Chester Mystery Plays

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Engraving depicting an early Chester Mystery Play

The Chester Mystery Plays is a cycle of mystery plays dating back to at least the early part of the 15th century.


A record of 1422 shows that the plays took place at the feast of Corpus Christi and this appears to have continued until 1521. Plays on Corpus Christi Day in 1475 included 'The trial and flagellation of Christ' and 'The Crucifixion'. The plays were then expanded into a three-day cycle on Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. In the years between the plays there was the Chester Midsummer Watch Parade instead.

The plays are based on biblical texts, from creation to the Last Judgement. They were enacted by common guildsmen and craftsmen on mounted stages that were moved around the city streets, with each company or guild performing one play.

Prior to the event the Crier read out these banns: "The Aldermen and stewards of evrie societie and Companie draw youselves to your said severall companies according to Ancient Customme and soe to appear with your said severall Companies everie man as you are Called upon paine that shall fall thereon". Such early banns exhorted each company to perform well.

Under Queen Elizabeth I the plays were seen as 'Popery' and banned by the English Church. Despite this a play cycle was performed in 1568 and the cathedral paid for the stage and beer as in 1562. They were performed again, over four days, in 1575. This resulted in the mayor, when he retired from his office, being taken to the Star Chamber in London to answer allegations against him, but with the support of the council (or assembly) he was freed.

The most well-known of the Chester plays relates the story of Noah and the Great Flood, traditionally acted by the Drawers of Dee (watercarriers). In it, Noah and his sons load up the provisions and the animals while his wife gossips with the neighbours. Noah urges her to hurry aboard, "The flood comes in fleeting fast; On every side it speadeth full fare; For fear of drowning I am agast; Good gossip, let us draw near". But Noah's wife keeps on drinking and gossipping until, eventually, the sons carry her onto the ark by force. At the end of the play, God provides a rainbow as a token that mankind has had enough punishment for its sinful deeds.

Revival in the 20th century[edit]

The stage for the 2008 Chester Mystery Plays: A view of Cathedral Green which has been taken over for the time being for the production of the 2008 Chester Mystery Plays. This view is from the city walls and the raked seating area is on the right.

The plays were revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain,[1] and are presented in the city of Chester, England, every five years. The 2018 run of plays begins on 27 June at Chester Cathedral, and runs nightly until 14 July. Performances are every evening at 7.30pm with matinees on June 30, July 7 and July 14 at 1pm.

Revival in the 21st century[edit]

Under the direction of Dr. Jeff Dailey, the American Theatre of Actors in New York City performed the penultimate play, "The Coming of Antichrist," in August, 2017. Details and a video may be found on this website:


In the 20th century, the Noah's Flood play was set operatically by both Benjamin Britten (Noye's Fludde) and Igor Stravinsky (The Flood).

The Mysteries is an adaption by the poet Tony Harrison, principally based upon the Wakefield Cycle, but incorporating scenes from the York, Chester and N-Town canons, first performed in 1977 at the National Theatre, and again revived in 2000 as a celebration of the millennium.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Gordon Emery - Curious Chester (2005) ISBN 1-872265-94-4
  • The Chester Mystery Cycle: A Facsimile of MS Bodley 175, introduction by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Leeds Texts and Monographs Facsimiles, 1 (Leeds, 1973)
  • The Chester Mystery Cycle: A Reduced Facsimile of Huntington Library MS 2, edited by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Leeds Texts and Monographs Facsimiles, 6 (1980)
  • The Chester Mystery Cycle: A Facsimile of British Library Harley MS 2124, edited by David Mills, Leeds Texts and Monographs Facsimiles, 8 (1984)