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Twelfth Night Play Top Pic


Every first Sunday in the New Year, White Witch joins the crowd at Bankside to welcome the Holly King and mark the Twelfth Night revelries with The Lions Part mummers.   A wonderful spectacle ensues; rowed down the Thames in a canopied Thames Waterman Cutter,  the Green Man (Holly King) 'brings in the green' and 'wassails' (toasts) the people, the River Thames and the Globe Theatre - an old tradition encouraging good growth. Accompanied by his 'Mummers' entourage and crowd, he processes to the Bankside Jetty where St George, Beelzebub, the Turkey Sniper, the Doctor, Clever Legs, the Old 'Oss and many others, dressed in their 'spectacular and colourful guizes', entertain the crowd. Full of boisterous action and mirth-filled rhythm, this combat play is a time-honoured part of the season, recorded from the Crusades.  At the play's end, 'Twelfth Cakes' are distributed - within two, a bean and pea are hidden. Those who find them are hailed 'King Bean' and 'Queen Pea' for the day, and crowned with ceremony. The King and Queen join the Holly King and Mummers to lead the crowd in 'joined hand' procession through the streets, 'wassailing' all and sundry!  And so...to the historic George Inn in Borough High Street for the 'Kissing Wishing Tree', drinking, storytelling and more singing, until late.  A wonderful event not to be missed....and, amazingly, all for FREE!

The History of Twelfth Night 

Perceived as a Christian festival, Twelfth Night ... 'the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking' is, in fact, far older - its Pagan roots the custom of marking the Winter Solstice (December 21st) for a certain number of days with bonfires and feasting to honour the 'Unconquered Sun'.   The earliest reference to 'Epiphany' (from the Greek 'appearance' or 'manifestation') as a Christian feast was in 361, marking the celebration of the arrival of the Magi (or three kings).  

'Reversal' is another theme carried through from earlier tradition.  The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, honouring Saturn, the God of Nature and Plenty (father of Ceres), through the mid weeks of December.  Feasting, the exchange of gifts and games, masters swapping places with their servants, slaves disguised as masters and masters serving their slaves, were all part of the festivities.  Buildings were decorated (disguised) with plants, whose leaves defied the season by staying 'ever-green'.  

In Medieval England, Twelfth Night was the end of the Christmas revelry before returning to work.  A final day of music, dancing, games and feasting, during which time the world was 'turned upside down', where the master and mistress of the house donned disguise and waited on their servants, whilst servants sat at the high table and 'aped their betters'.  The 'Mummers' play was an integral part of the festivities.  

'Mummers' or 'Guisers' performed at midwinter all over Europe.  In the 14th century court of King Heny IV, earls and dukes 'made provysion for dysguysynge or a mummynge to be shewyd to the Kynge upon Twelfethe Nyght, and the tyme was nere at hande, and all thynge redy for the same'.  Scholars believe that the word 'Mummer' is associated with the Early German folk player (the 'disguised person') and derives from the word vermummen, to wrap up, to disguise, to mask one's face.  Mummers were also known colloquially as rhymers, plough-jags, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteers and galoshins.  Presented in a wide variety of style and manner, the principal characters in the medieval Mummers play are: 'Father Christmas' or a 'Master of Ceremonies' (who begins the Mumming), 'A hero' (usually St George or King George), 'His Opponent' (usually a real foreign foe, e.g. 'The Turkish Knight'), A Variety of Rogues/Local Characters (stereotypes easily recognisable to the audience), A Doctor, The Devil/Beelzebub, The Old 'Oss (old horse), and, of course, The Holly King (the Winter guise of the Green Man).  The plot varies: the Hero sometimes kills, and sometimes is killed by, his Opponent.  In either case, the Doctor comes to restore the dead man to life.  Ribald jokes of 'current gossip/topics', which would resonate with the crowd, would be peppered throughout.  The similarity in characters and text is thought to be due to cheaply produced pamphlets in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there is no doubt these plays were taught aurally for generations, rendering superb regional vernacular, local characters and additions relevant to the time. The popular Christmas Pantomime is a perfect example of the transition of this tradition through to modern times - always retaining the central theme; the hero winning through adversity, the tragic/comic 'dame', and a healthy dose of current political satire!

The ragged clothing of  'motley' or 'tatters' worn by the Mummers is highly distinctive, and may be the result of the scarce resources of the poor who performed these plays.  By turning their mantels (sleeveless cloaks) inside out and decorating the lining with strips of cloth, paper and rags, (whatever they could lay their hands on), they could produce a disguise that was both colourful and appeared 'exotic', at little to no cost.  It is not hard to imagine that, as more and more strips were added over the years, the 'rags and tatters' made quite a sight to behold.  It is also likely that, turned right-side-out, these strips were a good insulating layer against the biting winter cold!

The 'Kissing Wishing Tree' was a tradition long before the pine tree was introduced in 1840 by Prince Albert.  Evergreen boughs, honouring the Holly King, were brought into the house.  Hung with candles, apples, holly, mistletoe and sweetmeats, ribbons were tied to represent wishes and for each wish, a kiss. Kissing under this bough has been carried forward as 'kissing under the mistletoe'.

'Wassail' comes from ancient tradition whereby friendships were mended by the drinking of the 'peace cup', a large vessel passed amongst those gathered.  The phrase 'Wassail' comes from the Anglo Saxon 'waes hal' meaning 'I give you health' or 'be whole'.  The well known song 'Here We Go A-Wassailing' refers to the traditional day for wassailing apple trees (and other crops and animals) by pouring hot cider over their roots in blessing, leaving cider-soaked toast in their branches, and scaring away evil spirits by making as much noise as possible.  The biographer and antiquarian, John Aubrey, writing in 1687, described the custom - "On Twelfe-eve...the Ploughmen have their Twelve-cake, and they goe into the ox-house to the oxen, with the wassel-bowle and drink to the ox with the crumpled horne that treads out the corn...and afterwards they goe with their wassel-bowle into the orchard and goe about the trees to blesse them and putt a piece of tost upon the rootes in order to it".

The Lion's Part Wassail Song 

Wassail and Wassail all over the town,

Our cup it is white and the ale it is brown,

The cup it is made of the good ashen tree,

And so is the malt of the best barley! 

Chorus: For it's your Wassail, and it's our Wassail,

Ay it's joy come to you and a jolly Wassail

Wassail to all you sailors upon the River Thames,

The apple and the Oak and all close and absent friends,

The Globe upon the Bankside, the Borough kith and kin,

And the best to us poor Mummers that bring the Wassail in!

Chorus: For it's your Wassail, and it's our Wassail,

Ay it's joy come to you and a jolly Wassail

The Wassail drink, known as 'Lambswool', was served hot, and contained apples, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and ale.  "Next crown a bowl full with gentle lamb's wool: add sugar, nutmeg and ginger, with store of ale too; and thus ye must do to make the Wassail a swinger." (Robert Henrick, Hesperides, 1648) 

To Make Lambswool 

1.5 litres of traditional cider or ale

6 small cooking apples - cored

1 nutmeg freshly grated (or 1 tsp of dried nutmeg)

1 tsp ground ginger

150g brown sugar.

Bake the apples in a hot oven until soft.  Place sugar in a saucepan and cover with a little cider (or ale).  Heat, and stir until dissolved, then add the ground ginger and grate in one whole nutmeg (or add the tsp of nutmeg).  Simmer on a gentle heat and whilst stirring, slowly add the rests of the cider (or ale).  Break open the baked apples, scoop the flesh into a bowl (discarding the skin) and mash into a smooth puree with no lumps.  Add the apple puree into the saucepan a little at a time, mixing with a whisk.  Continue to thoroughly warm the mixture on a low heat for 30 minutes, until ready to drink. When warmed through, whisk again vigorously to create a froth.  The apple and light froth with float to the surface and, depending on how much you have whisked it, the more it will resemble lamb's wool.  

To Make Twelfth Cake

This is the earliest printed receipt for Twelfth Cake (John Mallard, The Art of Cookery - London, 1803)

"Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron.  When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain."  

The George Inn

 The George Inn is London's only surviving galleried coaching inn, and is one of the most famous inns in the country.  It was, once, one of many such inns in the area; the most famous perhaps being The Tabard, where Chaucer began his 'Canterbury Tales' in 1388.  The George is referred to in both Shakespeare's play King John, and in Charles Dickens' novel, Little Dorrit.  In the 17th century, when the Royal Mint failed to produce enough coin, The George issued its own coin to keep the business going.  The current George Inn dates from 1676, when it was rebuilt, after being destroyed in the great fire of Southwark.  As railways advanced, coaching inns began to decline, and the Great Northern Railway used The George Inn as a depot, demolishing two of its courtyard sides to build warehouses, leaving just the South face. 

The George is now protected by the National Trust and leased to the Greene King brewery.  It is open all year round and is a wonderful place to visit - especially so on Twelfth Night! 

 The Lions Part

The Lions Part was formed by a group of professional actors who met doing First Folio work the with Original Shakespeare Company.  Mark Rylance, (formerly Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe), is their current patron, and they have appeared on the main Globe stage and in and around the building.  Their performances often involve local artists and community groups making costumes, banners and props (wherever possible using recycled or unwanted materials), storytellers, musicians, dancers, street performers, re-enactors, conservation groups and food producers.  The festival plays are chosen to complement the seasons, the site and the nature of the celebration.  The Lions Part have been in existence since 1993, and continue to remain true to their charitable nature, providing two FREE festival events a year (October Plenty and Twelfth Night).  The company relies for the most part on the generosity of the public to assist with funding these events, and also the help of volunteers and performers to make these happen.  If you would like to support the Lions Part with a donation, please follow the link to Virgin Money Giving: Sponsor The Lions Part

The Lions Part Players, Musicians and Street Traders 

Twelfth Night Players - Beelzebub

The Story Teller/Town Crier  and  Beelzebub 

Twelfth Night Players - ClevelegsTwelfth Night Players - Doctor

Cleverlegs and The Doctor

Twelfth Night Players - Father ChristmasTwelfth Night Players - Gill Finney

Father Christmas and Gill Finney

Twelfth Night Players - PrudenceTwelfth Night Players - Twelfth Bake

 Prudence and Twelfth-Bake

Twelfth Night Players - St GeorgeTwelfth Night Players - Turkish Knight

St George and The Turkish Knight

Twelfth Night Players - Green Man Holly KingTwelfth Night Players - Old 'Oss

Green Man/Holly King and Old 'Oss

Twelfth Night Musicians - DulcianTwelfth Night Musicians - Bagpipes

Musicians - Dulcian and Bagpipes

Twelfth Night Musicians - Serpent

Musicians - Serpent

Twelfth Night - Rat CatcherTwelfth Night - Plague Doctor

Rat Catcher and Plague Doctor 


Twelfth Night the Mummers Arrive 1Twelfth Night Mummers - Preparing to Wassail the Globe

Twelfth Night - The Globe Wassail 3

Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence 4Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence 5


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Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence-14Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence - 15

Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence 16Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence 17

Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence 18

Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence19

Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence21Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence-20

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Twelfth Night - Let the Play Commence end

All photos by Debbie, White Witch