This is the fifth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article asks what is special about the Minster that it houses such a profusion of minstrel iconography, and finds the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”, a trade guild for professional musicians which covered the whole of the north east of England.
This is followed in the sixth article with an examination of the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; in the seventh article with musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the 19th–20th Gothic revival century organ screen; and the final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.
Why are there so many minstrels in the Minster?
The number of surviving 14th century musicians in Beverley Minster is extraordinary. In numerical order, there are the following instruments. Those too damaged to be identified are listed as such. Between 1895 and 1912, the mason John Percy Baker made some new minstrels to fill gaps where carvings were completely destroyed by iconoclasts, and these are added in brackets (+ Baker’s number). There are: 10 fiddles, also called vielles or viellas; 9 bagpipes; 8 harps; 7 portative organs; 3 shawms; 3 timbrels (+ 2); 3 psalteries; 3 gitterns (+ 2); 3 citoles; 3 pipe and tabors; 3 pairs of nakers; 3 horns, comprising 1 double oliphant and 2 long metal horns; 3 lost wind instruments; 3 lost instruments; 2 trumpets; 1 simfony (+ 1); 1 drum; 1 pair of cup cymbals; 1 probable singer (+ 2); and 1 hunting horn (+ 1). A chart of all the instruments and their locations can be found at the foot of this article.
Many medieval churches had multiple carved images of musicians. There are 16 minstrels, for example, depicted on the roof bosses of Tewkesbury Abbey, made 1320-50; 16 in the choir vault over the high altar of Gloucester Cathedral, and 3 more on top of the adjacent sedilia (ornate stone seats), c. 1350; and an unusually large number of 34 musical carvings, dating from the 13th to the 16th century, in Saint Mary’s Church, Beverley, a short walk from the Minster. No other medieval building has as many as Beverley Minster’s 71 all around the church, and this number requires a special explanation.
“Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”
Medieval and renaissance trades had guilds, early forms of unions or associations to maintain professional standards of work and protect the interests of members. Guilds were divided into two types, merchant guilds and craft guilds. In Beverley, the craft guilds included the furbishers (armourers), porters, creelers (textile makers), mustard makers, chandlers, ropers and goldsmiths. Among them, in the 16th century, was the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”. According to their one surviving document, their guild charter of 1555, it operated “between the rivers of Trent and Tweed”, i.e. south of the Humber estuary up to the Scottish border, the whole of the north east of England, with Beverley as its headquarters. Membership was dependent upon being a professional musician, either a “mynstrell to some man of honour and worship,” i.e. in the pay of the nobility, “or else of some honesty and conyng as shall be thought laudable and pleasent to the hearers there or elsewhere”, i.e. freelance, “or waite of some town corporate, or other ancient towne”, i.e. a hired municipal minstrel. The Beverley-based minstrels’ guild, then, was for all professional musicians in the north east of England.
Medieval guilds liked to declare ancient origins, and the Beverley minstrels’ guild charter of 1555 describes minstrelsy as “a very annciente custome of the memorie of dyvers aiges of men heretofore contynnally frequented from the tyme of king Athelstone, of famous memorie, sometyme a notable kynge of Englande, as may appeare by olde bookes of antiquitie.” King Athelstan, the first King of England, reigned from 927 to 939. Like many such claims of antiquity by guilds, their claim to begin in his reign cannot be corroborated. Athelstan was important because he had a spiritual association with Saint John of Beverley: the king prayed at the saint’s tomb before his victory over the Scots in 937 and, in grateful response, he bestowed a new title and status on the church that housed John’s tomb, making it the Collegiate Church of Saint John the Evangelist, now Beverley Minster. That the minstrels’ guild dates back to the 10th century is by no means impossible, but it cannot be proven; and the association of King Athelstan with Saint John of Beverley could be a legendary reason for the guild to claim its foundation in his reign.
In seeking to make a connection between the Beverley minstrels’ guild and Beverley Minster’s 14th century minstrel carvings, we don’t need to corroborate its foundation in “the tyme of king Athelstone”, but we do need to find evidence of the “Fraternity of Minstralls” in the 14th century.
In 1366-67, the town paid Ralph Wayt – presumably Ralph, a wayt – 10 shillings, half his year’s salary. It is at least possible that the likeness of Ralph Wayt is recorded as one of the three waits (wayts) or shawm players in the Minster, seen below. In 1407-08, 2 Beverley waits shared a fee of £1 6s. 8d., and then, until the middle of the century, 2 or 3 waits recur in Beverley’s municipal accounts, sharing a joint salary of between £1 and £1 10s. The waits of 15th century Beverley were given livery – official collars or chains and miniature silver-gilt shields displaying the town’s arms – showing that they were a staple of municipal life; but their employment by the local authority was nevertheless intermittent. That Ralph Wayt was paid a half-year salary, and that 2 or 3 waits shared a year’s salary between them, reflects a pattern in the Beverley payment records for waits generally, sometimes retained for an entire year, sometimes only for the winter, sometimes not at all.
We have evidence, then, of Ralph Wayt, a Beverley musician in 1366-67, but there is no direct contemporaneous record of the “Fraternity of Minstralls” to which he may have belonged.
Minstrels in mystery plays and miracle plays
So we look for circumstantial evidence. Medieval guilds performed miracle plays about the lives of saints, and mystery plays, vernacular Biblical dramas which told the whole story of Christian redemption from the creation to the flood to Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, ending with the Final Judgement. This was people’s theatre, full of down-to-earth language, humour and pathos.
Most major towns had a unique cycle of mystery plays, though not all would be performed in a particular year. Lack of evidence prevents knowledge of how far back the tradition goes, but it is clear that from 1210 the municipal authorities had taken over the general running of the mysteries. When the Festival of Corpus Christi was fixed in the liturgical calendar in 1311, mystery plays became associated with this annual celebration, a movable feast between late May and mid June.
The drama was broken up into a cycle of up to 48 plays or pageants, each play performed by a different trade guild. Sometimes the subject of the play and the guild were matched. For example, the mystery plays of the Freemen & Guilds of Chester in 1540 had Noah and his Ship performed by the Waterleaders and Drawers in the Dee, The Three Kings by the Mercers and Spicers, The Last Supper by the Grocers, Bakers and Millers, and The Crucifixion by The Ironmongers and Ropers.
Only a handful of complete or nearly complete cycle of plays survive: the York, Chester, Towneley, and ‘N Town’ cycles. The first surviving record of Beverley’s mystery cycle is from 1377, the period when the Minster’s minstrels were being carved. There are records of the Beverley mysteries for 1390, when it was described as an ancient custom, and through the 15th century until 1461, performed every year during some periods, less frequently in others. None of the Beverley texts have survived, but the typical flavour and content of the mysteries – and the use of music and involvement of minstrels – can be gleaned from other extant manuscripts.
The mysteries included music to drive the drama, with songs sung by guild members. Sometimes liturgical or Biblical passages were adapted for dramatic singing. In the Towneley cycle of West Yorkshire, dated to the late 15th or early 16th century, there are many indications of singing. For example, an angel sings Gloria in excelsis to the shepherds at Christ’s birth, and a group of angels sing at Joseph and Mary’s entry into the temple and at Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven. Two scenes indicate that everybody sings, during the Harrowing of Hell and at the end of the Judgement play. Coventry’s Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, dramatising The Nativity, includes the most well-known surviving song of the mysteries, Lully, lulla, thow littell tiné child, known to posterity as Coventry Carol. The Coventry manuscript is dated 1591, but the text is clearly from a much earlier date and the music is in a late 15th or early 16th century style, so the Coventry plays must have been written down or copied out to preserve them, as a result of several decades of attempts by Protestant monarchs Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I to suppress them, as they were associated with the old Catholic faith.
Musical accompaniment in the mystery plays was supplied by paid professional minstrels, used most often to symbolise heaven at points of divine intervention. In Coventry in 1450, for example, the Carpenters paid for one minstrel at 13d, while the Smiths’ Company spent a huge 10/6d on fee and food for an unspecified number of minstrels over the two days of Corpus Christi. In 1483, the Mariners and Pilots Guild of Hull paid professional minstrels and actors to play lead parts: “To the minstrels, 6d. To Noah and his wife, 1s. 6d. To Robert Brown playing God, 6d.”
The records of Beverley’s mystery cycle from 1377 and 1390 – when the Minster’s minstrels were carved in stone – do not specify which guild was responsible for which pageant, and there is therefore no specific evidence of the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley” nor indeed any other Beverley guild in the 14th century, though they must have existed. The records of the Beverley mystery plays from the 15th century also do not mention the minstrels’ guild, nor would we expect them to: minstrels’ guilds were never listed among those performing mystery plays because their members were dispersed, employed by other professional unions to perform their music.
That there were mystery plays in Beverley necessitates the employment of musicians; and that in turn necessitates the existence of the musicians’ guild. Furthermore, it was standard practice that any individual or organisation who paid a significant sum of money for the new fabric of a church building be visibly represented in it: 71 minstrels in the Minster strongly implies funding from a substantial minstrels’ organisation in the 14th century.
The “Fraternity of Minstralls” and the Minstrels’ Pillar
A short walk from Beverley Minster is Saint Mary’s Church. The church has 34 musical carvings, dating from the 13th to the 16th century. Among them is the Minstrels’ Pillar, featuring 5 musicians in a row on its capital. The Minstrels’ Pillar is evidence of the existence of Beverley minstrels’ guild before their charter of 1555, and evidence of the guild making a financial contribution to the fabric of a church and thus being visually represented.
The Minstrels’ Pillar came into being as the guild’s response to a tragedy. On 29th April 1520 the tower of Saint Mary’s Church collapsed, resulting in loss of life and damage to the fabric of the building. The event was memorialised by an inscription on one of the pews in the nave, now kept in the priest’s room: “Pray God have mace [mercy] of al the sawllys [souls] of the men and wymen and cheldryn whos bodys was slayn at the faulying of thys ccherc [church] … thys fawl was the 29 day of Aperel in the yere of our Lord 1520”. The Ancient Company of Minstrels in Beverley paid for the Minstrels’ Pillar as a gift to the church during the rebuilding work of 1520–24, among the many other donations from wealthy individuals recorded in the accounts of the Governors of Beverley for 1520.
Above left is a creature holding a sign reading “THYS PYLOR MADE THE MEYNSTRYLS”; and on the right we see the same sign above the minstrels on their pillar.
Below is a close-up of the 5 minstrels. Though damaged, lacking some limbs and instruments, they have the kind of colour that once adorned all the minstrels of Saint Mary’s and Beverley Minster. This is clearly not the original paint, since it covers the broken areas. Unlike the lifelike individual portrayals of the Minster minstrels, the musicians of Saint Mary’s Minstrels’ Pillar have generic faces. The musicians are playing, left to right, pipe and tabor, fiddle or large recorder, harp, lute, and shawm. Like the range of instruments depicted in Beverley Minster in the 14th century, this 16th century image was meant to represent the variety of instruments played by minstrels.
The weight of circumstantial evidence
In conclusion, there is no documentary evidence for the existence of the Beverley “Fraternity of Minstralls” in the 14th century during the time of the Beverley Minster minstrels being carved and installed, but this is in common with the lack of any surviving mention of other guilds in Beverley during this period. There is clear evidence for vernacular religious plays performed in Beverley at this time, and we know from mystery plays and miracle plays generally that this would have included music by minstrels, who would have belonged to the minstrels’ guild.
The first direct evidence for Beverley’s “Fraternity of Minstralls” is from 1520, the Minstrels’ Pillar in Saint Mary’s Church, and 1555, their guild charter with a claim of ancient origins. Just as the Minstrels’ Pillar of 1520 explicitly points to the existence of the minstrels’ guild and their financial contribution to the fabric of Saint Mary’s, so the remarkable number of 71 surviving carved minstrels implicitly signifies both the existence of the guild and their financial contribution to the fabric of Beverley Minster in the 14th century.
The sum total of these circumstantial factors all point in the same direction: that the existence of the “Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley” in the 14th century is a credible explanation for the extraordinary number of musicians depicted.
Beverley Minster floor plan and instrument inventory
The floor plan above shows the various stages of building of Beverley Minster. Modern sources do not always agree on precise construction dates, so I have used the widest suggested timescales. The arcade columns are numbered 1 to 18 for convenience, and descriptions of minstrels in the arcades follow this scheme in the second article. The letters A to R on the inside of the west, north and south walls indicate bays, and this lettering system is used to indicate the location of minstrels in the third article. The minstrels of the tomb of the two sisters, the Percy tomb, reredos, Saint Katherine’s chapel and the south transept are all described in the fourth article.
The 14th century minstrels are listed below by location in a table cataloguing instruments by type, from the most to the least numerous.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
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