The History of the York Mystery Plays: part 1

This year, from Thursday 26 May to Thursday 30 June, the York Mystery plays are being performed at York Minster for only the second time in their 700-year history. In the first of two posts, Ilka Heale highlights some books on the subject in the University Library.




The York Mystery Plays are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight plays or pageants that tell stories from the Bible from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

Also known as the York Corpus Christi Plays, these were traditionally performed in the City's streets on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast which occurs sometime between 23 May and 24 June). There's evidence that the Plays were performed in York from the 1300s for around 200 years before their suppression in 1569, and that they are one of only four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles.

The Plays continued after the Reformation, when in 1548 the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays were adapted to fit the new religious orthodoxy, by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were finally suppressed in 1569 the same year as the Northern Rebellion.

The play cycle was revived 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. Following the great success of the 1951 production selections from the plays have been staged periodically since.

Illustration of a performance of a mystery play in
'Ancient mysteries described, especially the English miracle plays' by William Hone
The earliest manuscript of the York cycle, probably dating between 1463 and 1477, is in the British Library and is known as the Ashburnham Manuscript. Originally belonging to the Corporation of York until 1553, it was later owned by Sir Henry Fairfax, Ralph Thoresby, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Heywood Bright, and Bertram, 5th Earl of Ashburnham (1840-1913). The manuscript was acquired by British Museum from Ashburnham in 1897. A facsimile of the manuscript appears in The York play: a facsimile of British Library MS Additional 35290: together with a facsimile of the Ordo Paginarum section of the A/Y memorandum book.

The plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained the permission of the Earl of Ashburnham to study this manuscript, then in his possession. In 1885, her transcription was published as 'York plays: the plays performed by the crafts of mysteries of York on the day of Corpus Christi in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, now first published from the unique manuscript in the library of Lord Ashburnham' along with an introduction and short glossary.
In the introduction, Toulmin Smith writes "This was the book wherein the plays … were 'registered' by the city officers, and it must have belonged to the corporation. It was in one time in the care of the priory of Holy Trinity in Micklegate, at the gates of which was the first station in the circle of performances through the city as early as 1399."

Illustration of Holy Trinity church taken from Antiquities of York.
Drawn and etched by H. Cave and published in 1813.
For a list of material on the York Mystery plays, please search YorSearch (the University Library's online catalogue) or browse the shelves in our Literature section for MA 62.4 (the shelfmark for York Mystery Plays). In the Library's AV Collection, there are past performances of the mystery plays on DVD and video.

The books are in the University Library's Special Collections and can be consulted in the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

For books on the history of York, please see Q 42.741. Books on English History from 1558-1603, including the Northern Rebellion are at Q 42.055.

You can also find material related to the York Mystery Plays in the York Digital Library.



All photographs have been taken by the University photographer, Paul Shields, from the Library's collection of books on York Mystery plays.

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