The Chester Mystery Plays originated in the 14th century, nearly 700 years ago...
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 wagons. Each wagon 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.
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 wagons, 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.
The Modern Revival
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. Current chairman is Jo Sykes, company secretary Ian Sanderson, financial director Edward Austin.
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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.