|Traditional Drama Forum - No.10||ISSN 1743-3789||April 2004|
In comes I, the Duke of Cumberland...
Eydon village Mummers' play has an unusual 'villain'. Not the Bold Slasher, not the Turkish Knight (or Turkey Snipe) nor the Black Prince of Paradine. The Northamptonshire village's villain is a historical figure, the Duke of Cumberland, who fights and kills King George. When asked about this after performances of the play, Eydon Mummers told people that this was the William Augustus, the Hanoverian Royal Duke who was in 1745 the victor of the Battle of Culloden which ended Jacobean hopes of a Stuart restoration. But this explanation does raise two questions. Why was he fighting (and killing) his father (or nephew) and why had the village chosen him to be its villain? The first question is easy to answer, as the hero was originally really St George, England's Patron Saint, not King George. But the second question is more difficult, as the Duke, who was popularly known as 'the Butcher of Culloden', had no obvious connections with the village, owned no land here and, as far as we know, never even visited the area.
However, Eydon is not alone in its choice of villain. Five miles south of Eydon is the neighbouring village of Sulgrave, whose Mummers' play also has the Duke of Cumberland as its villain. Much further south is the village of Islip, near Oxford, where in 1780 the first Mummers' play was recorded, which even then included 'the Royal Duke of Blunderland'. The recently computerised index of the James Madison Carpenter Collection  in the Library of Congress in the USA (where the Eydon's Mummers' play was preserved) has enabled searching to reveal 13 more plays from 8 villages which feature the Duke of Cumberland. In all there are 18 plays containing the Duke in some form or another. In most he appears as the Duke of Cumberland but in two, a version of the Garsington play and at one other un-named location, he is called the Duke of Umberland. Lower Heyford, Oxfordshire has a play whose villain is Napoleon, who comes from Thumberloo, but in an alternative version he claims to come from Thumberland which suggests that he may have been inserted into an earlier 'Cumberland' version. So - why had all these places taken a dislike to the man who had almost certainly saved their homes from a marauding Scots army?
Prince Rupert, Duke of Cumberland
In fact, there is another Duke of Cumberland who does link all these places. In 1644, during the Civil War, King Charles I set up a parallel parliament to the one in London at his capital of Oxford. Prince Rupert was the nephew of the King; effectively Commander in Chief for the first part of the Civil War, and his most dashing cavalry commander. To enable the Prince to hold a seat in the House of Lords, he was given, in January 1644, the English titles of the Earl of Holderness and the Duke of Cumberland .
For most of the Civil War the King's capital remained at Oxford, surrounded by a ring of outlying defensive garrisons, including Banbury to the north. Now, all the sources of the Duke of Cumberland plays (except Middle Barton and Wooburn) lie to the east of the Oxford/Banbury axis (see Map). This was, for most of the war, just about the only semi-stable frontier between the two sides and as such was much fought over. These were disputed lands, between the Royalist garrisons of Oxford and Banbury and the parliamentary regions to the east. These ten villages would be subjected, from 1642 onwards, to pillaging and 'taxation' from both sides.
And chief amongst the pillagers was Prince
Rupert. It is difficult even now to
distinguish fact from propaganda about actors in the English Civil War, but it
does seem that Prince Rupert had an unenviable reputation for pillaging.
Let us for example, look at what happened in
the area around Eydon and Sulgrave in 1643, the second year of the war. In
January, we find a force of Royalist troops led by Prince Rupert and the Earl
of Northampton raiding up towards Daventry from Banbury, looking for horses and
weapons. They are reported to have
stolen over twelve hundred horses, leaving many villages without horses to plough
or to carry. Throughout the
autumn it was reported that the area bounded by Banbury, Daventry and Towcester
(which encompasses both Eydon and Sulgrave) was the scene of heavy skirmishing,
much of it led by the Prince.
Finally, in October of the same year, Prince Rupert based himself
at Towcester, ten miles to the east of Eydon and 'scoured' all the region
between Banbury and Northampton.
Certainly Eydon felt itself to have suffered from the Royalists.
When in 1646 it presented an account of
Parliamentary damages to the village, it included at the bottom (later crossed
out by someone) the line "
The Outlying Play Villages
Middle Barton is a little different in that it lay within the area of Royalist control, just off the road linking, and midway between, the garrisons at Oxford and Banbury. As such it may have been unlucky enough to have suffered from pillaging from by both. (In addition, it lay on the road to Chipping Norton, which was used by more than one army moving west.)
Wooburn lies 30 miles to the east and south of the Oxford, just off the London to Oxford Road. As such it was always under parliamentary control, but was still subjected to raids. For example, on June 14th 1643, Prince Rupert led a raid out of Oxford. He rode right through the middle of the Parliamentary Army; killed or captured 170 dragoons; almost captured the army's pay chest; fought a battle and returned through the enemy's ranks to Oxford with his prisoners, all inside 24 hours and with a loss of only 12 men. On that occasion the Prince was five miles from Wooburn but in the following weeks the Prince and his commanders carried out more and more raids so that "the citizens of London itself were suffering from these raids which denied them the produce of much of the surrounding countryside."  One such raid on 25th June, by Col.Hurry, sacked Wycombe, only 3 miles from Wooburn.
There is another a Prince Rupert connection with Wooburn, albeit a little convoluted. Wooburn was, during the Civil War, the home of Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, radical Parliamentarian and committed puritan. At the start of the war he commanded a regiment of foot and a troop of horse at the Battle of Edge Hill. These may have been raised on his own lands; the extensive family estates in Lancashire and Yorkshire; as well as his large holdings in Buckinghamshire. Whatever their composition, they were "ignominiously swept off the field by Prince Rupert's impetuous charge. Reporting to Parliament Wharton stated, "Before there was any near excuse three or four of our regiments fairly ran away - Sir William Fairfax's, Sir Henry Cholmley's, my Lord Kimbolton's and, to say the plain truth, my own." Consequently Wharton was himself accused of cowardice - not merely running away but hiding in a sawpit. In his official report of the engagement to Parliament he accused Prince Rupert of wanton cruelty after the battle was won. In reply Rupert published a pamphlet with the sawpit accusation. Thus started the unpleasant nickname - Sawpit Wharton - which provided his enemies with a taunt for the rest of his life." . Consequently, there would have been no love lost between the Lord of Wooburn and Prince Rupert.
Incorporation in the Mummers' Plays
So, if Prince Rupert were the source of the Duke of Cumberland characters in these Mummers' plays, his exploits would provide both the geographical spread and the motivation to be incorporated into all these plays. There are however a few holes in this theory. For example, there is the fact that history remembers him as Prince Rupert, not as Duke of Cumberland and that anyway, there are no records of Mummers' plays for another 140 years. Taking the first problem, they may not have incorporated him initially as 'Duke of Cumberland'. There was published, presumably shortly after his elevation to the Dukedom, a Parliamentary lampoon that poked fun at him as "Prince Robber, Duke of Plunderland" . If this gained temporary popularity amongst the much plundered peasantry of Northants and Oxfordshire, it might have struck a chord with the village wags and gained a place in their Mummers' play (or what ever it was at the time). Over time, as the memory of the plundering faded and the process of oral transmission continued, the villagers lost the point of the lampoon and turned it back to Blunderland, Thumberland, Umberland and or even Cumberland.
All this implies an incorporation into the plays at the time, and indeed the topicality of the Duke of Plunderland lampoon suggests it must have occurred in 1644, as the parody would lose its impact as history continued to remembered him as Prince Rupert. An alternative mechanism, that the name 'Duke of Cumberland' became a village bogyman, preserving it to be incorporated into late 18th century Mummers' plays, seems unlikely. It would need five generations of mothers scaring their children with it before one of them grew up to incorporate it into their Mummers' play. This is equivalent to a mother in 1955 threatening her baby with old Boney coming for him if he wasn't good, which seems hard to imagine.
140 Missing Years
Which brings us to the problem of the missing 140 years of Mummers' plays. If, however we consider who, where and why people might have written down Mummers' plays over the years, we can see that the absence of early Mummers' play scripts is more to do with a lack of recording and preserving mechanisms than a lack of early Mummers' plays.
Mumming is essentially an oral tradition, carried out at intervals by an ad hoc group that dissolves until its next performance. There is no reason at all for the Mummers themselves to write things down, even if they could, (Like the 19th century Morris dancers, there would be additional pressure to limit membership and knowledge to small or family groups to maximise their money making potential.) Then there was no corporate body (such as the Guilds or Church in the case of Mystery Plays) who would preserve anything that did get written down. Outside observers who might record the existence of the plays did not exist at that time. The earliest Antiquarian writers in England did not appear until the 16th Century but for the first couple of hundred years concerned themselves with topics that interested their aristocratic and gentry audience. Thus we find early writings concerned mainly with topography, antiques, heraldry, genealogy etc., and only later did they start taking an interest in other areas such as natural history. It was not until the 18th Century that antiquarians start to take a (condescending) interest in what might be called popular culture. The first antiquarian writer on popular culture was Henry Bourne, who published "Antiquitates Vulgares; or the Antiquities of the Common People" in 1725. The interest in popular culture was much accelerated by John Brand, who republished Bourne in 1777 with extensive additional commentaries under the title "Observations on Popular Antiquities" . It was after this that collectors started writing down the scripts of Mummers' plays. So the Islip play of 1780 is probably a result of a trendy vicar of the day following the new fashion for collecting popular antiquities!
Fifty years before the Civil War, Shakespeare had written "A Midsummer Night's Dream", in which a group of rustics prepare a play to perform before the Duke. The way this is written, with no great explanation as to what or why this should be, suggests that Shakespeare could assume that his audience was familiar with the concept of ad hoc plays being performed for the gentry by groups of rustics. The size, make-up and social status of the group of rustics in the play mimics that seen in later historic Mummers' groups, and, if "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was set in ancient Athens, then the subject matter for the rustics' play could be considered as local folklore! Whatever the play was, it shows that rustic drama (as distinct from professionally produced plays) was a common occurrence at this time. And 200 years later rustic drama meant Mummers' plays.
So here we have a theory that identifies Prince Rupert of the Rhine as the original Duke of Cumberland (via 'Duke of Plunderland') in these 18 plays as a result of his actions in the Civil War. The theory implies the existence of unknown 17th century rustic dramas that became, or were incorporated into, the Mummers' plays that were recorded from the late 18th century onwards, when the study of popular culture had become fashionable. There are many holes in the theory, but it does at least provide a framework for further research, most obviously into the local history of each of the villages to find evidence of looting or other associations with Prince Rupert. Alternative theories, championing one of the other Dukes of Cumberland, will have to show why the Mummers of these particular villages thought that the inclusion of that Duke into their play would mean something to the village, thus enhancing the earning power of the play.
Kevin Lodge presents a good case for why Prince Rupert, Duke of Cumberland could have become a hate figure or bogeyman in the area where the Duke of Cumberland is found in Mummers' plays. However, as Kevin says himself, there are a number of points regarding how the Duke may have come to be incorporated into the local plays that merit further research. In particular, since he submitted his article to Traditional Drama Forum, Kevin and I have been having an email discussion about whether or not Quack Doctor plays existed before about 1750. Eddie Cass and Steve Roud in Room, Room, Ladies and Gentlemen... (2003), and Ronald Hutton in Stations of the Sun (1996) express the view that the lack of evidence before the mid-18th century for mumming plays as we know them indicates that they did not exist until then. I too hold this view, although in my PhD thesis (2002) I concede that there may have been insufficient searching of unpublished archives from the late 17th and early 18th centuries - the century following the period covered by the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project and before the first unequivocal mumming plays. Our discussion of early mummers is ongoing, and we hope to publish the salient points of our respective arguments in a future issue of Traditional Drama Forum. Additional contributions and opinions will be welcome.
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© Copyright 2004, Kevin Lodge.
Last updated on 14/04/2004