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The bishop who banned York’s Yuletide

By William Marshall
The York Waits

The York Waits. Copyright York Waits.
The York Waits bring back a traditional sound to the streets

The streets of York are always lively at Christmas time. Travel back in time 400 years, however, and the revelry was so riotous that the Archbishop had to step in and put a stop to the proceedings.

Every December 21, St Thomas's Day, a ceremony known as Yule Riding took place in York. It signified the arrival of Christmas and its twelve days of merriment.

One person adopted the guise of Yule, carrying a leg of lamb and a cake, and another took the role of Yule's wife. Nuts were thrown into the crowd and the procession was accompanied by loud music.

Yule is nowadays a synonym for Christmas, but originally it was the Norse midwinter festival. Perhaps its late survival in York was a vestige of the city's Viking past. But by the early 1570s such a boisterous celebration as Yule Riding, full of pagan symbolism and its attendant hanky-panky, had become highly offensive to the puritan sensibilities of Archbishop Edmund Grindal.

The York Waits copyright York Waits
Now associated with Christmas, Yule was the Norse midwinter festival

The figures of Yule and Yule's wife, he complained, "ride through the city very undecently and uncomely, drawing great concourses of people after them to gaze, often times committing other enormities".

Meanwhile, the city's Sheriffs would welcome the arrival of Yule by reading the "Yoole-girthol", a free and easy proclamation that "all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players and other unthrifty folk" were welcome in the city during the Twelve Days.

It is hardly surprising that Archbishop Grindal decided that Yule Riding, with its confused view of law and order, had to go. In recent years, however, its spirit has been revived by a band of musicians from York.

Since the 1970s, The York Waits, have been performing all over the UK and overseas on ancient instruments such as shawms, sackbuts, lutes, crumhorns and rebecs.

The York Waits take their name from the ancient city band of York. The earliest evidence for the band is found in 14th century records. Before they turned to music full time the waits had been night watchmen and, although their guard duties diminished, they continued to keep the night watches in the weeks leading up to Christmas, playing music around the city, to mark the hours and wake the citizens.

In York, as in many towns, they were employed by the Lord Mayor as the city's own band of musicians, paid and liveried by the corporation to play on public occasions. The band is known to have been in continuous existence for at least five hundred years until its abolition in 1836.

Along with local historians, the Waits uncovered the hidden history of Yule Riding, discovering that the riotous procession was accompanied by music played on the shawm, a loud reed instrument. This led to the Waits reviving many pieces of ancient Christmas-tide music.




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