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! There are very many ways of examining the plays, this article looks at links 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 took the plays in the hierarchic order of the guilds and (perhaps only slightly) adapted the scripts to reflect their own interests. "Order of Precedence" was once very contentious in the London Livery Companies and possibly gave rise to the English saying "At sixes and sevens". All the evidence points towards the plays not being entirely the work of one person but the accretion of varied themes and sources around a traditional set of works.

One thing worth noting about the Chester Mystery Plays is that the literature about them is vast, and, over the course of time there have been several major paradigm shifts in the understanding and interpretation of the plays. The revision of viewpoints on the plays still continues. Once it was considered that the medieval mystery plays were "the popish progeny of ancient heathen theatre and full of ungodly errors and superstition" - "a Bastard of Babylon" - buffoonery far inferior to the Elizabethan theatre of Shakespeare. Later it was realised that pre-Reformation early English theatre needed to be re-interpreted as sometimes self-disparaging art which sought to disguise itself for the sake of its own preservation and that there was not a major gulf between the Medieval and the Renaisance. With renewed interest in the plays in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and especially performance of the plays themselves, scholarship in the area blossomed as attested by the copious reference in the "Sources and Links" below. Indeed, it is now thought that the Mystery Plays may well have influenced Shakespeare: the crucial dates are 1569 (the last performance of the York cycle), 1575 (the last performance of the Chester cycle), 1576 (the prevention of an attempt to perform the Wakefield cycle), and 1579 (the last performance of the Coventry cycle). That last date, which is often (wrongly) taken to mark the definitive end of the Corpus Christi tradition in England, is significant because it means that, up to the age of fifteen, Shakespeare was only a day’s journey away from what had been the most famous and popular of the English cycles in Coventry, drawing spectators from all over the South and the Midlands. We even hear of how members of the Mercers’ company from as far away as Shrewsbury were frequently fined for abandoning their own Corpus Christi procession and going to Coventry. The plays continued to be performed in the north of England: John Weever writes of seening them acted in Preston, Lancaster and Kendal in the early reign of James (after 1603).


The illustration from Chamber's Book of days" is 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 their belief in divine 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 some of the local clergy. A near-complete text of 24 plays and some fascinating documentation of actual medieval performances in Chester survives today.

The origin of Mystery Plays may go back to 1210, when, suspicious of the growing popularity of miracle plays, Pope Innocent III issued a papal edict forbidding clergy from acting on a public stage. This had the effect of transferring the organization of the dramas to town guilds, after which several changes followed. Vernacular texts replaced Latin, and non-Biblical passages were added along with (occasional) comic scenes.

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 not only from the street but also 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.

Much ink has been spilt on the subject that the Mystery Cycles hide some deeper and over-arching meaning. There is sometimes a tendency in historical analysis to import present day issues into prior situations. A few examples suffice to illustrate this.

One such theory is that the Chester Plays have a sub-text about the social and even physical relations between men in a male dominated society where women only have the role of child-bearing and are otherwise merely a source of grief (Eve brings about the downfall of Adam, Noah's wife is a problem he doesn't need and Mary causes Joseph worry due to her "infidelity"). That supposed sub-text would see the plays as some kind of reference to a "homo-social" society, where men must know their place as regards other dominant male figures. Such analysis can perhaps be taken too far. Fitzgerald for example (see links) suggests that Lucifer is a Tanner because the Tanners led the Corpus Christi procession "carrying lights", and that the Tanners were somehow "untouchable" and disenfranchised because of their profession. Such an extreme view may not be needed to understand the plays as distinct from the essentially patriarchal elements of the society they were found in. In fact, during the period 1558-1625 Chester was ruled by 71 mayors and of these 8 or 11-26 per cent can be identified as leather craftsmen. These 8 comprised 6 glovers, including Robert Brerewood who was mayor on three occasions, and 2 tanners. If the attainment of mayoral rank be viewed as an indicator of social and economic influence, it is clear that the much smaller group of overseas merchants was considerably more powerful than the leather craftsmen, or any other occupational group in the city. Among the sheriffs of the city the leather craftsmen featured more regularly, numbering a total of 26, or 19-11 per cent, out of 136 who held office during this period. Of these 11 were tanners, 9 glovers, 3 shoemakers, one a skinner and one a saddler.

Some Victorian writers considered that one reason the Mystery Plays were banned was because they featured "cross-dressing". In fact, it would have been more unseemly at the time for a woman to play a woman's part, than for the part to be played by a man or a boy.

Similarly, it is possible for concepts such as the similarity of some of the plays to the nature of the trades involved, maybe planted in jest, to take root and become "gospel".

This article explores possible reasons for the allocations of the plays performed by the various guilds in Chester.


The history of the Chester Mystery plays 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 earlier versions of some or all of the plays being performed as far back as some time before 1422.

Corpus Christi Processions

It would appear that much of the text of the plays is derived from "A Stanzaic Life of Christ" which was itself based on Higden's Polychronicon and the "Legenda Aurea". The "Life" was written by a monk of St Werburgh's, Chester, and was a clear influence on the Chester mystery plays.

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 Corpus Christi feast was established by 1317 as a response to the then new eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation. The first known celebration of the feast in England being at Ipswich in 1325. At Corpus Christi representatives of the Chester guilds walked in procession, from St Mary on the Hill to St Johns behind a consecrated "host" holding torches in a ritual known as a "light". This was not the first time such processions had been known: Palm Sunday processions existed elsewhere much earlier. In some towns there were actual "Corpus Christi Guilds". 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 ill fated elder brother of Henry VIII.

Corpus Christi Riots

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 the guild church of St Peter:

  • " ..and many other master weavers came with force and arms, with pole-axes, staves, daggers, and other diverse armaments, by a premeditated plan on Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi, in the twenty-second year of the reign of King Richard the second, opposite the church of Blessed Peter of Chester. Also, those gathered together insulted William de Wybunbure, junior, Thomas del Dame, and very many others, their servants, called journeymen, in a great affray of the whole population of the city, against the peace of the lord king"

The "pole-axe" is an axe-head at end of a long pole. The design arose from the need to breach the plate armour of men at arms during the 14th and 15th centuries. Generally, the form consisted of a wooden haft some 1.2–2.0 m (4–6.5 ft) long, mounted with a heavy steel axe-head and is designed for very serious combat. This was not the only "riot" associated with the Corpus Christi procession, in June 1424 the men who took part in another Corpus Christi Day riot were said to have attacked the king's ministers at Castle Lane End: "iuxta le stouneplace que quondam fuit Petri de Thornton chivalier" - probably the stone-built house belonging to Peter the Clerk (an administrator at Chester Castle) on lower Bridge Street. These violent conflicts may have had political roots: 1399 was the last year of Richard II's reign, who had taken the title of "Prince of Chester" for himself in 1398 and was known for his "Chester Guard" - he was soon to be deposed and imprisoned briefly at Chester Castle. The 1424 riot came just after a supposed "royal visit" by Henry VI (then still a child) - it was a time of great political instability: Henry was the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne, at the age of nine months on 1 September 1422, the day after his father's death.

Corpus Christi does seem ill-starred for rioting. In Rouen in 1560, priests and parishioners in a Corpus Christi parade broke into the houses of Protestants who had refused to do the procession honour. Corpus Christi Day was often the chance for a procession to turn into a flashpoint for assault and slaughter, as in Lyon in 1561, at Aix-en-Provence in 1572.

The Abbey Gateway (from inside): the starting point for the Mystery Play wagons.
Corpus Christi Plays

Other famous Mystery Play “Cycles” in England were written in Coventry, York (dating from 1376 or earlier) and Wakefield. None of these play cycles should be seen as embodying some high-level theological debate without clear evidence for the same. The canon of plays in York is larger than that of Chester, as discussed in further detail below. Other English towns had Mystery Play cycles which are either lost or incomplete: these include Beverley (36 plays allocated to craft guilds), Hereford (27 plays), Norwich (13 plays) and Newcastle (up to 23). It used to be thought that the Mystery Cycles developed to maturity as "Corpus Christi Plays", but the present view is that while there was a connection with Corpus Christi it is impossible to say whether the Corpus Christi plays were plays with scripts or simple tableux - they were probably performed at the end of the procession in St Johns churchyard. Most of the texts of the plays which survive are late documents with many being compiled after (often long after) the plays had ceased being performed.

One feature of the Chester plays which is key to understanding them is that they were not performed by a troupe of professional actors unknown to the audience and separated from them by a stage setting. It was the main local streets and a significant proportion of the population of Chester itself that were incorporated into the fabric of the show, providing significant aspects of its production values, and continually shaping the performances from year to year. So far as we are aware there is no surviving first-hand description of the plays being performed and the majority of the surviving texts can only be dated to after performance of the plays had been banned. The finance records of the Guilds show something of what they spent on the plays, but the records leave many gaps. It is rather like turning up at a theatre long since closed, finding some of the receipts of what the organisers spent and some versions of the scripts recorded by long-dead fans who were never sure of the evidence on which they based their work. Staging the plays was a central part of the guild activities in Chester. Perhaps even playing the part of a competitive team-building exercise.


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 their banquet, and five shillings on minstrels.

At first glance, the attitude to the plays in the later Banns indicates that they were already considered more of a tradition than a meaningful art form. In the Banns attention is drawn to the curious wagon staging, the archaic language which may not carry meaning for contemporary audiences, and the dramatic crudity of allowing God to be impersonated on stage by an actor with a gilded face. The plays are compared disadvantageously to the sophistication of the modern theatre, its actors and audiences (this was written in Elizabethan times). The spectators are asked to make allowances for the time in which the plays were written and the circumstances of their performance:

  • "By craftsmen and mean men these pageants are played, and to commons and country men accustomably before".

Yet these disclaimers should not be taken too seriously. The later Banns are an attempt to defend the plays publicly against criticisms of them as theologically unsound and dramatically blasphemous. To present them as something once revolutionary which has now lost its purpose is a clever way of urging their continuation as a worthwhile but harmless local custom.

The "dog leg" at the High Cross (with Watergate Street behind the Cross), with the corner of St Peter in the middle and Northgate Street on the right. The Mystery Plays procession would come down Northgate Street to The Pentice which was built against the wall of St Peter. After performing in front of the Mayor they would head off down Watergate Street.

This ceremonial function concluded, the companies would begin to prepare their plays by copying and handing out parts ('parcells') from the master copy kept in the Pentice, 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. The surviving account books of the guilds give a lot of detail on the expenses associated with the plays (humourously, the books relating to the Flood are too water-damaged to be clear) listing expenses for gloves, the dressing of boys, ribbons etc. One reason why the records are kept in such detail is that the guild "book-keeper", elected from year to year, was responsible for any shortfall out of his own pocket. The books perhaps also show how the plays provided a means for distributing the subscriptions levied from the members back to them.

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.

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 back lanes Weaver Street and Commonhall Street to the fourth station in Bridge Street and then along Pepper Street and what is now Newgate Street to the Eastgate, the last station. Almost all of this route is downhill. 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 widely as usual.

Dugdale makes it clear that one of the purposes of Mystery Plays (he is writing about Coventry) was to attract visitors (and hence business) to the city:

  • "I have been told by some old people who in their younger years were eye witnesses of these Pageants so acted that the yearly confluence of people to see that shew was extraordinary great and yielded no small advantage to this city."

A few companies had other, particular roles in the annual round of customs: the Butchers' and Bakers' guilds provided the bull which was baited when a new mayor took office, and the Drapers, Saddlers, and Shoemakers participated in the Shrove Tuesday festival.


During the Reformation such plays were considered ‘Popery’. The returned Genevan exile Christopher Goodman (then rector of Aldford) wrote complaining about the plays in 1572 - he felt that the plays were heretical and dogmatically Roman Catholic. Goodman begins his 10 May 1572 letter to the earl of Huntingdon, the goal of which is the destruction of the Chester Cycle, with a brief historical sketch of the Chester mystery plays:

  • "certain plays were devised by a monk about 200 years past in the depth of ignorance, & by the Pope then authorized to be set forth, & by that authority placed in the city of Chester to the intent to retain that place in assured ignorance & superstition according to the Popish policy. against which plays all preachers & godly men since the time of the blessed light of the gospell have inveyed and impugned"

The plays were consequently banned by the Church of England under Elizabeth I. 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. The reason for not performing the plays may have also been influenced by the fact that the mayors in some of the years when the plays were not performed were members of the gentry rather than members of the guilds, and in 1574 and possibly other years, by the plague.

This old map shows Watergate Street and the processional route through Alban and Commonhall Lanes to Bridge Street.

On 25th February 1570, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V. This was done by means of a papal bull: "The Damnation and Excommunication of Elizabeth Queen of England and her Adherents, with an Addition of other punishments" - also known as Regnans in Excelsis. The Bull was issued in support of, but only arrived following, the 1569 "Northern Rebellion" in England, an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic nobles from Northern England to depose Queen Elizabeth I of England and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots (the descendant of Henry VIII's sister Margaret).

In 1572, in the mayoralty of the Protestant John Hankey, the authorities approved a production which went ahead despite the known opposition of the national authorities and of factions within the city. Various records tell us that the plays were "againste ye willes of ye Bishops of Canterbury Yorke and Chester"; that "manye of the Cittie were sore against the settinge forthe therof"; and that "an Inhibition was sent from the Archbishop to stay them but it Came too late". Chester’s major in 1574/5, Sir John Savage (gent.) who also allowed the plays (following a split vote in the Assembley), was subsequently summoned to the Star Chamber in London to explain himself. The 1575 wording in the Mayor's book concerning this is quite delightful:

  • "Sir John Savage caused the popish plays of Chester to be played the Sunday Monday Tuesday and Wednesday after Midsummer day in contempt of an inhibition and the Primate's letters from York and from the Earl of Huntingdon. For which cause he was served by a pursuivant from York the same day that the new mayor was elected as they came out of the common hall notwithstanding the said Sir John Savage took his journey towards London but how his matter sped is not known. Also Mr Hankey was served by the same pursuivant for the like contempt he was mayor. Divers others of the citizens and players were troubled for the same matter "

The plays certainly did not go down well with everyone. In 1575 Andrew Tailer, a member of the Dyer's company refused to pay his subscription (3s 8d) towards the funding of the plays and was thrown into prison as a result. He was not released until Henry Hardware became mayor in October 1575 and two of his supporters paid his subscription for him.

Savage wrote to the city council to request a certificate that the council and not he alone had ordered the plays, and Henry Hardware (Draper), who was mayor 1575/6, was honourable enough to send the certificate stating that both Savage and Hankey (Merchant and Vinter, mayor 1571/2) had acted with the consent of the Assembley. Apparently, this shared 'guilt' satisfied the government, or the city's charter prevented any further action against the two past mayors. Nevertheless, the message was clear and the plays were never performed in Chester again after 1575, except for one performance of the Shepherds before the Lord Strange and other notables in 1577-8. Perhaps this final ban was encouraged by the "Marian" elements found in the plays and the concurrent focus of rebellion around Mary, Queen of Scots - at that time imprisoned but still alive. Also at this time Elizabeth had begun to establish her cult of virginity - in 1559 she told the Commons, "And, in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin". Perhaps the presence of a second Mary and a second Virgin in the play were simply too much.

Even after the plays had been effectively banned the same people were involved in political and religious cotroversey. A list, compiled in c1579-80, of county leaderssuspected of recusant leanings includes major figures such as William Brereton of Brereton and his father-in-law, Sir John Savage. Savage had sent his son abroad to be educated, which was usually taken as a sign of Catholic sympathy. A document at Hatfield House, a report to Lord Burleigh, shows that the Earl of Derby, then Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire, was suspected of wishing to abet the escape of Mary Queen of Scots. Although the career of neither man suffered as a result of these suspicions, the national authorities were keeping a close watch on those in local positions of responsibility and, in an area where recusancy was a potential threat, incautious acts such as the promotion of 'popish plays' would attract considerable attention. The Earl was alleged by Goodman to have given Hanky some support in his wish to have the Plays performed in 1572, while it was in Savage's mayoralty, in 1575, that the Plays were performed for the last time.


Newgate Street, Park Street and Pepper Street from the Lavaux Map of 1745. The Mystery Plays would have passed between the two churches on Bridge Street then proceeded to the Eastgate via Pepper Street and Freshmongers Lane.

The 1818 edition by James Heywood Markland, himself educated at Chester, of two plays from the Chester cycle represented the first modern edition of any English mystery plays. It was followed by improved editions of the full cycle, each in two volumes, published in 1843–7 and 1892–1916. Prior to this, the plays were often described (for example by Thomas Warton) as buffoonery and for many years the prevailing view was that there was no serious English theatre before the age of Shakespeare. Warton appears to have had hardly and access to the texts of the Mystery Plays and to have based his conclusions on the preface of Robert Dodsley's "Selected Old Plays". This view changed in the later 19th century.

A new interest in the performance of medieval plays was stimulated by William Poel's production of Everyman at the Charterhouse in London in 1901; it was paired with a production of Chester's Sacrifice of Isaac, the first performance of a Chester play in modern times. One of Poel's company, Walter Nugent Monck, formed his own company and staged versions of Chester's Nativity, Shepherds, and Magi plays in Bloomsbury Hall, London, in 1906. Monck wrote to the Chester Archaeological Society offering to produce the whole cycle in the traditional manner over three days at Whitsun 1907. The proposal, which must be seen against the background of Chester's music festivals and the city's growing concern with its past, would have resulted in the first complete revival of any English play-cycle. The Society organized a public meeting chaired by the bishop to discuss it. Although the dean of Chester opposed the production, the cathedral organist, Joseph Cox Bridge, supported it, and a number of Cestrians who had seen Everyman in London or on tour reported favourably on the production. Following the meeting, the three 'Nativity' plays were performed at the Chester Music Hall on 29th November 1906 to test local reactions. An edition of the performance-text by Bridge was published to accompany the production. The production was enthusiastically received by most (as reported in the The Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales), although there were some objections - notably by the Dean John Lionel Darby. But the society then decided that the cost of staging the full cycle was too high and the scheme fell-though. There was also possibly competition for funding with the forthcoming "Chester Pageant" of 1910.

Christopher Ede directed the first modern revival at Chester in the Cathedral Refectory to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. The text of the plays was compiled by Betty and Joseph McCulloch, but omitted The Fall of Lucifer, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Judgement (Doomsday). 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. Further performances of the plays at Chester took place in 1952 and then 1957 (using a translation by Donald Hughes) and since then there have been productions approximately every five years. 1962 saw the use of a new translation by John Lawlor and Rosemary Ann Sisson when Ede 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 the present day.

List of plays and guild associations

It is not easy to account for the number of transcripts of the Chester Plays which were made in the closing years of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth. Five copies made during this period are still preserved:

  • The first of these was written in 1591 by Edward Gregorie a scholar of Bunbury (he was the son of a Beeston yeoman who inherited his father's library, and he turns up as warden at the radically Puritan church at Bunbury) and is now in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire;
  • The two next in date now MS Additional in the Brit Mus No 10,305 and MS Harl No 2013 were written by Ironmonger George Bellin in 1592 and 1600 (Bellin was parish clerk at Holy Trinity in Watergate Street);
  • The fourth was written by William Bedford in 1604 (he was clerk to the Brewers, parish clerk at St Peter's Church and also did work for the Pentice) and is now in the Bodleian Library MS Bodley No 1 75 and the latest in date.
  • MS Harl No 2124 was written in 1607 by James Miller (rector of St Michael's, Chester, precentor at the Cathedral and benefactor to St. Mary's, whose will attests a considerable library including English works, chronicles and histories).

All these transcripts made by persons who were not well acquainted with the language of the original MS from which they copied or with palaeography and included errors. The biblical plays performed in Chester at the beginning of the fifteenth century probably looked different, perhaps very different, from the cycle that Gregorie, Bellin, Bedford, and Miller may have seen — which itself may have differed in important ways from the version that they wrote down.

Signage at St Peter's in Chester.

The charter of 1208, restricted trade in the city of Chester to the " of Chester and their heirs..", formally excluding non-residents and women from mercantile activities and establishing a system of hereditary trading rights. The much coveted status of ‘freeman’, bestowed by the Guild Merchant and a necessary qualification to carry out legal trade in the city, was, therefore, restricted to this Chester-based fraternity. These restrictions continued well into the fourteenth century but, in a period pockmarked by plague and low life-expectancy, there was a dearth of suitable candidates, which necessitated a widening of the franchise. Therefore, in 1392, apprenticeships were established which, when completed, allowed outsiders to join their respective company upon payment of a fee to the Guild Merchant for inclusion in the Freemen Rolls. The guilds were social and until the Reformation religious organizations as much as economic ones, with concerns which focused on burial of the dead and camaraderie with the living. Members of the Smiths' company, for example, were fined in 1501 for failing to attend a brother's funeral. Sometimes the boundaries between different companies is hard to define exactly: Mercers and Drapers being a case in point, where there is a rough separation in that the Mercers sold costly silks, velvets, damasks, and the fine linens of Flanders and Brabant, whereas the Drapers marketed fine woollen textiles, manufactured especially in Coventry and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Other factors in the "division" between these guilds may have included geography Bridge Street as oposed to Northgate Street and parish.

The content of the plays often appears to be well-suited to the guilds associated with them. In some cases this may be because 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. However it may be that the allocation is simply the order of the Corpus Christi procession. 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 perhaps 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 alignment 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.

Signage at the Guildhall in Watergate Street, Chester. James Harrison was a noted Chester architect. He died before his work on the building was completed.

The size of individual guilds before 1500 is difficult to determine. Nineteen men witnessed the Fletchers and Bowyers' charter in 1468, and in the 1490s both the Bakers and the Butchers had a membership of c. 18. About 1576 the Cappers and Dyers had 6 members each, the Saddlers, Fishmongers, and Goldsmiths 9, the Skinners 10, the Barbers and Mercers 15 each, the Fletchers and Weavers 19 each, the Joiners 21, the Butchers 23, the Drapers 26, and the Smiths 33.

Already by the 1420s some trades were collaborating with others in order to stage a Corpus Christi pageant: the Fletchers, Bowyers, and Stringers with the Coopers and Turners, for instance, and the Weavers, Walkers, and Chaloners with the Shearmen. Sharing of costs continued later: in 1521 the Smiths agreed with the Founders and Pewterers to continue their joint contributions. Some of the pageant groupings resulted in the formation of guilds which combined men following disparate trades, but others were simply ad hoc, if long-lasting, arrangements between what always remained separate companies. The Masons and Goldsmiths, for example, put on a pageant together by the 1430s but were distinct guilds, as were the Cappers and Mercers c. 1520. Some crafts which were either wholly new or newly prominent after the mid 15th century never formed a guild of their own: makers of felt caps were part of the Skinners' company by 1489, and glaziers belonged to the Painters' company by 1482. Changes in the arrangements of the pageants between c. 1500 and the Reformation may have precipitated a further restructuring of certain guilds. Three guilds (the Tanners; the Cappers and Pinners; and the Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers, and Stationers) put on their own pageants for the first time. Conversely the Cooks' guild merged with that of the Tapsters and Hostellers to put on a single play, and the Ironmongers similarly collaborated with the Fletchers and Coopers. The last arrangement, however, did not lead to permanent union in a single guild, perhaps because at the Reformation they separated again in order to replace the pageant previously put on by the Worshipful Wives.

The notes on the plays given below quote the post-Reformation "Banns" which in some cases attempt to explain away some of the non-biblical references in the plays and identify the guilds involved. These Banns are a unique feature of the Chester plays and can be seen as advertising for the forthcoming plays. It also notes the guild allocation of the corresponding York plays. Finally a few notes are included on elements which a young William Shakespeare may had recalled from the plays in Coventry, which is likely to have seen as a boy, and later included in his own works.

First Day

1 - The Fall of Lucifer (Barkers and Tanners)

York also has a single play for this subject: Barkers (Tanners) – The creation, and the Fall of Lucifer

  • "Now, you worshipful Tanners, that of custom old, The Fall of Lucifer did truly set out! Some writers a warrant your matter; therefore be bold lustily to play the same to all the rout. And if any therefore stand in any doubt your author his author hath. Your show let be! Good speech, fine players, with apparel comely!"
Gustave Doré famously illustrated the Fall of Lucifer ftom Miltons's Paradise Lost. He has bat-like wings in this illustration (and feathers in others), but it is perhaps taking modern metaphor much too far to have the Lucifer "clad" in leather after the fashion of a "Hell's Angel" or even a fetishist - such were not Medieval tropes. However, the Tanners also get this play in York.

In some cities Barkers have been claimed to be a guild of those who attempted to attract patrons to entertainment events, such as a circus or funfair, by exhorting passing public (this may well be an error on the part of modern guild members). 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 - which elaborates on the very sparse biblical version (if there is a biblical version at all). 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. Barkers collected oak bark (and brought it into Chester down Barker's Lane, and had an association with the "Green Man". It has frequently been suggested that the Christian Devil is simply a negative reference to a collection of previous deities.

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). The Banns make it clear that this version might not suit everyone: "if any therefore stand in any doubt your author his author hath" - in other words, we are simply performing the version handed down from the distant past.

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

York next has six plays: Plasterers – The creation – to the Fifth Day; Cardmakers – Creation of Adam and Eve; Fullers (preparers of woollen cloth) – Adam and Eve in Eden; Coopers (makers of wooden casks) – Fall of Man; Armourers – Expulsion from Eden; and Glovers – Sacrifice of Cain and Abel. Chester conflates these into one.

  • "Of the Drapers you, the wealthy company, The Creation of the World! Adam and Eve according to your wealth, set out wealthily, and how Cain his brother Abel his life did bereave."
An almost comic Adam and Eve in need of Drapers c.950-955 (El Escorial, Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo). The allocation of this play in York does not involve the Drapers.

Drapers and hosiers may have been assigned to this play because of the lack of clothing of Adam and Eve initially. In the alternative the Drapers may have used large sheets of cloth to illustrate the creation of the world, including a "Mappa Mundi". The drapers were wealthy men and over the period 1380-1509 provided 17 sheriffs and 9 mayors, their power being especially marked after 1460. They may have clustered in Northgate Street, where they apparently sold cloth from their own shops. Between 1500 and the end of Chester plays in 1575 they produced 23 mayors of Chester - almost one third.

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 impressed by 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."

However, there is an immediate problem. This second play is twice the length of the first, and so even if it started playing at the Abbey Gateway as soon as the first play finished it could not be expected to arrive at the second station (the High Cross) at the close of the performance of the earlier play. Worse still, the following play is the length of the first and so would arrive before this play was completed.

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 (which also has a version of this myth), as the word "ti" means both "rib" and "life". There are other puns in the creation myth: the words meaning "naked" and "knowledgable" also sound very similar.

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. Play 2 deals with the creation of man and with the beginnings of sin among mankind. Man's first and "original" sin is the wilful disobedience of God's known will, mythologised as the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For this man is denied eternal life and is expelled from Eden into a harsh world. Within this world in the play the consequences of that sin are enacted in Cain's fratricide of Abel, Man's sin against God beging paralleled by his sin against his fellow Man. The two are linked in Eve's self-­recrimination when Cain returns to his parents before going into exile. It has been proposed that the etymology of Cain and Abel may be a direct pun on the roles they take in the Genesis narrative. Abel is thought to derive from a reconstructed word meaning "herdsman", with the modern Arabic cognate ibil now specifically referring only to "camels". Cain is thought to be cognate to the mid-1st millennium BC South Arabian word qyn, meaning "metalsmith". This theory would make the names descriptive of their roles, where Abel works with livestock, and Cain with agriculture—and would parallel the names Adam ("man," אדם) and Eve ("life-giver," חוה Chavah).

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

York next has two plays: Shipwrights – Building of the Ark and Fishers and Mariners – Noah and his Wife. Chester combines these into one:

  • "The good, simple Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee, see that in all points your Ark be prepared.Of Noah and his Children the Whole Story: and of the Universal Flood, by you shall be played"

These "guilds" (it is not clear that they had full guild status) 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. The association with the brewers is apt because Noah's wife prefers to drink with her friends rather than get abord the ark and Noah is also known for his boozing.

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. In York the Fishermen also get this play.

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". Chaucer wrote in the 1380s–1390s and is known to have visited Chester having taken part in the "Scrope" trial at St Johns. Millers in Chester were generally regarded as crooked - taking more than their allocated share of what they ground. Chaucer's next tale, The Reeve's Tale, has a crooked miller who steals wheat and meal brought to him for grinding.

The lists of animals given by the various characters appears to be symbolic and the stage directions make it clear that it should not be tampered with. 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 given that oxen are castrated) followed by other domestic beasts. The inclusion of swine in this catalogue (clearly there for food-value) again shows the unimportance of biblical literalism, since an old testament culinary context would have prohibited pork as unclean — yet it appears here because it was a staple of medieval and early modern diets. 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 cats and dogs as well as small quadrupeds which were not considered edible and in many cases considered as pests: the otter, the fox, the fulmart (pole-cat), and the hare. The animals that they mention are associated with traditionally masculine activities, namely political governance (with the lion and leopard), plowing, crop production, large animal husbandry, trade (of animal commodities, such as wool), and hunting. Medieval and early modern people would have viewed these activities as comprising the backbone of their economy and the basis of its major social divisions, with the contributions of royalty, aristocracy, the mercantile class, and the peasantry clearly accounted for in the animals on the ark.

Attending to plays had the benefit of an indulgence of "1040 days of pardon" according to the Encyclopedia of Literary and Typograpical Anecdote. This is despite the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) banning all indulgences of longer than 40 days. The Pope's initial edict also contained the provision "that every person who disturbed the plays would be accursed by the Pope until absolved thereof"

The women’s bird catalogues, generally speaking, focus on birds associated with two of women’s "traditional" activities, cooking and cleaning. Ham’s wife begins the bird catalogue with herons, cranes, bitterns, swans, and peacocks, all birds that were eaten at aristocratic banquets. The play, as scholars and critics have noted, focuses on issues of labour: how to organize necessary tasks, how to complete tasks expeditiously, and how to parcel out duties so that all members of the household share the labour. As David Mills writes, "the image of organized labour, each [character] with an appropriate task to perform, is in contrast to the more individual and comic construction of the ark in York or Towneley". Noah’s wife violates a number of principles that inform the catalogues of the other characters: not a single one of her animals contributes to the household economy. None is edible and none performs worthwhile labour. They are either entertaining animals or useless predators with bad reputations, let loose on the ark without any clear way to control them. Given Noah’s wife’s reluctance to work in the earlier scene — her excuse being that women are too weak to perform great labour — her animals continue this theme of idleness. By the mid-sixteenth century, protestant disapproval of bear-baiting was evident, and Chester’s puritan mayor actually banned bear-baiting in Chester in 1599–1600 — so Noah’s wife would have been going against the contemporary moralists by wanting the bear on the ark for its entertainment value. Many medieval and early modern sources suggest the foolishness of Noah’s wife’s animals.

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)

York has a single play next: Parchmenters and Bookbinders – Abraham and Isaac. Chester also has one:

  • "The Sacrifice that Faithful Abraham of his Son should Make, you Barbers and Wax-chandlers of ancient time in the fourth pageant with pains ye did take. In decent sort set outt he story is fine. The offering of Melchysedeck of bread and wine and the preservation thereof set in your play. Suffer you not in any point the story to decay."
Ram in a Thicket excavated in Ur, in southern Iraq, and which date from about 2600–2400 BC. There is a Barbers guild in York but they do not get this play.

The Barber surgeons were possibly selected for this play because God instructs Abraham to circumcise his son, Isaac. This Company combined the crafts of medicine, hair trimming and candle making. There is little reason for this association which may have only come into existence to make up numbers required for the performance of the play. 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 his 1928–9 season.

Rule 18 in the Barber-Surgeons books provides for their appearance in the Midummer Watch:

  • "It is further ordered and agreed upon by the said com­pany that upon every Midsome even at the Watch at the companys charge the Stewards for the time being are to provide against that time & times one to ride Abraham and a young stripling or boy to ride Isaac and they to be set forth according to the ancient custom as hath been before times used in the company and the said Stewards for the time being to do their best in the setting forth of the said Show for the better credit of the said Society and company in payn of 6s. 8d."

Thomas Hughes writes of them:

  • "Chester barbers were prominent citizens, ranking with, and exercising most of the functions of, surgeons and physicians. They dressed wounds, drew teeth, bled their patients in more ways than one, made up ointments and pills calculated either to kill or cure in all sorts of disorders as were to be found anywhere within our ancient walls. Excellent artificers in the making of wigs and perukes, they earned full many an honest penny in the plaiting and adornment of pigtails — another of the vanities affected by our grandsires."

The "Brome play of Abraham and Isaac (also known as The Brome “Abraham and Isaac”, The Brome Abraham, and The Sacrifice of Isaac) is a 15th Century play of unknown authorship, written in an East Anglian dialect of Middle English, which dramatizes the story of the binding of Isaac. The text of the play was lost until the 19th century, when a manuscript was found in a Commonplace Book dating from around 1470–80 at Brome Manor (demolished 1958), Suffolk, England – thus, the name of the play. The manuscript itself has been dated at 1454 at the earliest. This manuscript is now housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Brome Abraham’s relation to the play of the same subject in the cycle of Chester Mystery Plays has attracted attention. A comparison of the texts reveals around 200 lines of striking similarity, in particular during the debates between Abraham and Isaac that are at the hearts of the plays. It is not difficult to see why Shakespeare would have had the Abraham and Isaac story in mind while dramatizing Hubert’s reluctant efforts to cany out King John’s orders to blind young Arthur (the adopted son of Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester). The strange mixture of childish terror and quiet obedience which is found most strikingly in Chester and Brome is certainly there in Shakespeare. But Shakespeare could not have seen this in Coventry - since the 1530s it had consisted of only ten pageants covering exclusively New Testament material from the Annunciation to Doomsday.

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

York follows with: Hosiers – Departure of the Israelites from Egypt;Ten Plagues; Crossing the Red Sea: Chester has a unique play:

  • "Cappers and Linen­drapers, see that ye forth bring in well­decked order That Worthy Story of Balaam and his Ass and of Balaack the King. Make the ass to speak, and set it out lively"

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. Balaam, 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). This play is unique to Chester and the play which replaces it in York only has the Moses elements and is allocated to the Hosiers.
  • 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..

This looks like a clear reference to wire-drawers, but the wire-drawers were possibly at the time associated with the guild of "Smyths, Cutlers, Pewterers, ffounders, Cardmakers, Girdlers, Headmakers, Wiredrawers, & Spurriers".

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.)

The rude mechanicals of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" may be a comic rendition of the artisan actors of the provincial mystery plays, including the talking ass of Balaam.

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). As the play required the manufacture of a donkey head for one of the cast to wear, it was appropriate that it should go to the cappers.

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, Dutch 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)

York next has three plays: Spicers – Annunciation and Visitation; Pewterers and Founders – Joseph's trouble about Mary; and Tile-thatchers – Journey to Bethlehem & the Nativity of Jesus. Chester has one:

  • "Of Octavian the Emperor, that could not well allow the prophecy of ancient Sibyl the sage, ye Wrights and Slaters with good players in show lustily bring forth your well­decked carriage. The Birth of Christ shall all see in that stage. If the Scriptures awarrant not of the midwives' report the author telleth his author; then take it in sport"
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. According to one version: "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 any historical foundation. In the play the church has its name mangled: "The churche is called Saynte Marie - The sirname in a Racali". For further discussion see: Elen of the Hosts.

The myth 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.

Emperor Augustus and the Sibyl of Tibur, 1520s painting by circle of Jan van Scorel, National Museum in Warsaw.

There is a curious reference to the "high horse beside Boughton" in only one version of the play (Harl Ms. 2124) which may be a grim reference to Gallows-Hill at Boughton or a reference to a local brothel in Love Street. Ulpian Fulwell in his "Like will to Like" calls the gallows a two legged mare: "This peece of land whereto you iuheritours are / Is called the land of the two legged mare / In this peece of ground there is a mare in deed / Which is the quickest mare in England for speede."

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

The story of the withered hand, which may be intended as grim comedy, does not turn up in the bible, and the Banns comment upon it to excuse its presence.

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

York then has: Chandlers (Candlemakers) – The Annunciation to the shepherds, the Adoration of the Shepherds. Chester also has a single play:

  • "The appearing Angel and Star upon Christ's birth, The Shepherds, poor, of base and low degree, you Painters and Glaziers, deck out with all mirth and see that "Gloria in Excelsis" be sung merrily. Few words in the pageant make mirth truly, for all that the author had to stand upon was "Glory to God on high, and peace on Earth to Man."

The Banns evidently seek to excuse the meetting of the shepherds and their feasting and wrestling which precede the appearance of the angels and constitute a different kind of "comedy" from the angelic song - which, according to the Banns, was all the writer had to base the text of "The Shepherds" upon. 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.

A shepherd on stilts. Apparently, some of the performers in the Shepherds play used stilts.

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 on-stage, 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, but they do not seem (from their records) to have bought enough for that. There are some specific references to "local" dishes: one Shepherd says:

  • "And brave ale of Halton I have / And what meat I had to my hire / A pudding may no man deprave / And a jannock of Lancaster-shire."

The "ale of Halton" may be a reference to Norton Priory, closed down in October 1536. 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 (not that different to "Bannock"). This bread was considered to be "good and wholesome" and so the word was applied to other things that were good and wholesome.

William Stanley, Sixth earl of Derby (1561 – 29 September 1642), who is often wrongly said at one time to have lived at Stanley Palace, is believed by some to have written the plays of Shakespeare. He may have been present at the last performance of the Shepherds Play "before the Lord Strange and other notables" in 1577-8. Lord Strange's Men was an Elizabethan playing company, comprising retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange (pronounced "strang") and is connected with Shakespeare (see: Shakespeare and Chester).

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. The Shepherds play was one of those which Christopher Goodman found offensive to good Protestant morals - in their part of the Nativity they present humble gifts: a bell, a spoon, a cap and (from Trowle) "a pair of my wife's old hose". Four hithertoo silent shepherd boys then present equally commonplace offerings, a bottle, a hood/cape, a pipe (as in musical instrument, possibly a Pibgorn) and a nut-hook (Shakespeare uses "nut-hook" twice: in Merry Wives of Windsor Act I scene I and in Henry IV Part 2 Act V scene IV). It is not clear whether the reference to a "nut-hook" is a reference to a bishop's crosier. Strangely, the Townley cycles has gifts of a spruce coffer, a ball and a bottle and German and French plays of similar times have equally homely gifts. Edmund Spencer's The Shepheardes Calender iilustrates how pastorals were seen as a part of medieval literature.

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

York next has: Masons – Coming of the Three Kings to Herod. Chester also has a single play:

  • "And you worthy Merchant ­vintners, that now have plenty of wine, amplify the story of those Wise Kings Three that through Herod's land and realm, by the star that did shine, sought the sight of the Saviour that then born should be."

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. Maybe this play was in part directed at visitors to Chester from afar, possibly having arrived via the port. One of the guilds particularly associated with the port and especially with foreign trade would have been the Vinters. Another explanation for the use of French is that it is used to illustrate how the dialog is between persons of high rank.

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:

  • Cum audivisset Augustus, inter pueros, quos in Syria Herodcs rex Judaeorum intra bimatum jussit interfici, filium quoque ejus occisum, ait, Melius est Herodis porcum esse quara filium Macrobii (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. It may be that there was originally a scene in the play where the joke about Hys/Huios was made and that this was removed for some reason, but that the stage direction was left in.

9 - The Three Kings (Mercers and Spicers)

The dromedary of the kings emerging from the Abbey gateway in the Midsummer Watch Parade.

York next has a single play: Goldsmiths – Coming of the Kings: Adoration - as does Chester:

  • "And you worshipful Mercers, though costly and fine you trim up your carriage as custom ever was, yet in a stable was he born, that mighty King divine, poorly in a stable betwixt an ox and an ass"

The Spicers who later became the Grocers would have sold peper, cloves and nutmeg. This company later joined with others to form the Mercers, Ironmongers, Grocers and Apothecaries Company. These were linked by a common trade to, from or through Iberia (see: Merchant Adventurers ) The Apothecaries later left to found their own guild. At least two of the trades involved with the play (Mercers and Spicers) would been concerned with foreign trade and this play, like the previous one, takes the opportunity to portray foreign visitors in a positive light. Ironmongers are connected because Chester used to import Spanish iron. Looking at the materials used for their set (the purchase was recorded in their accounts), the Mercers covered their pageant wagon in velvet, satin, damask, taffeta, and sarsenet (a fine silk material) with green piping, materials that at once suggest the Kings‘ royalty (because of their high price) and their Eastern origins — hence, trade through the port, particularly via the Continent. Thus, the Mercers‘ had an especially commercial motive in staging their "Offerings" play — it offered them an opportunity to display their imports, which it was their business to sell. The leading mercers included some of the city's most influential men. Between 1380 and 1509 twenty-five mercers became sheriff and fifteen mayor.

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) once again repeats his story of Mary's virginity. Although the Magi are commonly referred to as "kings," there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind, or even that there were three of them. John Calvin was vehemently opposed to referring to the Magi as kings. He once wrote: "But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings... Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance." The Syrian King Seleucus I Nicator is recorded to have offered gold, frankincense and myrrh (among other items) to Apollo in his temple at Didyma near Miletus in 288/7 BC, and this may have been the precedent for the mention of these three gifts.

The play finishes with a "blessing" of the audience, which fits its location as the last play of the first day.

Second Day

10- Slaughter of the Innocents (Goldsmiths and Masons)

In York there are next two plays: Marshals (Grooms) – Flight into Egypt; and Girdlers and Nailers – Massacre of the Innocents. Chester has a single play:

  • You Goldsmiths and Masons, make comely show, how Herod at the return of those kings did rage, and how he slew the tender male babes being under two years of age.
Model of Jerusalem, close-up of Herod's Temple.

It has been suggested the pun in the choice of guild here 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 could have been aware of (later "Masonic" rituals are concerned with the First Temple). The Masons do not sit easilly within the guild structures, possibly because they were "free" and not tied to one city, but would move around as their work required. By c.1529-37, they were associated with the goldsmiths, making an agreement with the vintners and dyers over the use of the latter’s Mystery Play carriage (used the day previously and presumably depicting Herod's palace). The Masons Company petitioned the Assembly for a Charter in 1691 and was ordered to have one jointly with the carpenters and bricklayers. However, the Assembly later rescinded this decision, and the Company was incorporated with the plasterers in 1705. In the early 18th century, they were also associated with the clothworkers and were still calling themselves the Company of Masons and Clothworkers in 1835.

When Herod finds that the Magi do not return, he realises that he has lost the opportunity of discovering the Child. Herod throws himself into one of his customary rages 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" (the names vary in the different texts which survive). Throwing aside all pretense at historical accuracy, one version of the play has one of these two knights say that he would take on "the Kinge of Scots and all his host". Another anachronism in this section of the play is Herod's choice of oaths: it would not of course have been possible for Herod to utter an oath based on the name of the historic Mohammad (whose dates are c. 570 CE – 8 June 632 CE) as several characters do in this play's original text.

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. In the Chester play Herod literally rots on stage - "my legges rotten and my armes" - something that in medieval times would have been seen as a symptom of leprosy. In Hamlet, Claudius out-herods Herod by pouring his "leprous distilment" into Hamlet intoducing rot into the state of Denmark.

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

York places its version of "Purification" out of sequence amd next has two plays: Spurriers and Lorimers (Spurmakers and makers of horse bits and bridles) – Christ with the Doctors & Barbers – Baptism of Jesus. Chester has only one:

  • "You Smiths—honest men, yea, and of honest art— how Christ Among the Doctors in the temple did dispute, to set out your play comely it shall be your part. Get minstrels to that show —pipe, tabret, and flute."

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). In 1575, the Smiths generated two draft versions of their cycle play, the Purification/Doctors, and performed both before a group of aldermen so that they could choose which would be accepted into the cycle (and thus, assumedly, entered officially into the "Regynall" official copy. Plays that retold the story of Candlemass, or Mary's purification in the Temple, Simeon's long wait for the Messiah, and Anna's prophecy were performed throughout the British Isles. There are six extant play texts: this Chester Play, a large portion of the Coventry Weav­ers' Pageant (lines 176–718), York Play 17, Towneley Play 17, the Digby Candlemass Play, and N-Town's. The Towneley and York plays concentrate on Simeon and Anne's prophecies regarding the Christ-child. Chester and Coventry curiously conflate Candlemass with Christ's meeting with the doctors of the temple, which, according to Luke 2:41–52, hap­pened twelve years later. In the Chester and Coventry versions, Mary and Joseph (mostly Mary) dispute their son's identity with the temple doctors. The Digby version combines Mary's purification rites in the temple with the massacre of the innocents. Combining these two separate incidents in a single play in Chester may have been done as they both require a temple as a stage-set.

Six sets of play­ accounts for the Blacksmiths' company are extant, the earliest being of 1550. They indicate that the face of the boy Jesus was gilded; that Mary wore a crown; and that wigs were used. The play involved much music. The references in the Post­-Reformation Banns to minstrels with "pipe, tabret, and flute" are confirmed by payments to the minstrels in the accounts. Additionally, choristers were hired from the cathedral, presumably for singing at moments such as the angel's entrances. Simeon is required to sing, and the part seems on occasion to have been taken by a cathedral singing­man. The 1567 accounts, which contain no payment for hiring choristers, mention a regalls, a small portable organ sometimes called a "positive". Positives required either the player or a second person to operate the bellows in order to supply wind to the instrument, something eminently suited to the Smiths. Payment to the Clerk for the loan of a cope, altar­cloth and an ecclesiastical garment in 1572 suggests the source and nature of the ecclesiastical costumes.

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

York then has three plays which equate to the next two in the Chester Cycle: Smiths – Temptation of Jesus; Curriers (men who dress leather) – Transfiguration; and Capmakers – Woman Taken in Adultery; Raising of Lazarus

  • "And next to this, you the Butchers of this City, the story of Satan that would Christ needs Tempt set out as accustomably used have ye — the Devil in his feathers, all ragged and rent."

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 IV (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. Sixtus was also responsible for the construction of the Sistine Chapel and the creation of the Vatican Archives. However, there may be another reason for the Devil's apparent confusion. While it is clearer in some of the other English Mystery Cycles than in the Chester cycle, some of the mystery cycles appear to be based on the premise that the Devil has to be somehow decieved into bringing sbout the death of Christ and therefore overstepping the limits of his power - dominion over all the dead except for a few prophets. This is not a strong element in the Chester plays.

Finding a reason for the association of the Butchers with this play is problematic. Although it has been noted that at some periods Butchers were forbidden to serve on a trial jury which was deciding on a matter of life and death (although there is little hard evidence for this). The Post-­Reformation Banns refer to "the Devil in his feathers all ragged and rent," suggesting a spectacular feathered costume; the popularity of this figure is indicated by his inclusion in the midsummer show. The Butchers also supplied a bull for the Chester bull-baiting. Jesus's confrontation with this strange creature contrasts with the more "naturalistic" confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus, perhaps again at ground level. The Pharisees seem usually to have been dressed in clerical robes, and they have a ready point of entry from the temple. The reference to the Devil in rags and the clerical robes of the Pharisees may have been an aside to the "Vestments Controversy" in which one side condemned the "Popish rags" of the other.

The woman who escapes being stoned (played by a boy) would be dressed in contemporary fashion, perhaps even as a respectable lady in the community. Fortunately for the accused woman, Mary is not present on the wagon in this play as otherwise the line "...and cast at her the first stone" would have probably got the response "come on Mary" from a Chester crowd.

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

  • "The Death of Lazarus and his Rising Again you of the Glovers the whole occupation in pageant with players orderly — let it not be pain — finely to advance after the best fashion."

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. This may be a copying error or a local pun.

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)

York next has two plays: Skinners – Jesus' entry into Jerusalem & Cutlers – The conspiracy: Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, Bargain of Judas: Chester combines these into one:

  • "The story How to Jerusalem Our Saviour Took the Way you Corvisors that in number full many be with your Jerusalem Carriage shall set out in play. A commendable true story, and worthy of memory"

Corvisors aka Cordwainer - the shoemakers. In this play Judas is put up to betray Jesus by the Jewish priests, after causing comic havoc in the temple by throwing the goods (possibly shoes) of a pair of merchants about - there do not appear to be any money-changers involved. 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)

For the next two plays in the Chester Cycle, York has a total of ten: Bakers – Last Supper; Cordwainers (Shoemakers) – Agony, Betrayal and Arrest; Bowyers and Fletchers – Denial of Peter; Jesus before CaiaphasTapiters (makers of tapestry and carpets) and Couchers – Dream of Pilate's wife; Pilate's court; Listers (Dyers) – Trial before Herod; Cooks and Water-leaders – Second Accusation before Pilate; Remorse of Judas; Purchase of the Field of Blood; Tilemakers – Second Trial before Pilate; Shearman – Christ Led to Calvary; Pinners and Painters – Crucifixion; and Butchers – Mortification of Christ; Burial. Chester next has:

  • "And how Christ our Saviour at his Last Supper gave his body and blood for redemption of us all you Bakers see that with the same words you utter as Christ himself spake them, to be a memorial of that death and Passion which in play after ensue shall. The worst of these stories doth not fall to your part; therefore, cast God's loaves abroad with accustomed cheerful heart."

Grocers and Bakers etc may have been allocated this play for obvious reasons - Millers perhaps because they were seen as habitually crooked and like the traditional Judas took their percentage. Evidently the Bakers tossed small loaves to the crowds during the performance - maybe those became treasured souvenirs. 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.

Twice in Shakespeare’s plays, Judas is described as treacherously greeting Christ with the words “All hail!” (Richard II, Act IV. sc. 1 - "DID they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me, So Judas did to Christ: but he in twelve, Found truth in all but one" and Henry VI, Part 3, Act V. sc. 7 - "So Judas kiss’d his master; And cried—‘All hail!’ when as he meant—all harm"). This phrase does not occur in any version of the Bible available to Shakespeare (it was later introduced as Matthew 26.49 - the original having been something like "peace upon thee, rabbi") but it does occur in the York episode of the "Agony in the Garden" and the "Betrayal" (not in the Chester version), and Shakespeare’s repeated use of the phrase implies a familiarity with something popular and at the time non-biblical. Shakespeare uses similar language in MacBeth at a stage in the play where MacBeth has not yet become the anti-hero.

In 1551-2 when William Glaseor was mayor of Chester and Edward VI sought to regulate drama, the play was suppressed due to its eucharistic theology.

16- The Crucifixion (Ironmongers and Ropers)

  • "You Fletchers, Bowers, Coopers, Stringers, and Ironmongers, see soberly ye make out Christ's Doleful Death, his scourging, his whipping, his bloodshed and Passion, and all the pains he suffered till the last of his breath. Lordings, in this story consisteth our chief faith the ignorance wherein hath us many years so blinded; as through now all see the path plain, yet the most part cannot find it."

Ironmongers sell nails, hence their choice for this play. The wording of the Banns stresses the abandonment of the "misguided" Roman Catholic teaching on the Eucharist in favour of the recently established doctrines of Protestantism founded upon the biblical text and seem to imply that, though the theological truth is now available, it is still not widely understood.

The Scourging of Christ (Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers, Coopers and Turners) is sometimes listed as a single play with this one. The "four Jews" in this play spend extra time discussing an "iron pynne", an overt reminder of the connection between the Passion pageants and the craft of one of its supporting guilds.

Textual analysis indicates that the authorship of the York plays changes for the ten plays at this point in the York cycle with the supposed author being known as "The York Realist". The distinctive feature, apart from the high quality of the writing, is the attention to incidental detail in the story-telling and in the subtle portrayal of the negative characters, Pilate, Herod (who does not appear in the Chester play), Annas and Caiaphas.

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. It also conveniently avoids having to actually nail an actor to the cross!

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)

York next has a single play: Saddlers – Harrowing of Hell. Chester also has a single play:

  • "As our belief is that Christ after his Passion descended into Hell — but what he did in that place, though our author set forth after his opinion, yet credit you the best learned; those he doth not not disgrace. We wish that of all sorts the best you embrace. You Cooks with your carriage see that you do well; in pageant set out The Harrowing of Hell."

Cooks roast meat but also take things out of the fire - hence their possible inclusion in this play. The credal article claiming that Christ descended into hell rests upon uncertain scriptural foundation. The Descent into Hell did not become officially recognised in the Christian faith until A.D. 359, when at the Fourth Synod of Sirmium the clause "He descended into Hades" was introduced into the Apostles' Creed. The Banns accordingly attempt to reassure performers and audience that what they will witness is doctrinally sound. It is found in the Legenda Aurea or "Golden Legend," and hence in A Stanzaic Life of Christ, probably the immediate source of Chester's play. It is also a lot more spectacular than the dull biblical version. It was commonly believed that these imprisoned souls did not experience Hell’s many torments, but were, as Macbeth would say, "cabined, cribbed, confined" in the darkness of Limbo, where they suffered the absence of God. Shakespeare's porter from MacBeth says: "Knock, knock, knock!" - pretending he’s the gatekeeper in hell - who’s there, in the devil’s name? “Art thou there, truepenny?” is Hamlet’s question, directed at the “old mole” of a ghost in the understage cellarage of the Globe Theater, raises a question of the play: what is there, under the stage — Purgatory or Hell? This may have been based on the two-level wagons of the mystery plays.

The "Harrowing" may have as its original source in Sumerian myth. Inanna-Ishtar's most famous myth is the story of her descent into and return from Kur, the ancient Sumerian/Akkadian Underworld, a myth in which she attempts to conquer the domain of her older sister Ereshkigal, the queen of the Underworld, equivalent to the Nordic Hel. The myth has Ishtar threatening a "Zombie Apocalypse" if not admitted:

  • If you do not open the gate for me to come in, / I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt, / I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors, / I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living: And the dead shall outnumber the living!
The Ale-Wife often got a negative portrayal in the late medieval or early modern period. This varied from the seductive bar-maid to witch-like figures. The Ale-wife in the Chester play also rode with the Devil in the Midsummer Watch Parade - until she was banned.

The play also contains a "Ale-wife" who has given false measure and does not get released from Hell - presumably this was because her "sin" was seem as too great for any redemption. She was undoubtedly a great hit with the crowd as she took part, with the devil, in the Midsummer Show. Although the profession was later taken over by males, the original brewing profession back in ancient Mesopotamia was principally performed by women. Women also brewed the majority of ale for both domestic and commercial use in England before the Black Death, and some women continued brewing into the 17th century. Ale represented a key part of the medieval English diet as it was both the most affordable and clean beverage available. Brewing and selling ale (also known as tippling or tapping) enabled women to work for and achieve "good profits, social power, and some measure of independence from men" that other trades at the time did not - thus there is also an element of misogyny in the portrayal of the Ale-wife.

Ale-wives became the scapegoat for the brewing community as a whole for the vices that the Medieval world feared from the production of alcohol. In 1540, the city of Chester ordered that no women between the ages of 14 and 40 would be permitted to sell ale, in the hopes of limiting the trade to only women above or below an age of sexual desirability. Women in brewing and selling of ale were accused of being disobedient to their husbands, sexually deviant, but also frequently cheating their customers with watered-down ale and higher prices. While a 1324 record of offenses of brewers and tipplers in Oxford cites that offenses by women and men were relatively equal, most representations of ale sellers only negatively represented the women. In popular culture of the period as well, the alewife was a common figure of comical condemnation. She was depicted in "Dooms" or church murals as someone who belonged in hell. Poems such as John Skelton's The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng, The Tale of Beryn and Mother Bunch of Pasquil's Jests all depicted Ale-wives as negative figures.

This play was not restored in 1951 and was first performed in 1962.

Third Day

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

York next has two plays: Carpenters – Resurrection and Winedrawers – Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene. In Chester these form a single play:

  • "The Skinners before you after shall playe the storye of the resurrection, how Christe from death rose the third daye, Not altered in many points from the olde fashion"

The Skinners, Cardmakers, Hatters, Paynters, and Girdlers performed "The Resurrection". Once again, the Banns make a comment about how the story is "not altered in many points". One point which anchors the play firmly in liturgical drama is the speech of the first angel who utters the question "What seek ye here?". This harks back to the tropes - the forerunner of the Mystery plays. Originally sung, antiphonally in Latin, by two sections of the choir and later "performed" by monks. It is known as the "quem quaertis". Bishop Ethelwold (912-984) of Winchester, not only includes the text of Quem Quaeritis in Regularis Concordia (ca. 970), a book of rules and advice for the English Benedictines, but gave directions on how to stage the action. Quem Quaeritis was presented near the high alter. As the playlets were extended and additional scenes were added, they were staged on a number of small "platforms" (or mansions) distributed around the perimeter of the church. Both the performer and the audience would move from one "platform" to the next.

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. 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)).

Peter's traditional role as the first pope; possibly implied at the end of the play, is found in only two of the five manuscripts, and was censored for that reason after the Reformation.

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

Both York and Chester continue with a single play. York has: Sledmen – Travellers to Emmaus. Chester has:

  • The Saddlers and Friezers should in their pageant declare the appearance of Christ, his Travel to Emmaus, his often speech to the woman and his disciples dear, to make his Rising­ again to all the world notorious.

Saddlers are recorded in Chester from 1392-93. In 1472, their company was given a monopoly by Edward IV to last for 40 years. The Sadlers charter mentions the plays and the Corpus Chrisi lights, and requires them to:

  • " support the burdens and costs of the play and pageant assigned to the occupiers of the same art and city (which) portions of the play and light of Corpus Christi are to be supported and watched over anually for the honour of the same by the occupiers of the same art and trade in the aforementioned city and other manifold burdens ordered annually for the honour of goddd and of the aforesaid city and supported by the same craftsmen within our aforesaid city."

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)

York has three plays next including the out of sequence "Purification" (which makes no sense as that play refers to events after the Nativity play). The York plays are: Hatmakers, Masons, Labourers – Purification of Mary; Simeon and Anna; Scriveners (Scribes) – Incredulity of Thomas and Tailors – Ascension. Chester has one play:

  • Then see that you Tailors with carriage decent the story of The Ascension formally do frame, whereby that glorious body in clouds most ardent is taken up to the heavens with perpetual fame.

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. The tailors, one of the largest groups of craftsmen, included wealthy men who also sold cloth and occasionally acted as pledges for members of the local gentry. Most tailors, however, were poor, many of them Welsh immigrants, and few achieved civic office.

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

Both Chester and York then have a "Whitsun" play. York has: Potters – Descent of the Holy Spirit: Chester has:

  • Thus of the Old and New Testament to end all the story which our author meaneth at this time to have in play, you Fishmongers to the pageant of The Holy Ghost well see

It has been suggested that the assignment of this play is probably a pun of the smell of the fish-stalls. However, a more sensible suggestion is that the Apostles, who play a large part in this play, included a number of fishermen (and the actual fishermen already had "Noah").

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 - here they can speak the language of Friesland i.e. the West Frisian language. This is interesting because West Frisian is notable as being the most closely related foreign tongue to the various dialects of Old English spoken across the Heptarchy, these being part of the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic family, and is therefore often considered to be in-between English and Dutch. One rhyme that is sometimes used to demonstrate the palpable similarity between Frisian and English is "Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries", which sounds not very different from "Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk". Bread, butter and green cheese are mentioned in the Shepherds play. Green cheese is not green by reason of colour but for its newness or under-ripened state, for the whey is not half pressed out of it yet.

Shakesspeares three witches may be just another thread in a web of legends that start with "the Fates", continue through the Roman sybils, and get a spin put on them by a whole series of authors and story-tellers before being used as the witches in MacBeth to justify how James VI/I was the rightful King.

Sixteenth-Century records show that Chester's cycle was then performed at Whitsun, the festival commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost. This play of Pentecost therefore had particular significance. The wording of the Banns suggests that the mystery cycle once ended here - or it may mean that the final three plays are not wholly based on any biblical text.

22- Prophets before the Day of Doom (Shearmen)

The following parts of the recorded Chester Cycle and the York Cycle differ considerably. York has the "Whitsun" play followed by a string of three "Marian" plays: Drapers (Dealers in cloth and dry goods) – Death of Mary; Weavers – Appearance of Mary to Thomas; and Ostlers (Stablemen) – Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin. Chester has the Whitsun play followed by two "Antichrist plays":

  • "And after those ended, yet doth not the author stay but by Prophets showeth forth how Antichrist should rise — which you Shearmen see set out in most comely wise"

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 which were particularly popular in Wales, and the greater part of the text is spoken by the "Expositor" with the prophets only having relatively short speeches. The Expositor may be a late addition to the plays with the purpose of "explaining" Catholic text for a Protestant audience. Unfortunately, he also completely gives away the main dramatic twist in the following play - where the identity of the Antichrist is not at first apparent.

The final three plays in the cycle are concerned with the future: perhaps the near future in the minds of some of the spectators. Prophecy about the future was a sensitive subject in the middle ages (see: Elen of the Hosts for more on this aspect of the Mystery Plays). The commotion over prophecy continued even after the plays were banned. In February 1580, a "yong mayden" of Flint, Elizabeth Acton of "Orton Maddock" in Maelor Saesneg (she was thirteen or fourteen), claimed that she had received visions which were "put into writing & scattered abroad amongst the papists & ignorant people of Chester, where popery was still strong". When the authorities became involved Orton was forced to confess (at Chester Cathedral on 4th March 1582) that the visions were invented, saying that she had been "seduced by a vile runnagate Papist" (last spotted in Chester).

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

  • "And then, you Dyers and Huesters, Antichrist bring out — first with his Doctor, that goodly may expound who be Antichrists the world round about — and Enock and Hely, persons walking on ground, in parts well set you out, the wicked to confound; which, being well understanded Christ's word for to be, confoundeth all Antichrists and sects of that degree."

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.

The Antichrist had been a popular figure in literature since the middle ages. Here he is pointing to a quote from Adso of Montier­-en-­Der.

The dyers or hewsters, many of whom lived in or near St Johns Lane, and whose dyestuffs and equipment were expensive, were the richest, and were usually prominent citizens: 10 became sheriff between 1380 and 1509. After the early 15th century their numbers never fell below 10, even in the difficult 1440s and 1450s, perhaps in part because Chester finished cloth woven in Wales. The city also supplied Welsh dyers with dyestuffs. Woad and madder were probably the most commonly used, suggesting that grey and brown russets were the standard local product, but small amounts of the scarlet dye called grain were occasionally purchased. In the early 15th century Yorkshire merchants visited Chester with dyestuffs but in later years Londoners apparently monopolized the trade. Whether there is any subtle link between the choice of the Dyer's, who could change the appearance of things, and the choice of subject matter can only be speculated upon. One possible link between the Dyers and the Bellfounders is that the Bell-founders may also have produced mortars for grinding ingredients (a casting site might have been found in Hunter Street).

A full legend of the reign of the Antichrist developed which took influential form in "De ortu et tempore Antichristi" by a tenth-­century Burgundian monk, Adso of Montier­-en-­Der. De antichristo was not an original work; it combined exegesis of biblical text with Sibylline (that is, oracular) accounts. The most important exegetical text was the commentary on 2 Thessalonians by Haimo of Auxerre, but Adso also used Jerome's De Antichristo in Danielem, and Alcuin's De Fide Sanctae et Individuae Trinitatis. The most important oracular one is the myth of the Last Emperor found in (Latin reworkings of the originally Syriac) Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, besides the oracles of the Tiburtine Sibyl. We do not know the immediate source of Chester's play, but most of its details can be found in Adso's narrative and the numerous other works which developed from it. Chester is unique among the English cycles in having a play of Antichrist. It was probably a late insertion into the cycle and the version described in the Post­-Reformation Banns seems to have been rather different from our extant play since it describes Antichrist's Counsellor as expounding "who be Antichrists the world round about." The Pre-­Reformation Banns describe "a wurthy cariage that is a thing of grett costage." The action takes place primarily within the temple in Jerusalem. An agreement of 1531 or 1532 indicates that the performing company, the Dyers, shared a waggon with the Vintners and the Goldsmiths. These are both set in the court of Herod, and parts of that set were probably re­utilised in Antichrist. Given the craft of the Dyers, the set presumably included rich hangings, and the play would be costumed with some splendour.

The subtle nature of the plot is easilly missed when reading the text - the Antichrist is identified as such in the stage directions and the script, but is not identified to the audience until late in the play. The Antichrist starts off with a latin speech - only "good" characters have done this in previous plays. Those fluent in Latin would have been more attuned to the Antichrist’s subtle mishandling of the biblical passages, and they likely would have discerned the Antichrist’s speciousness earlier than those who did not know the language. The Antichrist explicitly acknowledges this audience demographic when he prefaces one of his Latin quotations with "I shall reherse here redylye / that clerkys shall understond". To any of the audience who were not in on the secret the Antichrist's claim to be Christ would be believed until it gradually became clear that something was amiss. The Antichrist is only explicitly revealed to the audience as such towards the end of the play by the Archangel Michael. The clever plot twist means not only are the audience duped into falling for the Antichrist's lie, but that a second hearing of the play would be interpreted in a different manner.

This play was one which some Protestants found particularly troubling, radically papist, anti-protestant, and perhaps even treasonous. Others might have identified the Antichrist with the Roman Pope. Christopher Goodman claimed that this play was used to assemble and organize religious conservatives and to reassert their faith ("giveth great comfort to the rebellious papist"). Such 'assembling and conference' included, of course, the two or three major rehearsals used to prepare the pageants for production. Other opponents of the play included Andrew Tailer, a Dyer, who refused to pay his dues towards the performance of the play and was slung into prison as a result.

The play raised the spectre of potential falsehood in the church - the Antichrist promises miracles (raising the dead, trees growing upside down, his own resurrection) - which appear to be performed on stage. Those "in the know" would be aware that there were two groups in the audience - those who believed in what was being professed by the Antichrist and those who knew it to be a falsehood. The language of the play seems far less archaic than that of the earlier plays and the play makes use of the consecrated host (living bread) as a charm against the living dead - a neat reference to the original Corpus Christi procession. There may also be a connection to Shakespeare's Henry IV through Falstaff, who fakes his own death and resurrection and was also originally based on John Oldcastle an English Lollard leader.

24- The Last Judgement (Weavers and Walkers)

Both Chester and York complete the cycle with a similar play. York has: Mercers (Dealers in textiles) – Judgement Day. Chester has:

  • "The coming of Christ to give eternal judgement, you Weavers last of all your part is to play. Doomsday we call it, when the Omnipotent shall make an end of this world by sentence, I say. On his right hand to stand God grant us that day, and to have that sweet word in melody: "Come hither, come hither." "Venite Benedicti."

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). The Banns seem to promise a denunciation of contemporary Antichrists and an attack upon heretical sects; but the cast never makes this declaration in the play.

Divergence from York

In addition to the plays listed above there was "The assumption of the Virgin" which was performed by the "worshipful wives of this town" between plays 22 and 23. This was removed from the performaed part of the cycle at some late stage. There are several possible reasons for removal including the possible use of female actors, and the "Marian" associations either to the Catholic Mary or to one or other of "Bloody Mary" or Mary Queen of Scots. Crowning a Mary in an Elizabethan play was dangerous symbolism.

One thing that leaps out from the Banns is how much the post-Reformation Banns (copied out 1591-1609) attempt to explain away the divergence between the woring of the plays and the wording of the bible. We also note that not only has the "Assumption of the Virgin" been deleted. If they formed part of the Chester Cycle (which they probably did not) any elements relating to the "Baptism", "The Dream of Pilates Wife", "Death of Mary", "Mary and Thomas" and the "Coronation of the Virgin" been "deleted" as compared with the York text. York's play remained on the riot-sensitive Corpus Christi day even after suppression of the Feast in 1548. In 1551 only ten York pageants were ordered to be played at ten stations, and in 1552 the “billettes,” written orders issued to the York guilds for playing, were called in. Under King Edward VI, who had instituted a process of radical Protestantizing and iconoclasm, the York Marian plays of the Death, Assumption, and Coronation of the Virgin were set aside, only to be reinstated under Queen Mary and then suppressed again in 1561. Pressure on the York pageants mounted as the crisis year of 1570 approached, when Catholic rebellion was in the air and Queen Elizabeth was to be excommunicated. The change in archdiocesan politics at York did not bode well for the plays, and in 1569 they were played, on Tuesday during Whitsun week rather than on Corpus Christi, for the last time. As noted above, the Chester plays survived until 1575, but prior to that were performed only in 1561, 1567, 1568, and 1572.

Chester's cycle remained acceptable as York's did not because it conformed to what the sixteenth century imagined a medieval cycle should have been. Hence while in York it was mayors of Catholic sympathies - William Alien in 1572 and Robert Cripling in 1579 - who sought to revive the cycle, in Chester it was men of firm Protestant commitment - John Hanky in 1572 and Sir John Savage in 1575 - in whose mayoralities the plays received their last performances.

Assigned or Adapted?

Some writers have suggested that 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. Many of these obvious links are noted above.

In some cases the link is apparently 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 possibly ironic: the Drapers get Adam and Eve; the Fishmongers get the holy spirit; and the Masons get Herod (who built the "Wailing Wall" - הַכּוֹתֶל הַמַּעֲרָבִי or حَائِط ٱلْبُرَاق). 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 Ascension play, as assigned to the Tailors, and the story of the Ale-wife in the Harrowing, as asigned to the hospitality trades. However, close examination shows that these local edits are relatively few.

If there were a clear logical association between the allocation of the plays and the trade of the guilds involved it could be expected that the same or similar association would be found in York. In general this is not the case, although there are some similar allocations. In both the York and Chester cycles the Tanners get the initial "Lucifer" play, the Fishermen get the "Noah" play the Thatchers get the "Nativity", the Bakers are involved in the "Last Supper" and the Tailors get the "Ascension". There are also some "near-miss" associations with the Goldsmiths and Masons turing up in the Herod/Kings cluster in both Chester and York (but not in the same plays).

"Order of Precedence" was once very contentious in the London Livery Companies and possibly gave rise to the English saying "At sixes and sevens" when the Merchant Taylors and Skinners companies, both founded in the same year (1327), argued over sixth place in the order of precedence. In 1484, after more than a century and a half of bickering, the Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Billesden ruled that at the feast of Corpus Christi, the companies would swap between sixth and seventh place and feast in each other's halls. Nowadays, they alternate in precedence on an annual basis. There are however other possible explanations for the saying: William Shakespeare uses a similar phrase in Richard II, "But time will not permit: all is uneven, And every thing is left at six and seven" (Act II, scene 2).

Conflicts between craft guilds over their places in the Corpus Christi procession arose frequently. In York for instance, a dispute between the Cordwainers and the Weavers lingered on for eleven years, and required the intervention of the king to make an end to it. Although this case is exceptional, it does illustrate how central the position in the Corpus Christi procession was to a crafts’ status. Comparable, though less extensive cases, can be found in the records of Shrewsbury, Chester (3rd September 1476), York, and Newcastle. In all these disputes the Corporation acted as mediator and had the final word in the conflict.

There may be other reasons for placement - the Tanners, one of the earliest and leading guilds, come first. The actual order of precedence of the guilds compared with the order of the plays is as listed below. Some of those taking part in the Mystery Plays were not technically guilds. The Vinters, of whom the earliest record is c. 1500 were connected with Merchants (i.e. not a craft guild) in the 1550s and collaborated with them for the "pageant" in the later 16th cent. The eventually became part of amalgamated guild from 1583 (Innholders, Cooks, and Victuallers). Their "pageant" was the Three Kings (the eighth play).

There is at times some lack of clarity as to who gets which play. In some lists the Ironmongers and Ropers get the Crucifixion to themselves whereas in others the Joiners, Carvers and Turners’ Company are involved.

Guild Order of Precedence in Chester

The order of precedence is the order in which the guilds processed during the Corpus Christi procession, the performance of the Mystery Plays and the Midsummer Show. The Corpus Christi procession was discontinued at the Reformation, the Mystery plays were discontinued after 1575 and the Midsummer Show eventually stopped in 1670.

  • 1 Tanners’ Company; Earliest record 1361. Called Barkers later 15th cent.; Barkers and Tanners later 16th cent.; Tanners 1550s and from early 17th cent. Pageant: Creation and Fall of Lucifer (first play - same as York);
  • 2 Brewers’ Company; Incorporated by Assembly as Beerbrewers 1607 and by the Crown as Brewers 1634. Collaborated with Drawers of Dee and Waterleaders for pageant in earlier 17th cent. and later replaced Drawers of Dee in order of guilds.(possibly the third play - they combined with "Noah" in the Midsummer show - similar to York);
The "Register Books" of some of the Companies still exist and are a useful source of local historical information.
  • 3 Barber-Surgeons’ Company (Barber-Surgeons, Wax and Tallow Chandlers); Earliest record of Barbers c. 1423. Called Barbers and Chandlers (sometimes specifying Wax, or Tallow, or both) or Barbers, Chandlers, and Leeches mid and later 16th cent.; Barber-Surgeons and Tallow Chandlers earlier 17th cent.; Barbers and Chandlers (or Tallow Chandlers) 18th cent.; Barbers, Surgeons, Wax and Tallow Chandlers 19th cent. Pageant: Abraham and Isaac (fourth play);
  • 4 Merchant Drapers’ Company (Merchant Drapers and Hosiers); Earliest record of Drapers 1437. Incorporated by the Crown as Merchant Drapers and Hosiers 1577. Pageant: Adam and Eve (second play);
  • 5 Cappers, Pinners, Wiredrawers, and Linendrapers’ Company; Cappers' guild emerged after c. 1500. Called Cappers and Pinners early 16th cent.; Cappers, Wiredrawers, and Pinners 1550s and later 16th cent. Linendrapers, then Bricklayers joined to assist with pageant before 1603. (Called Cappers, Pinners, Wiredrawers, Bricklayers, and Linendrapers early 17th cent. Bricklayers separated 1619. Afterwards called Cappers, Pinners, Wiredrawers, and Linendrapers. Pageant: Balaam and Balaak (fifth play);
  • 6 Bricklayers’ Company; Collaborated with Cappers, Pinners, Wiredrawers, and Linendrapers for pageant before 1603. Separated by Assembly from that guild 1679: when it was ordered "that the Lynen Drapers and the Bricklayers should be separated as one Company, the latter being troublesome and unservice­able to the former". Incorporated as separate guild by the Assembly 1683. (may have been involved with the fifth play);
  • 7 Wrights and Slaters’ Company (Wrights, Slaters and Tawyers); Earliest record of Wrights (alias Carpenters) 1422. Called Wrights and Slaters earlier 16th cent.; Wrights, or Wrights, Slaters, and Tilers 1550s; Wrights, Slaters, Tilers, Daubers, and Thatchers later 16th cent.; Joiners, Wrights, Carvers, and Slaters c. 1576. Incorporated by the the Assembly as Wrights, Carpenters, Slaters, and Sawyers 1584. Pageant: Nativity.(sixth play - similar to York);
  • 8 Joiners, Carvers and Turners’ Company; Incorporated by the Assembly 1566. Turners had previously been associated with Fletchers, Bowyers, Coopers, and Stringers; Joiners and Carvers with Wrights and Slaters (part of the sixteenth play);
  • 9 Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers’ Company; Earliest record of Painters and Glaziers 1482–3. Embroiderers and Stationers collaborated for pageant earlier 16th cent. Incorporated by the Assembly as Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers, and Stationers 1534. Pageant: Shepherds.(seventh play);
  • 10 Goldsmiths’ Company (Goldsmiths and Watchmakers); Earliest record 1422. Incorporated by Act of Parliament 1700. Called Goldsmiths and Clockmakers 18th and early 19th cent. Pageant: Massacre of the Innocents, jointly with Masons (tenth play);
  • 11 Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers’ Company (Smiths, Cutlers, Pewterers, Plumbers, Founders, Cardmakers, Girdlers, Headmakers, Wiredrawers, Spurriers, Arrowheadmakers, Armourers and Bellfounders); Earliest record of Smiths 1427. Merged with Founders and Pewterers after 1521. Called Smiths earlier 16th cent.; Smiths, Furbers (or Furbishers, or Cutlers), and Pewterers 1550s and later 16th cent.; Smiths, Pewterers, Girdlers, Plumbers, Cardmakers, and Furbers c. 1576; Smiths, Cutlers, Pewterers, Cardmakers, and Plumbers earlier 17th, 18th, and early 19th cent. (sometimes adding Spurriers, Girdlers, and Headmakers earlier 17th cent.); Smiths, Cutlers, Cardmakers, and Plumbers 1835. Pageant: (pre-Reformation) Purification; (post-Reformation) Christ in the Temple.(eleventh play);
  • 12 Butchers’ Company; Earliest record 1457. Apparently incorporated by the Assembly 1665. Pageant: Temptation of Christ (twelveth play);
  • 13 Wet and dry Glovers’ Company; Earliest record of Glovers 1422. Called themselves Glovers, Pursers, Bagmakers, and Pointers 1556. Also called Glovers and Parchment Makers 1550s and later 16th cent. Called Wet and Dry Glovers occasionally earlier 17th cent., regularly 19th and 20th cent. Pageant: Raising of Lazarus (thirteenth play);
  • 14 Cordwainers and Shoemakers’ Company; Earliest record 1364. Called Tawyers (alutarii) and Shoemakers (sutores) 1360s; Corvisers 15th and earlier 16th cent. and 1550s; Corvisers or Shoemakers later 16th cent.; Cordwainers (or Shoemakers) earlier 17th cent.; Cordwainers 18th, 19th, and sometimes 20th cent. Pageant: Entry into Jerusalem (fourteenth play);
  • 15 Bakers’ Company; Earliest record c. 1422. Called Bakers and Millers 1550s and later 16th cent. Pageant: Last Supper.(fifteenth play - similar to York);
  • 16 Coopers’ Company; Earliest record 1422, when already collaborating for pageant with Fletchers, Bowyers, and Stringers. Called Coopers 1475–6. Later merged in Fletchers, Bowyers, Coopers, and Stringers (part of the sixteenth play);
  • 17 Mercers, Ironmongers, Grocers, and Apothecaries’ Company; Incorporated by the Assembly as Mercers and Ironmongers 1605 (previously two guilds: see Ironmongers; Mercers). Called Mercers, Grocers, Ironmongers, and Apothecaries (occasionally Grocers, Ironmongers, Mercers, and Apothecaries) by 1757 (ninth play);
  • 18 Innkeepers’ Company (merged with Cooks); Incorporated by the Assembly as Innholders, Victuallers, and Cooks 1583 (fn. 168) (previously two guilds: see Cooks, Tapsters, and Hostellers; Vintners). Called Cooks, Innholders, and Victuallers earlier 17th cent.; Vintners, Innholders, Cooks, and Victuallers late 18th cent (seventeenth play);
  • 19 Skinners and Feltmakers’ Company; Earliest record of Skinners 1449. Called Skinners 15th cent.; Skinners and Feltcappers later 15th cent.; Skinners and Hatmakers, or Skinners, Cardmakers, and Hatters 1550s; Skinners, Cardmakers, Hatters, Pointers, and Girdlers (or omitting Hatters) or Skinners and Haberdashers later 16th cent.; Feltmakers, or Skinners and Feltmakers early 17th cent.; Feltmakers and Skinners 18th and early 19th cent. Pageant: Resurrection (eighteenth play);
  • 20 Saddlers and Curriers’ Company; Earliest record of Saddlers 1448. Called Saddlers and Fusters 16th cent. Incorporated by the Assembly as Saddlers and Curriers 1639. Pageant: Supper at Emmaus.(nineteenth play);
  • 21 Merchant Tailors’ Company; Earliest record of Tailors 1302. Called Tailors until early 19th cent.; Merchant Tailors 1835; Merchant Taylors late 20th cent. Pageant: Ascension (twentieth play - same as York);
  • 22 Masons’ Company (Clothworkers and Masons); Earliest record 1436. Incorporated by the Assembly with Plasterers 1705. Called Clothworkers, Walkers, and Masons (or Clothworkers and Masons) 18th and early 19th cent.; Masons 20th cent. Pageant: Massacre of the Innocents, jointly with Goldsmiths (tenth play); and
  • 23 Weavers’ Company; Earliest record 1422. Called Weavers, Walkers, and Chaloners (or Weavers and Walkers (or Fullers) or Weavers and Chaloners) 15th cent. Evidently included Shearmen 1429 but not 1467. Called Weavers and Walkers 16th cent.; Weavers 1550s. Incorporated by the Assembly as Weavers 1583. Called themselves Weavers and Silkweavers 1633 or 1634; Weavers 18th cent. and later. Pageant: Judgement Day.(twenty-fourth and last play);

Plays or Economic Importance Determine Precedence?

Comparing this with the order of the plays it can be seen that very little re-arrangement is needed to get the two lists in the same order: the Drapers and Mercers need to be moved up the precedence list. The Masons are already helping the Goldsmiths with their play: presumably providing some brawn or making up numbers as the Goldsmiths were at times a very small guild.

In 1422, discord arose between the ironmongers and carpenters as to who should have the help of the fletchers, bowyers, stringers, coopers and turners in the Corpus Christi play. The outcome was that the fletchers, bowyers, stringers, coopers and turners should produce their own pageant, "The Scourging of Christ".

The Drawers of Dee are first recorded in 1438 as Fishermen (piscatores). The were called Drawers of Dee (occasionally Drawers in Dee) in the 15th and 16th cent. and Owners and Drawers of Dee Water in the later 16th cent. They collaborated for pageant with Waterleaders from 16th cent. or earlier and amalgamated with them in 1603. They were disbanded in or soon after 1746, certainly before 1757. Their Pageant was Noah's Flood. The Brewers were associated with them for the "pageant" in records from the earlier 17th cent (by which time the Mystery Plays had been discontinued) and later replaced them in the order of guild rank.

The lists of precedence and association of plays do show a startling resenblance. Some of the same assignments are found in the York plays: Tanners performing the Fall of Lucifer, Fishermen performing Noah and his wife, Bakers the Last Supper, Tailors the Ascension. However the rest of the 48 York plays have different attributions. This begs the question as to which came first in Chester - the order of precedence of the guilds (possibly based on wealth or economic importance) or the allocation of the plays to the guilds (possibly based on goods and trades relevant to the subject matter of the plays). Attribution of precedence by the relative age of the guilds (as with the more modern livery companies of London) does not seem to be a major factor.

Precedence Determines Attribution of Plays?

In London, which did not have Mystery Plays, the order of precedence of the guilds was determined by wealth and status. The London list was headed by the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers and Goldsmiths. In Coventry the highest ranked guilds were the Mercers, Drapers, and Dyers, but in the Coventry Corpus Christi procession the highest ranked guild, the Mercers, came last (next to the consecrated "host"). The Mercer's play was the Assumption in Coventry (not in the Chester Cycle) and the Drapers had charge of the Doomsday play. Both of these plays are well down the list. It would therefore appear that in Coventry the Precedence of the guild came first and possibly influenced which plays were allocated to each guild.

Attribution of Plays Determines Precedence?

The Chester precedence order follows the historical order of the events in the plays very closely. The Drawers of Dee and Water-Leaders do not appear to be a wealthy guild, but came second in the order of precedence. The Merchant Drapers would appear to be a quite wealthy guild (their wealth is mentioned several times in the Banns) but come in fourth place in the precedence and have the second play. The Joiners at times perform a play much later in the cycle (appropriately, the Crucifixion) than their precedence would suggest - being 8th in precedence but performing the sixteenth play. The Masons (towards the end of the precedence) get Herod's slaughter of the innocents, play 10. The Mercers are also well down the precedence list at 17, but perform the Three Kings.

In both York and Chester the Tanners get the initial "Lucifer" play, the Fishermen get the "Noah" play, the Thatchers get the "Nativity", the Bakers are involved in the "Last Supper" and the Tailors get the "Ascension". There are also some "near-miss" associations with the Goldsmiths and Masons turing up in the Herod/Kings cluster in both Chester and York. Perhaps notably this allocation of the Chester plays is both in many cases logical and does not require much variation from the order of precedence.


There is a close correlation between the order of precedence of the guilds and the order in which the plays were performed. Some of the plays seem to have been allocated out of order either because they are better suited to another group, or possibly because they are seen as a more important play:

  • The Drawers of Dee (2nd in precedence) get the third play, Noah (an appropriate choice). While not a wealthy guild they do appear to have been assisted by the Brewers (perhaps the reason for the comic drunken wife) who later took their place in the precedence hierarchy. Elsewhere the shipwrights had this play;
  • The Drapers (4th in precedence), but a wealthy guild get the spectacular Creation play (second). In Coventry they had the spectacular Doomsday play;
  • The Joiners (8th in precedence) get the important Crucifixion (16th play) - but not in all versions of the lists;
  • The Mercers (17th in precedence) but a wealthy guild get the King's play (seventh), They are also in the same guild as the Spicers/Grocers;
  • The Masons (22nd in precedence) get the slaughter of the innocents (the tenth play), but were associated with the Goldsmiths (rank ten) in doing this;

Apart from the above, the plays and the order of precedence follow each other. There are references to the trades of the guilds which can be found in other plays, but these are in general minor. As examples: The Tanners are devils, the Barbers would have performed very rare circumcisions, the Cappers make a donkey head, Wrights et al build a stable, the Smiths have a bellows organ, the Bakers (pehaps some thought irreverently) throw "consecrated" bread into the audience at the Last Supper, the Ironmongers provide nails for the Crucifixion and the Innkeepers leave the comic Ale-wife in Hell. In many cases these are minor script variants which could have been introduced after the plays were allocated to the various guilds, either as a pun or as a way of showing off their wares. If the intention had been to positively link the plays with the professions of the associated guilds there was plenty more opportunity to do this than that of which advantage was apparently taken. However, it must not be forgotten that the texts of the plays which survive today date in most cases from years after the last performance of the plays and text may have been lost. On balance, it appears that the allocation of the plays in most cases follows the hierarchy of the guilds rather than the nature of their trades. On the other hand the order of precedence of the Chester guilds leads naturally to some of the same allocations as in York, especially as regards the Tanners, Fishermen, Thatchers, Bakers and Tailors.

In summary, is difficult to judge whether the order of precedence predates the plays or is determined by them.

Local Elements In The Plays

There are some few connections to local tastes and legends: the Shepherds feast on local food and mention Blacon and Halton, the Nativity perhaps alludes to a local myth about St. Elen (see: Elen of the Hosts) and Magnus Maximus and Boughton is also mentioned in one version of the Nativity. Again, this does not indicate a vast amount of local adaption.


On balance it would appear that the majority of the Mystery Plays were not adapted significantly to serve the interests of the particular guilds assigned to each one. However, it does appear that the connections between guilds formed by their coming together to support a particular play did extend to matters other than the plays themselves. The social cohesion brought about by the plays was probably a reason why they continued for a while after the Reformation, even though this required some modification of the texts and the introduction of elements of explanation in the Banns. Eventually however, the combination of predominantly Catholic religious symbolism and the perhaps unfortunate coincidences associated with political "Marys" led to their undoing, largely due to the work of one extreme religious zealot.

The Lavaux Map shows the original location of St Bridget on Bridge Street. The Mystery plays would have been performed very close by. The parsonage house adjoined the church was taken down in the late 17th century.

Christopher Goodman (1520–1603) was not, as Wikipedia says, born in Chester, but he was educated at the Chester School before going off to Brasenose College, Oxford, as many from Chester did, graduating as B.A. 4 Feb. 1541, and M.A. 13 June 1544. In 1547 he became a senior student at Christ Church, Oxford (where his name appears as "Gudman" in the Buttery (Canteen) book), and was proctor in 1549. He proceeded B.D. in 1551, and is said to have become Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity about 1548. The last part of Goodman's long life was spent in retirement at Chester, where he was rector of the parish of St Bridget.

Goodman who had been appointed to the living of Aldford and made archdeacon of Richmond in 1570, preached against the Chester Plays even though he had been deprived of his living in 1571 because of his extreme views. His will contains the following passage:

  • And for mye librarye of bookes I leave to the orderinge and discretion of mye brother John G[oodman] and mye cossin Will[ia]m Alderseye whether they shall thinke better to sell them or to distribute the same to suche mye cossins as shall aplye themselves to learninge as to mye cossin Alderseye his sonnes mye cossin Fitton his sonnes mye cossin Calcottes sones mye cossin Tilston his sonnes and other of mye kindred that give themselves to learninge espetialie to divinitie for which my bokes best serve.
Portrait of William Aldersey from the Grosvenor Museum (purchased 2012). Painted in oil on an oak panel and dated 1615, the artwork is the earliest surviving portrait of any mayor of Chester. He died at Chester on 26 October 1616 and was buried in St Oswald

William Aldersey of Aldersey, a wealthy Chester merchant, was the grandson and nephew of the Mayors of Chester in, respectively, 1560 and 1594, and he was himself to be Mayor of Chester in 1613. He died in 1625, leaving among other issue a daughter, Alice, who married John Leche of Carden, Serjeant-at-law for the County Palatine of Chester (and associated with Leche House). Goodman was certainly well-connected with Chester. Goodman would have been aware that issues of conformity were less than urgent under the lax regime of Bishop Downham, who in 1564 presented a report, not wholly accurate, which cast doubt on the religious loyalties of several aldermen, including the mayor (Richard Poole) and three of his predecessors (John Smith, William Aldersey, and Randle Bamvill). There were also a few suspect absentees from church services, notably Fulk Aldersey and his wife, but open recusancy was clearly negligible.

Goodman was also closely aquainted with John Knox (c. 1513 – 24 November 1572). The relationship between Knox and Goodman began when the two men became acquainted at long range during the reign of Edward VI, when they were both members of the radical party within the Church of England. Although they had known about each other, it is now clear that their first meeting took place in Chester at the start of Queen Mary Tudor's reign. In a 1567 letter Knox recalled the event vividly, reminding Goodman how they had walked on the city walls at Chester, and had then discussed whether to flee from the Roman Catholic regime which had been re-established within England. Knox had urged Goodman in strong terms not to remain 'within Satans bludy clawses' explaining 'god no doubt had preservyd youe for an other tyme to the great comfort of his Church'.

On 10 May 1572, the outspoken Christopher Goodman (who hated both Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots) wrote a letter to the Earl of Huntingdon (Mary QoS's jailor) urging that he, as president of the Council of the North, suppress Chester’s annual mystery plays. Goodman also wrote to Edmund Grindal then Archbishop of York. Goodman was one of a minority of university-educated Protestant clergy in the region, had helped to translate the Geneva Bible during his exile. He was a determined reformer and increasingly successful in turning the local gentry against drama, minstrelsy, dancing, and animal sports. In his letter he hinted at Chester mayor John Hankey’s collusion with recusant factions. Goodman also quotes from the plays, but his quotes do not match up with the surviving texts - either the texts were changed to try and overcome the issues he raised, or Goodman is being at best economical with the truth. His position on the plays was not the only extreme view that Goodman held - he argued that:

  • "the government of women was against nature and God’s ordinances".

The cycle plays offered a model of theatre that was at the opposite extreme from the Classical Latin drama that was taught in the schools and imitated by humanist playwrights. It was insistently inclusive. The motto traditionally ascribed to Shakespeare's Globe, "Totus mundus agit histrionem" (something between ‘all the world’s a stage’ and ‘everyone acts a part’), declared that the theatre was as large as the world: the maxim first appears in the 12th-century writer John of Salisbury, whose works were regularly reprinted in the Renaissance. Following the banning of the Chester Plays 1575 the theatre became intensely regulated under the Master of the Revels. Control over theatre gradually became extended, particularly under Edmund Tylney and the Office acquired the legal power to censor and control playing across the entire country. This increase in theatrical control coincided with the appearance of permanent adult theaters in London. Every company and traveling troupe had to submit a play manuscript to the Office of the Revels. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were forbidden (by official injunction) from staging religious or Biblical content explicitly.

In Chester, Christopher Goodman would have been educated at the King's School. The School was founded in 1541 by King Henry VIII following the dissolution of St Werburgh’s Abbey, which became Chester Cathedral. The School was housed in the former Monastic Refectory for most of the next 400 years until 1869. It is ironic that the man who did most to bring about the end of the Chester Mystery Plays in 1575 was educated in the very room where they were recreated in 1951 - still under the long shadow of censorship.

Related Pages

Sources and Links

There are many other sources than those listed below, but these are all available free online (at least in part):


The Texts



Frank Simpson on the Chester Guilds and Freemen