Waits, or Waights, seem originally to have been a kind of musical watchman, who, in order to prove their watchfulness, were required to pipe at stated hours of the night. The hautboy was also called a waight, - perhaps from being the pipe upon which they commonly played, - but there are early instances of the use of other pipes by Waits, as in the passage quoted by Mr. Sandys, from the old lay of Richard Cour-de-Lion :-
"A wayte ther com in a kernel,
And pypyd a moot in a flagel."
This flagel was probably a pipe of which the "flagelet" is the diminutive.
Mr. Sandys remarks that 'in the time of Henry the Third, Simon le Wayte held a virgate of land at Rockingham, in Northamptonshire, on the tenure of being castle-wayte, or watch; and the same custom was observed in other places.' Mr. E. Smirke, who quotes many such cases, in his Observations on Wait Service mentioned in the Liber Winton, or Winchester Domesday, adds that, in the Earldom of Cornwall, they who held their lands by the tenure of keeping watch at the castle gate of Launceston, 'owed suit to a special court, in the nature of a court baron, called the 'Curia vigiliae', 'Curie de gayte', or 'Wayternesse Courte' of which many records are still extant in the offices of the Exchequer, and among the records of the Duchy (Archaeological Journal, No. 12, Dec. 1846).
Blount's Ancient Tenures gives several instances of holding land by wait-service, or by payments for that service. Thus, in Norfolk, Thomas Spelman held the manors of Narborough and Wingrave by knight-service, and paying fourteen shillings annually for wayte-fee and castle-guard; and John Le Marshall held the manor of Buxton by paying a mark every six weeks for guarding Norwich Castle, and fifteen shillings quarterly for wayte-fee at the said castle.
The duties of a wayte are thus defined in the Liber niger Domus Regis, which contains an account of the musicians retained by the household establishment of King Edward IV: 'A WAYTE, that nightely from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipethe watche within this courte fowere tymes; in the Somere nightes three tymes, and makethe bon gayte at every chambee doare and offyce, as well for feare of pyckeres and pillers. He eatethe in the halle with Mynstrelles, and takethe lyverey at nighte a loafe, a galone of ale, and for Somere nightes two candles pich, and a bushel of coles; and for Wintere nightes halfe a loafe of bread, a galone of ale, four candles pich, a bushel coles: Daylye whilst he is presente in Court for his wages, in Cheqque-roale, allowed iiiid. ob. or else iiid. by the discresshon of the Steuarde and Tressorore, and that after his cominge and deservinge: Also cloathinge with the Household Yeomen or Mynstrelles lyke to the wages that he takethe: An he be sycke, he taketh two loaves, two messe of great meate, one galone ale. Also he parteth with the houshold of general gyfts, and hathe his beddinge, carried by the Comptrolleres assignment; and under this yeoman, to be a Groome-Waitere. Yf he can excuse the yeoman in his absence, then he takethe rewarde, clotheinge, meat, and all other things lyke to other Grooms of Houshold. Also this Yeoman-Waighte, at the making of Knightes of the Bathe, for his attendance upon them by nighte-time, in watchinge in the Chappelle, hathe of his fee all the watchinge clothing that the Knight shall wear upon him.' Three waits were included among the minstrels in the service of Edward III.
The musicians of towns and corporations were also called waits. The City of London had its waits, who attended the Lord Mayors on public occasions, such as Lord Mayor's Day, and on public feasts and great dinners. They are described as having blue gowns, red sleeves, and caps, every one having his silver collar about his neck. In 1599, Morley thus speaks of them in his dedication of his Consort Lessons, for six instruments, to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen:- "But, as the ancient custom of this most honorable and renowned city hath ever been to retain and maintain excellent and expert musicians, to adorn your Honour's favours, feasts, and solemn meetings, - to those, your Lordship's Wayts, I recommend the same, - to your servants' careful and skilful handling."
When Charles II, on his restoration, passed through the city of London to Whitehall, he was, according to Ogilby, entertained with music from a band of eight waits at Crutched Friars, of six at Aldgate, and six in Leadenhall Street. Roger North, who lived in his reign, says: "As for corporation and mercenary music, it was chiefly flabile, and the professors , from going about the streets in a morning, to wake folks, were and are yet called Waits, quasi Wakes." I doubt this derivation, for the meaning of the word seems rather to be "to watch" than "to awaken" (in the glossary of Tyrwhitt's Chaucer we find "Wake, v. Sax., To watch" and "Waite, v. Fr., To watch"); but the passage proves that waits then went about the streets at unseasonable hours, as they now do, within a few days of Christmas, in order to earn a Christmas-box.
John Cleleand, in his "Essay on the Origins of the Musical Waits at Christmas", appended to his "Way to things by words and to words by things", 8vo., 1766, says: "But at the ancient Yule, or Christmas time especially, the dreariness of the weather, the length of the night, would naturally require something extraordinary to wake and rouse men from their natural inclination to rest, and from a warm bed at that hour. The summons, then, to the Wakes of that season were given by music, going the rounds by invitation to the mirth or festivals which were awaiting them. In this there was some propriety - some object; but where is there any in such a solemn piece of banter as that of music going the rounds and disturbing people in vain? For surely any meditation to be thereby excited on the holiness of the ensuing day could hardly be of great avail, in a bed between sleeping and waking. But such is the power of custom to perpetuate absurdities."
In nearly all the books of household expenditure in early times, we find donations to waits of the towns through which the traveller passed. In those of Sir John Howard, of Henry VII., and of Henry VIII., there are payments to the waits of London, Colchester, Dover, Canterbury, Dartford, Coventry, Northampton, and others. Will. Kemp, in his celebrated Morris-dance from London to Norwich, says that few cities have waits like those of Norwich, and none better; and that, besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the viol and violin, they had admirable voices, every one of them being able to serve as a chorister in any cathedral church. One Richard Reede, a wait of Cambridge, is mentioned by Mr. Sandys, as having reveived 20s. for his attendance at a gentleman's mansion during the Christmas of 1574.
Some of the tunes which the waits of different towns played, are contained in The Dancing Master of 1665, and others in Apollo's Banquet, 1669. The York Waits seem to have chosen a hornpipe tune, which was printed in broadsides, with words by Mr. Durden. "The Waits" composed by Jeremiah Savile, is on the last page of Playford's Musical Companion, 1673.
Quoting from the privy purse expenses of King Henry VII, there are "payments to the Waytes of Dover, Canterbury, Dartford, Coventry and Northampton". His source is "Excerpta Historica (8vo., 1833), which also lists "flutes, recorders trumpets, sackbuts, harps, shalmes, bagpipes, organs, and round organs, clavicords, lutes, horns, pipers, fiddlers, singers and dancers. Henry's love of music must have been great, which is further established by the fact that, in every town he entered, as well as on board the ship which conveyed him to Calais, he was attended by minstrels and waits".
In London, each ward of the city had its musicians; there was also the Finsbury Music, the Southwark and the Blackfriars Music, as well as the Waits of London and Westminster. Morley thus alludes to the Waits, in the dedication of his Consort Lessons to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen: 'As the ancient custom of this most honourable and renowned city hath been ever to retain and maintain excellent and expert musicians to adorn your hounours' favours, feasts and solemn meetings: to those, your Lordships' Wayts, I recommend the same.' A 'Wayte' in the time of Edward IV., had to pipe watch four times in the night, from Michaelmas to Shrovetide, and three in the summer, as well as to 'make bon gayte' at every chamber door; but Morley's Consort Lessons, as before mentioned, required six instruments to play them, and the city bands are commonly quoted as playing in six parts.