Community traditions are subject to the vagueries of fashion just as any other aspects of human society. A month ago I mentioned Mummers and a rural tradition that eventually became part of a Royal Christmas for Edward III. This Christmas tradition has ebbed and flowed in popularity across the centuries. It had been widely practised across England through the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely faded as a regular community activity with the onset of the First World War.
So it was with curiosity I went to Dragon Hall in Norwich to see some contemporary mummers. Local volunteer/supporters of the restored medieval hall, now a museum and tourist attraction, decided to revive some mumming entertainment. They performed a light-hearted, rhyming version of St George and the Dragon, a popular theme at Christmas for a mummers’ play. I expect this theme would no doubt have found favour with the successful merchant and alderman, Robert Toppes who had funded the building of the 15th-century Splytts (Dragon Hall) and had been a member of the Guild of St George.
The old village traditions of mummers’ plays were based on the death and re-birth theme. This theme was incorporated here not by the dragon being killed by St George, but by the death of St George. Having fought the dragon, poor old St George then has to fight a bully of a knight called, Slasher, who cheats and kills him with a much bigger sword. Luckily for St George, working within the traditional re-birth theme, a doctor armed with a magical potion brings him back to life. The play is introduced by ‘Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back’ and along with St George, Slasher and the Quack Doctor are all traditional mummers’ characters portrayed in Christmas shows from 18th-century Southern England. Often acted in disguise these performances allowed poorer members of the community to earn extra money during the festive season.
There was a homespun, local feel to the Dragon Hall performance in keeping with the informal roots of mumming. Although the mummers were costumed they didn’t have masks. I know it is difficult for actors (even professionals) to work from behind masks, but I think that the element of disguising would have added a medieval depth to the piece that the venue of Dragon Hall so invited.
Today, 21 October, is Trafalgar Day in the UK. A school history textbook date when in 1805 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was commanding the British navy when he was fatally shot on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory during the battle that saw the combined French and Spanish fleets defeated.
Nelson was a son of Norfolk born at Burnham Thorpe in 1758 and had become a national hero following the Battle of the Nile in 1798 when his ships successfully destroyed Napoleon’s fleet. He was also the subject of 21st-century style gossip when he lived with his friend Sir William Hamilton and Hamilton’s wife, Lady Emma Hamilton, first in Naples and then later at Merton Place, South London. Gillray’s satirical cartoon pokes fun at Emma Hamilton depicting her as Dido posed in distress watching Nelson’s fleet disappearing as an old man is seen sleeping behind her. The text at the bottom of the print reads
‘”Ah, where, & ah where, is my gallant Sailor gone” ? –
“He’s gone to Fight the Frenchmen, for George upon the Throne,
“He’s gone to Fight ye Frenchmen, t’loose t’other Arm & Eye,
“And left me with the old Antiques, to lay me down, & Cry.’
During the 18th century printed matter became widely available and a variety of newspapers, pamphlets and prints were in circulation. The contemporary ‘media’ reports of Nelson’s achievements and also the speculation surrounding his relationship with Emma Hamilton fed the nation’s interest in Nelson and contributed to the making of a national hero. Viewed in this light it was only natural when Nelson died in battle that he should be honoured with a state funeral. A state funeral for a commoner was an unprecedented situation, and when the news of Nelson’s death reached London from Cape Trafalgar, the Lord Chancellor’s Office began detailed preparations in order to provide the English public the opportunity to mourn their hero.
Nelson’s body had been preserved in a casket filled with brandy for the journey back to London, and on 21 December 1805 was placed, as instructed in his will, in a special coffin made from the wood of the French ship, L’orient. L’orient had been a French battleship blown up at the Battle of the Nile. It would appear that when Nelson wrote his will he was conscious of his public status and his preference for a plain coffin significantly made from the L’orient wood, served to remind the public of his navel prowess. However, for the funeral ‘event’ the plain wooden coffin was encased in an elaborate gilded black casket. During the three days of the lying in state (4th to 6th January 1806) at Greenwich Hospital it is estimated that over 100,000 people came to pay their last respects. Then on the 8th January 1806 the coffin was transported up the River Thames to Whitehall by the King’s Barge accompanied by a flotilla of boats forming the Grand River Procession.
The following day the coffin was transported in a procession through the crowd-lined streets of London culminating in a funeral service at the nation’s church, St Paul’s in the City of London. Along with Nelson’s relatives all types of dignitaries attended the service, but neither Emma Hamilton nor their daughter, Horatia, were invited. The coffin was carried on a funeral car designed to look like HMS Victory and covered with a black velvet pall with the white ensign from HMS Victory draped over the coffin. Sailors from HMS Victory accompanied the coffin into St Paul’s and at some point during the funeral service the white ensign was torn into pieces by the sailors and shared out between them. These pieces were some of the earliest Nelson mementos.
Over the following two centuries Nelson has remained a significant national hero and during this time all kinds of memorabilia has been made and collected, and is still manufactured to this day.
A 19th-century pearlware commemoration jug. Sepia transfer prints show Nelson, HMS Victory with images of trophies and inscriptions.
Pottery loving cup decorated with illustrations of the Battle of Trafalgar and figure group including Nelson. 20th-century mug made by Cavendish Fitzroy, London.
Blue earthenware tankard with inscriptions and images in relief with a rope design handle. Number 310 of 500 made by Great Yarmouth Potteries, c 1990s.
Fascination, interest and historical research continues and the latest findings are to feature in the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery which opens, today, 21st October 2013, the 208th anniversary of the battle.