The History of the York Mystery Plays: part 2

In the second of her two posts about the York Mystery Plays, Ilka Heale uses contemporary texts to learn more about the history and development of the tradition.



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 1376, by which time the use of pageant wagons had already been established.

At least 48 individual plays would be performed in York. According to civic records for 1399, the day began at 4.30 in the morning with parades through the streets on wagons stopping at twelve special places on the streets, designated by the city banners. The route was just over a mile long. It took them down Micklegate where there were four stations, across Ouse Bridge, down Coney Street, up Stonegate and ending at Pavement.

From Eboracum by Francis Drake, 1736, titled 'Extract out an order for the regulation of the play of
Corpus Christi; dated the 7th day of June 1417'.
The extract above from Eboracum: or the history and antiquities of the city of York …. by Francis Drake, 1736 (Appendix, pg xxxii) shows the route of the 1417 Corpus Christi plays. Indeed this map also from his major two volume work on the history of York show the layout of the street pattern has hardly changed since 1417.


The plays were organised, financed (and often performed) by the York Craft Guilds. In medieval England, the word 'mystery' meant 'trade' or 'craft', and it also refers to a religious truth or rite - hence the name Mystery Plays.

Below is a photograph of The oath of the new brethren of the Merchant Adventurers of the City of York which is part of the Raymond Burton Yorkshire collection housed in the Library's Special Collections. The collection is centred around Yorkshire and ranges from Edwards of Halifax bindings with fore-edge paintings to early writings about Dick Turpin; and from a fine presentation copy of J. Tickell's, The history of the town and county of Kingston upon Hull (1796) to chapbooks of James Kendrew, an early 19th century York printer.


The inscription at the bottom of the oath reads "Wm. Brown admitted to his Freedom of the Com[pany] of the Merchant Adventurers of the City of York. by Servitude this 20th. day of Aprl. 1813. ... [signed] J. Ward Sec[retar]y."

Each guild would perform a play, often one that was most fitting to their members. For example, the marriage of Cana, where Christ turned water into wine, would be acted out by the vintners. More morbid associations included the metal pinners nailing Christ to the cross and the butchers who performed the death of Christ.

Below is an extract from Tomlin's transcript of the Ashburnham Manuscript in the original Middle English. The Guild of Shipwrights performed the building of Noah's Ark


Compare this with the extract below which is a modernised version of the same text.

The opening to the Story of Noah,
performed by the Guild of Shipwrights.

This extract is taken from 'The York cycle of mystery plays: a complete version' by JS Purvis. Cannon Purvis wrote the first modern script for the plays from the original Middle English for the 1951 revival of the York Mystery Plays. This was a shorter version to be performed in under three hours and was published in the same year as 'The York cycle of mystery plays: a shorter version of the ancient cycle'. In 1957, the text was expanded to include a complete version of the plays. From 1953-1963, he was the first Director of the Borthwick Institute and his archive is deposited with the Borthwick Institute for Archives.



This extract from 'The York mystery plays' is the first few lines of the modernised text for the 1951 plays. Found in our collections, there is little information in the book, but we can assume that this is a playscript for the plays written by Cannon Purvis for the York Festival Society. Incidentally, the playscript was donated to the Library from JB Morrell (yes, you are right in thinking that our Morrell Library is named after him. For more details, see the information board by the main entrance).

Along with the text, there are many references to music in the plays.

This is a page of music from 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. These six settings of music with Latin texts are to be performed as part of the Weavers pageant of The Assumption of the Virgin.

Music plays an important role but it is used in a different manner to music in modern drama. In contemporary drama, it works as 'incidental music', a way of highlighting the emotional content. However, medieval music has a functional role and is used to convey the beginning or ending of a play, to accompany entrances, exits and processions within a play as well as the spectacular stage effects of ascents and descents. Music is also used for a symbolic purpose. Heaven would be symbolised by the high voices and pure harmonies of the angels, with Hell using dissonance to create the chaos of evil.

For more information on medieval music, see our collection of books and scores in the John Paynter room in the Fairhurst Building, along with Music in the English mystery plays at MA 62 DUT.

York Historic Pageant souvenir by Charles Eyre Pascoe.
Shelfmark: Raymond Burton Yorkshire 12.32
The tradition of pageants and wagons was reintroduced in 1909. The York Historic Pageant included a parade of the banners of the Guilds through the streets, accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity. The York Pageant was a six day dramatic re-enactment of York's history from 800BC to 1644 which took place in the grounds of St Mary's Abbey at York. It was intended that 'the York Pageant represent by dramatic means a continuous history of York from the earliest times down to the siege of York in 1644'.

The York Pageant Music by James Rhoades & T. Tertius Noble.
Shelfmark: Special Collections Quarto LM 25 NOB

Thomas Tertius Noble (1867-1953) was the organist of York Minster from 1898 until 1913. He was responsible for the music in the York Pageant of 1909, composing some of it and directing the performances.

For a list of material on the York Mystery plays, please search YorSearch (the Library 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 our own University photographer, Paul Shields, from the Library's collection of books on York Mystery plays.

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