Chester Mystery Plays

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Did you know the Chester Mystery Plays include a Passion Play in the performance? Or that the Mystery Plays have a long history that stretches back to medieval England and give modern Passion Plays a rich heritage?

The Chester Mystery Plays were performed for the first time in 1951 after being banned in 1575. Why were these plays – including the Passion Play – banned for over three hundred and fifty years? Find out more below.

History of the Mystery Plays in England

The Archbishop of York issued a national ban that prohibited all performances of the Mystery Plays in 1572. The reason for this ban was both religious and political: the struggle of religious traditions as England moved from Catholicism to Protestantism was also a political struggle and the Mystery Plays were banned along with all other plays about religion or politics.

The plays that dramatized stories from the Bible from the Creation to the Last Judgement had been performed by medieval guilds in cities such as Chester, York, Lincoln and Coventry and were very popular. Every year during the Corpus Christi festivals people streamed to these cities to watch the plays as they were performed on pageant wagons or on the streets.

The city guilds took great pride in the plays and each guild was responsible for the production of a different part of the Bible story. Each year, the guilds competed with each other to tell their part of the story with more props or better special effects or more expensive costumes.

  • The grocers, bakers and millers performed The Last Supper,
  • The ironmongers undertook The Crucifixion,
  • The cooks, tapsters, ostlers and innkeepers were in charge of the Harrowing of Hell,
  • The skinners, hatters, painters and girdlers performed The Resurrection.

City records from 1540 give a list of the original guilds and which plays they performed. You can find it here.

By the time they were banned in the late sixteenth century, they had become increasingly more sophisticated and more expensive. The guilds held nothing back as they staged the Mystery Plays that brought great honour to their city and became extravagant acts of devotion. Another reason they could not continue was because they had become so expensive!

Why were they so popular?

At a time when many people could not read and did not have access to a printed Bible, there was no way of learning about the Bible outside church. Unfortunately, the church services were often in Latin and so it was through images and stories that people learned most about their faith. The Mystery Plays were so popular because they dramatized the stories in language that was both poetic and accessible.

They were also popular because they were funny. Noah’s wife, who refuses to get on the ark, and the three shepherds, one of whom steals a bag from the audience to offer it as a gift to the baby Jesus, are as funny today as they would have been in the sixteenth century! You can find out more here about the Chester Mystery Plays here.

This year the Chester Nativity and Salutation was also performed by students at St Edmund’s Hall in Oxford. This nativity play from the Mystery Cycle included Jesus’ birth, the prophecy of the Sybil, the magnificent humility of Emperor Octavian, and the discomfiture of the midwives! You can find out more about it here.

You can access free downloadable media clips from the Chester Mystery Cycle performance of 2003, featuring full mp3 audio track ‘Christ Theme’ and video excerpts from the performance.

Photo credit:PamelaRaithPhotographyNine photographs from the Chester Mystery Plays showing Jesus and disciples dressed in long robes.