7 April 1442]

They wish that they [i.e. the minstrels] should have a livery, as this bill requests, on condition that they have a trumpeter, as is mentioned in [the bill], and escutcheons, upon providing security. That is, they shall have a dozen of cloth for their livery, of the value of 20s. to be paid them by the wardens shortly before the festival of Corpus Christi.


It was increasingly common during the fifteenth century for towns to include minstrels, also known as waits, among the lesser bureaucracy or to engage minstrels for particular occasions. This was an age when medieval urban ceremonialism reached a peak, as social stratification hardened and a need was felt to make and reinforce wealth-based social status in public settings. It was also an age when towns became increasingly caught up in the national political conflict, and felt it advisable to win the favour and support, or ward off the disfavour, of powerful and influential men by sending them presents, or hosting them at banquets which were often accompanied by musical entertainment.

In fact it was precisely those influential men who were the early employers of minstrels. From the 1330s the borough financial accounts from Lynn refer to payments to various visiting minstrel groups named for their employers, such as those of the Earl of Suffolk, Lord Bardolf, the Duke of Lancaster, the King of Scotland, Sir Robert Mortimer, and Lord Scales, or to the king's ministrels, as well as to solo artists playing gittern, harp, trumpet or other instruments; other minstrels paid had no identified affiliation with a patron. At an earlier date (1280s) the Merchant Gild accounts refer to small payments to minstrels. They were presumably rewards for performances given at Lynn, some of them specified as taking place on festive occasions such as Christmas and May Day. The employment of minstrels by the borough itself appears to have begun around the 1390s, although payments to men of the occupation or surname Wayte can be found earlier. Some of those earlier waits were employed as night-watchmen or gate-keepers, roles calling for good lungs, whether for crying out or for sounding the alarm on wind instruments. But the borough's employment of a small troupe of minstrels did not prevent it paying for engagements by visiting minstrels into at least the reign of Edward IV.

When employees of the city, minstrels were expected to wear some kind of uniform, or decoration, indicative of their status. Liveries of the Lynn waits are were paid for in the 1430s. In 1470 mention is made in Coventry records of a silver badge and silver collar as part of these accoutrements. They evidently received an annual fee from the city, along with the proceeds of a levy on householders, although the latter may have been difficult to collect: in 1459 the minstrels had to petition the leet to appoint an "honest man" from each ward to accompany them when they made the rounds to collect their quarterly wages.

Many minstrels were itinerant, earning their living through commissions wherever they could find them. As employees, Coventry's minstrels were expected to be available when needed, however. Thus, in 1467 they were instructed not to go out of the city to undertake private engagements, with the exception of those for abbots or priors whose houses were within a ten-mile radius of the city.



The "they" at the beginning of each clause refers to the leet jury, a group of 24 impanelled citizens, drawn from the ruling class, who acted with the mayor and other officials as the legislative body of the city. For the most part, this urban authority seems to have framed legislation in response to petitions, or bills, put forward by the citizenry.

"Richard Waite"
By this period, surnames had become relatively fixed and hereditary. Thus, to find a wait with the surname Waite reflects the fact that sons often followed fathers in the same occupation. Without other evidence, we cannot be certain in any given case; but it is possible, perhaps likely, that Richard Waite was the son of a minstrel and, if so, learned his skill from his father. Note also that one of the other minstrels has the surname of "trumpeter".

"Trinity Gild" "Corpus Christi Gild"
These socio-religious gilds were the two most powerful and important in Coventry, their memberships drawn from the urban elite.

As clothing and/or insignia who characteristics were specified by the provider, a livery was in essence a uniform.

The trumpeter was, according to an ordinance of 1439, to be the leader of the minstrel group.

Symbols derived from coats of arms displayed on shields. In this context they had been reduced more to what we would consider badges (possibly shield-shaped) of office.

City officials responsible for part of the financial administration, notably the collection of rent revenues.

main menu

Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 1, 2013 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2013