Adventures of the Cordwainers
I have often been asked why I am so interested in the Chester Mystery Plays and the answer is pretty simple. I’m a Freeman of Chester and when the Plays ceased to be performed within the Abbey precincts (now Chester Cathedral), it was the Freemen and Guilds that continued to stage them - they were the only group with the money and organisation to do this.
The Plays, previously in Latin, were now performed in English, so more people could be involved. They were presented on pageant wagons at different locations throughout the city and as one play ended the next arrived. Some of the companies took the opportunity to have a dig at the local government administration over unpopular decrees.
Each company of Guildsmen, except for the Joiners, had their own play. The Joiners’ job was to construct the wagons on which the plays were performed. These consisted of two levels - the lower for the actors to change and keep their props and the higher one for performing their play. Think of the Rows in Chester and you can imagine what a good view the crowds had.I belong to the oldest of the Chester Companies, the Cordwainers. We made fine shoes out of kidskin. In our accounts from the 1540s we listed the expenses for our play, starting with paying the Town Crier for the Reading of the Banns, which ordered the Freemen to perform the plays at Whitsuntide.
The Cordwainers had a good time, with bills for wine, beer, cheese and bread for consumption after rehearsals. We also paid for two and a half yards of flaxen cloth for Mary Magdalene’s costume. One unusual item was payment to the actors playing God and Jesus, who had their faces gilded. It’s believed that this practice was unique to Chester.
The plays, banished in the later 1500s, were reintroduced in 1951 and are now produced every five years.They are a real community undertaking - great fun to be involved with and amazing to watch.
Nowadays I’m on the Chester Mystery Plays Company Board, and am the first of three generations in my family to take part in the production. I was in the plays while at school and again in the 1990s. My granddaughter is in this year’s cycle - she’s the youngest in the cast. If she lives as long as my father did - to 101 - just think how many cycles she could experience!