Whifflers were ubiquitous in early modern pageantry. The OED 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 London events, the livery companies appointed a number of whifflers (generally four or six) from their ranks. Veteran antiquarian John Stow performed a whiffler’s role on behalf of his livery company, the Merchant Taylors, in the 1560s. These roles were not exactly sought after, however, and company records show many incidences of people being fined for their refusal to serve, as in the case of Robert Martin of the Turners’ Company, below. As the examples below also demonstrate, the records can indicate the whifflers’ costuming and props. They seem to have worn gloves and they carried painted staves decorated with ribbons, which sometimes had streamers or flags attached, as in image M00025-65 on the top row here, which shows whifflers processing during the 1616 Lord Mayor’s Show.
The first example dates from 1571, a year when there was a brief attempt to reintroduce the Midsummer Watch, an annual festivity which had more or less died out by the middle of the sixteenth century. The others relate to the Lord Mayor’s inauguration in late October.
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
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
Fitting out whifflers
Turners’ Company Wardens’ Accounts, 1593-1670, CLC/L/TF/D/001/MS03297/001
(23rd October 1632)
Item paid for 21 yards of Rybon for our Whifflers ——— 00 [li] 11 [s] 06 [d]
Item paid for Nyne Whifflers staves ——— 00 [li] 03 [s] 00 [d]
(October 7th 1633)
Item paid for 25 ½ yards of Crimson & yellow Ribbin for the Whifflers ——— 00 [li] 10 [s] 03 [d]
Plumbers’ Company, Master’s and Wardens’ Accounts, 1593-1661, CLC/L/PH/D/002/MS02210/001, 1631-2, f 180v
Item paide for six paire of Gloves and fower staves for the whifflers on the Lord Maiors daie ——— vij s. iiij d.
Item paid to the Steward on that day ——— xl s.
Item given to the Bargmen to drink ——— ij s. vj d.
Item given to the Trumpeters ——— v s.
Item paid to the Drum and ffiffe ——— xx s.
Item to the Bargeman for that day ——— xxx s.
Item to watermen for carrieing the whifflers ——— iij s.
Weavers’ Company Court Minutes, 1610-1642, CLC/L/WC/B/001/MS04655/001, f 64v
(A court held 7th October 1617)
Henry Potter } were Chosen by this Court to serve as wifflers upon the Lord Maiors day next to attend upon this companie accordinge to the ordenances of the same Guild
Turners’ Company Court Minutes, 1633-1688, CLC/L/TF/B/001/MS03295/002
(A court held 14th October 1640)
This day Mr ^Robert^ Martin being warned and chosen by this Court to be a Whifler refused to serve the place because hee was not called soe sooner as others which were as hee pretended yonger than hee.
(A court held 24th November 1640)
[marginal: Mr Martin not serving Whifler
This day Robert Martin being warned to Attend this day to make answere for his not serveing
<…> as Whifler on my Lord Maiors day and being asked to submitt himselfe for his said offence and if hee would submitt for to pay soe much as this not serving Court shall think fitt to be excused for the future to which hee did freely submitt & promised to pay what they shall thinke fitt, who doe order him to pay xx s. for his offence & shallbe excused for the future from serveing for tyme to come.