English mystery plays shrouded in mystery
The English mystery plays are themselves shrouded in mystery. Their
precise origins are unknown, their authors are largely unidentified,
and the details of their presentation are still a matter for conjecture.
What is certain is this : the plays must not be dismissed as the poor
relations of our dramatic history. They are among the crowning achievements
of late medieval literature.
The first mention of the Coventry Mystery Plays is in 1392 when
the Drapers' Company, which performed Doomsday, is known to have used
a tenement in Little Park Street as a pageant house. It is probable
that some of the plays, if not the full cycle, were in existence before
this date because mystery plays were a well established phenomenon
in the fourteenth century. One recalls the merry clerk, Absolon, in
The Miller's Tale, trying everything to impress his beloved Alison
Sometyme, to shew his lightnesse and maistyre
He playeth Herodes on a scaffold hye
And there is ample evidence from other sources of the popularity
of the mystery plays in the major towns and cities of Chaucers England.
Medieval drama was born within the confines of the Church. Dramatic
episodes from the Bible had been incorporated into the liturgy for
hundreds of years. They were in Latin and were performed by members
of the clergy in a holy place. Mystery plays, by contrast, were in
the vernacular and presented by lay actors in public places. This
made possible the use of material the demonic ranting of Herod, for
example, or the coarse banter of the Torturers that would have been
outright blasphemy inside a church.
Mystery plays were performed for the most part on the Feast of Corpus
Christi, which fell on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and which
marked the completion of the sacrifice to Christ. Since the Feast
occurred in June, the trades guilds who presented the plays could
count on a long day and Deo volente - fine weather. These were important
factors in view of the scale of the cycles of plays. The Chester cycle,
comprising twenty-four plays, took three days to perform and the citizens
of York, eager to make use of every minute of light, used to begin
their first play at 4.30am. Coventry was something of an exception
in that its shorter cycle ten pageants in all could be staged in one
The Coventry Mystery Plays were the most famous in England and this
is reflected in the number of royal visitors they attracted. Henry
V, Henry VI, Richard III and Henry VIII are all known to have attended
the annual performances. In 1457 Queen Margaret is said to have been
peeved when she was unable to see the full cycle of plays. Darkness
prevented the performance of Doomsday and she had to be content with
only nine of the pageants.
Evidence suggests that fewer crafts supported the plays in Coventry
than elsewhere. Again, some of the guilds combined to produce a particular
pageant. An act of Coventry leet passed in 1445 gives us some indication
of the way certain guilds combined, and also shows the order of procession
through the city on the morning of Corpus Christi Day :
Pur le ridyng on Corpus xpi day and for watch on midsomer even:
The furst craft, fysshers and cokes; baxters and milners: bochers;
whittawers and glovers; pynners, tylers and wrights; skynners; barkers;
corvysers: smythes: wevers; wirdrawers; cardemakers, sadelers, peyntours
and masons; gurdelers; taylor, walkers and sheremen; deysters; drapers;
Of the ten pageants that made up the Coventry cycle, only two survive
The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tavlors and The Weavers' Pageant.
I have worked from the texts as reprinted in 1825 by Thomas Sharp,
the antiquarian, in his Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries,
Anciently performed at Coventry, by the Trading Companies of that
City. Sharp himself worked directly from copies made in 1534 by one
Robert Croo, who had been involved with the promotion of the plays
for a number of years. The manuscript of The Pageant of the Shearmen
and Taylors was destroyed in a fire at the Birmingham Free Library
in 1879, but Croo's original draft of The Weavers' Pageant has survived
and is kept in the Coventry City Record Office. It is a fascinating
document, written on parchment in secretary hand and dating from the
eve of a Reformation that was to alter the whole official view of
the presentation of mystery plays.
In preparing this version of the two pageants, I have tried to make
them accessible to a modern audience without sacrificing the spirit
of the original. It should be stressed that this is an acting version
and that certain changes have been made for theatrical occasions.
The Prologue, spoken by Joseph in performance, was specially written
to draw the audience in to the first acting area. In The Pageant of
the Shearmen and Tavlors there is a short Prophet Play or Learned
Dialogue which links the visit of the Three Shepherds with the first
Herod scene. We found it more effective to assign this section Scene
Four here to the First Shepherd and a crowd which included a prophet.
Similarly, the Prophet Play which introduces The Weavers' Pageant
was found to have more impact when shortened and spoken by the two
soldiers left onstage after Herod's hasty departure into Egypt - Scene
Unlike most of the plays in the other cycles, the Coventry pageants
deal with more than one subject. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors
takes the story from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents
in a series of fast moving and vivid scenes. Notable features of this
pageant are the characterization of Joseph as a tetchy and comic old
man who reacts badly to the news of impending parenthood: the ranting
flamboyance of Herod's ˜cheff capten of hell" and the roles both
of the mothers (who sing the Coventry Carol) and of the soldiers during
the Massacre. There is a fine irony in the fact that Herod is just
introduced by a Herald who speaks in medieval French the language
of chivalry. The Weavers' Pageant deals with the Purification and
with the Disputation in the Temple. The comedy of Joseph's situation
is more fully exploited in this pageant and his complaints are set
against the practical and determined character of Mary. There is evidence
to suggest that the episode where the twelve year old Jesus confounds
the Doctors in the Temple was the most popular of all the plays with
Coventry audiences, not Ieast because of its use of dramatic irony.
Since the Coventry Mysteries end with Jesus as a boy of twelve.
I have added scenes from the other cycles to continue the story through
to the Resurrection, thus giving a more complete theatrical and religious
experience. l have tried to select those extracts most in keeping
with the style of the Coventry pageants, and in some cases the Baptism,
the Betrayal and the Trial sections from more than one cycle have
been joined together. For the Betrayal, some dialogue was lifted bodily
from the Gospel of St Mark.
The other cycles represented here are the York cycle; the Chester
cycle; the Towneley cycle, which hails from Wakefield in Yorkshire
but which takes its name from the Lancashire family who kept the manuscripts
of the plays for a number of years; and the Ludus Coventriae, wrongly
attributed to Coventry and more likely to have come from the East
Midlands. All these cycles contain material from the Old Testament
and trace the story from the Creation to the Last Judgment. The Coventry
pageants were thought to be distinctive in that they contained only
New Testament material, but this view has now been revised by some
scholars. As Professor Hardin Craig has urged, such renowned subjects
as the Creation, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and probably Abraham
and Isaac must have been performed at Coventry because of their popularity
elsewhere, and because the idea of a Corpus Christi play demands a
fall of man as well as a redemption." (Supplement to the Introduction
to Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, 1957 edition.)
This version was first produced in the ruins of the old Coventry
Cathedral on 1 August 1978. It was presented by the Belgrade Theatre
in association with Coventry Cathedral and received generous sponsorship
from a number of firms in the city. The exciting and imaginative production,
which used the whole cathedral as an acting area, was by Ed Thomason,
to whom this publication is dedicated.
The Staging of the Cycle - The Route
The cycle was performed processionally, in that the pageants (a
word used throughout England to designate both the plays and the vehicles
on which they were performed) were taken in sequence around the city
and performed at stations' along the route.
Coventry's route has never been indisputably established, nor has
the number of stations and in a period of what amounts to almost two
centuries, both probably altered. Although ten stations in all are
mentioned at various times, this does not mean that all plays were
played at all stations every year. A proposal for the then size of
the city which would be plainly ridiculous. Common sense alone would
suggest that no more than three performances of each pageant were
mounted in the day, a view corroborated by accounts of expendable
props, such as the three worlds the Drapers burnt in Doomsday each
year, presumably one at each stop.
Gosford Street appears to have been the starting point, as the inhabitants
there requested of the Leet in 1494 that the pageants should "be sette
& stande at Ã¾e place there" which was "of olde tyme vsed" This
is not to say that anything was performed there : in York the pageants
assembled at Toft Green and definitely did not perform there. Elizabeth
Baldwin has recently suggested that there might have been a pattern
of 'request stops' which would explain inconsistencies in the records.
She has tabulated all the stops mentioned in the available records,
providing the most definitive, if inconclusive, guide to the route
Baldwin concludes that the wagons must have moved towards the city
from Gosford Street, and the junction of Much Park Street and Jordanwell
is, therefore, a probable station. The players received refreshment
at a tavern called the Swan for which the "Swan with ij neckes" in
Jordanwell is a likely candidate, as other accounts mention ale bought
at "mickelparke strete ende" and the tavern could have been at the
junction. Earl Street is the next point for which there is an accumulation
of evidence. Margaret of Anjou lodged at Richard Wood's house there
in 1457 to see the plays, and the Smiths paid for ale at his door.
Unless their refreshment stops were very frequent, it is likely that
the house was at the Little Park Street end of Earl Street where Queen
Elizabeth saw the Smiths play in 1566. Broadgate is another likely
station, as Prince Edward in 1474, Prince Arthur in 1498, and Henry
VIII in 1511 saw plays there. Thereafter there are two possible routes.
Records of Margaret of Anjou's visit mention the conduit in Smithford
Street, the east end of St John's church, and Bablake Gate, the last
also being mentioned at Prince Edward's visit, but there are no regular
Corpus Christi records of stops on Smithford Street. Crosscheaping
is a more likely regular route, although evidence is flimsy. There
are also isolated references to New Gate, White Friars, Grey Friars,
and Cookstreet Gate which do not fit in with any route.
If the pageant route began in Gosford Street, continued in Broad
Gate, turned into Crosscheaping, and went as far as Bishop Street,
there could have been stations in Jordanwell, Earl Street, Broadgate
and Crosscheaping, and need not have been only one station in each.
That the Coventry play had only three performances need not be incompatible
with this : different guilds may have performed at different stations,
or may have identified their stations by different names, and, like
everything else, arrangements probably changed down the years.
[Taken from 'Coventry Mystery Plays' by Pamela King]
What's in a name.
MEDIEVAL CHURCH PLAYS
The Old, the New & the Saints
Aesthetic Representation and Technic.
Mystery Plays in England.
Coventry’s medieval mystery plays.
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