St. Marys Guildhall
Search
St. Marys Guildhall
SearchEmailPhone

Music and St Mary’s Guildhall    

August 21, 2023
Author: Denise Wolff, Volunteer Blogger.

In this volunteer blog post, we discuss the musicians responsible for entertaining royalty from the earliest days of St Mary’s, as suggested by the majestic ceiling of the Great Hall. 

Work on St Mary’s Guildhall began between 1340 and 1342 for the Merchant Guild of St Mary and enlarged between 1394 and 1414, including a new and longer stone built Great Hall due to the merger with other local foundations: the Guild of St John the Baptist, the Guild of St Katherine and, finally, the Holy Trinity Guild. Both the Borough officials and guild members used the guildhall for meetings, reception of royalty and other ceremonial occasions.  As Joan Lancaster writes, the ‘observation of feast days soon developed into celebrations of some magnificence’[1]  including, for example, the Leet dinner and feasts at All Hallows, St Matthew’s Day and Harvest.[2]  

Between 1451 and 1461, King Henry VI and his wife Queen Margaret of Anjou visited Coventry on a number of occasions, moving the court there in 1456 during the Wars of the Roses.  In 1500, Henry VII and his Queen came to Coventry and were made brother and sister of Corpus Christi and Trinity Guilds.[3] Henry VIII came to Coventry in 1511 with his wife Katherine of Aragon to see the Coventry Pageants, as did his daughters: Mary in 1526 and Elizabeth, in August 1565.  James II came on a royal visit to Coventry in September 1687 and was entertained at St Mary’s.[4] Consequently, it can be assumed that music was played at such events, probably in the Great Hall.

What instruments would have been played, who played them and what did they play?   

(Image by Andrew Moore)

Some of these instruments are illustrated in the decorations in the Great Hall itself:  ten angel musician carvings face one other from each of the trusses that divide the roof into five compartments, dating from around 1400. Their presence is reflected in the modern Minstrels sculpture located in the Guildhall courtyard (the header image of this blog). The angel musicians play the trumpet, harp, rebec (bowed string instrument), bagpipe, lute and shawm. The trumpet at this time had no valves or finger holes and ‘functioned as a loud instrument that could play stirring fanfares in ceremonial contexts’.[5]

 The shawm is a predecessor of the modern oboe. These were the main instruments used by Waits bands between 1350 and 1650.[6] It is the Waits or town band who played such instruments during civic, guild and other ceremonies at St Mary’s in the Minstrel’s Gallery, which was a part of the Great Hall from the initial 1340-42 building.  In fact, according to the Coventry Leet Book record of 4 April 1467, they were forbidden from playing outside the town, except at priories and abbeys within a 10-mile radius.[7]  The Waits were paid by the City of Coventry who also paid for their livery and instruments, and for silver badges designed with the City Arms. The Common Council book entry for 6 May 1674 ordered that £4. 10s. be allowed annually, ‘for a sett of Waites to be the Cities Musitions’.[8]  Waits were also hired by the Guilds themselves, for example in 1475 the Holy Trinity Guild Accounts states ‘Item Waytes, vj s viij d …’(6 shillings and 8 pence). [9]

Waits were virtuoso multi-instrumentalists and singers; they learned through apprenticeships and sometimes became teachers. The Coventry Waits were a band of four men in the Elizabethan period and included Thomas Nicholas, Richard Sadler, Richard Stiff and James Hewett, who was also a composer and player of the Regals (a portable keyboard instrument).

In 1500, the standard Waits band probably still consisted of two or three shawms with a sackbut. They improvised based on a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition (two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody). Consequently, they would need to know which notes would go with other notes in progression. Later in the century, there was a trend of a new type of music where distinct top and bottom parts (upper and lower voices) became popular, such as in French chansons.  

Moreover, as music for five or more parts became quite usual, musical notation was required. By 1600, Waits ‘would have performed a repertoire based in chansons, dance-tunes, and even sacred motets’ (a piece of music in several parts with words). [10]  An example of music that may have been heard at St Mary’s Guildhall is the Messa Caput, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic mass, dating from the 1440s. [11] Today, St Mary’s Guildhall is still used as a music venue, for performances old and new. Why not visit us and see which echoes of the past you can hear?

Header image taken by Volunteer Photographer Chris Day.


[1] Lancaster, Joan,  St.Mary’s Hall, Coventry: A Guide to the Building, its History and Contents, Coventry, 1981 (2nd edition) p.1.

[2] Ibid, p.15

[3] City Annals, from REED: Records of Early English Drama, Coventry, eds. by R.W Ingram, University of Toronto Press, 1981. p.95.

[4] Davidson, Clifford, The Coventry Mysteries and Shakespeare’s Histories (2016). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/early_drama/6

[5] Information kindly provided by Simon Pickard.

[6] Ibid.

[7] REED: Records of Early English Drama, Coventry , eds. by R.W Ingram, University of Toronto Press, 1981. p 45 – Old English version: ‘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’.

[8] Sharp, Thomas A Dissertation on the PAGEANTS OR DRAMATIC MYSTERIES Anciently performed at Coventry, BY THE TRADING COMPANIES OF THAT CITY ; CHIEFLY WITH REFERENCE TO THE VEHICLE, CHARACTERS, AND DRESSES OF THE ACTORS. COMPILED, IN A GREAT DEGREE, FROM SOURCES HITHERTO UNEXPLORED. TO WHICH ARE ADDED, THE Pageant of the Shearmen & Taylors’ Company, AND OTHER MUNICIPAL ENTERTAINMENTS OF A PUBLIC NATURE. Merridew & Son, Coventry,1825,p.209

[9] Ingram, p.57.

[10] Pickard, Simon, ‘Minstrels or Musicians? The ‘musical literacy’ of the Elizabethan provincial Waits in England’ https://townwaits.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Simon-Pickard-Dissertation.pdf

[11] Messa Caput, performed by the Binchois Consort in St Mary’s Hall, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iysiHAEhmq8&t=2s

Sources:

Davidson, Clifford, The Coventry Mysteries and Shakespeare’s Histories (2016). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/early_drama/6

Historic Coventry, https://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/history/history.php

Ingram, R.W, (eds), REED: Records of Early English Drama, Coventry,  University of Toronto Press, 1981: https://ia800206.us.archive.org/14/items/coventryREED00ingruoft/coventryREED00ingruoft.pdf

Lancaster, Joan C, St.Mary’s Hall, Coventry A Guide to the Building its  History and Contents, Coventry, 1981 (2nd edition)

Pickard, Simon, ‘Minstrels or Musicians? The ‘musical literacy’ of the Elizabethan provincial Waits in England’ https://townwaits.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Simon-Pickard-Dissertation.pdf

Sharp, Thomas, A Dissertation on the PAGEANTS OR DRAMATIC MYSTERIES Anciently performed at Coventry, BY THE TRADING COMPANIES OF THAT CITY ; CHIEFLY WITH REFERENCE TO THE VEHICLE, CHARACTERS, AND DRESSES OF THE ACTORS. COMPILED, IN A GREAT DEGREE, FROM SOURCES HITHERTO UNEXPLORED. TO WHICH ARE ADDED, THE Pageant of the Shearmen & Taylors’ Company, AND OTHER MUNICIPAL ENTERTAINMENTS OF A PUBLIC NATURE, Merridew & Son, Coventry, 1825


visit us
Share this article

You might also like

Examining the Guildhall in Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire

William Dugdale writes about Coventry as a city of ancient significance – with St Mary’s Guildhall as a place of ‘magnificence and state’.[1] His...
Read more

Oak sculptures in St Mary’s Guildhall

Have you seen the remarkable oak sculptures displayed in a cabinet in the Treasury at St Mary’s Guildhall? Four of these sculptures – God...
Read more
1 2 3 9

Be the first to hear about any news, events, or updates

Still immersed in the history of St Mary’s Guildhall?
Sign up for our newsletter.
cross
Please note: the Guildhall will be closed on 19th June for a private event. The Tales of Tea restaurant will remain open during this time.
This is default text for notification bar
Skip to content