...SPECTACLE AND HISTORY, MIRACLES AND MYSTERY
Chester Mystery Plays originated in the 14th century, nearly 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. See full list...

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.
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 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.
Mystery plays were banned nationally in the 16th century. Chester was the last to concede in 1578 and so became the longest-running cycle in medieval times. Revived in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, they have since been staged every five years.


See the full original texts of the Chester Mystery Plays

Courtesy of Gerard NeCastro's website - "From Stage to Page"
University of Maine at Machias, USA

The Chester Cycle of Mystery Plays
Twenty-three of the ancient company guilds survive in Chester today.

The scripts were assembled by monastic scholars at the Abbey of St Werburgh. The Antichrist plays and Balak & Balam are special to the Chester cycle. Our Lady's Assumption, a play by the Worshipful Wives of Chester (not guild members) was subsequently lost.
 
Records dated 1540 list 26 plays:
THE FALL OF LUCIFER - Barkers, Tanners
THE CREATION OF THE WORLD - Drapers, Hosiers
NOAH & HIS SHIP - Waterleaders, Drawers in the Dee
ABRAHAM & ISAAC - Barber Surgeons, Waxchandlers
BALAK & BALAM - Cappers, Wiredrawers, Pinners
THE NATIVITY - Wheelrights, Slaters, Tylers, Daubers, Thatchers
THE SHEPHERDS - Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers
KING HEROD (ADORATION OF THE MAGI) - Vintners
THE THREE KINGS - Mercers, Spicers
SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS - Goldsmiths, Masons
PURIFICATION OF OUR LADY - Smiths, Forbers, Pewterers
THE TEMPTATION & WOMAN TAKEN INTO ADULTERY - Butchers
RAISING OF LAZARUS - Glovers, Parchment-makers
THE COMING OF CHRIST TO JERUSALEM - Corvisars
THE LAST SUPPER - Grocers, Bakers, Millers
THE SCOURGING OF CHRIST - Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers, Coopers, Turners
THE COMING OF ANTICHRIST - Dyers
THE CRUCIFIXION - Ironmongers, Ropers
HARROWING OF HELL - Cooks, Tapsters, Ostlers, Innkeepers
THE RESURRECTION - Skinners, Plastercard-makers, Hatters, Painters, Girdlers
CASTLE OF EMMAUS & THE APOSTLES - Saddlers
THE ASCENSION - Tailors
WHITSUNDAY MAKING OF THE CREED - Fishmongers
PROPHETS BEFORE THE DAY OF DOOM - Shermen
ANTICHRIST - Hewsters, Bellfounders
THE LAST JUDGEMENT - Weavers, Walkers
Mystery or Miracle Plays?
A play that dramatises an episode from the Old or New Testament is called a mystery; one that dramatises the life of a saint is a miracle.
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 Mystery Plays tapestry quilt by B.J. Elvgren
Artist BJ Elvgren's charming focus on Chester Mystery Plays and the city itself made the tapestry a US national prize-winner before the Chester Mystery Plays company acquired it to present to Chester Cathedral in 1997, since when it has been seen by thousands of people.
In the cathedral a short stroll from Abbey Gate where the original medieval dramas were first performed, and close to the site where the plays are staged today, this striking exhibit makes an apt commemoration of one of the most treasured parts of Chester's cultural heritage.

A postcard of the tapestry became a best-seller in the cathedral shop. BJ continues her work at her studio in Virginia, USA.
Quilt in full