“A Mass of Indecent Vulgarity” : Christmas Mummers in 1820s Whitehaven

‘The comedians, of which there are many companies, parade the streets, and ask at almost every door if the mummers are wanted. They are dressed in the most grotesque fashion; their heads adorned with high paper caps, gilt and spangled, and their bodies with ribbons of various colours, while St. George and the prince are armed with ten swords. The mysterie ends with a song… I am satisfied you will join me, in surprise, that for so great a number of years, such a mass of indecent vulgarity as “Alexander and the King of Egypt” should be used without alteration.’

The doctor revives the patient - Mummer's play

The doctor revives the patient – Mummer’s play

(Letter from William Hone of Whitehaven to The Every Day Book; dated 4th September 1826.)

‘On the eve of the 25th, a party of mummers, dressed in most fantastic costume… were admitted to the hall, where we saw them enact St. George and the Dragon with great spirit; though one of the Armstrongs… who played the part of the King of Egypt, could not restrain his laughing propensities, and in the midst of a solemn charge to the doctor on doing his duty, burst into a loud guffaw, that proved highly infectious to most present…’

(Letter from Whitehaven from a daughter to her father, dated 1st January 1821, printed in The Illustrated Magazine of Art in 1853.)

These writers were describing a popular Christmas play performed across England at this time by bands of players known as ‘mummers’. It was one example of a group of plays involving a hero, an anti-hero, and, critically, a quack doctor. Either the hero or his foe are killed in a duel, but is resurrected by the doctor, who is often a ‘Turk’. Later versions end with some colourful prognostication from Beelzebub. The knight – who in our two versions is named St. George – and the ‘Turk’ led to much comment in the 19th century that the tradition was started during the Crusades in the medieval period, or even, to quote Mr Hone, ‘a relic of ancient times’.

It’s a bit of a blow for those of us interested in early folklore that experts have subsequently demonstrated that Alexander is a wholly 18th century number. There are no records of its performance before that and the earliest printed copy cannot pre-date 1746.1

Mummers, however, have a longer pedigree. They may well have been performing plays at Christmas gatherings as early as the 16th century, but these were probably from their normal repertoire. The exception is a nativity-themed play which was enjoyed annually by the Earl of Northumberland early in that century.2 Before that, it seems that mummers’ main distinguishing feature was the difficulty in distinguishing them from the neighbours. They wore masks and disguises – I daresay those described at Edward III’s court in 1347-8 were the Rolls Royce version, but they create an impression – angels, dragons, peacocks, swans, other animals and ‘wild men’.2

We know that these disguised people – ‘guisers’ – were present amongst ordinary folk in the towns, too, as the wild revelry was sufficiently disruptive for various attempts to ban them, such as one in 1418 forbidding ‘mumming, plays, interludes, or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment’. One law that clearly had little effect, given the custom survives to this day!3

There is still great debate about the antiquity of mumming in this broader sense. It was once the fashion to say that plays such as Alexander were about the cycle of life, death, and resurrection – which to some extent it clearly is – and that these were meant to allegorise the changing of the season from the dead days of midwinter to the lengthening days of spring. Whilst the existence of midwinter celebrations into ancient times appears proven4, whether that involved masked people playing japes in streets, we may never know.

You can catch the St Bees Mummers enacting Alexander and the King of Egypt on Christmas Eve at the Queen’s Hotel, Albert Hotel and Manor House Hotel in St. Bees. There is also a version of St. George and the Turkish Knight as part of the Christmas concert at the Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth, on 20th December. Enjoy!

© Diane McIlmoyle 14.12.12

  1. The current expert on mumming appears to be Peter Millington, whose University of Sheffield PhD thesis, The Origins and Development of English Folk Play (May 2002) proved most useful.
  2. See The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (1996)
  3. History of the Morris Dance by John Cutting (2005)
  4. For the oldest example, ‘When the archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson was working at Durrington Walls, a prehistoric site very near to Stonehenge, he found an enormous quantity of animal bones. They knew from the dig that people didn’t live here all year round, or farm here, so this meant that the animals had been walked here from some distance away. When the pig bones were analysed it was established that the pigs died at midwinter; it seems that we were feasting together at the midwinter solstice as long as 5,000 years ago.’ Me, 2011. Based on information recorded on Francis Pryor’s Britain BC (2003)

9 thoughts on ““A Mass of Indecent Vulgarity” : Christmas Mummers in 1820s Whitehaven

  1. Pingback: On Giants Shoulders #54: A Sleigh Load of History « Contagions

  2. Another great piece Esmerelda! I loved the bit about the group getting the giggles! Your blogs are always such a great combination of education and entertainment. Pity the word guising has almost vanished from the vocabulary.

    • Thank you, Pauline! The two reports of the same play from the same period are quite a contrast, aren’t they? You still hear the word, ‘guising’ used in Scotland to describe ‘trick or treating’, but it’s dying out. As you say, shame!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  3. Lovely piece. ‘Guffaw’ is one of my favourite words – so descriptive. Wish I was up in St Bees – loved it when we were there in May. About time I spent Christmas in Cumbria. Next year maybe…

  4. Pingback: The Christmas/Midwinter round-up! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  5. Wish I’d seen the Millington study when it came out. I remember reading and enjoying (and taking copious notes from) Tiddy’s 1923 study called, naturally,’The Mummers’ Play’ (OUP) back in the 60s or early 70s, but was painfully aware it needed at least updating and preferably re-writing to take recent research and conclusions into consideration. I used to be involved in performing an ‘electric’ version by an electric folk band called Elecampane in the 1970s, an appropriate name given that this was the medicine used to revive the dead combattant in the play. Thank for reminding me of this early interest of mine!

    • The Millington study is a good, and exhaustive work – from my old alma mater, as it happens, which pleases me! – although those who take a more mystical view might be saddened by his conclusions. Still, we need this stuff to balance out some of the more melodramatic reconstructionism from the 19th century, I guess.

      Elecampane sounds great! 😉 I think I have some on my herb shelf. The dried greenery variety, of course…

      Thank you for coming over!

      • Some great stuff in your posts, which I very much look forward to exploring, especially but not exclusively the ‘Arthurian’ items! Yes, the mystic side beloved by mummery aficionados may not have great antiquity, but I do like it that the plays are capable of many subtle (and some less subtle) interpretations. All good clean fun, of course!

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