The Mystery Plays
The Mystery Plays were a great medieval tradition in York, a way of bringing religious messages to the streets of the City and a huge celebration. They were performed on the day of the great medieval festival of the Feast of Corpus Christi. This fell 60 days after Easter, in May or June.
In the one day, at least 48 individual plays would be performed in York.
The day began at 4.30 in the morning with parades through the streets on waggons. Actors went on to present the great moments of Christian history at 12 special places on the streets, designated by the city banners.
The route took them down Micklegate, across Ouse Bridge, down Coney Street, up Stonegate and ending in St Helen’s Square.
Seating on scaffolding was constructed for wealthier spectators. These included Richard II in 1398.
Each guild would perform a play, often one that was most fitting to their members. So the shipwrights presented the building of Noah’s Ark, and the marriage of Cana where Christ turned water into wine would be acted out by the vintners.
More morbid associations included the metal pinners nailing Christ to the cross and the butchers who performed the death of Christ.
Civic official Roger Burton was the first to write down a list of the Mystery Plays in 1415. This named 51 plays, but the first text of the plays from around 1430-40 only includes 48 plays.
It is known that the plays were being performed as a group in 1376, although there are earlier references to religious performances which predate this.
The main purpose of the Mystery Plays were to glorify God. But it was also a great day out, and the guilds vied with one another to produce the best play. Sometimes artistic temperaments got the better of the performers and the cordwainers, who staged the agony and betrayal of Christ, rioted against the carpenters in 1419 and against the weavers in 1490 and 1492.
The plays were revived in 1951 and they have been re-played periodically ever since.
In August 2012 York Mystery Plays returned to Museum Gardens for the first time since 1988: