Chester Mystery Plays

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The Chester Mystery Plays have become a rare and treasured part of Britain's cultural heritage, now only performed every five years (June/July 2018, 2023, etc.), with a cast of hundreds including choirs and the gawping crowd! In almost every case there is a link between the subject-matter of the play and the trade of the guild which performed it. The puzzle is whether the assignment of plays to appropriate guilds was a definite choice, or whether the guilds adapted the scripts to reflect their own interests.



The illustration from Chambers "Book of Days" is probably not Chester but Coventry.

Performed on wagons throughout the city, the plays could be regarded as the first organised street theatre. Taken over by city guildsmen after the monks gave up the increasingly elaborate procedure of dramatising church services for the many who couldn't follow the Latin texts, these wagon performances of amateur actors became injected with both wit and humour.

"Mystery" in this context refers "specialized skill" (ministerium, meaning craft). Very few other places found the economic or administrative means to stage such a sequence of plays, tracing God's intervention into human history, but the Chester cycle managed to thrive. It was (in medieval times) a popular annual event and the plays became a source of pride in the city. Even in the 1500s, when the growth of Puritanism led to such activities being banned altogether, Chester determined to continue and managed to stage its plays longer than anywhere else in England - much to the fury of the ruling archbishop. A near-complete text of 24 plays and some fascinating documentation of actual medieval performances in Chester survives today.

Chamber's "Book of Days" (1863) states of them (under May 15):

  • The mystery or miracle plays of which we read so much in old chronicles possess an interest in the present day not only as affording details of and amusements of the people in the middle ages of which we have no very clear record but in them and the illuminated MSS but also in helping us to trace the progress of the drama from a very early period to the time when it reached its meridian glory in our immortal Shakspeare. It is said that the first of these plays one on the passion of our Lord was written by Gregory of Nazianzen and a German nun of the name of Roswitha who lived in the tenth century and wrote six Latin dramas on the stories of saints and martyrs. When they became more common about the eleventh or twelfth century we find that the monks were generally not only the authors but the actors. In the dark ages when the Bible was an interdicted book these amusements were devised to instruct the people in the Old and New Testament narratives and the lives of the saints the former bearing the title of mysteries the latter of miracle plays. Their value was a much disputed point among churchmen some of the older councils forbade them as a profane treatment of sacred subjects. Wicklisse and his followers were loud in condemnation yet Luther gave them his sanction saying Such spectacles often do more good and produce more impression than sermons. In Sweden and Denmark the Lutheran ecclesiastics followed the example of their forefathers and wrote and encouraged them to the end of the seventeenth century it was about the middle of that century when they ceased in England. Relics of them may still be traced in the Cornish acting of St George and the Dragon and "Beelzebub".

One fact often overlooked about the plays is that they were performed along The Rows, so people would be watching them both from the Rows and from rooms above, particularly the chamber over the Rows. The fact that well-to-do sixteenth-century Cestrians rented out window seats in those apartments during the Whitsun play performances testifies to how highly locals valued the view of the wagons from above.


The history of the Chester Mystery palys is complex and only a short version is given here. Other documents relating to the history are given in the "Sources and Links" below. This list is not exhaustive as only a limited number of the vast quantity of books and papers on the subject are available on-line.

The Chester plays (Vol I): a collection of mysteries founded upon scriptural subjects, and formerly represented by the trades of Chester at Whitsuntide by Thomas Wright, 1810-1877 .


The plays are traditionally dated about 1325 (or 1327), but a date of about 1375 has also been suggested. Chambers also gives a date of 1208 but notes that date may be too early. Some early writers expressed the view that they were written by Ranulf Higden (c.1280 - c.1363), author of the Polychronicon, as stated in the Prologue to the plays. Whatever their actual date, it is clear that as early as 1533 they were regarded as old beyond living memory. Chambers eventually fixed on a date of 1328 which was accepted for many years, and from which it appeared that the Chester plays were the earliest surviving mystery plays. Later reserach showed that Chambers date was based on myths and mis-statements from a proclamation from around 1531/2 and the likely date for the current text of the plays dates from around 1532 with an earlier version being performed some time before 1422.

The first evidence for religious plays in Chester is of a performance on Corpus Christi day 1422, which usually falls in June, but can be anywhere from 23rd May to 24th June, depending on the date of easter. The Corrpus Christi feast was established by 1311. At Corpus Christi representatives of the guilds walked in procession behind a consecrated "host" holding torches in a ritual known as a "light". The initial form may have been a fairly simple "passion play", expanded to eleven plays and then to more (later with giants, unicorn, dromedary, lynx, camel, ass, dragon, hobbyhorses and naked boys). In 1499, the play "The Assumption of Our Lady" was performed before Prince Arthur (see: Cowper).

The first possible reference to the Corpus Christi procession is an inauspicious one - a record of 1399 describes a terrible brawl which broke out between the members of the guilds of the weavers, shearmen, challoners (blanket-makers) and the walkers (fullers) against their apprentices, outside of St Peter's:

  • "They came with force and arms, with pole-axes, staves, daggers and other diverse armaments by a pre-meditated plan, on Thursday the feast of Corpus Christi"

Other famous Mystery Play “Cycles” in England were written in Coventry, York (dating from 1376 or earlier) and Wakefield.


The plays were originally performed over two days. The event proved so popular that still later, around 1521, it was stretched to cover the three days of Whitsuntide, Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The guild accounts of expenditure give us a fairly detailed picture of the sequence of events leading up to the performance of the Whitsun Plays. Though the mayor and council were the final arbiters of whether to produce the plays, the companies apparently could petition for a performance by submitting a 'bill' to the mayor. When the decision was favourable, the companies began to ready their materials and to practise their parts.

Their first but least difficult task was to ride the Banns. The guilds participated in a yearly procession at Midsummer whenever the Whitsun Plays were not performed; consequently, they could anticipate the demand for costumes and horses for the character who rode with them and be ready to ride in procession by St George's Day, the time David Rogers claims was set aside for the Banns. If the route for the Banns was the same as that for the Midsummer Show, the companies assembled at the Bars outside Eastgate, where the crier read the Banns and called forth the guilds. The route then took them past the prisons at Northgate and at Chester Castle, where they contributed money to the prisoners (in one year the Smiths spent two pence). The liberties of the city extended beyond the walls, but by passing through the major streets and by coming to each of the gates, the guildsmen would thereby reconfirm the city's boundaries and freedoms. At then end of the day there would be a feast. On the day the Smiths spent 2d on the prisoners, they spent six shillings on the banquet, five shillings on the minstrels.

The "Pentice" was a wooden structure on the south wall of St Peter as shown here by Randle Holme (Harl Man 2073) shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Pentice was taken down in 1803. The remains of the High Cross, destroyed in the Civil War, can be seen in front of the door.

This ceremonial function concluded, the companies would begin to prepare their plays by copying and handing out parts ('parcells'), holding trials for roles, and rehearsing from one to three times before their general rehearsal. Each rehearsal and the final performance seems in some cases to have required the purchase of sometimes copious amounts of food (beef, chicken, bread, cakes and cheese) and drink (wine and beer). The mayor, at least in later years, saw all the plays at some point, but whether he visited each separately or saw them as a group is uncertain. Minstrels were hired for the performances and these presumably played while the carts carrying the stages were being moved from place to place, as the Painters et al paid for "a mynstrell to goe before vs". Both the mistrels and the players were treated to breakfast.

An antiquarian, Robert Rogers, Rector of Gawsworth and Archdeacon of Chester, included a description of the plays among his notes which passed to his son David on his death in 1595. David copied these notes in at least five versions between 1609 and 1637. The route described began at the Abbey gate outside the cathedral where, according to David's 1637 version in Liverpool University Library's Special Collections, 'the monks and Churche mighte haue the firste sight'. It then passed down Northgate Street to the High Cross in front of St Peter's Church where stood the Pentice, Chester's then "town hall" - 'Before the mayor and Aldermen', says David. The next station was somewhere in Watergate Street, and the pageants then passed through the lanes to the fourth and last station, in Bridge Street. Chester's plays belonged to the clergy, to the aldermen, and to all the citizens, not to an elitist group, and when the arrangements were varied in 1575 there is evidence of discontent that the plays did not tour the city as usual.


During the Reformation such plays were considered ‘Popery’. Bishop Christopher Goodman wrote complaining about the plays in 1572 - he felt that the plays were heretical and dogmatically Roman Catholic. The plays were consequently banned by the new Church of England. Despite this growing uneasyness with the plays, the cathedral paid for the stage and beer as in 1562. The performance schedule in the 1560s and 1570s was erratic - plays were performed only in 1561, 1567, 1568, 1572, and 1575 - and Henry Hardware, for example, did not allow a performance of the plays in his first mayoral term in 1559-60. Chester’s major at the time, John Arnewaye, was subsequently summoned to the Star Chamber in London to explain himself. The wording in the Mayor's book concerning this is quite delightful:

  • "this year the said Sir lohn Sauage caused ye popish plaies of Chester to bee playd ye Sundav Munday Tuesday and Wensday after Midsummer day in contempt of and Inhibition and ye primates letters from yorke and from ye Earle of Huntington, for which cause hee was serued by a purseuant from yorke, ye same day yat ye new Maior was elected, as they came out of ve common hall, notwithstanding the said Sir lohn Sauage tooke his way towards London, but how his matter sped is not knowne"

Arnewaye wrote to the city council to request a certificate that the council and not he alone had ordered the plays, and Henry Hardware, who was then mayor, was honourable enough to send the certificate stating that both Arnewaye and Hankey had acted with the consent of the council. Apparently, this shared 'guilt' satisfied the government, or the city's charter prevented any further action against the mayor. Nevertheless, the message was clear and the plays were never performed in Chester again, except for one performance of the Shepherds before the Lord Strange and other notables in 1577-8.


Christopher Ede directed the first modern revival at Chester in the Cathedral Refectory to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. York's play cycle was actually performed two weeks before and the Players of St Peter had been performing the plays in London roughly every five years since 1946. It was Ede who later (1962) brought the plays out into the light (and rain) of the Cathedral Green. Even in the 1950's and early 1960's there were elements of censorship as the figure of Christ was not allowed to be portrayed on stage until the summer of 1966. The 1951 York play was the subject of prolonged legal argument about the blasphemy laws and the threat of disruption by Christian evangelicals.

The text of the plays is mutable and is frequently modified to reflect current issues and provide humour relevant to currect issues.

List of plays and guild associations

The content of the plays is often well-suited to the guilds associated with them. In some cases this may be the subject-matter suggested which guild should perform the play, in others the script of the play may have been adapted to make jokes about the guild in question. The total cast needed for the plays seems to be about 350 people, some ten percent of the population of Chester at the time. In York the guilds were also allocated to the plays by profession: for example, the Shipwrights performed the Building of the Ark, while the Butchers played the Death of Christ or Crucifixion. The Chester allignment of guilds with particular plays seems clearer than that at York, but different sources may give slightly different associations between the plays and guilds. This latter variation may be due to the membership of guilds relating to multiple trades changing over time.

1 - The Fall of Lucifer (Barkers and Tanners)

Gustave Doré famously illustrated the Fall of Lucifer ftom Miltons's Paradise Lost.

In some cities Barkers were a guild of those who attempted to attract patrons to entertainment events, such as a circus or funfair, by exhorting passing public.This was not the case in Chester: here Barkers collected oak bark for the Tanners, who worked in exceedingly noxious conditions in the Tanning trade: perhaps they got the play for that reason or perhaps as they were particularly important guilds had the priviledge of going first. The first Pageant, that of the Fall of Lucifer, tells the story in the traditional manner. Lucifer, the greatest and fairest of the angels, falls because during God's absence, after having sworn fealty, he sets him-self up for worship. Certain of the angels acknowledge his claim - God returns and slings him out. One curious feature is that after their fall the fallen angels are not alluded to by name but are called Primus and Secundus Demon.

Lucifer is a Latin name for the planet Venus in its morning appearances, and is often used for mythological and religious figures associated with the planet. Due to the unique movements and discontinuous appearances of Venus in the sky, mythology surrounding these figures often involved a fall from the heavens to earth or the underworld. The Sumerian goddess Inanna (Babylonian Ishtar) is associated with the planet Venus, and Inanna's actions in several of her myths, including Inanna and Shukaletuda and Inanna's Descent into the Underworld appear to parallel the motion of Venus as it progresses through its synodic cycle. The fall from heaven motif also has a parallel in Canaanite mythology. In ancient Canaanite religion, the morning star is personified as the god Attar (another corruption of Ishtar, cf Astarte, Astaroth, who attempted to occupy the throne of Ba'al and, finding he was unable to do so, descended and ruled the underworld. Attar is frequently depicted as an ibex, often mistaken for a goat. The French equivalents of this mystery play have Lucifer, Astaroth and Satan as separate "demons".

Typical depictions of Lucifer provide bat-like, leathery wings and horns. Another possible origin for the "horned devil" is the Gaulish Celt deity Cernunnos (the Horned One) the etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for "horn" or "antler". Cernunnos may have been assimilated into christianity in both a negative sense (as the devil) and a more positive sense as the stag or deer as an integral part of myths, legends and fables - such as the foundation legend of St Johns in Chester.

It is not clear whether the entire host of angels mentioned would be walking in procession with the wagons (there would be no space for all of them on the wagons).

2 - The Creation of the World (Drapers and Hosiers)

An almost comic Adam and Eve in need of Drapers c.950-955 (El Escorial, Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo).

Drapers and hosiers because of the lack of clothing of Adam and Eve initially. These plays are continuous; one merges into the other. The pageants must have followed one another quickly through the streets, one taking up the story very nearly where the other leaves it. Cestrian David Rogers is especially impressedby the way that the plays seem to push in on each other, so that no play ends without the next one being visible:

  • "the weareplayed upon mondaye tuesedaye and wensedaye in whitson weekeand thei firste beganne at the Abbaye gates. and when the firstepagiante was played at the Abbaye gates then it was wheled from thense to pentice at the hyghe crosse. before the maiorand before that was donne the seconde came. and the firste wenteinto the watergate streete. & from thense unto the Bridgestreeteand so one after an other tell all the pagiantes weare playedappoynted for the firste daye. and so likewise for the seconde and the thirde daye. these pagiantes or cariage was a higheplace made like a howse with 2 rowmes beinge open on thetope. the lower rowme their apparrelled and dressed them selues. and the bigger rowme[s] theie played. and thei stoode upon vi wheeles. and when the had donne with one cariage in one place theie wheled the same from one streete to another. firste from the Abbaye gate. to the pentice. then to the watergate streete. then to the bridge streete. through the lanes &so to the esttgatestreete. And thus the came from one streete to another. kepinge a diverse order in everye streete for before thei firste Carige was gone from one place the seconde came and so before the seconde was gone the thirde came and so till the laste was donne all in order withoute anye stayeinge in any place. forworde being brougthe howe everye place was neere doone the came and make noeplace to tarye tell the laste was played."

The second play tells the story of the six days of Genesis. Adam and Eve, according to the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions, were the first man and woman. They are central to the belief that humanity is in essence a single family, with everyone descended from a single pair of original ancestors. It also provides the basis for the doctrines of the fall of man and original sin that are important beliefs in Christianity, although not held in Judaism or Islam. Adam is created, but until after the sleep in which Eve is formed from his rib, he does not speak a word. The word "rib" is a pun in Sumerian, as the word "ti" means both "rib" and "life".

From the stage directions we gather that Adam rises when he is told to do so, but it is not until after his sleep that he has any words to utter.

This play also contains the story of Cain and Abel. In some modern versions of the play this is performed separately as is also the case with some other mystery play cycles.

3 - Noah and his Ship (Waterleaders and Drawers in the Dee)

These guilds were obviously chosen because of their association with the River - Waterleaders were responsible for bringing water to the citizens of Chester from the River Dee and Drawers of Dee were fishermen. At about the time of their incorporation (1607), the beer brewers combined with the water leaders and drawers of Dee in the Midsummer Show; in 1607 the beer brewers also paid 13s 6d for taffeta for a banner for the company’s use at Midsummer and 40s to Randle Holme, the heraldic painter, for painting it.

Noah in his drunkenness being exposed by Ham. Woodcut by H. Brosamer, 1550. In the Mystery Play it is his wife that is fond of a drink.

The Noah story of the Pentateuch is almost identical to a flood story contained in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, composed about 2000 BC. In the Gilgamesh version, the Mesopotamian gods are enraged by the noise that man has raised from the earth. To quiet them they decide to send a great flood to silence mankind. Various correlations between the stories of Noah and Gilgamesh (the flood, the construction of the ark, the salvation of animals, and the release of birds following the flood) have led to this story being seen as the inspiration for the story of Noah.

This was perhaps the favourite play of all. It gave opportunity for the kind of horse-play, especially marital, which the people of the middle ages so much loved. When the ark is built Noah's wife has changed her mind and will not enter it, and then the fun starts. Noah tells her to go into the ark but she refuses and the play turns to slapstick comedy with Noah's wife complaining about ferrets and stoats. Of the five extant middle English Noah plays, the Chester cycle’s Noah’s Flood is the only one that attempts to represent the actual loading of the beasts and birds onto the ark. All five manuscripts of the Chester play agree in their emphasis on this critical moment of the deluge story, naming up to forty-seven different creatures in a verbal catalogue parcelled out to seven of the main characters.

The dispute between Noah and his wife is only found in the Towneley and Chester Plays, but probably it was one of these to which Chaucer alludes in the Miller's Tale, where he speaks of: "The sorwe of Noe with his felawship / Or that he mighte get his wif to ship".

The lists of animals given by the various characters appears to be symbolic. Shem leads off with heraldic beasts (lions and leopards representing the king and the aristocracy) then lists the horse and the ox (of little use for breeding) followed by other domestic beasts. Ham brings in animals which are used for work but not eaten by the public at large, as well as semi-domestic "wild" animals. Japhet gets the small quadrupeds which were not considered edible. The women’s bird catalogues, generally speaking, focus on birds associated with two of women’s "traditional" activities, cooking and cleaning. In medieval ethnography, the world was believed to have been divided into three large-scale racial groupings, corresponding to the three classical continents: the Semitic peoples of Asia, the Hamitic peoples of Africa and the Japhetic peoples of Europe. It is not clear therfore why Japhet should get the "dregs".

The Noah's Flood play was set operatically by both Benjamin Britten (Noye's Fludde) and Igor Stravinsky (The Flood).

4 - Abraham and Isaac (Barber Surgeons and Wax-chandlers)

Ram in a Thicket excavated in Ur, in southern Iraq, and which date from about 2600–2400 BC.

Probably because God instructs Abraham to circumcise his son. This Company combined the crafts of medicine, hair trimming and candle making. It is known to have been in existence by 1475 and received charters from Chester Corporation in 1540 and 1550. The verses recording the Sacrifice of Isaac are among some of the best in the whole of the plays. The broken- hearted father doing what he conceives to be the will of God and the son obedient unto death. As in the traditional story Isaac is saved by his substitution by a 'Ram in a Thicket'. This also seems to be related to ancient symbolism - the Ram in a Thicket is a pair of figures excavated in Ur, in southern Iraq, and which date from about 2600–2400 BC. One is currently exhibited in the Mesopotamia Gallery in Room 56 in the British Museum in London; the other is in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, USA. The pair of rams would more correctly be described as goats, and were discovered lying close together in the 'Great Death Pit', one of the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, by archaeologist Leonard Woolley during the 1928–9 season.

5 - Balak and Balaam (Cappers, Wiredrawers and Pinners)

This is unique in the Chester Plays; it does not occur in any of the other English cycles, though it is to be found in the French mysteries - some passages in this play are almost exact translations from the French. Some versions of the plays omit this story completely. Balaaam, the non-Jewish sorcerer and prophet was commissioned by Balak King of Moab to curse the Jews, found himself incapable of cursing them. It is in this play that we have the first mention of "Mohammed" (in the original text). The story relates how Balaam was blocked from progress (on his donkey) ...

Balaam, the Angel and the Ass; Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).
  • a path of the vineyards, with a wall on both sides. The donkey saw the angel, and she pressed against the wall (to squeeze past the angel), crushing Balaam's "leg" and destroying his "tools", and he beat her again. Then the angel stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.. (a clear reference to wire-drawers)

The original story is quite bawdy, with the donkey able to talk. The Talmud also suggests that Balaam has had sex with the donkey, as the donkey says:

  • ..Since you first started until now you have always ridden on me. Moreover by day I provide you with riding, and by night with intimacy.. (Rashi, Numbers 22:30; Avodah Zarah 4b.)

According to the guild website, the cappers made firing caps for guns. This is untrue, the percussion cap only replaced the flint, the steel "frizzen", and the powder pan of the flint-lock mechanism following its invention by Joseph Egg, around 1817. "Cappers" is probably better translated as a maker of headgear (from Old English cæppe, from Late Latin cappa).

The Cappers Company was in existence by 1523-24, when it petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen, complaining that, because of competition, mainly from the mercers, it was too impoverished to produce its play. Perhaps because of this, the Cappers were joined by the Pinners and Wierdrawers in producing ‘King Balak and Baalam with Moses’, probably by c.1540. By 1603, the Linen Drapers had amalgamated with the Cappers, Pinners and "Wierdrawers".

In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, archaeologists found an inscription with a story relating visions of the seer of the gods Bala'am, son of Be'or, who may be the same Bala'am mentioned in Numbers 22–24. This Bala'am differs from the one in Numbers in that rather than being a prophet of Yahweh he is associated with Ashtar, a god named Shgr, and Shadday gods and goddesses. The inscription is datable to ca. 840–760 BCE. The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies describes it as "the oldest example of a book in a West Semitic language written with the alphabet, and the oldest piece of Aramaic literature."

6 - The Nativity (Wheelrights, Slaters, Tylers, Daubers and Thatchers)

Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. In 383 as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian; and through negotiation with emperor Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul.

Thatchers being associated with stables, this is an appropriate choice for these trades. But it might also be that some clever manipulation of the props might be needed for the "scene shifts" in this play.

The version of the nativity is different from the one in the bible as it features a walk-on part by the Roman emperor Octavian/Augustus. The play moves from Joseph's house at Nazareth to the Emperor's court at Rome, partly to show why Octavian ordered the general tax but more importantly to evaluate the pax Romana into which the Prince of Peace was born. The Roman senate believe that the long peace and prosperity of Octavian's rule must be a sign of his divinity and request his deification, but Octavian recognises his own mortality and rejects the offer. He then consults a sibyl who foretells the birth of a child of greater power than he. The action returns to Bethlehem for the birth, but then reverts to Rome, where Octavian is granted a vision of the Virgin and Child in a star and orders his countrymen to worship the Child. In the course of the play the pax Romana is shown to have been based upon a primitive kind of early warning system, the Temple of Peace, contrived by a fiend, so that Rome always had advance notice of rebellion. At Christ's birth, the structure collapsed, and subsequently a church has been built to commemorate the vision.

The local connection is that the "church" is Santa Maria in Ara Coeli which is known for housing relics belonging to Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. In Great Britain, a later legend, mentioned by Henry of Huntingdon but made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth, claimed that Helena was a daughter of the King of Britain, Cole of Colchester, who allied with Constantius to avoid more war between the Britons and Rome. All of this is entirely without historical foundation. It may arise from the similarly named Welsh princess Saint Elen (alleged to have married Magnus Maximus and to have borne a son named Constantine). The church actually stands on the site of the Temple of Juno Moneta (where coins were minted). The original structure cannot possibly date back to the time of Augustus (Rome did not become officially Christian until the 4th century), but by the 6th century the existing church was already considered old. It was later rebuilt, with the present structure dating from the 13th century. There was a Temple of Peace in Rome, but this was not built until 71 AD under Emperor Vespasian. The funds to create this grand monument were acquired through Vespasian's sacking of Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman Wars. The interior and surrounding buildings were decorated with the treasures collected there by the Roman army.

There is a curious reference to the "high horse beside Boughton" which may be a grim reference to Gallows-Hill at Boughton or a reference to a local brothel in Love Street.

Arrived at Bethlehem, Joseph goes out to search for two midwives. He finds two, by name Lebell and Salome. The story of the birth, of Salome's disbelief of Mary's virginity, of the withering of her hand and of its healing follow the apocryphal Gospel of James (ch. XIV):

  • 14 And the midwife went out from the cave, and Salome met her. 15 And the midwife said to her, "Salome, Salome, I will tell you a most surprising thing, which I saw. 16 A virgin has brought forth, which is a thing contrary to nature." 17 To which Salome replied, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I receive particular proof of this matter, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth."
  • 18 Then Salome went in, and the midwife said, "Mary, show yourself, for a great controversy has arisen about you." 19 And Salome tested her with her finger. 20 But her hand was withered, and she groaned bitterly, 21 and said, "Woe to me, because of my iniquity! For I have tempted the living God, and my hand is ready to drop off

7 - The Shepherds (Painters, Glaziers, (Stationers) and Embroiderers)

A shepherd om stilts.

These four crafts developed in the early 16th century. The painters were heraldic painters: the glaziers catered for the growing use of glass; the embroiderers embellished materials and the stationers were concerned with bookbinding and book selling. In 1534, members of these crafts successfully petitioned the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council for a charter of incorporation. In their petition, they cited their long association with the production of ‘The Shepherd’s Offering’ in the Chester cycle of Mystery Plays. It would appear that the Glaziers included stilts in their performance.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, is one of the most important in the whole cycle, because it is of all the plays the one in which local traditions, customs and ideas receive the freest expression. It would also have been one of the more difficult to play, not only because of the lines which needed to be learned but also because of the physical acting in the "wrestling" match. The first Shepherd enumerates the various diseases to which sheep are liable and the remedies to be applied. There is then a discussion of food which mentions many things which can be supposed to be local dishes. As a playable piece of drama, to be repeated at four wagon stations, the scene is a prop master‘s nightmare.Within less than fifty lines, the three Shepherds unpack and eat "bredd", "onyons", "garlycke", "leekes", "butter", "greene cheese", "puddinge", "jannock" (a leavened oatcake), "sheepes head sowsed in ale", "grayne" (either a pig‘s snout or its groin), "sowre milke" (curds), "pigges foote from puddinges purye", "gambonns" (gammon joints), another "puddinge" (with a pricke in the end, provocatively), and "tonge". Tudd refers vaguely, three more times, to other "meate" that he has brought. Then the Shepherds drink ale ‖and other "lickour" from a "flackett", "bottell" ,‖and "bowles". In later lines, the Shepherds and their boy Trowle gesture to further items that must be visible onstage, though they haven‘t been mentioned aloud yet: a pot for more drinking, a "loyne" (with punning reference to Hannkeynn‘s own loins), "sose" (sauce, possibly, or just a sloppy mess of food), and pickled pig parts, usually the feet and ears. The records of monies spent on the plays indicate that the Painters actually bought real food for this scene. It has been suggested that the Painters shared the food with the audience.

In a book called "Industrial Lancashire" published in 1897, John Mortimer explains that Jannock was a kind of oatmeal bread introduced by Flemish weavers who moved to Lancashire from the 13th century onwards. This bread was considered to be good and wholesome and so the word was applied to other things that were good and wholesome.

As in much medieval art Joseph is represented as an old and decrepit man, and such we find him all through these plays. The object being to emphasize the fact that he was not the father of Mary's child.

8 - King Herod / Adoration of the Magi (Vintners)

Herod seems to have caught the imagination of the people of the middle ages. He appears to have been the most popular of all the characters in the mysteries. He is always represented as a swaggering, shouting braggart; this probably accounted for his popularity and possibly explains the choice of the vinters. For some inexplicable reason the characters in the original script of this play keep switching between English and French. The portrayal of Herod was so "over-the-top" that it may have been referenced by Shakespeare in Hamlet (act 3, scene 2) where he mockingly coins the phrase "to out-Herod Herod" as an admonition to the players in the "play within the play":

  • O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

At one point in the text the marginal stage instructions mention a boy and a pig. This has been the subject of much puzzlement, but may be a reference to how Macrobius (c. 400 CE), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote:

  • “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]”.

This has been described as a reference to how Herod, as a Jew, would not kill pigs, but had three of his sons, and many others, killed.

9 - The Three Kings (Mercers and Spicers)

The Spicers would have sold incense. This play is very similar to the Shepherd play. As to the shepherds so to the Magi, Mary offers thanks for the gifts, and Joseph (the kings, like the shepherds, speak of him as an old man) repeats his story of Mary's virginity.

10- Slaughter of the Innocents (Goldsmiths and Masons)

It has been suggested the pun is that either will fleece innocents. However, a much clearer explanation is that Herod's most famous and ambitious architectural project was the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem - something which the Masons would have been aware of.

When Herod finds that the Magi do not return, he realises that he has lost the opportunity of discovering the Child and decides on the massacre of all the young children in Bethlehem so as to make sure of killing the Child Jesus. For this purpose he calls his knights together. The two first mentioned are Sir Grimbalde and Sir Launcher. Arrived at Bethlehem the fun starts in a true mediaeval manner. There is a great slaughter of infants, but the soldiers do not have it all their own way. The women of that city seem to have been of Amazonian breed and the men at arms were severely cudgelled. The mothers defended their children stoutly. The fray is brought to an end by a dramatic and unexpected incident. A child is slain, and the woman cries out that it was not her child but one given to her to nurse, and that the slain infant was actually Herod's son. Apparently the shock of his son's death is the cause of that of Herod.

In actual history Herod died in Jericho c. 4 BCE, after an excruciatingly painful, putrefying illness of uncertain cause, known to posterity as "Herod's Evil". Josephus states that the pain of his illness led Herod to attempt suicide by stabbing, and that the attempt was thwarted by his cousin. In some much later narratives and depictions, the attempt succeeds; for example, in the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter. It would not have been possible to utter an oath based on the historic Mohammad (c. 570 CE – 8 June 632 CE) as several characters do in this play's original text.

11- Purification of Our Lady or in some versions Christ in the Temple (Smiths, Forbers and Pewterers)

The first part deals with the ceremony of the Purification, and the second with the Child Jesus discoursing in the Temple with the Doctors (in the Coventry cycle these are two separate plays).

12- The Temptation & Woman taken into Adultery (Butchers)

It begins with a soliloquy by Satan which is rather curious. He has a great deal of knowledge of Jesus; knows what kind of a man he is and who is his mother but is quite unable to discover who his father is. Thus while he knows all about Mary and Jesus and the circumstances of the birth, he has no knowledge of Joseph - yet another way of almost writing Joseph out as little more than a side-character. Pope Sixtus (1471-1484) placed Joseph on the Roman Kalendar, and since that time there has been a tendency to give him a little more honour than was accorded to him in the earlier Church, which may help date the plays.

13- Raising of Lazarus (Glovers and Parchment-makers)

In the York and Coventry, the Temptation is a separate play, while the Chester combines it with the Woman taken in Adultery, which in the York is part of the Lazarus play. The play uses the word "Chester" where "thester" (meaning dark) might have been in the original text.

The Chester plays (Vol II): a collection of mysteries founded upon scriptural subjects, and formerly represented by the trades of Chester at Whitsuntide by Thomas Wright, 1810-1877 .

14- The Coming of Christ to Jerusalem (Corvisars)

aka Cordwainer - the shoemakers. In this play Judas is put up to betray Jesus by the money-lenders. In 1550, the expenses of their play included 19d for riding the banns; 2s 8d for a dozen boards for the carriage; and 22d for 2½ yards of flaxen cloth for Mary Magdalene’s coat.

15- The Last Supper/Betrayal (Grocers, Bakers and Millers)

Grocers and Bakers etc for obvious reasons - Millers perhaps because they were seen as habitually crooked. In Chester, the price of bread was fixed accordingly to the price of corn in the market by assessors working under the Mayor’s supervision. There are many examples of bakers refusing to comply with Assize of Bread or supplying bread deficient in weight or quality. In 1576, the bakers refusal to accept the Assize resulted in their mass committal to the Northgate gaol. The Bakers stacking of gorse for their ovens was strictly regulated by the Assembly of Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councilmen so as to lessen the danger of fire and in 1729 the Bakers petitioned to be allowed to build windmills on Hough Green because of complaints about charges at the Dee Mills.

The Scourging of Christ (Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers, Coopers and Turners) is sometimes listed as a single play with the following. The "four Jews" in this play spend extra time discussing an "iron pynne" (Passion lines 192-6, lines 199-200), an overt reminder of the connection between the Passion pageant and the craft of its supporting guild.

16- The Crucifixion (Ironmongers and Ropers)

Ironmongers sell nails. The dispute over the clothes and the dice-throwing take place before the crucifixion and Caiaphas has to order the men to get on with their work. It is curious to note that the Romans are not mentioned: it is apparently all the work of the Jews. When they come to nail Jesus to the cross they find that he is "short armed." The holes for the nails would be bored beforehand, and the phrase means that they find that Christ's hands will not reach them because the arms are too short - something that can be fixed by streching them with ropes. The origin of this tradition is to be found in the Revelation of the Virgin to St. Bridget of Sweden. The story is found in other mystery plays besides those of Chester so it was evidently a popular tradition. The Ironmongers‘guild brought a suit in 1422 against the "Wrights"‘guild (see note above) over the fairness of production costs for the "Passion", the play that the two guilds had shared up to that point. The Cestrian mayor, John Hope, settled the guildsmen‘s financial complaints by splitting one play into two, and then assigning the two halves to separate guilds: one containing all the material from flagellation up to the crucifixion and the other beginning with the crucifixion.

17- Harrowing of Hell (Cooks, Tapsters, Ostlers and Innkeepers)

Cooks roast meat but also take things out of the fire. The play also contains a "ale-wife" who has given false measure and does not get released from Hell - presumably a great hit with the crowd. This play was not restored in 1951 and was first performed in 1962.

18- The Resurrection (Skinners, Plastercard-makers, Hatters, Painters and Girdlers)

Frank Simpson writes of them (F. Simpson, ‘The City Gilds or Companies of Chester: The Skinners and Feltmakers Company’, J.C.A.S., 21 (1915)):

  • "The Skinners, Cardmakers, Hatters, Paynters, and Girdlers performed "The Resurrection." This play took place on the third day, Wednesday, in Whitsun Week. In the books no details of expenses in con­nection with the show are given. This leads one to suppose that the joint companies named hired the stage belonging to one of the other companies."

19- Castle of Emmaus & the Apostles (Saddlers - sometimes with Saddle-tree makers)

Saddlers are recorded in Chester from 1392-93. In 1472, their company was given a monopoly by Edward IV to last for 40 years. In the 16th century cycle of Mystery Plays, the Saddlers produced ‘The Castle of Emmaus and the Apostles’. In 1639, the company was granted another charter, on this occasion by the City. The saddlers amalgamated with the curriers, who were leather dressers.

20- The Ascension (Tailors)

This choice is ironic beacuse the shroud is left behind. There is no real break between this and the preceding play: Jesus virtually continues His discourse from the last scene and the disciples are yet uncertain about His bodily existence. Again Jesus by way of quietening their fears asks for food. There is a further reference to clothing in the "Golden Legend" of Jacobus da Varagine, Jesus is depicted as ascending with his clothes dyed with blood.

21- Whitsunday Making of the Creed - descent of the Holy Spirit (Fishmongers)

probably a pun of the smell of the fish-stalls. After having received the Holy Spirit the apostles are able to speak various tongues as recorded in the Acts. But it is interesting to note the geographical terms of the mystery where they differ from the New Testament classification.

22- Prophets before the Day of Doom (Shearmen)

The "Shearmen" were cloth finishers. When cloth, especially woollen cloth, is woven, the surface of the cloth is not smooth, and this roughness is the nap. Generally the cloth is then 'sheared' to create an even surface, and the nap is thus removed. The play features the Fifteen Signs before Doomsday.

23- Antichrist (Hewsters and Bellfounders) - or in some versions Dyers (which are Hewsters or Heusters)

The "Bell-founders" are a confusing guild as they are only ever mentioned once and that is in connection with the production of this pageant. There have been bell-founders at Congleton. Thomas Hughes states:

  • "..we had several founders settled at Chester, both long before and after Edward the Sixth's reign; Mr. Seth Rosomgreve, who was himself one of that craft, may have melted his weighty acquisition on the spot. One Simon Montford was a Chester founder at the date of the dissolution of the monasteries, as were others of his family before and since that date."

In 1558 the churchwardens of Childwall, in Lancashire, sold one of their church bells to "John Plymmer", of Chester, but it is not known whether he was a founder, or not.

24- The Last Judgement (Weavers and Walkers)

The "Walkers" based in the fulling mills on the Handbridge side of the Dee, carried out part of the cloth finishing process: originally this involved walking up and down in wet cloth. The weaving trade in Chester was both important and organised by 1399, when many master weavers took part in an affray against the journeymen opposite St Peter’s Church on the feast of Corpus Christi. Stewards of the Company are named in a Pentice Court roll in 1438-39 and by the middle of the 15th century, it was apparently associated with the fullers and the chaloners (blanket-makers).

In addition there was "The assumption of the Virgin" which was performed by the "worshipful wives of this town" between plays 22 and 23.

Assigned or Adapted?

There appears to be a connection between the subject matter of the plays and the trades of the guilds which performed each one. This could be fortuitous, done on purpose, or the plays could have had their wording adapted to fit. In some cases the link is very strong: those whose work involves the River Dee get Noah and the Flood; Grocers and Bakers get the last supper; Ironmongers get the crucifixion and Cooks (who take things out of the fire) get the harrowing of hell. In some cases the link is ironic: the Drapers get Adam and Eve; the Fishmongers get the holy spirit; and the Masons get Herod (who built the "Wailing Wall"). In places lines in the play may have been inserted to reflect the profession of the guild - such as the line "where are you going dressed in red?" in the ascention, as assigned to the Tailors. There may be other reasons for placement - the Tanners, one of the leading guilds, come first.

There are some connections to local tastes and legends: the Shepherds feast on local food, the nativity includes a local myth about St. Elen and Magnus Maximus.

Sources and Links


The Texts