April Flower: A ‘common minstrel’?—NOT William Smith of Headingley

On October 30, 1563, in Headingley (West Riding), young Anne Hobson knew that she had to tell her parents about her contract of marriage to Edward Walker. She would later deny that she had ever entered into such an agreement, but she knew that the rumours of it would soon reach the ears of her parents. So Anne decided, having secured the support of a sympathetic neighbour, to break the news to them. As she feared, her mother was not pleased, and her stepfather, Gilbert Kirke, was “offended and angrie with her,” so much so that Anne asked for their permission to leave and find a place to stay with friends. Shortly thereafter, Anne’s parents must have intervened to stop the match, for Walker had to take the matter to the Consistory Court of the Diocese of York early in 1564.

The records in this case, “Walker vs. Hobson,”[i] make it clear that one of the strategies of the defence was to discredit the witnesses called on behalf of Edward Walker. One was Thomas Whitehead, a resident of Headingley of twenty-six years, who was accused of “fornication” for begetting an illegitimate child with a fellow servant, Anne Killingbeck. The other was William Smith: not a fornicator, but little better, being, allegedly, “a common minstrel.” For that reason alone his testimony was to be dismissed as that of a beggarly rogue and an untrustworthy witness. In this respect, in the consistent use in the court records of ‘minstrel’ as a pejorative term, “Walker vs. Hobson” registers the decline in the status and reputation of minstrels that occurred over the course of the 16th century. Indeed the decline was already well advanced: only twelve years later, the lutenist Thomas Whythorne would affirm that “minstrels” were “the rascal and off-scum”[ii] of the musical profession.

What was a ‘common minstrel’ then? The witnesses in “Walker vs. Hobson” revealed in their testimony the criteria they used when answering the question. Several of them indicated that William Smith was respected resident of the village, worth approximately £7, and by occupation a shearman and weaver.

'Man with Cithern', 1666. Plate from John Playford's Musicks Delight on the Cithern (print made by Richard Gaywood; after Francis Barlow).

‘Man with Cithern’, 1666. Plate from John Playford’s Musicks Delight on the Cithern (print made by Richard Gaywood; after Francis Barlow).


Almost all of them also confirmed that Smith played the lute and the cithern and performed in the homes of local gentry. John Ibotson deposed specifically that he had heard William Smith play several times, “in Mr Bayles house Mr Hardwickes Mr Oglethorpe & diuers other gentelmens and other honest mens houses.” Nevertheless, neither Ibotson nor any of the other seven men who gave evidence considered Smith to be a minstrel. Two factors were decisive for them: venue and payment. First, Smith did not “resorte to marriages ffaires or suche like notable assemblies or comon ale houses as common mynstrelles do.” And secondly, Smith performed without any expectation that money would be “offered or gathered for him as is commenly vsed for common mynstrells.”

William Smith was many things—a twenty-two-year resident of Headingley, a citizen of sufficient means, a neighbour of “good reputation and conversation,” a shearman and a weaver, a trustworthy witnesss, and a musician who played the lute and cithern—but not a disreputable ‘common minstrel’.

[i] Borthwick Institute, York, MS CP. G. 988: the initial plea and final sentence are not extant, but the depositions of the witnesses questioned in April and May 1564 survive. Abbreviations in the manuscripts have been silently expanded.

[ii] The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), p. 245.

'Minstrels with a Rebec and a Lute', Spanish, from the Cantigas de Santa Maria; 13th c. Manasseh Codex. El Escorial, Madrid.

‘Minstrels with a Rebec and a Lute’, Spanish, from the Cantigas de Santa Maria; 13th c. Manasseh Codex. El Escorial, Madrid.

This month’s flower was provided by the co-editor of the REED West Riding volume, Professor Ted McGee.


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