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Welcome to Episode #127 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a whiffler as ‘one of a body of attendants armed with a javelin, battle-axe, sword, or staff … employed to keep the way clear for a procession or at some public spectacle’.

For the life of William Shakespeare these whifflers were widely used in a variety of places including at public performances of drama and would have been a well known part of London life for William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare writes about whifflers only once in his works and that comes to us in the chorus of Henry V when the Chorus says,

“Behold, the English beach
Pales in the flood with men, with wives and boys,
Whose shouts and claps out-voice the deep mouth'd sea,
Which like a mighty whiffler ‘fore the king
Seems to prepare his way” 

Shakespeare’s reference backs up the OED’s definition for whiffler as someone with a reputation for clearing a path. While they are not spoken of as often as actors or musicians, whifflers were an essential part of a very unique spectacle from Shakespeare’s lifetime–that of the civic pageant. A lot like a street fair today, or perhaps more like a vaudeville act, this form of drama that included the work of whifflers alongside actors, dancers, and musicians took place in the street where clearing paths would have been essential to both the performance as well as ensuring general traffic was not obstructed due to the spectacle. Whifflers, and their civic pageantry, produced a kind of entertainment that for 16th century London, was a foundational part of England’s national identity. 

Here to help us explore exactly what a whiffler was, how they worked, and precisely why they needed a javelin or battle ax, is our guest, and expert on whifflers in early modern London, Tracey Hill.

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Tracey Hill is Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at Bath Spa University, UK. She specialises in the cultural history of the early modern City of London and is the author of two books, Anthony Munday and Civic Culture (MUP 2004) and Pageantry and Power: a cultural history of the early modern Lord Mayor's Show (MUP 2010), as well as a number of book chapters and journal articles. She is editor-in-chief of the Records of Early English Drama project Civic London 1558-1642, and a Freeman [sic] of the City of London and of the Founders' Company

In this episode, I’ll be asking Tracey Hill about :

  • There is only one reference to “whiffler” that I was able to find in Shakespeare’s plays, and it comes from Henry V where they are described as being comparable with the roaring ocean and called “a mighty whiffler” that prepares the way for the King (This reference comes from the Chorus in Act V of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Tracey, Shakespeare’s reference to whifflers in Henry V makes them sound like quite formidable characters. Were whifflers pretty imposing physically?

  • Did a whiffler have a certain uniform that identified him in a crowd as a whiffler?
  • Tracey, how did someone become a whiffler?

… and more!

Download this map of the 1613 Lord Mayor's Show

(Created from research inside Tracey Hill's "Pageant and Power")

    Which like a mighty whiffler ‘fore the king
    Seems to prepare his way:

    Chorus

    Henry V (V.0)

    Print, ‘A Whiffler to the Norwich Corporation', coloured lithograph on paper, undated; in plate lower margin right ‘PAGE BROTHERS [ampersand] C.O NORWICH, LITH.'; in plate bottom centre of subject ‘A WHIFFLER TO THE NORWICH CORPORATION. / The Whifflers (four in number) went before the Corporate Body on Guild days in order to clear the way for the procession. This / they performed by brandishing their short two handled swords with the greatest dexterity and agility without hurting anyone. / They are of very early origin, probably 15th century. The Office was done away with in 1832.'

    Materials:

    paper (support)

    Inscription:

    A WHIFFLER TO THE NORWICH CORPORATION. / The Whifflers (four in number) went before the Corporate Body on Guild days in order to clear the way for the procession. This / they performed by brandishing their short two handled swords with the greatest dexterity and agility without hurting anyone. / They are of very early origin, probably 15th century. The Office was done away with in 1832. PAGE BROTHERS [ampersand] C.O NORWICH, LITH.

    Accession number:

    NWHCM : 1954.138.Todd7.Mancroft.128
    Original Source page at Norwich Museum.

     

    Whifflers began as military, but became more for show

    From as early as Saxon times (with some believing the term “whiffler” stems from the ancient word wifle battle-axe), the Whiffler was employed to clear the way. (Source) Exactly which paths needed clearing seems to be widely varied, though the majority is civic displays or pageants. There is at least one source which indicates whifflers may have walked ahead of prisoners being marched in procession to their execution, but predominantly whifflers were traditional elements of a parade. (Source) The closest thing in modern times to the description of what a whiffler's purpose was in these civic pageants would be today's majorette or baton twirler. Several references that describe the visual appearance of a whilffer indicate they wore white and crimson satin, and that they carried with them some kind of baton which has been listed as anything from a battle axe to a sword, but most often it was a weapon. Today's recreations of the whiffler role in Norwich's Guild Day celebrations and London's Lord Mayor Show, have the whiffler appear with a wooden sword. While I expect those are wooden for safety, in Shakespeare's day, whifflers would have carried a real sword. While their appearance was largely designed to be for presentation and flash, the whiffler was equipped to use their weapon in enforcing crowd control when necessary. Whifflers are described by Sir Walter Besnant in his book, London in the Time of the Tudors, as having a clear place in official processions:

    The London men wore a uniform of white with white caps, and the City arms in scarlet on back and front. Some carried arquebuses; some were halberdiers; some were pikemen. They marched in companies according to their arms. Their officers rode beside the men dressed in black velvet. They were preceded by billmen, corresponding to the modern pioneers; by a company of whifflers, i.e. trumpeters; and in the midst marched six Ensigns in white satin faced with black sarsenet, and rich scarves. Source

    Related Episode You Might Enjoy

    Come, go we in procession to the village.

    Henry V

    Henry V (IV.8)

    Guild Day – ‘Snap Dragon' the survival of an old custom (print) |
    Description:Print, ‘Guild Day – ‘Snap Dragon' the survival of an old custom' (1856-1903), engraving on paper, 1883; printed below subject ‘GUILD DAY – ‘SNAP DRAGON[colon]' THE SURVIVAL OF AN OLD CUSTOM'; signed in plate lower right corner of subject ‘FGK [ampersand] JRB'

    Artist / maker:

    Kitton, Frederick George

    Materials:

    paper (support)

    Inscription:

    GUILD DAY – ‘SNAP DRAGON[colon]' THE SURVIVAL OF AN OLD CUSTOM FGK [ampersand] JRB

    Accession number:

    NWHCM : 1954.138.Todd7.Mancroft.146b
    Original source at Norwich Museum Collection.

    Whifflers Signified the Entrance of an Important Person

    Whifflers were employed when someone of importance was entering the town or city. The Whiffler was there to both clear the bath, as well as ensure crowd control, along with simply being an expected and a favorite participant in the parade itself. Charles Knight, in his book London, Volume 6, described Whifflers this way,

    Whifflers, who played so important a part in the Show, were young freemen, who marched at the head of their proper companies, to clear the way. Douce says in his “Illustrations to Shakespeare' that ‘the name is derived from whiffle, a fife or small flute, the performers on which usually preceeded armies or processions and hence the name was ultimately applied to any one who went before a procession.'…The reader will remember the quarrelbetween Oberon and Titania in the ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,' concerning the “little changeling boy” the King of Fairies wishes to make “his henchman” [describing the hench-boy from the above image for reference]

    Knight, in a footnote to his description of whifflers, describes how much of an established part of society and pageants whifflers were during the life of William Shakespeare by explaining a time when Will Kempe, during the same time he so famously marched to Norwich by dancing, was accompanied on this march by whifflers who signaled Kempe's arrival. Knight explains,

    …mention is made in Kemp's “Nine Daies' Wonder” of their being employed when he danced into Norwich in 1599. That very ancient favorite of the people, a dragon, was also exhibited on the same occasion; he was known as “Snap”, from the movement of his jaws, which opened and shut continually as his head moved round to the amusement of children, who threw half-pence in his mouth.”

    This tradition of having a Guild Day parade in Norwich featuring both whifflers and Snap the dragon was in full force during Shakespeare's lifetime. Falling out of favor in the mid to late 19th century, the tradition has since been revived in Norwich where they hold an annual Guild Day celebration which includes the traditionally dressed whifflers and Snap the dragon, who is recreated to match the images of these pageant figures that survive from the 16-17th centuries.

    An edict about whifflers | Pewterers’ Company Court Minutes, 1561-1589, CLC/L/PE/B/001/MS07090/002, f 99r | [marginal: Lorde Mayors of London precepte for vj Cresset lightes It reads “A precepte was then receyved from the Lorde mayor, for the Cressettes lights, to be made readye againste Midsomer even, and also apt men to the nomber of sixe to beare them, and to everie to [two] Cressettes, one bagge bearer, as also a requeste for two discrete persones, to attende uppon the saide Cressett bearers called wyfflers: all which to be readie at Leadon hawle before the houre of vi of the clock” | From the REED Project Blog article “Stand Clear for Whifflers” by Tracey Hill, Image is used by permission. Source

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    Here comes the townsmen on procession,
    To present your highness with the man.

    Winchester

    Henry VI Part 2 (II.1)

    [Whiffler and Hench-Boy} From the Collection of Prints and Title-pages formed by John Bagford, and now placed in the British Museum. Dated 1635, public domain by virtue of age, they representa Whiffler and his “staff and chain” along with a hench-boy. Source

    Whifflers were most well known as part of Lord Mayor's Show

    As Tracey’s work points out, whifflers were often associated specifically with the annual Lord Mayor’s Show that took place in London. The Lord Mayor’s show is a huge pageant and could be considered very showy in terms of wanting to present lavishness at the parade of the new Mayor. Despite whifflers playing a primary role in a procession that was primarily about performance, whifflers were also serving a practical purpose during the event. They provided security. Tracey points out that with the Peweter's Company, the Queen came to their procession and celebration. The record of this event specifically mentions staves and whifflers. Tracey says “That’s an unusual reference because normally the risk/unpleasantness isn’t mentioned. Points out [the whiffler's] role as security.”

    While the many images we've shown in this week's show notes include one or two whifflers, when we say whifflers were involved in these events, their numbers could at times reach the thousands, as is recorded by Besnant, who writes of a record from the 1700s,

    The London Archers continued to hold their yearly contests in the month of September, in spite of the fact that henceforth there would be no use for the longbow in warfare. They formed a very fine corps, had they been of any use; meantime, the City has always loved a show, and a very fine show the Archers provided. Their captain was called the Duke of Shoreditch; the captains of the different Companies were called the Marquesses of Clerkenwell, Islington, Hoxton, and the Earl of Pancras,[13] etc.; in the year 1583 they assembled at Merchant Taylors Hall to the number of 3000 all sumptuously apparelled, “nine hundred and forty-two having chains of gold about their necks.” They were escorted by whifflers and bowmen to the number of 4000, besides pages and footmen; and so marching through Broad Street, where the Duke of Shoreditch lived, they proceeded by Moorfields and Finsbury to Smithfield, where, after performing their evolutions, they shot at the target for glory.

    Source

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    Here comes the townsmen on procession,
    To present your highness with the man.

    WInchester

    Henry VI Part 2 (II.1)

    Image from page 40 of “Early English poetry, ballads, and popular literature of the Middle Ages ;” (1840)
    Identifier: earlyenglishpoet19perc | Title: Early English poetry, ballads, and popular literature of the Middle Ages ;| Year: 1840 (1840s) | Authors: Percy Society | Subjects: English literature — Early modern, 1500-1700 English poetry — Early modern, 1500-1700 | Publisher: London : Printed for the Percy Society by Richards | Contributing Library: University of California Libraries | Digitizing Sponsor: MSN

    Whifflers carried weapons, but we aren't sure which one

    When the OED defines a whiffler they specifically include several weapons that are associated with a whiffler like a battle axe and javelin. These are not dainty little weapons,and notably, are not the weapons of a 16th century gentleman like a rapier or dagger might be considered. Whifflers seem pretty closely associated with armour, but at least one set of scholars indicate that using whiffler in a military sense is actually an antiquated definition by the time Shakespeare uses it in a military context for Henry V. In their commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, Samuel Jonson and company, write about the whiffler saying “… in a diary of King Henry’s siege of Bulloigne, 1544, mention is made of the drommes and wiffleurs marching at the head of the King’s army….[From this old French word wiffleur] came the English word, whiffler, which anciently was used in its proper literal sense…” they give the example of King Philip hosting a joust in 1554 and “The challengers entered the lists, preceded by ‘their whifflers, their footmen, and their armourers.”(Source pg. 331)

    These references seem to indicate a whiffler was a standard part of a military or fighting operation, almost like the holder of weapons or someone who announced the fighter had arrived for the fray.Tracey explains, however, that by the time Kemp was being announced by a whiffler for his procession into Norwich, the whiffler had come to hold an entirely different association and were not, in fact, these formidable weapon carriers from which they derived their name.

    Despite being a pageant performer, when you were picked to be a whiffler for a procession that job was taken seriously and you could be fined for declining, as William was in this record from the Grocer's Company:

    Grocers’ Company fined William Young ‘for that he did not serve as a whiffler
    at the coming of the Queen from Charterhouse to the Tower, 2s, whereof to the
    Beadle, 4d’.

    Source

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    Books & Resources Tracey Hill Recommends

    Keep an eye on civiclondon.wordpress.com for further posts on similar topics. 

    There’s a very new book of essays on civic pageantry, Civic Performance: Pageantry and Entertainments in Early Modern London: https://www.routledge.com/Civic-Performance-Pageantry-and-Entertainments-in-Early-Modern-London/Finlayson-Sen/p/book/9781138228399

    To trace the routes of pageantry and to read edited pageant books from the period, you can explore mapoflondon.uvic.ca.  

    Download this map of the 1613 Lord Mayor's Show

    (Created from research inside Tracey Hill's "Pageant and Power")


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