Corpus Christi Day
and the Performance of
William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.
Volume 1- June 2
This grand festival of the Romish church is held on the Thursday next after Trinity Sunday, in which order it also stands in the church of England calendar, and in the English almanacs. It celebrates the doctrine of transubstantiation. In all Roman catholic countries it is observed with music, lights, flowers strewed in the street, rich tapestries hung upon the walls, and with other demonstrations of rejoicing:1 this is the usage still. Anciently in this country, as well as abroad, it was the custom to perform plays on this day, representing scripture subjects. From an author before cited, the following verses relating to these manners are extracted
“Then doth ensue the solemne feast
of Corpus Christi Day,
Who then can shewe their wicked use,
and fond and foolish play?
The hallowed bread, with worship great,
in silver pix they beare
About the church, or in the citie
passing here and theare.
His armes that beares the same two of
the welthiest men do holde,
And over him a canopey
of silke and cloth of golde.
Christe’s passion here derided is,
with sundrie maskes and playes,
Faire Ursley, with hir maydens all,
doth passe amid the wayes:
And, valiant George, with spears thou killest
the dreadfull dragon here,
The Devil’s house is drawne about,
wherein their doth appere
A wondrous sort of damned sprites,
with fools and fearefull looks,
Great Christopher doth wade and passe
with Christ amid the brooks:
Sebastian full of feathred shaftes,
the dint of dart doth feele,
There walketh Kathren, with hir sworde
in hand, and cruel wheels
The Challis and the singing Cake
with Barbara is led,
And sundrie other pageants playde
in in worship of this bred.
* * * * *
* * * * * *
The common ways with bowes are strawde,
and every streets beside,
And to the walles and windowes all
are boughes and braunches ride.
The monkes in every place do roame,
the nonnes abrade are sent,
The priestes and schoolmen lowd do rore,
some use the instrument.
The straunger passing through the streete,
upon his knees doe fall
And earnestly upon this bread,
as on his God, doth call.
For why, they counte it for their Lorde,
and that he doth not take
The form of flesh, but nature now
of breade that we do bake.
A number great of armed men
here all this while do stande,
To looke that no disorder be,
nor any filching bander
For all the church-goodes out are brought,
which certainly would bee
A bootie good, if every man
might have his libertie.”2
The Religious Plays performed on Corpus Christi Day, in the times of superstition, were such as were represented at other periods, though with less ceremony. From a volume on the subject, by the editor of the Every-Day-book he, relates so much as may set forth their origin and the nature of the performances.
Origin of Religious Plays.
A Jewish play, of which fragments are still preserved in Greek iambics, is the first drama known to have been written on a scripture subject. It is taken from Exodus : a performer, in the character of Moses, delivers the prologue in a speech of sixty lines, and his rod is turned into a serpent on the stage. The play is supposed to have been written at the close of the second century, by one Ezekiel, a Jew, as a political spectacle to animate his dispersed brethren with the hopes of a future deliverance from their captivity.
The emperor Julian made a law that no Christian should be taught in the heathen schools, or make use of that learning; but there were two men living at that time, who exerted their talents to supply the deficiency of instruction and entertainment that the Christians experienced from Julian’s edict: these were Apollinarius, bishop of Laodicea, and his father, a priest of the same city; they were both scholars, well skilled in oratory and the rules of composition, and of high literary renown. Apollinarius, the elder, a profound philologer, translated the five books of Moses into heroic verse, and in the same manner composed the history of the Israelites to the time of Saul, into a poem of twenty-four books, in Imitation of Homer, He also wrote religious odes, and turned particular histories and portions of the Old and New Testament into comedies and tragedies, after the manner of Menander, Euripides, and Pindar. His son the bishop, an eloquent rhetorician, and already an antagonist of Julian’s, anxious that the Christians might not be ignorant of any species of Greek composition, formed the writings of the evangelists, and the works of the apostles, into dialogues, in the manner of Plato.
About the same time, Gregory Nazianzen, patriarch and archbishop of Constantinople, one of the fathers of the church, and master to the celebrated Jerome, composed plays from the Old and New Testament, which he substituted for the plays of Sophocles and Euripides at Constantinople, where the old Greek stage had flourished until that time. The ancient Greek tragedy was a religious spectacle; and the sacred dramas of Gregory Nazianzen were formed on the same model; he transformed the choruses into Christian hymns. One only of the archbishop’s plays is extant: it is a tragedy called “Christ’s Passion;“ the prologue calls it an imitation of Euripides; the play is preserved in Gregory Nazianzen’s works. The remainder of his dramas have not survived those inimitable compositions over which they triumphed for a time.
It is not known whether the religious dramas of the Apollinarii perished so early as some of their other writings, that were ordered to be destroyed for, a crime common in all ages, heresy; but this is certain, that the learning they endeavoured to supply gradually disappeared before the progress of Constantine’s establishment. Suddenly acquiring power, and finally assuming infallibility, observing pagan feasts as religious festivals, consecrating heathen rites into christian solemnities, and transforming the non-observances of primitive simplicity into precedents for gorgeous ceremony, the church blazed with a scorching splendour that withered up the heart of man. Every accession to the dominion of its ecclesiastics over his property and intellect induced “elf-relaxation and sloth; to the boldness that seized a liberal supply for spiritual support, succeeded the craft that extended it to a boundless revenue for effeminate indulgence. The miraculous powers of the church wonderfully multiplied ; but implicit belief in miracles was equivocal, sinless the act of faith was accompanied by liberal contributions at the altar. The purchase of pardons for sin, and the worship of the relics exhibited in sumptuous shrines, were effectual ways of warring with the powers of darkness, and the coffers overflowed with contributions. These active hostilities against Satan occasioned him to ascend upon earth, and, to terrify the devout, he often appeared to them in the natural ugliness of his own proper person. When put to flight, by masses and holy water, he took lodgings incog. in the bodies of careless people, nor would he leave a tenement he occupied, till he was forcibly turned out of possession by a priest acquainted with the forms of ejectment. Dislike to clean linen was a peculiar mark of piety, and dirty hermits emitted the odour of sanctity. Though their holinesses were so violently hated by the devil, that he took the trouble to assault and tempt them in the holes of the earth and trunks of old trees where they inhabited, yet it was rewarded with Visits to their chosen abodes from all the orders of heaven; and by long familiarity with the powers of the other world, these “tender-nosed saints could detect the presence of invisible angels.” They who turn their backs upon the concerns of life were especial favourites above. A nun reported that Christ opened her side with his corporal hands, took out her heart, and then carefully placing his own in the chasm, left it there and closed the wound, at the same time doing her the honour to wear her shift. Nor did the faithful, who believed the former relation, doubt for an instant that the Virgin descended from heaven to visit the cells of monasteries, and milk her breasts into the mouths of monks. Doubts were effectually removed by burning doubters. All who were privileged to shave the top of the head in a circle, as a token of emancipation from worldly superfluities, were partners in the profitable trade of granting licenses for unmolested existence at the price of unconditional admission. Ecclesiastical policy accomplished its purpose: the human mind was in a delirium; the hierarchy at the summit of its ascendancy.
From the complete establishment of the church until within a short time before the reformation, darkness overspread the world, and the great mass of the clergy themselves were in a state of deplorable ignorance. During this period, in order to wean the people from the ancient spectacles, particularly the Bacchanalian and calendary solemnities, religious shows were instituted partaking of the same spirit of licentiousness.
To these shows the clergy added the acting of mysteries, or representing the miraculous acts of saints circumstances from apocryphal story, and subjects from the Old and New Testament. There are different opinions as to the religious class by whom they were introduced into Europe, though it seems reasonable to suppose that they were adopted by the Italians in the depth of the dark ages from the spiritual dramas of the Apollinarii, father and son, and Gregory Nazianzen; but, however that may be, there is no room for surprise that all writers concur in attributing the performance of mysteries, or religious plays, to the clergy of the catholic church.
As mysteries arose with Gregory Nazianzen, it is not likely that his example as a fathes of the church should be lost sight of as soon as he had succeeded in destroying the performance of the ancient Greek plays; yet English writers do not appear to have traced sacred representations in a dramatic form until many centuries after Gregory Nazianzen’s death.
The first dramatic representation in Italy was a spiritual comedy, performed at Padua in 1243; and there was a company instituted at Rome in 1264, whose chief employment was to represent the sufferings of Christ in Passion week. The rev. Mr. Croft, and the hon. Topham Beauclere, collected a great number of these Italian plays or mysteries; and at the sale of their libraries, Dr. Burney purchased many of the most ancient, which he speaks of as being evidently much earlier than the discovery of printing, from the gross manner in which the subjects are treated, the coarseness of the dialogue, and the ridiculous situation into which most sacred persons and things are thrown.
In 1313, Philip the Fair gave the most sumptuous entertainment at Paris ever remembered in that city. Edward II. and his queen Isabella, crossed over from England with a large retinue of nobility and partook of the magnificent festivities The pomp and profusion of the banquettings, the variety of the amusements, and the splendour of the costume were unsurpassed. On each of the eight days the princes and nobles changed their dresses three times ; while the people were sometimes entertained with representations of the Glory of the blessed, at other times with the Torments of the damned, and various other spectacles. In 1402, by an edict of Charles VI. dated Dec. 4, the mystery of the conception, passion, and resurrection of Christ, was performed at St. Maur, about five miles from Paris. At the council at Constance, in the year 1417, the English fathers played the mystery of the massacre of the holy Innocents. The mystery of the passion was performed on the entrance of the kings of France and England at Paris, on December 1. 1420, in the street Kalende, before the palace, upon a raised scaffolding of one hundred paces in length.
In the Royal Library of Paris, No. 4350, is Le Mystere de la passion Jesus Christ; Paris, printed by Antoine Verard, 1490, folio. This is a fine copy on vellum with every page richly illuminated, and containing a MS. note in French, purporting to be an extract from an old chronicle, entitled, “Histoire de Metz veritable,” whence it appears that its performance was attended by many foreign lords and ladies whose names are specified, and that there were lanthorns placed in the windows during the whole time of the plays but the most curious part of the MS. note is, that, “in the year 1437, on the 3rd of July was represented the game or play, de la Passion, N. S. in the plain of Vexmiel, when the park was arranged in a very noble manner, for there were nine ranges of seats in height rising by degrees; all around and behind were great and long seats for the lords and ladies. On the stage was represented the mouth of hell, it is described as having been very well done, for that it opened and shut when the devils required to enter and come out, and had two large eyes of steel.”
On the 27th of May, 1509, was performed at Romans, in Dauphiny, before the Cordelier’s church, the Mystery of the Three Dons. In this religious play, which lasted three days, there are emissaries who undertake very long journeys, and must come back before the play can he ended. The scene, besmeared red with the blood of the three martyrs, the Dons, is sometimes at Borne, sometimes at Vienna, soon after at Lyons, and at other times in the Alps. The stage constantly represents hell and paradise; and Europe, Asia, and Africa, are cantoned in three towers. Sonic metaphysical beings are most curiously personified. Dame Silence, for instance, speaks the prologue; Human Succour, Divine Grace, and Divine Comfort, are the supporters of the heroes and heroines of the piece, while hell exhibits monsters and devils, to frighten the audience. They are constantly abusing Proserpine, who is introduced with all the trappings of Tartarean pomp into this performance, where there are no less than ninety-two dramatis personae, among whom are the Virgin and God the Father.
The story of La Mystere du Chevalier qui donne sa Femme au Diable, played by ten persons in 1505, is of a dissipated knight reduced by his profligacy to distress and wickedness. In his misfortunes the devil appears, and proposes to make him richer than ever, if he will assign his wife, that the devil may have her in seven years. After some discussion the knight consents, his promise is written out, and he signs it with his blood. The seducer then stipulates that his victim shall deny his God; the knight stoutly resists for a time, but in the end the devil gains his point, and emboldened by success ventures to propose that the knight shall deny the Virgin Mary. This, however, being a still greater sin, he refuses to commit it with the utmost indignity and vehemence, and the devil walks off baffled. At the end of seven years, the promise being due, the devil presents it to the knight, who, considering it a debt of honour, prepares to discharge it immediately. He orders his wife to follow him to a certain spot, but on their way she perceives a church, which after obtaining her husband’s permission she enters, for the purpose of offering her devotion; while thus engaged, the Virgin Mary recollecting the knight’s unsullied allegiance to her, assumes the semblance of his wife, and in that character joins him. The moment that they ‘both appear before the devil, he perceives who he has to deal with, and upbraids the unconscious knight for attempting to deceive him. The knight protests his ignorance and astonishment, which the Virgin corroborates, by telling the devil that it was her own plan, far the rescue of two souls from his power, and she orders him to give up the knight’s promise. He of course obeys so high an authority, and runs off in great terror. The Virgin exhorts the knight to better conduct in future, restores his wife to him, and the piece concludes.
In the reign of Francis I., 1541, the performance of a grand mystery of the Arts of the Apostles, was proclaimed with great solemnay, and acted at Paris for many successive days before the nobility, clergy, and a large assemblage in the Hotel de Flandres. These plays written in French rhyme, by the brothers Greban, were printed in 2 vols. folio, black letter, under letters patent of the king to William Alabat, a merchant of Bourges. The dramatis personae, were a multitude of celestial, terrestial, and infernal personages, amounting altogether to four hundred and eighty-five characters. Though the scenes of these plays were chiefly scriptural, yet many were from apocryphal story, and, the whole exhibition was a strange mixture of sacred and profane history.
Bayle calls the work entitled the Mystere des Actes Apostres, “a very rare and uncommon work.” He obtained the loan of a copy from sir Hans Sloane in England, and largely describes the volume. It is, however, more curious than rare. From the public instruments prefixed to the work, and the circumstances related by Bayle, it is evident that there was much importance attached to these plays; but it cannot so well be conceived from perusing them, as from the remarkable ceremonial of the public proclamation for their performance, concerning which he says nothing, probably from the extreme rarity of the tract, he had not seen it. It ordained, that the proclamation of this play should be made by sound of trumpets, with the city officers and serjeants attending, and directed that the performance should take place “in the hail of the Passion, the accustomed place for rehearsals and repetitions of the Mysteries played in the said city of Paris; which place, being well hung with rich tapestry chairs and forms, is for the reception of all persons of honest and virtuous report, and of all qualities therein assisting, as well as a great number of citizens and merchants, and other persons, as well as clergy and laity, in the presence of the commissaries and officers of Justice appointed and deputed to hear the speeches of each personage; arid these are to make report, according to the merit of their well doing, as in such case required, concerning which have a gracious reception; and from day to day, every day, so to continue to do, until she perfection of the said Mystery.” It is not necessary to trace these plays abroad; they continue to be represented there to the present hour. At Berlin, 1804 and 5, the grand sacred comedy of “David,” in five acts, with battles and choruses, ‘was performed by the comedians in the National Theatre. Throughout March, April, and May, 1810, the same play was represented at Vienna; and while the Coisgress was held therein 1815, it was again performed with the utmost possible splendour. The back of the stage, extending into the open air, gradually ascended to a distance sufficient to admit carriages and horses, and to allow the evolutions of at least five hundred Austrian soldiers, infantry and cavalry, who, habited in the characters of Jews and Philistines, carried muskets and carbines, defiled and deployed, charged with the bayonet, let off their fire-arms, and played artillery, to represent the battles described in the Book of Kings. The emperor Alexander of Russia, the king of Prussia, and other monarchs, with their ministers, and the representatives of different courts, at the Congress, attended these plays, which were exhibited at the great theatre (An der Wien) to crowded audiences, at the usual prices of admission.
The first trace of theatrical representation in this country is recorded by Matthew Paris, who wrote about 1240, and relates, that Geoffrey, a learned Norman, master of the school of the abbey of Dunstable, composed the play of St. Catherine, which was acted by his scholars. Geoffrey’s performance took place in the year 1110, and he borrowed copes from the sacrist of the neighbouring abbey of St Albans, to dress his characters. Fitzstephen writing in 1174, says that, “London, for its theatrical exhibitions, has religious plays, either the representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors, or the sufferings of martyrs.” Besides those of Coventry, there are MSS. of the Chester mysteries, ascribed to Ranulph Higden, compiler of the Polychronicon, and a Benedictine monk of that city, where they were performed at the expense of the in corporated trades, with a thousand days of pardon from the pope, and forty days of pardon from the bishop of Chester to all who attended the representation which is supposed to have been first had in the year 1328.
It is related in the Museum MS., of these Chester plays, that the author, “was thrice at Rome before he could obtain leave of the pope to have them in the English tongue.” The subjects of these Days being “from the Old and New Testament,” seem to supply the reasons for the difficulty in obtaining the pope’s consent. Scripture in English had been scrupulously withheld from the people, and the pope probably anticipated, that if they were made acquainted with portion of it, the remainder would be demanded; while the author of the plays, better acquainted than the pope with the more immediate difficulty of altogether repressing the curiosity that had been excited towards it, conceived, perhaps, that the growing desire might be delayed, by distorted and confusing representations of certain portions. Perhaps such corruptions and absurdities, as are in these plays, seconded by the eloquence of their author, abated the papal fears concerning the appearance of these scriptural interludes in English, and finally obtained the Sanction for their performance.
It may he supposed, that the Chester plays, written in an early and dark age, would contain a great mass of apocryphal interpolation, and that the Coventry plays, written much later, would contain less; yet the contrary is the fact. Among the Chester mysteries, the “Descent into Hell” is the only one not founded on scripture, and that even has a colourable authority by implication; while among the Coventry mysteries, which were produced ninety years afterwards, there are, besides the “Descent,” no less than eight founded on apocryphal Testament story. This remarkable difference of feature, may probably be accounted for. From the fourth century, when Gregory Nazianzen, and the Apollonarii, turned portions of the bible into tragedies and comedies, the clergy of the continent must have done much in the same way, and with much of apocryphal engraftment; and though “religious plays” prevailed in England, yet scriptural subjects were new to the people, and the Chester mystery-maker of 1328, found these so numerous, as to render recourse to the New Testament Aprocrypha unnecessary. But the Coventry mystery-maker of 1416, was under circumstances that would suggest powerful motives to the cunning of a monkish mind for apocryphal adoption. He was likely to conceive that a false glare might obscure the dawnings of the human mind. The rising day of the Reformation had been foretold by the appearance of its “morning star,” in the person of the intrepid Wycliffe, who exercised the right of private judgment in England, a century and a half before Luther taught it as a principle in Germany. It was a period of fearful foreboding to the church. In 1404 Henry IV. held a parliament at Coventry which, from its desire to compel the clergy to contribute largely to the exigencies of the state, was called the Laymen’s Parliament. The country was in imminent danger; an abundant supply of money was immediately necessary; the church property and income were enormous; the parliament knew that this profusion of ecclesiastical wealth could only have been acquired from the industry of the laity; and they represented that the clergy had been of little service to the king, while the laity had served in his wars with their persons, and by contributions for the same purpose had impoverished their estates. The archbishop of Canterbury said, that if the clergy did not fight in person their tenants fought for them, that their contributions had been in proportion to their property, and that the church had offered prayers and masses day and night for God’s blessing on the king and the army. The speaker, sir John Cheyne, answered, that the prayers of the church were a very slender supply. To this the archbishop replied, that it might easily be seen what would become of the kingdom when such devout addresses were so slighter! The persistence of the archbishop saved the church at that time from the impending storm; but the priests saw that their exactions and their worship were only tolerated, Wycliffe had then been dead about twenty years. After a life wonderfully preserved from the unsparing cruelty of ecclesiastical power, by the protection of Edward III., his memory was affectionately revered, and, as printing had not been discovered, his writings were scarce, and earnestly sought. The good seed of dissent had germinated, and the appearance of dissenters at intervals, was a specimen of the harvest that had not yet come. Nothing more fearfully alarmed the establishment than Wycliffe’s translation of the New Testament into English. All arts were used to suppress it, and to enliven the slumbering attachment of the people to the “good old customs” of the church. There is abundant evidence of studious endeavors to both these ends in the Coventry mysteries. The priests industriously reported, that Wycliffe's Testament was a false one; that he had distorted the language, and concealed facts. There was no printing press to multiply copies of his book; biblical criticism was scarcely known but by being denounced; the ecclesiastics anathematized scriptural inquiry as damnable heresy from their confessionals and pulpits; and as “the churches served as theatres for holy farces,” the Franciscan friars of Coventry, shortly after the meeting of the Laymen’s Parliament in that city, craftily engrafting stories from the pseudo-gospels upon narratives in the New Testament, composed and performed the plays called the Coventry mysteries. These fraudful productions were calculated to postpone the period of illumination, and to stigmatize, by implication, the labours of Wycliffe. Yet, if the simulation succeeded for a while with the vulgar, it reinvigorated the honest and the persevering; and as the sun breaks forth after a season of cold and darkness, so truth, finally emerging from the gulph of the papal hierarchy, animated the torpid intellect, and cheered the “long abused sight.”
But to return. In 1538, Ralph Radcliffe, a scholar and a lover of graceful erudition, wrote plays in Latin and English, which were exhibited by his pupils. Among his comedies, were “Dives and Lazarus,” the “Delivering of Susannah,” “Job’s sufferings,” the “Burning of John Huss,” &c. The scholars of St. Paul’s school in London, were, till a comparatively late period, in great celebrity for their theatrical talent, which it appears was in full exercise upon the mysteries so early as the reign of Richard II.; for in that year, 1378, they presented a petition to his majesty, praying him “to prohibit some unexpert people from presenting the history of the Old and New Testament, to the great prejudice of the said clergy, who have been at great expense in order to represent it publicly at Christmas.”
But the more eminent performers of mysteries in London, were the society of parish clerks. On the 18th, 19th, and 20th of July, 1390, they played interludes at the Skinner’s-well, as the usual place of their performance, before king Richard II., his queen, and their court; and at the Same place, in 1490, they played the
“Creation of the World,” and subjects of the like kind, for eight successive days, to splendid audiences of the nobility and gently from all parts of England. The parish-clerks’ ancient performances is memorialized. in raised letters of iron, upon a pump on the east side of Rag-street, now called Ray-street, beyond the Sessions-house, Clerkenwell.
Tue pump of the Skinner’s-well is let into a low dead wall. On its north side is an earthenware shop; and on the south a humble tenement occupied by a bird-seller, whose cages with their chirping tenants, hang over and around the inscription. The passing admirer of linnets and redpoles, now and then stops awhile to listen to the melody, and refresh his eye with a few green clover turfs, that stand on a low table for sale by the side of time door; while the monument, denoting the histrionic fame of the place, and alluding to the miraculous powers of the water for healing incurable diseases, which formerly attracted multitudes to the spot, remains unobserved beneath its living attractions. The present simplicity of the scene powerfully contrasts with the recollection of its former splendour. The choral chant of the Benedictine nuns accompanying the peal of the deep-toned organ through their cloisters, and the frankincense curling its perfume from priestly censers at the altar, are succeeded by the stunning sounds of numerous quickly plied-hammers, and the smith’s bellows flashing the fires of Mr. Bond’s iron-foundry, erected upon the unrecognised site of the convent. This religious house stood about half-way down the declivity of the hill, which commencing near the church on Clerkenwell-green, terminates at the river Fleet. The prospect then, was uninterrupted by houses, and the people upon the rising grounds could have had an uninterrupted view of the performances at the well. About pistol-shot from thence, on the N. N. E. part of the hill, there was a Bear garden; and scarcely so far from the well, at the bottom of the hill westward, and a little to the north, in the hollow of Air-street, lies Hockley-in the—hole, where different rude sports, which probably arose with the discontinuance of the parish clerks’ acting, were carried on, within the recollection of persons still living, to the great annoyance of this suburb.
The religious guild, or fraternity of Corpus Christi at York, was obliged annually to perform a Corpus Christi play. Drake says, that this ceremony must have been in its time one of the most extraordinary entertainments the city could exhibit. It was acted in that city till the twenty-sixth year of queen Elizabeth, 1584.
Corpus Christi day, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was celebrated with similar exhibitions by the incorporated trades. The earliest mention of the performance of mysteries there, is in the ordinary of the coopers for 1426. In 1437, the barbers played the “Baptizing of Christ” In 1568, the “Offering of Abraham and Isaac “was exhibited by the slaters. About 1578, the Corpus Christi plays were on the decline, and never acted but by a special command of the magistrates of Newcastle. They are spoken of as the general plays of the town of Newcastle, and when thought necessary by the mayor to be set forth and played, the millers were to perform the “Deliverance of Israel;” the house—carpenters, the “Burial of Christ;” the masons, the “Burial of our lady Saint Mary the Virgin.” Between the first and last mentioned periods, there are many minutes in the trades’ books of the acting in different years.
In the reign of Henry VII., 1487, that king, in his castle of Winchester, was entertained on a Sunday, while at dinner, with the performance of Christ’s “Descent Into Hell,” by the choir boys of Hyde abbey and St. Swithin’s priory, two large monasteries there; and in the same reign, 1489, there were shows and ceremonies, and (religious) plays, exhibited in the palace at Westminster.
On the feast of St. Margaret, in 1511, the miracle play of the “Holy Martyr St. George,” was acted on a stage in an open field at Bassingborne, in Cambridgeshire, at which were a minstrel and three waits hired from Cambridge, with a property-man and a painter.
It appears from the Earl of Northumberland’s Household-book, (1512,) that the children of his chapel performed mysteries during the twelve days of Christmas, and at Easter, under the direction of his master of the revels. Bishop Percy cites several particulars of the regulated sums payable to “parsones” and others for these performances. The exhibiting scripture dramas on the great festivals entered into the regular establishment, and formed part of the domestic [?] of our ancient nobility; and what is more remarkable, it was as much the business of the chaplain in those days to compose plays for the family, as it is now for him to make sermons.
At London. in the year 1556, the “Passion of Christ was performed at the Grey Friars, before the lord mayor, the privy-council, and many great estates of the realm. In 1577, the same play was performed at the same place, on the day that war was proclaimed in London against France; and in that year, the holiday of St. Olave, the patron of the church in Silver-street, dedicated to that saint, being celebrated with great solemnity, at eight o’clock at night, a play of the “miraculous Life of St. Olave,” was performed for four hours, and concluded with many religious plays. The acting of religious plays experienced interruption during the reign of Elizabeth, and occasionally at other periods. Malone thinks that the last mystery represented in England, was that of ”Christ’s Passion,” in the reign of king James I. Prynne relates that it was performed at Ely-house, in Holborn, when Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, lay there, on Good Friday, at night, and that thousands were present.
Concerning the Coventry mysteries, Dugdale relates, in his “History of Warwickshire,” published in 1656, that, “Before the suppression of the monasteries, this city was very famous for the pageants that were played therein, upon Corpus Christi day (one of their ancient faires,) which occasioning very great confluence of people thither from far and near, was of no small benefit thereto which pageants being acted with mighty state and reverence by the Grey Friars, had theatres for the several scenes, very large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city, for the better advantage of spectators, and contained the story of the Old and New Testament, composed it the Old Englishe rithme, as appeareth by an ancient MS. (in Bibl. Cotton. Vesp. D. VIII.) intituled, Ludas Corporis Christi, or Ludus Coventriae. ‘I have been told,’ says Dugdale, ‘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' The celebrity of the performances may be inferred from the rank of the audiences; for, at the Festival of Corpus Christi, in 1483, Richard III. visited Coventry to see the plays, and at the same season in 1492, they were attended by Henry VII. and his queen, by whom they were highly commended.”
The mysteries were acted at Chester, by the trading companies of the city. “Every company had his pagiante, or parte, which pagiantes were a highe scafolde with two rowmes, a higher and a lower upon four wheeles. In the lower they apparelled themselves, in the higher rowme they played, being all open on the tope, that all behoulders might hear and see them. The places where they played them was in every streete. They begane first at the Abay gates, and when the pagiante was played, it was wheeled to the High-cross before the mayor, and so to every streete; and so every streete had a pagiante playing before them, till all the pagiantes for the daye appointed were played, and when one pagiante was neer ended, worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe the mighte come in place thereof; excedinge orderlye, and all the streetes had their pagiante afore them, all at one time, playing together, to se which playes was great resorte, and also scafoldes, and stages made in the streetes, ns those places where they determined to playe their pagiantes.”
In Cornwall they had interludes in the Cornish language from scripture history. These were called the Gnary Miracle plays, and were sometimes performed in the open fields, at the bottom of earthen amphitheatres, the people standing around on the inclined plane, which was usually forty or fifty feet diameter. Two MSS. in the Bodleian Library contains the Cornish plays of the “Deluge,” the “Passion,” and the “Resurrection.”
According to Strutt, when mysteries were the only plays, the stage consisted of three platforms, one above another. On the uppermost sat God the Father surrounded by his angels; on the second, the glorified saints, and on the last and lowest, men who had not yet passed from this life. On one side of the lowest platform was the resemblance of a dark pitchy cavern, from whence issued the appearance of fire and flames; and when it was necessary, the audience was treated with hideous yellings and noises in imitation of the howlings and cries of wretched souls tormented by relentless demons. From this yawning cave the devils themselves constantly ascended to delight, and to instruct the spectators.3
Notes from Hone:
1. Brand. Return
2. Naogeorgus, by Googe. Return
3. Hone on Mysteries. Return
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