Travelling puppeteers in Elizabethan England performed in wealthy households. In 1561 the Duchess of Suffolk recorded paying 'two men who played upon the puppets'. Shakespeare referred to puppets and troupes of Italian puppeteers travelled around Britain in the 17th century, playing at fairs and markets, probably using marionettes.
The earliest recorded puppet plays in London took place in about 1600 at Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield, Holborn Bridge, Fleet Bridge and Bankside, but puppeteers made their living by performing all over the country. Bible stories such as Jonah and the Whale still featured in puppet shows and records show that one in Coventry in 1599 featured the devil. Medieval clergy used animated figures and puppets to help preach Christianity, and a devil puppet would have been a leading player in these, his evil-doings creating vivid and imaginative lessons.
According to a 17th-century poem by Samuel Butler, fireworks were used with puppet plays involving the devil - a theatrical (if not downright dangerous) way to show the perils of hellfire: 'Nor devil in the puppet-play be allowed
To roar and spit fire, but to fright the crowd'.
Puppeteers also performed versions of popular stage plays, historical stories and contemporary events and figures such as Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Glove puppets were probably the most common type of puppet in Elizabethan England but shadow puppets were also known.
Theatres were closed during the mid 17th century, when stage plays were forbidden. Puppet plays, however, were still tolerated, so from 1642 until 1660 puppet theatre flourished - mostly with glove puppets. When Charles II returned to England, entertainers from the continent came too, including puppeteers. They brought a string puppet character based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte figure Pulchinello. In England he was called Punchinello and eventually Punch.
Mr Punch was first recorded in England in 1662 by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys when he saw him as a marionette, operated in Covent Garden by the Italian puppet showman Signor Bologna. Pulchinella, as he was then called, was presented within a tent rather than in the type of booth we know today with the audience standing outside. Pepys brought his wife to see the show two weeks later and that October the same show was performed at Whitehall for the King. Pepys recorded seeing other Italian puppet showmen in England and in 1672 the King ordered that a puppet showman should be allowed to perform at Charing Cross.
Meanwhile, strolling puppeteers continued to play in portable booths around the country, with shows based on Bible stories and legends. Puppeteers were particularly active in 17th-century Norwich, a tradition that continues today.
The Devil has a long history in puppet shows. Records show that the Devil featured in a show at Coventry in 1599, and has also appeared with Mr Punch for a long time. An account of the 1699 May Fair records 'a Puppet Show, where a senseless dialogue between Pulchinello and the Devil was conveyed to the ears of the listening rabble through a tin squeaker'.
This puppet was made by the puppeteer Walter Wilkinson who did much to restore the reputation of glove puppets in the first half of the 20th century.