The Mysterious Mask

11th April 2017 — 7 Comments

Early viewers of my blogs will be aware that I lost a lot of posts in a ‘crash’. Whenever possible, I have tried to resurrect some of the better ones, but it doesn’t always work My analytics tell me when somebody is looking for a post that has gone, they are met by the rather depressing message below.

Shouldn’t that be BROKEN? 🙂

A particular blogpost in question is one I did on The Mysterious Mask. I have therefore decided to do it again. Just like to apologise if you have seen it before, but it will be fresh to many.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds’ Liaison Officers are often surprised and always delighted when the public hand in interesting but enigmatic items for identification. And so it was with Julie Cassidy, former Northamptonshire FLO, when she was handed an artefact discovered during renovation work in an old house near Daventry.

The item was easily recognisable as a mask, but why had it been hidden within the inner wall of a 16th century stone building and what was its purpose? Julie was determined to find out more.

The wall where the mask was deposited was about 4’ thick and the inner core consisted of soil, straw and the insulation in common use at that time – horsehair! Julie reckoned that these conditions were probably why it was found in such good condition.

Courtesy PAS

The mask was folded in half lengthways and still had some of that soil and straw adhering to one half. The opposite half still had the velvet in relatively good condition, but in need of conservation to prevent further damage.

Placing the mask in the wall could have been used to ward off evil magic in the home and may have been viewed as a ‘lucky thing’, perhaps an heirloom from a spiritually powerful ancestor. Julie said:

“Whether it was a family heirloom of significance or if they wanted to keep away those evil spirits, we don’t know. There are local traditions of putting shoes in walls, but I’ve never heard of this!” 

The lining is silk and the inside is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner. You may be wondering about the presence of the black glass bead. On the lining, just below the centre of the mouth, is a loose thread of white cotton that would have held the bead. There were no holes in the mask to allow string or elastic to be put around the head, so it was held in place by the wearer holding the bead in her mouth. Talking whilst wearing the mask can’t have been easy!

Research has shown that this was a large VISARD mask worn by gentlewomen in the 16th and possibly into the early 17th centuries. Who knows – a Northamptonshire lady probably wore this to protect her skin as she rode around in the sun.

The word visard (sometimes vizard) is simply an alternative name for a mask and was also commonly worn by women at the theatre. We know this from reading the diary of Samuel Pepys who notes that by the end of the 17th century it had fallen out of fashion ‘and was the mark of a prostitute’! Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost suggests that the vizard was simply used to hide an ugly face!

The mask is oval and measures 195mm in length and 170mm in width. The eyes are lentoid, 30mm wide and 15mm high. The mouth is 48mm wide, widening in the centre to make a gap for the nose. The nose area is strengthened to stand out and form a case around the wearer’s nose. The mask weighs 32.4g (although this weight is inaccurate, due to the amount of soil and straw adhering to one side). Full details HERE


Whatever the purpose of this particular item we do know that masks have been used all over the world since the times of antiquity and their function has varied greatly. Examples include funeral masks, those worn in religious ceremonies, and masks for theatre, social occasions and those used to protect the face.

Masks of this calibre rarely survive. One parallel can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in the form of a doll’s mask, belonging to the collection of Lady Chapman. Another is held at Norwich Museum, although their example is more crudely made than the one described here.

What we do know is that the Northamptonshire mask has been deemed a find of note and designated a find of national importance. The V&A wanted to acquire the mask because it’s the only one of its kind surviving, but with the cutbacks it has been unable to do so. The good news is that although the mask has been returned to the owners of the cottage, who may eventually agree to loan it to the V&A for exhibition.

Julie Cassidy © JW – Thanks to the editor of The Searcher, the PAS and Julie Cassidy for their permissions to reproduce this article.


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7 responses to The Mysterious Mask

  1. Good Blog John, interesting about the mask

  2. those are the sorts of finds that are the best John.. open to conjecture.. These are the finds that make this hobby so fascinating..

  3. Thanks John for a very interesting resurrection of this article.
    Dick Turpin wore a mask to hide his face when committing highway robberies it is a pity some of our elected members of parliament didn’t do the same, no parties mentioned to keep it politically correct.

  4. Thanks John, a good interesting read.

  5. peter walsh ,aka..G.Clooney 11th April 2017 at 4:12 PM

    my wife once said to me ,you think more about metal detecting than me.i said rubbish ,ok i will prove it to you .so came home next day after metal detecting ,right she said do you notice anything different about me ,,i thought here we go ,so i said you have had your hair done ,NO she said ,you got a new dress NO she said,new shoes NO she had your nails done NO she said.ok i give up,i,m wearing a Gas Mask she said ..

  6. maybe to conceal a pox marked face

  7. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 14th April 2017 at 3:26 AM

    I don’t know if it was your article John, or if I read about this elsewhere, but it seems familiar to me?

    Something about women having to wear them at night (should they have gone out) to give the appearance of a devil and scare men off?

    Now days they just apply 5 pounds of makeup, so not much has changed really. LOL…

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