Puppets can be categorized by four primary types: hand or glove puppets, shadow puppets, shadow puppets, and marionettes. There are a number of other special puppet types, including water puppets and jigging puppets. Puppetry performances in Britain date back over some 600 years.
The exact dates of Britain’s first puppetry shows are unknown. It’s thought that the Romans likely had puppets, as they were recognized in Italy. French minstrels performed puppetry shows in the 13th century and will have put on shows when they visited England.
The term ‘puppet’ was commonplace in 14th-century England. Chaucer uttered the word on two separate occasions and the 14th century ‘Romance of Alexander’ manuscript featured a number of illustrations of glove puppet shows performed in booths. These booths were similar to that which are used for today’s Punch and Judy shows.
While in Flemish, it may well have been that the manuscript was made by English artists and writers to represent puppetry shows in England. The fact that glove puppets were portable meant that they were hugely popular in medieval times. They were often used by entertainers such as travelling minstrels.
The shows were likely based on Roman and Greek legends and Bible stories. Puppets, along with automated figures, were also used by priests and Monks when telling Bible stories, as well as to spread the word of Christianity.
1500 to 1700
Puppeteers travelling around Elizabethan England entertained wealthy households. Troupes of puppeteers from Italy also travelled throughout Britain in the 17th century, playing to markets and fairs, likely using marionettes.
London’s first-ever recorded puppetry plays were held in Bankside, Fleet Bridge, Holbrn Bridge, Smithfield, and Bartholomew Fair in around 1600. Puppeteers, however, earned a living from performing throughout the country.
Such bible stories as Jonah and the Whale were still a part of puppetry shows. Records reveal that a 1599 show in Coventry featured Satan. Puppets and animated figures were used by the Medieval clergy to help promote Christianity, with a Satan puppet having been a major character in these shows, with his transgressions creating imaginative and vivid lessons.
A 17th-century Samuel Butler poem asserted that puppetry plays featuring the devil used fireworks to demonstrate the devils of hellfire.
Puppeteers also featured versions of historical stories, stage plays, and contemporary figures and events, such as the Gunpowder Plot and its central character Guy Fawkes. Glove puppetry was likely the most popular performance type in Elizabethan England. Shadow puppetry, however, was also commonplace.
Theatres were forced to close their doors in the mid-17th century as stage plays had been made forbidden. However, puppetry plays were still allowed, so between 1642 and 1660, puppetry flourished- mainly with glove puppets.
When England welcomed the return of Charles 11 in 1660, entertainers on the content came to visit, including puppeteers. One of the characters was called Pulchinello, based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte figure Pulchinello. He eventually came to be known as Punch.