Shrewsbury Castle

Nigel`s Notes on Shrewsbury Mystery Plays


These notes have been prepared to support the idea of a resurrection of Mystery plays in Shrewsbury. They provide some historic evidence that Mystery plays were written and performed in Shrewsbury and plays were performed in the villages of rural Shropshire from the sixteenth century.

1561 – 1568      Shrewsbury School

Drama flourished under the new headmaster Thomas Ashton, with school productions of Whitsuntide and mystery plays being performed on regular occasions.[1]

On this place (the Quarry) in former days the Salopians exercised themselves in sports and diversions of the age. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth one Aston (Ashton) exhibited several dramatic performances here, some formed upon moral romance and some on scripture history. The place of the exhibition was on top of the rope walk, a bank there cut in the form of an amphitheatre with seats thereon are still visible.[2] These performances were in general acted about Whitsunday and from thence called Whitsun Plays, by some Mysteries[3]. They were probably the first fruits of the English theatre, which, as Mr Walton observes, were in general confined to religious subjects.[4]

The Drapers Company made a donation towards the cost of Whitsuntide plays put on by Thomas Ashton, the headmaster, who was partial to dramatic performance. He made it a rule that, every school day boys in the top form should `declaim and play one Act of Comedy` before going out to play.[5]

In 1565 Julian the Apostle and another performance of Mr Aston`s, the name of which is not mentioned, were performed on the above mentioned spot, in the Quarry, before a large audience, when, (not withstanding much of the gross and ridiculous appeared) the Salopian audience (not so refined and gay as their descendants) listened with admiration and devotion.[6]

The Queen (Elizabeth) came as far as to Coventry, on a journey to Shrewsbury, intending to see one of these performances in the year 1565, but her Majesty not having proper information mistook the time and when she came to Coventry, hearing it was over, returned to London.[7]

1567 – 1599

1567    Two years after, in 1567, a theatrical representation of the Passion of Christ was exhibited in the same place by the aforesaid performer.[8]

1584    On 17th of July, a stage-play was acted in the High Street, near the Apple-Market by the Earl of Essex`s men.[9]

1590    On 24th of July, a scaffold was set up in the Corn-Market, on which a Hungarian, and others of the Queens players, performed several extraordinary feats of tumbling, rope-dancing, &c. Such had never before been seen in Shrewsbury.[10]

1600 – 1700

1600-1700       On land at Kingsland, leased to the borough, horse racing and entertainment took place. Several guilds maintained arbours where they celebrated at the end of the Corpus Christi procession. After some years this became known as Show Day and the dozen or so companies that still had arbours met on the Monday fortnight after Whitsunday, where the Mayor and his attendants are entertained by them and then return into town, in the same order of procession as they went out.[11]

1880 onwards

1884    Rustic Stage Plays in Shropshire[12]

Sir Offley Wakeman, Bart wrote a paper for Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society from which I have extracted the following snippets.

“Most of the readers of the readers of our Transactions are familiar with many of the ancient traditions and customs here and there amongst the hilly district in this county to the west of the Stretton Hills: so far as I am aware, however attention has not yet been called to the performances of open air Stage Plays, which continued to be held in that district in times within the recollection of some yet alive, and are believed by them to date back for many generations.

These plays were generally held in connection with Parish Wakes[13] and there were those still living who could testify to representations having taken place some forty or fifty years ago (1834), at various places within the border parishes of Chirbury, Churchstoke, Hyssington, Shelve and on one occasion at Aston below Worthen, one man stated that a revival was attempted at Hyssington in Montgomeryshire so lately as twenty years ago (1864) but was stopped as he thinks “by the law” All the witnesses agree there was no harm in the plays. One 87 year old man, who as an actor in his youth, agreed “There was no harm in the plays and that acting was a most innocent pastime with no nasty words or anything”. The witnesses and the actor recalled that these were moral plays performed at Churchstoke in May at Shelve in July and Chirbury in October.[14]   They also confirmed that women were not allowed to act, the girls` parts being taken, as in Shakespeare`s day by boys.”

The action was performed on two carts usually outside and connected to the local pub. This is similar to the pageant wagons of York & Chester. The rustic plays of Shropshire were not necessarily based on the Bible but were moral tales of the time. The popular plays in the district were “Prince Mucidorus” “The Rigs of the Times”  “St George and the Fiery Dragon” “Valentine and Orson” and “Dr Foster (Faust)” In all these plays the Fool or Jester is an important character.[15]

1890    The Shrewsbury Fragment

The so-called Shrewsbury Fragment is a surviving part of an early mystery play it is kept in the Moser Library of Shrewsbury School.[16]

Academic analysis shows this does not originate in Shrewsbury but the dialect suggests it is from the north of England, York or Beverley.

It is only a small fragment of a play; it is believed to be a part script for one actor who played three parts.

There are 36 leaves of 14 Latin anthems

There follow three scenes with dialogue in one hand and cues written in another

The Angels and the Shepherds    (Words of third shepherd with cues from second)

The three Marries at the Sepulchere   (Words of third Mary with cues from second) Played by the male actor who plays the third shepherd

Chorus; Dialogue for Cleophas and cues from. a disciple; Jesus; and Luke?

1909    York Mystery Plays revived at an Early Music Festival Played every four years 2018 next due in 2022[17]

1951    Chester Mystery Plays revived as part of the Festival of Britain[18]

1986    Chester Mystery Plays Limited formed as a charitable trust to ensure continuity of the plays.  Played every five years 2018 next due in 2023

2019 Potential date for the performances of Shrewsbury Mystery Plays in various locations around the town.

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