NARC-151A67: visard mask

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

Rights Holder: Northamptonshire County Council
CC License:

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Unique ID: NARC-151A67

Object type certainty: Certain
Workflow status: Awaiting validation Find awaiting validation

This is a large Visard mask (also spelled 'vizard'), worn by gentlewomen in the 16th and possibly into the early 18th centuries.

The mask was found during the renovation of an inner wall of a 16th-century stone building. The wall was approximately four feet thick, and the mask was found concealed within the inner hard core of the wall, which consisted of soil, straw and horse hair (for insulation). The mask was folded in half, lengthways, and placed within a small rectangular niche behind the face of the wall. Due to the conditions when found, the mask has an amount of soil and straw adhering to one half. The opposite half still has the velvet material in relatively good condition, but is in need of some conservation to prevent further damage.

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).

The outer fabric is black velvet. The lining is silk. The inside is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner. The three layers are stitched together by a black cotton thread.

On the lining, just below the centre of the mouth, is a loose thread of white cotton. This cotton would have held the black glass bead (found in association with the mask). The bead is 10mm in diameter and weighs 1.42g. There is some wear at the hole, which is 3mm in diameter. The black glass bead was used to hold the mask in place. With a lack of holes to allow string or elastic to be put around the head, the mask would have instead been held in place by the wearer holding the black bead in her mouth.

An exerpt from Phillip Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1583, he wrote: "When they use to ride abrod, they have invisories, or masks, visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, he would think hee met a monster or a devil; for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them".

Another Elizabethan scholar, Randle Holme, wrote: "A mask...Gentlewomen used to put over their Faces when they travel to keep them from sun burning...[It] covers the whole face...holes for the eyes, a case for the nose and a slit for the mouth...this kind of Mask is taken off and put[on] in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside...against the mouth." (Randle Holme, The Academie of Armorie, 1688) (taken from the website

In 'Omnium Poene Gentium Habitus' by Abraham de Bruyn, published in 1581, the line: "in this fashion noble women either ride or walk up and down." is accompanied by an image depicting a lady wearing a mask with holes cut for the eyes.

In the 16th Century a tan suggested that you were poor and had to work outside - only gentlewomen were able to keep plump and pale skinned. Women would use white lead powder, lemon juice and sulphur to whiten their faces, but the best way to protect your reputation as a lady of distinction was to cover your face in the first place.

These masks also appear in some 17th century paintings from Venice. For some examples, see Le Rhinoceros and Al Rodotto by Pietro Longhi (1702 - 1785), both of which show ladies wearing these masks. A 1580 print of the French School, entitled "A Horseman with his Wife in the Saddle behind him," in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, shows the wife wearing such a mask. These paintings are set in Venice and France, but the Lady Clapham doll and the Daventry mask shows that this fashion appears to have been adopted by English women.

These masks rarely survive. One parallel can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the form of a 17th-century doll's mask, belonging to the collection of Lady Chapman (Museum Number T.846-1974). This example is almost identical to our mask. Another is held at Norwich Museum, although their example is more crudely made than the one described here.

With regard to the mask's deposition within the walls of a 16th-century building, the University of Southampton is currently researching such concealed items. The practise of placing a shoe was common in 16th- and 17th-century house building, as was the practice of concealing elaborate artefacts, or multiple associated artefacts, as 'witch deposits'.

The University of Southampton website: suggests: "These objects may have been concealed as a protective device to ward off evil and other maleficent forces or they may have been used as counter-magic to deflect a curse or other negative circumstance, such as illness or economic blight considered to be the consequence of malevolent spirits or witches, e.g. the use of witch bottles, charms and curses. The objects may also have been viewed as 'lucky things', perhaps heirlooms from an ancestor or from another person considered to be spiritually powerful and so they were perceived as lucky for the household. Or did builders constructing or altering a building or the householders themselves just want to leave their 'mark'?"


This item was published on page 154 of the exhibition catalogue for 'Shakespeare: Staging the World' (2012) by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (BM Press).

Find of note status

This is a find of note and has been designated: National importance

Subsequent actions

Subsequent action after recording: Returned to finder


Broad period: POST MEDIEVAL
Period from: POST MEDIEVAL
Date from: Circa AD 1500
Date to: Circa AD 1750

Dimensions and weight

Quantity: 2
Length: 195 mm
Width: 170 mm

Discovery dates

Date(s) of discovery: Saturday 19th June 2010

Personal details

Found by: This information is restricted for your login.
Recorded by: Ms Julie Cassidy
Identified by: Ms Julie Cassidy

Materials and construction

Primary material: Textile
Secondary material: Glass
Manufacture method: Hand made
Completeness: Complete

Spatial metadata

Region: East Midlands (European Region)
County or Unitary authority: Northamptonshire (County)
District: Daventry (District)
Parish or ward: Kilsby (Civil Parish)

Spatial coordinates

4 Figure: SP5671
Four figure Latitude: 52.33423658
Four figure longitude: -1.17957978
1:25K map: SP5671
1:10K map: SP57SE
Grid reference source: From a paper map
Unmasked grid reference accurate to a 10 metre square.

Discovery metadata

Method of discovery: Building work
General landuse: Other
Specific landuse: In use as a building

References cited

No references cited so far.

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1 comment

  • Christine wrote @ 21:42:05 on the 17th February 2015.

    To me reading about this masks I imagined a young woman carefully hiding it in the wall and insisting she'd lost the horrid thing.

Audit data

Recording Institution: NARC
Created: 8 years ago
Updated: 4 years ago

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