The Procession and the Play: Some Light on Fifteenth-Century Drama in Chester

Article excerpt

Although the fifteenth century, based on evidence of the York plays and the work of the so-called Wakefield Master, is popularly viewed as the heyday of cycle drama production, scholars of the Chester plays have long suggested that the drama's structure underwent a major shift in performance format in the first part of the sixteenth century. Lawrence Clopper, for example, states:

Between 1521 and 1532 the play was sufficiently altered that it came to be designated by the plural. The decade 1521-32 proves ... to be of great significance in the history of the cycle.2

The period alluded to here by Clopper comes hard on the heels of the granting of the Great Charter in 1506 - a year which seems to have signaled a rise in civic fortunes for Chester by establishing it as a county in its own right. Indeed, the appearance of the "Early" Banns and the issuing of Newhall's Proclamation (1531-32) during this period indicate nothing less than a reintroduction and reinvention of the Chester "play." In fact, the "cycle," as the dramatic sequence is popularly known to us, with its performances at separate stations, apparently on pageant wagons, on three successive days during Whitsun week, is clearly a creature of this era. While scholars have opted not to speculate about the reasons for the shift in this dramatic activity from Corpus Christi day to Whitsuntide, the ideological import of the shift of this activity to the central day of the Protestant calendar would not have been lost on contemporaries, particularly given the apparent redesign of the cycle around a central Pentecost play including themes of preaching and baptism and concluding with a rendition from Latin to English of the Apostle's Creed.

As I have argued elsewhere, the Whitsun version of the play is clearly designed to accommodate the reformation Protestantism associated with sixteenth-century themes of Henrician centralization. As such, this restructuring of the play represents the deliberate creation of what Tim Thornton and others have referred to as a "culture of community." Thornton argues that, as has been demonstrated in studies of Brittany, so also in Cheshire "a sense of community was deliberately bolstered through literature, inquiries into local rights, saints and the display of arms." Although Thornton harks back to the tradition of the palatinate and its accompanying sense of political autonomy, the corporation's sixteenth-century move to a Protestantized cycle reflects the same preservation efforts seen previously in the "Early" Banns themselves. In these Banns, the citizens, while being informed about the schedule of Whitsun performance, were at the same time assured of the preservation of their then-dear Corpus Christi play:

Also, maister maire of this citie

with all his bretheryn accordingly,

a solempne procession ordent hath he

to be done to the best

appon the day of Corpus Christi.

The blessed Sacrement carried shalbe

and a play sett forth by the clergye

in honor of the fest.8

Anthony D. Smith, whom Thornton also cites/ notes that peoples - or ethnie - in trying to establish community identity, cohere around myths of the past (in the case of Chester, the myth of the palatinate, and the investment by William I of Hugh Lupus with the belt and sword of power ) - and that such myths "coalesce and are edited into chronicles, epics, and ballads, which combine cognitive maps of the community's history and situation with poetic metaphors of its sense of dignity and identity." Here in the Banns, a literal map of the processional route ("from Saynt Maries-on-the-Hill/the churche of Saynt Johns until" ) overlays Smith's cognitive one, as the play becomes an "apt genre" for embracing Chester's past while also reflecting the community's changing identity in the Tudor era.

We can begin our look backwards with some baseline dates. In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Chester officials and antiquarians were engaged in a collective act of historical revisionism embodied not only in such documents as the Breviary of David Rogers, created between 1609-1619, but in copyings of the Whitsun plays themselves which ranged in date from 1591 to 1607. …