ON June 18, 1384, King Richard II visited Coventry and during his stay at Coventry's Priory he
watched Coventry's famed Mystery Plays.
He is but one of many monarchs to have witnessed these marathon events. Many others viewed
the spectacle as this anonymous verse attests:
The plays began life as church dramas performed by the clergy, but the idea was soon taken over
by various craft guilds, who each held pageant houses (store rooms) in various parts of the city.
The earliest mention of one is that of the drapers guild in Little Park Street in 1392.
The Mystery Plays were usually played on Corpus Christi Day, beginning at the break of day with
Creation followed by the Deluge and birth of Christ.
At this point a Mary held the infant in her arms a chorus of Luly Lulay, thou little tiny child, the
Coventry Carol, was sung, a carol in the original sense meaning simply a song.
The plays would be performed by Coventrys various craft guilds on their own pageant wagons,
huge mobile stages on wheels, the top being the stage with the dressing and prop room below.
These were dragged around the city to different locations such as Gosford Street, the corner of
Much Park Street, by New Gate, Broadgate, Cross Cheaping, near Greyfriar Gate, Bishop and
Spon Gates and St Michaels churchyard.
The last play occurred around nightfall. This was Doomsday, the end of the world, when all would
In this there was a huge monstrous head with a massive gaping mouth from which bellowed
smoke and flames.
Occasionally the devil would leap out and grab someone and, amid the roars of the crowd, drag
them screaming through the mouth and into hell.
Doomsday ended spectacularly with a huge model of the world bursting into flames.
One important character in the pageants was Herod, whose character was outrageous, running
around the stage and among the crowds like a madman, brandishing his falchion (sword), crying:
"For I am even he that made both heaven and hell,
And of my might power holdeth up this world round,
Magog and Mandroke, both them did I confound!"
Herod surely confounded many with his ranting and raving. He also left an impression on all who
saw him, including a young Will Shakespeare who later wrote "It out-Herods, Herod" with
reference to over-acting.
Each of the city's craft guilds produced its own section of the Mystery Play, providing costumes
and props at their own expense.
The trial and execution of Christ and the death of Judas were performed by the Smiths, and the
Resurrection and the Harrowing of Hell was performed by the Cardmakers and Cappers.
One favourite place for rehearsal was in the acoustically perfect Saint Mary's Guildhall, a place
which would become a Mecca for actors from the mid 16th century.
Not all those who acted in the plays were craftsmen, for as the mysteries began to get more
popular, actors got more involved.
It is said that these actors painted their faces to enhance their expression to the crowds.
Christ and St Peter wore golden wigs and those who whipped Christ wore leather Buckram
jerkins decorated with nails and dice.
The saved in the Doomsday play wore pure white leather and the doomed wore blackened faces
and yellow clothes painted with flames 'each soon found his or her way into the smoking, flaming
Hell's Mouth assisted by a devil with a wool-filled leather club.
Expenses incurred each year mounted up and some records do survive, including:
Paid for five sheepskins for god's coat and for making . . . three shillings.
Paid for John Croo for mending of Herod's head (vizored mask) and a mitre and other things . . .
Paid to Wattis for dressing of the devil's head . . . eight pence.
Paid for mending Pilate's hat . . . four pence.
The Mystery Plays were one of the greatest events in the Coventry calendar, bringing thousands
into the city.
In 1584, as England became more anti-papist puritanical, many began to call for the end of the
Mystery Plays which smacked of popery.
Others, such as the city's traders, did not wish to lose the event as it brought in vast profits.
It was decided by some to create a more politically correct play to replace the mysteries.
This was written by John Smythe of Oxford and called the Destruction of Jerusalem. It was a
complete failure, being sombre and lacking the humour of the old mysteries.
The last performance allowed of the Mystery cycle was in 1589, but in 1591 the city leet (council)
ordered the Destruction of Jerusalem to be played again.
The Smiths Guild paid 20 shillings to excuse themselves from taking part.
Again the play was a failure and it, with the Mysteries it had replaced, disappeared along with
Coventry's long tradition as a centre of the Mystery plays.
All was not lost, however. Mystery Plays are still performed occasionally in the Cathedral ruins,
The latest being the Belgrade Theatre's 2009 production 'The Mysteries, in our own words'
These are not the original Coventry plays as they are lost; the text called the Ludus Coventriae,
once thought to belong to the Coventry cycle, is now thought to have probably originated in the