About the Plays
Keeping History Alive and Well
The Chester Mystery Plays form a spectacular festival presented mainly by members of the local community under professional direction. This rare production has become a much anticipated highlight in the British arts calendar, attracting people from all over the world. One of the largest community events in the UK, hundreds of enthusiasts of all ages from throughout the area make up the cast, crew and the support teams working in administration/marketing and front of house.
The Chester Mystery Plays are performed in Chester every five years, with the most recent production being in 2018 in the nave of Chester Cathedral and the next full production being planned for 2023. Given the difficulties of the last couple of years we really need your support, so…
Mysteries or Miracles?
The word mystery comes from the French mystère meaning craft, and apprentices joined the guilds to learn their mystery or craft. When the guildsmen began dramatising the Bible stories, their plays thus became known as Mysteries. The long-standing discussion about the origin of the word is explored in this article in The Spectator.
Mystery Plays were created all across Europe from the 13th century as a means of celebrating the stories of the Old and New Testaments for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Other famous Mystery Play “Cycles” in England were written in Coventry, York and Wakefield. The scripts, as in the case of the Chester Cycle, were often written by medieval monks. Originally performed inside the churches, from the 14th century they were produced by Crafts Guilds and performed in the open streets and market places on pageant carts ("waggons"). The mounting of the Plays in the nave of Chester Cathedral in 2013 was the first time in hundreds of years that they had been performed inside a church, and it was the first time they had ever been produced inside the cathedral nave itself. Performed by local people, both scripts and performances changed each year to remain current and have popular appeal.
The production of the Plays, so important to the local community, was suppressed during the Reformation and the last recorded performance prior to the 20th century revival was in 1575.
The Chester Mystery Plays originated in the 14th century
700 years ago church services were conducted in Latin and the monks at the Abbey of St Werburgh (now Chester Cathedral) enacted stories from the Bible to help those who couldn't otherwise follow or understand. Eventually this proved too disruptive and the plays were moved outside, after which individual companies of Chester Guilds adopted them. For example, the Grocers, Bakers and Millers performed The Last Supper, and the Ironmongers undertook The Crucifixion. Twenty-three of the ancient company guilds survive in Chester today. You will find the full list of original guilds on our sponsorship page HERE.
The Freemen and Guilds of Chester, a united group of trade companies, had been in existence for more than 100 years by then. A powerful force in the city, they protected the interests and welfare of fellow merchants and craftsmen while playing a major part in social, political and economic life. Their influence extended to organising major events, one of which became Chester Mystery Plays.
Medieval street theatre - The guilds staged the plays on open pageant ‘waggons’. Each waggon trundled through the streets to ‘stations' where the audience gathered. The first station was outside Abbey Gate - audiences today pass through the same place to see the modern version of the plays. The medieval route continued down Northgate to the Cross then along Watergate, cutting next into Bridge Street then Eastgate.
In those times all parts were performed by men or boys, and the waggons were often preceded by a mischievous cavorting procession, to the delight of the crowd and the growing disapproval of the Church.
The Mystery Plays tapestry quilt by B.J. Elvgren
The Plays Across Europe
Simultaneously in Europe there arose the French mystère, German Mysterienspiel, Italian Sacra Rappresentazione and Spanish auto sacramental. Traces of similar plays have been found in Denmark, Russia and states of central Europe. All such Christian epics were in the vernacular, each containing local variations to suit the tastes of the different audiences. The performance of these plays in the vernacular, laced with wit and humour and staged on lavishly decorated waggons, became the highlight of the Feast of Corpus Christi, later stretching over three days at Whitsuntide.
Few town guilds in medieval Britain were able to afford such pageantry but of those who did, original scripts survive from only five cities, Chester's being the most complete in existence with a near-complete text of 24 plays.
Mystery plays were banned nationally in the 16th century
Although first performed from the 13th century as Cycle Plays by monks or members of the clergy, such direct association of any bawdiness or vulgarity to the Church became frowned upon and this was stopped in the 14th century. The rather less sensitive Guilds took over, but for the post-reformation Protestant Church the Plays and all that went with them were too much to tolerate, and ultimately they were banned. Chester was the last to concede in 1578 and so became the longest-running cycle in medieval times.
The Modern Revival
The Chester Mystery Plays were revived in 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. A full scale production has been produced more or less every five years since, with “miniature” productions of individual plays also having been mounted as part of Chester's summer festival. In 2011, Creation was produced and the 2012 production was the ever-popular Noah’s Flood, and the Passion Plays were a big hit in 2016 and 2017. Keep checking the website (or our Facebook page) for information about future miniature productions.
Chester Mystery Plays Limited, a company with charitable status, was formed in the 1980s with the sole aim of ensuring the active survival of the plays.
If you are interested in the detail of the Plays, an extensive archive of documentation and ephemera has been compiled in collaboration with the University of Chester.
We are working on making this fascinating material available to all via the University's archive portal. The Archive is a work in progress, more is being added as time allows.