In medieval York the Mystery Plays were an expression of civic piety on the Corpus Christi festival. The Creation to Last Judgement narrative was paraded through the streets on waggons as actors presented the great moments of Christian history at twelve playing stations designated by the city banners.
The Lord Mayor and Aldermen made the decision for the performance to take place, but the Guilds shouldered the economic and practical burdens of getting this show of up to 48 waggons on the road. This was both an act of worship and ‘community theatre’ for the entertainment of locals and visitors alike, honouring God, reflecting honour on York and allowing the Guilds to display their corporate identity.
The Plays survived the 1548 abolition of the Corpus Christi festival, but although episodes honouring the Virgin were cut to appease anti-Catholic opponents, the year 1569 saw the last medieval production. The final curtain was inevitable as, one by one, traditions associated with the old religion were removed from the calendar. The Corpus Christi waggons were not seen again until 1909 when the Angels and Shepherds of the Nativity, accompanied by a procession of actors bearing heraldic banners to represent the ancient guildsmen, appeared in the York Historic Pageant.
Although the Mystery Plays were revived to great acclaim in the 1951 York Festival of the Arts, they were performed on a fixed stage in the Museum Gardens and it was not until 1954 that a waggon play ‘The Flood’ was offered in the streets. ‘The Flood’ is memorialised in the central panel of the stained glass window in the restored Guildhall; this was the beginning of an ongoing tradition.
Up to 1988 a single waggon (sometimes two) was seen in the York festivals, often a ‘school play’ offered by Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, an establishment that was in a sense a ‘fraternity’ with some similarities to the medieval Guilds. The stability of the school infrastructure and the presence of energetic staff with an interest in local heritage were a firm foundation for continuity.
The modern Guilds of York, heirs to the original Mystery Plays presenters, were formally associated with a waggon production for the first time in 1998. In 2002 they took charge of the production themselves, an historic event that saw the modern waggons repatriated within the community more fully than they had been before. In 2006, 12 waggons rolled through the streets with the blessing and the support of the City Council and the Early Music Festival, a triumphant reflection of the hard work of the Guilds, whose future is again intertwined with that of the Plays.
- Dr Margaret Rogerson, a Patron