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York Mystery Plays

The York Mystery Plays, more properly called the York Corpus Christi Plays, are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight mystery plays, or pageants, which cover sacred history from the creation to the Last Judgment. These were traditionally presented on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast occurring the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, between 23 May and 24 June). They were performed in the city of York, from the middle of the fourteenth century until 1569. It is one of only four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles, with the others known as the Chester Mystery Plays, the Towneley/Wakefield plays and N-Town plays. In addition to these, two long, composite, and late mystery pageants have survived from the Coventry cycle, and there are records and fragments from other similar productions which took place elsewhere. A manuscript of the York plays, probably dating from some time between 1463 and 1477, survives at the British Library.[1][2]


  • The Plays 1
  • The York Realist 2
  • Modern Revival 3
  • The York Millennium Mystery Plays 4
  • 2012 production 5
  • 2016 production 6
  • The Waggon Plays 7
    • Language in modern productions 7.1
  • Editions 8
    • The unaltered Middle English text 8.1
    • Edition in modern spelling 8.2
    • Modernised editions 8.3
  • Adaptations and related plays 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

The Plays

There is no record of the first performance of the York Mystery Plays, but they are first recorded celebrating the festival of Corpus Christi, in York in 1376, by which time the use of Middle English meaning of a trade, or craft). The wagons would be paraded through the streets of York, stopping at each of 12 playing stations, designated by the City banners.

The cycle uses many different verse forms, but most have rhyme, a regular rhythm with fairly short lines, and frequent alliteration. The balance of critical opinion is in favour of the idea of several clerics being responsible for their authorship, one of whom is conventionally known as the "York Realist".

The cycle of plays comprise some 48 pageants, which were originally presented upon carts and wagons, dressed for the occasion. In some accounts, there are as many as 56 pageants. They told stories from both the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

The Plays continued after the Reformation, as part of which, in 1548, the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays accommodated themselves to the new religious orthodoxy, by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were finally suppressed in 1569.

Traditionally, an individual guild would take responsibility for a particular play.[1][3]

  1. Barkers (Tanners) – The creation, and the Fall of Lucifer
  2. Plasterers – The creation myth – up to the Fifth Day
  3. Cardmakers – Creation of Adam and Eve
  4. Fullers (preparers of woolen cloth) – Adam and Eve in Eden
  5. Coopers (makers of wooden casks) – The Fall of Man
  6. Armourers – Expulsion from Eden
  7. Glovers – Sacrifice of Cain and Abel
  8. Shipwrights – Building of the Ark
  9. Fishers and MarinersNoah and his Wife
  10. Parchmenters and BookbindersAbraham and Isaac
  11. HosiersDeparture of the Israelites from Egypt;Ten Plagues; Crossing of the Red Sea
  12. SpicersAnnunciation and Visitation
  13. Pewterers and FoundersJoseph's Trouble about Mary
  14. Tile-thatchers – Journey to Bethlehem
  15. Chandlers (Candlemakers) – Shepherds
  16. Masons – Coming of the Three Kings to Herod
  17. Goldsmiths – Coming of the Kings: Adoration
  18. Marshals (Grooms) – Flight into Egypt
  19. Girdlers and NailersSlaughter of the Innocents
  20. Spurriers and Lorimers (Spurmakers and makers of horse bits and bridles) – Christ with the Doctors
  21. BarbersBaptism of Jesus
  22. SmithsTemptation
  23. Curriers (men who dress leather) – Transfiguration
  24. CapmakersWoman Taken in Adultery; Lazarus
  25. SkinnersChrist's Entry into Jerusalem
  26. Cutlers – Conspiracy
  27. BakersLast Supper
  28. Cordwainers (Shoemakers) – Agony and Betrayal
  29. Bowyers and FletchersDenial of Peter; Jesus before Caiphas
  30. Tapiters (makers of tapestry and carpets) and Couchers – Dream of Pilate's Wife
  31. Listers (Dyers) – Trial before Herod
  32. Cooks and Water-leaders – Second Accusation before Pilate; Remorse of Judas; Purchase of the Field of Blood
  33. Tilemakers – Second Trial before Pilate
  34. ShearmanChrist Led to Calvary
  35. Pinners and PaintersCrucifixion
  36. ButchersMortification of Christ; Burial
  37. SaddlersHarrowing of Hell
  38. CarpentersResurrection
  39. Winedrawers – Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene
  40. SledmenTravellers to Emmaus
  41. Hatmakers, Masons, LabourersPurification of Mary; Simeon and Anna
  42. Scriveners (Scribes) – Incredulity of Thomas
  43. TailorsAscension
  44. PottersDescent of the Holy Spirit
  45. Drapers (Dealers in cloth and dry goods) – Death of Mary
  46. Weavers – Appearance of Mary to Thomas
  47. Ostlers (Stablemen) – Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin
  48. Mercers (Dealers in textiles) – Judgement Day

The York Realist

The authorship of all the plays is unknown, but analysis of the style allows scholars to recognise where authorship changes. One particular group of plays, concerned with the Passion, have been attributed to a writer called "The York Realist"[4] and the name has come into general use.[1] The eight plays concerned are

  • Cutlers – Conspiracy
  • Cordwainers (Shoemakers) – Agony and Betrayal
  • Bowyers and Fletchers – Peter's Denial; Jesus before Caiphas
  • Tapiters (Makers of tapestry and carpets) and Couchers – Dream of Pilate's Wife
  • Listers (Dyers) – Trial before Herod
  • Cooks and Water-leaders – Second Accusation before Pilot; Remorse of Judas; Purchase of the Field of Blood
  • Tilemakers – Second Trial before Pilate
  • Butchers – Mortification of Christ; Burial

They are all written in vigorous alliterative verse, as are other plays in the cycle. 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, such as Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas. Playwright Peter Gill expressed the view that "If it hadn’t been for the York Realist, Shakespeare would have been a second rate writer like Goethe".[5]

Modern Revival

After their suppression in Tudor times the plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained the permission of the Earl of Ashburnham to study the manuscript of the plays, then in his possession, and in 1885 to publish her transcription, together with an introduction and short glossary.[3]

In 1909, The York Historic Pageant included a parade of the banners of the Guilds through the streets, accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity.[6] In December of the same year a selection of six of the plays was performed as a fund-raising venture for St Olave's Church, York.[7] The play cycle was revived on a much larger scale in 1951, in the York Festival of the Arts, as a part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. This was performed on a fixed stage in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in Museum Gardens and directed by E. Martin Browne. The music, written for the occasion by James Brown, was directed by Allan Wicks.[8] The part of Jesus was played by Joseph O'Conor,[9] (although to preserve mystique he was not named in the programme)[10] with other roles taken by amateurs. In the interests of comprehensibility, the text was abbreviated and modernised[11] by Canon J. S. Purvis. Canon Purvis, who went on to lead the Borthwick Institute at the University of York,[12] later produced a modernisation of the complete text.[13]

Following the great success of the 1951 production, which was said to be "the most widely applauded festival event in the country, with over 26,000 people witnessing the Plays",[10] selections from the plays were staged in the same location at three-year intervals, lengthening to four-year intervals, until 1988. They have aroused academic interest and publications.[14] Usually there was a professional director and a professional actor to play Jesus, with the rest of the cast being local amateurs. Ian McShane played Lucifer/Satan in 1963. Some of the amateur actors such as Judi Dench later became professionals. Directors included E. Martin Browne again (1954, 1957, 1966), David Giles (1960), William Gaskill (1963), Edward Taylor (1969, 1973), Jane Howell (1976), Patrick Garland (1980), Toby Robertson (1984) and Steven Pimlott (1988). The role of Jesus was played a second time by Joseph O'Conor (1954), then by Brian Spink (1957), Tom Criddle, (1960), Alan Dobie (1963), John Westbrook (1966), John Stuart Anderson (1973), local York man David Bradley (1976), Christopher Timothy (1980), Simon Ward (1984) and Victor Banerjee (1988).[10]

In 1992 the production was moved in a modern production, sponsored by a building company, to the York Theatre Royal, with Robson Green playing Christ and with a script adapted by Liz Lochhead. The 1996 production in the same place was all-amateur, with the part of Jesus played by local solicitor Rory Mulvihill, and the script shortened by Lochhead. For 2000, the interest of the Dean of York, Very Rev. Raymond Furnell, led to the most ambitious production thus far.

The York Millennium Mystery Plays

In 2000 a large-scale performance of the plays was staged in York Minster, known as The York Millennium Mystery Plays. Directed by Gregory Doran, and with Ray Stevenson in the role of Christ, the production was then the most expensive and wide-reaching project in the history of the plays' modern revival.[10] The first half began in Heaven with the story of the fall of Lucifer, followed by the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark (with impressive and memorable representations of the animals and the flood) and the story of Abraham and Isaac. From the New Testament there came the annunciation and nativity of Jesus, the massacre of the innocents, Christ's childhood, baptism, temptation and ministry, and his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The second half concentrated on the capture and trial of Christ, and his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The production ended, as is traditional, with the Last Judgement.[15]

The production ran for a month, with a total audience of 28,000. Aside from the professional director and actor, Ray Stevenson, the cast was made up of amateurs, mainly from the York area. Over fifty children also took part in the play. Original music was written for the production by local composer, Richard Shephard.[10][15]

2012 production

For 2012 the Mystery plays returned to the Ferdinand Kingsley,[17][18] and Lucifer/Satan by Graeme Hawley.[19] Reviews for the production were generally positive, with praise for the spectacle and stage design as well as the efforts of the volunteers.[20][21]

2016 production

A major production in the Minster, as in 2000, is taking place in 2016. [22]

The Waggon Plays

An experimental production using horse-drawn brewers’ drays and market stalls, was performed around Leeds University, in 1975.

In 1994 the Leeds-based historian Jane Oakshott worked alongside the Friends of York Mystery Plays, the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and the York Early Music Festival to direct in York the first processional performance of the plays in modern times. This production involved nine amateur drama groups each taking one of the plays, and touring it to five playing stations in central York using pageant waggons.[10][23]

A production in a similar format in 1998 featured eleven of the plays, and for the first time the modern York Guilds were involved for some of the plays, either directly or as sponsors of performances.[24]

Following the large scale production in York Minster in 2000 the Waggon Plays were the only regular cycle performed in the city until 2012 when the static plays were revived. The waggon Plays also used the Museum Gardens As one of the stations for performances during this period, maintaining the link between St Mary's Abbey and the Plays established in the 1950s.

For the 2002 production overall management transferred to a committee of the Guilds of York: The York Guild of Building, The Company of Merchant Taylors, The Company of Cordwainers, The Gild of Freemen, The Company of Butchers, The Guild of Scriveners and The Company of Merchant Adventurers. Ten plays were offered, again with the assistance of local drama groups.[25]

In 2006, twelve waggons performed in the streets, in conjunction with the York Early Music Festival.[26] Two complementary collections of images of this production: 'wide angle' and 'zoomed in'

The 2010 production again featured twelve waggons, performing at four stations.[27] At the same time the only known surviving manuscript of the plays was on display at York Art Gallery[28]

Two plays (Creation and Noahs Ark) were performed on waggons at two stations as part of the York 800 celebrations in 2012.

The performances on waggons were once again brought forth by the Guilds in 2014 continuing the established four yearly cycle.[29]

Language in modern productions

In general, modern performances of the plays use some degree of modernisation of the text, either by a radical policy of replacing all obsolete word and phrases by modern equivalents, or at least by using modern pronunciations. An exception is the productions of the Lords of Misrule, a dramatic group[30] composed of students and recent graduates of the Department of Medieval Studies at the University of York.[31] Their presentations use the authentic Middle English both in the words used and in their pronunciation. They have regularly contributed one of the waggon play productions.[23][24][25]


The unaltered Middle English text

  • The first publication was that of Toulmin Smith in 1885.[3] This was republished in 1963 and again in 2007.
  • A century later Richard Beadle felt the time was ripe for re-examination of the manuscript, and he published a facsimile edition.[32]
  • Beadle also published a transcription of the text with notes and glossary.[33] This included many minor amendments to Toulmin Smith's work, but no major surprises.
  • Beadle's 1982 text has been put on-line at the University of Michigan[34] and at the University of Virginia[35] Because this has been constrained to use a modern alphabet, the obsolete letters thorn and yogh, which are correctly reproduced in the printed version, here appear as "th" and "yo" respectively.
  • More recently Beadle has revised and enhanced his work into two volumes, the first containing an introduction, the text and musical settings accompanying the plays[36] and the second containing notes, glossary and discussion.[36]

Edition in modern spelling

  • The version of Beadle and King[1] contains a transcription of 22 of the plays into modern spelling. This is not unambiguously a benign process; where the modernisation involves the loss of a syllable it has just been dropped, which in general damages the scansion, for example is the Middle English word "withouten", which in this edition appears as "without". The Middle English ending "-and" for the present participle has been changed to the modern equivalent "-ing", but retained where the "-and" was required for a rhyme.

Modernised editions

  • The first complete full modernisation was that of J. S. Purvis.[11][13]
  • A more recent complete modernisation is that of Chester N. Scoville and Kimberley M. Yates[37] in Toronto.

Adaptations and related plays


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b The York Realist
  6. ^ The Guilds of York – York Mystery Plays site
  7. ^
  8. ^ York Mystery Plays musician and York Minster organist Allan Wicks has died, York Press, 11 February 2010.
  9. ^ Alan Strachan, Joseph O'Conor obituary, The Independent, 2 February 2001
  10. ^ a b c d e f
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ Purvis as Head of Borthwick Institute
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ [1] YAYAS
  15. ^ a b York Millennium Mystery Plays: Programme
  16. ^ York Mystery Plays 2012 website
  17. ^ York Press 24 May 2012
  18. ^ BBC News North Yorkshire
  19. ^ York Press 29 May 2012
  20. ^ York Mystery Plays 2012 review in The Stage
  21. ^ Guardian – The Northerner – York Mystery Plays 2012 review
  22. ^ York Press announces 2016 production
  23. ^ a b York Mystery Plays '94: Souvenir Programme
  24. ^ a b York 1998 Mystery Plays: Programme
  25. ^ a b York Mystery Plays: 2002 Programme
  26. ^ York Mystery Plays: 2006 Programme
  27. ^ schedule for 2010 plays
  28. ^ Original manuscript of York Mystery Plays on show at York Art Gallery at
  29. ^
  30. ^ Lords of Misrule
  31. ^ Centre for Medieval Studies
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ Beadle's original text at Michigan
  35. ^ Beadle's original text at Virginia
  36. ^ a b
  37. ^ Text of the York Cycle – modern English – Scoville & Yates
  38. ^ Minghella
  39. ^ York Press 29 June 2011
  40. ^ York Press 7 July 2011
  41. ^ British Theatre Guide

External links

  • National Centre for Early Music, York
  • History of the City of York with modern watercolour used for 2012 plays
  • [2] The Guilds' site of the cycle of Plays they perform on waggons
  • The website of the Theatre Royal's Mystery Plays 2012
  • York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust
  • A computer simulation of the pageant
  • location of 2000 Mystery Plays
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