The Mummers of Paycocke's

A timber carving of a Mummer

Paycocke’s House is covered in beautiful timber carvings, specifically designed to impress visitors arriving to the house. However, there are two very special carvings on either side of the cartway entrance, which have a deeper story than just being designed to appeal to passers-by. Julian Whybra, a local researcher, picks up their story . . .

The carvings at Paycocke's

The entrance to Paycocke’s is via a large, wooden cart-way. On either side two carved wooden statues of a fool and a knight standing atop plinths. They are, as far as we know, the oldest representations of mummers in England. We know that the front of the house was built between 1509 and 1510 for the wealthy cloth merchant. Thomas Paycocke. The property underwent much refurbishment and restoration in the early 20th century but the cart-way and its statues remained untouched and are thus pristine examples of a Tudor craft. 

What's a mummers' play?

A mummers’ play, is what we might call the original street theatre of England, it’s is a dramatic form of the Morris and was often accompanied by a Morris or Sword Dance. There are numerous traditional mummers’ plays, each one is different and associated with a particular place and date.  A particularly representative one is St. George and the Dragon.

Saint George

The carved figure to the right of Paycocke’s cartway is probably St. George (the part played by the mummer-knight). The carving is certainly of a knight and is broken off at the left wrist. He is left-handed – a left-handed knight is in itself unusual, and was often associated with weakness in the middle-ages. 

Because of lack of vertical space where the left hand would have been, it is unlikely that the missing left hand held a lance; a sword is more probable.  In contrast to the symbolism around the knight being left-handed, the medieval symbolism of the sword represented power, strength, courage, intellect and chivalry.  If the sword were short, a toy sword – as the Paycocke’s knight may well have had - it would tend to show that his prowess was not all it was cracked up to be.

The knight’s face presents a grotesque gaping mouth such as might be found on a mask – a mockery of a true Christian knight – and the face (with tongue stuck out) is echoed on the surface of the ‘heater shield’ held in the mummer-knight’s right hand.  A heater shield was popular in late medieval times and was mainly used by swordsmen in tournaments and by mummers because it was small in size, lightweight and easy to handle.The other indicator that the knight represents St. George is the presence of the carving of a winged dragon above the fool on the opposite side of the cartway, flying towards him.  

The Paycocke's carving of St George
Carving of St George
The Paycocke's carving of St George

The fool

The figure to the left of the cartway entrance is of a fool, as with other contemporary depictions of fools, this one also has a gaping mouth.  He wears a typical fool’s one-piece hooded motley.  Its cowl has ears like an ass and bells are visible at the elbows.  Typical of fools from this period, both hands grip a club, ‘bauble’, or marotte carved at the end with the fool’s head.  Unfortunately, the tip of the Paycocke’s fool’s marotte is broken off - part of the wear and tear that 500 years will result in!

Images of fools from this period abound and a comparison of clothing, stance and depiction, is easily possible.  When open, visitors to the first floor of Paycocke’s will find the ‘Nous sommes trois’ detail of fools in the Allegory of Folly painting (French, c. 1600). Nous sommes trois (French for ‘We be three’) is a traditional joke at the viewer’s expense who, by his puzzled enquiry, makes himself the third fool.

The fool represents  naivety.  Like all archetypes, the fool is universal, easily recognizable. He is often coupled with a ‘king’ figure or lord and master such as St. George as a contrasting character; they balance each other out and the fool is used to highlight particular qualities of the other character.  Furthermore St. George must be dignified and proper while the ‘fool’s privilege’ allows him to say what no-one else dares.  Like all archetypes, society needs the fool.  As Roald Dahl wrote, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.”

St George & The Dragon mummers' play

As regards to the origins of mumming, early British and European scholars were influenced by the writings of James Frazer, who viewed these folk dramas as survivals – albeit debased versions – of a pre-Christian fertility ritual.  The earliest recorded play was by the “mummers of the court” at the 1296 Christmas festivities and marriage of King Edward I’s daughter.

The St. George and the Dragon mummers’ play was usually performed at Midwinter (the time of the winter solstice) and the traditional view is that it evolved from and superseded an earlier traditional male, ritual Yuletide play or festival dating perhaps from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England. 

Thereafter these plays were gradually adapted into popular quasi-religious dramas.  Thus, heathen folk-plays gave rise to a purely secular drama: the ritual evolved into a Christmas ceremony.  During the Christian Middle Ages the events of the Crusades and the legend of St. George infiltrated the ancient form. Depictions of combat between Crusader and Saracen replaced those of killing the old year and all the dead knights were resurrected by a comic doctor. 

In the 16th century mumming became influenced first by popularizations of Christian legends and later by historical events, such that characters like Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and King George were introduced, along with an increasing amount of slapstick humour.

Although usually broadly comic, mumming has two underlying themes:

1. duality (a belief in the complement or conflict between the benevolent and the malevolent, good and evil, light and darkness, summer or winter)

2. resurrection (generally stemming from a battle between two or more characters, representing the duality, and the ultimate triumph of the light over darkness.  Good overcomes evil).

Why Coggeshall?

As to why these carved wooden statues should be in Coggeshall, it would appear that in the late 1400s Coggeshall had its own established company of mummers of such repute that it was being hired by the nobility for performances.  Since Paycocke’s was built between 1509 and 1510 it might not be surprising if reference was made to well-known, popular mummers from the local community in its architecture.  It might even have been the case that the Paycockes were the mummers’ patrons. 

Mumming returned to Coggeshall on 22 July 2018 when the Mayflower Morris Men of Billericay performed their mummers’ play, St. George and the Dragon, in the garden at Paycocke’s. We look forward to welcoming them back in the future.