Mummers plays were traditionally performed to celebrate religious holidays and were particularly popular at Christmas time. In the medieval period, the plays were performed for villages, noblemen and kings by groups of travelling actors. They all had their own special skills – singing, playing musical instruments and acrobatics were all part of the show too!
The story usually involved a battle between two fighters, like St George and the Dragon and whichever one died would be miraculously brought back to life by a quack (fake) doctor. The two fighters represented good and evil, and the miraculous recovery represented the new life of spring after the cold, dark winter – which is why they were so popular as a Christmas tradition and paved the way for the pantomimes we still enjoy today.
The costumes and masks were designed to be funny and over the top: people would dress as dragons or animals like peacocks and swans and young men would dress as women and angels.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, mummers plays developed into elaborate masques performed for, and often starring, royalty, and featuring complex set designs with moving pieces.
Mummers plays remained popular in Britain until the 19th Century but mostly disappeared after the First World War.
The first Father Christmas character in England appeared in a mid-15th century carol from the time of King Richard III. He was called Sir Christmas. The character was popular with courtly Christmas feasts and featured in masques by famous 17th century writer Ben Jonson, and Father Christmas also features in many later mummers plays that were preserved.
If you’re visiting between Boxing Day and 6th January, you can try making your own mask inspired by the medieval mummers plays King Richard III would have seen at Christmas time!