December 2020

The Mummers’ Play – an Old Wiltshire Tradition.

By Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons)

Introduction

The Wiltshire Mummers’ Play: Mummers plays are an old Christmas tradition in many parts of the country. A group of friends would dress up, and go round the neighbourhood performing a little play. This had a set script. But, thanks to oral transmission, this would have varied from district to district. In return they received money and food, and, no doubt, drink.

They also (a bit like the traditional Punch and Judy shows) would have contained topical references. F. A. Carrington tells us that the version he recorded mentioned Napoleon Bonaparte. But he cut this out.

Today these interesting tradition have seen revival. In Wiltshire, a group called the Potterne Christmas Boys perform the play.

The Wiltshire Mummers' Play - image from The Pottterne Boys' Facebook page.

Their Facebook page, from where the above image is taken, says:

Guardians of the traditional Potterne Mummers Play, we tour the pubs round the Devizes area in the week before Christmas, to present our version of the traditional folk play, and collect a few quid for local charities and the Wiltshire Air Ambulance.

Wiltshire folk arts

An extract from the Wiltshire Folk Arts website:

‘Key characters in the plays include the heroes, who vary somewhat, and are usually King or St.George and father Christmas. The adversaries include Valiant Soldier, Turkey Snipe (Turkish Knight) and there are usually several others that drop in that include Little Man Jack, Little Man John and old Almanac and there is always a Quack Doctor, who carries the reviving elixir brought in to revive the loser of the sword fight between a hero and an adversary.

Local schoolteacher, Bernard Baker revived The Potterne Play back in 1953. Mick Hiscock, the Moonraker Morris and others subsequently kept it going.’

Sadly, they are unlikely to take place this year, but maybe, now you have the script shown below you can put your own on?

The Wiltshire Mummers' Play - screenshot from the YouTube video of the Potterne Boys
Screenshot from the YouTube video linked to above

The script

The cast of characters in the Wiltshire drama are:

1. OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS.
2. MINCE PIE.
3. A TURKISH (evidently a Saracen) KNIGHT.
4. ST. GEORGE.
5. An ITALIAN DOCTOR.
6. A character called LITTLE JACK.

The Wiltshire Mummers’ playfrom around 1838

(Slightly Adapted from the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 1, 1853).

Enter OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS.

FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Merrily). Oh! Here come I, old Father Christmas, welcome, or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Make room! Room! I say!
That I may lead Mince Pie this way.
Walk in Mince Pie, and act thy part,
And show the gentles thy valiant heart.

Enter Mince Pie
MINCE PIE; (Joyful). Room! Room! You gallant souls give me room to rhyme,
I’ll show you some festivity this Christmas time.

Enter a TURKISH KNIGHT, with a wooden sword.
TURKISH KNIGHT; (Boldly belligerent). I am a valiant Turkish Knight,
And dare with any man to fight;
Bring me the man that bids me stand,
Who says he’ll cut me down with audacious hand,
I’ll cut him and hew him as small as a fly,
And send him to Satan to make mince pie.

Enter ST. GEORGE with a wooden sword.
ST GEORGE; (Belligerently bold). Oh! In come I, St. George, the man of courage bold,
With my sword and buckler I’ve won three crowns of gold;
I fought the fiery dragon and brought him to the slaughter;
I won a beauteous Queen a King of Egypt’s daughter:
If thy mind is high, my mind is bold,
If thy blood is hot, I will make it cold.

[ST. GEORGE and the TURKISH KNIGHT fight; the latter falls).

TURKISH KNIGHT; (Squealing like a sissy).Oh! St. George spare my life!
FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Vaguely concerned). Is no Doctor to be found
To cure this man who’s bleeding on the ground?

Enter the DOCTOR.

THE DOCTOR; (Improperly enthusiastic). Yes! An Italian Doctor’s to be found
To cure the Knight who’s bleeding on the ground:
I cure the sick of every pain,
And raise the dead to life again.

FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Glumly). Doctor, what is thy fee?
THE DOCTOR; (To business).Ten pounds is my fee,
But fifteen I must take of thee
Before I set this gallant free.

FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Sighing). Work thy will, Doctor.

THE DOCTOR; (prideful). I have a little bottle by my side
The fame of which spreads far and wide,
I drop a drop on this poor man’s nose.

[THE DOCTOR touches the TURKISH KNIGHT’S nose and he instantly springs on his feet quite recovered.]

Enter LITTLE JACK, a small man, with several dolls strapped at his back.

LITTLE JACK; (Cheekily). Oh! In come I, little saucy Jack
With all my family at my back.
Christmas comes but once a year
And when it comes it brings good cheer:
Roast beef, plum pudding, and mince pie,
Who likes that any better than I?

FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Loudly and heartfelt). Me!
[He gestures to the audience to join in].

MINCE PIE; (Sums up). Christmas ale makes us dance and sing;
Money in purse is a very fine thing.
Ladies and gentlemen give us what you please
ALL; (Cheers). MERRY CHRISTMAS ALL!!

Bibliography

Potterne Christmas Boys The Potterne Christmas Boys or The Potterne Mummers – Home | Facebook (Accessed 4thDecember 2020).

Carrington, F. A. (1853) On Certain Wiltshire Customs, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 1, 1853. (p. 79-86).

And now for some mincemeat

If you’re wondering what that’s got to do with Mummers the answer is: nothing at all. Except that Rebecca likes to make her own so is sharing her recipe!

As she says: ‘Pretty every much everyone loves mince pies, and some people love making mince pies, me, I make the mincemeat. Shop bought mincemeat consists of pureed apple, palm oil and the odd raisin.  I can do better than that!

I was told by a person who makes home preserves for the market that good mincemeat is not cost effective to make for retail. Hence the uninspired products on the market.  So by making your own you get the chance to experience truly wonderful mince pies.’

mince pies

Now in the immortal words of Jimmy Young – Google him:

This is what you do!

Take:

Ingredients for mince pies

Put lemon and apples though mincer (or finely chop or grate), add to other ingredients in bowl, mix well and jar up. If a little dry, add more water/sherry.