The Show
Behind the Scenes

Mysteries 2003



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 day.

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; mercers.

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 Eleven here.

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.

Keith Miles


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 þe 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 yet.

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]


History article 1
What's in a name.
History article 2
History article 3
The Old, the New & the Saints
History article 4
Aesthetic Representation and Technic.
History article 5
History article 6
Mystery Plays in England.
History article 7
Coventry’s medieval mystery plays.
History article 8
Your in good company
History article 9
Chester Plays
History article 10
Towneley Mysteries
History article 11
Oberammergau passion play