When Coventry's plays were fit for a king
It is a Thursday in June, the Feast of Corpus Christi, and between the cobbles and the eaves of Gosford Street the procession of Coventry pageants is gathering at its first station.
There are 10 pageants in all, covering the story of the world from Creation to Doomsday, and each is a source of pride to the craft guild that has created it – from the Shearmen and Tailors with their account of the Nativity, to the Weavers telling the story of the child Jesus and the doctors in the Temple, and the Drapers presenting their extravagantly-mounted Doomsday play.
The streets are buzzing with excited crowds. Corpus Christi marks the beginning of an eight-
day annual fair in Coventry and local people in festive mood have been joined by thousands more revellers drawn from near and far by the spectacle, a beguiling
mixture of the sacred and profane.
Other cities, like York and Chester, boasted mystery plays, but none enjoyed a greater level of royal patronage. Henry V and VI both saw them – the latter’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, making a special visit to see them in 1457, after which she and her entourage dined on "three hundred loaves, a pipe of red wine, a dozen fat capons, pippins, oranges and a pot of green ginger".
Richard III was a spectator at Corpus Christi in June 1485, just two months before meeting his death at Bosworth. A year later, his conqueror, Henry VII was in the audience.
Henry VIII, a man with a great love of theatre, came to Coventry in 1511 with his wife Katherine of Aragon to see them, as did his daughters Mary – who in 1526 saw a special performance of the Mercers’ play, which depicted the later life of the Virgin Mary – and Elizabeth, who in August 1565 watched four plays, surrounded by her entourage and respectful crowds, in Earl Street in the heart of the city.
Of the men who wrote, performed and produced these plays, we have only tantalising glimpses. In 1523 Japheth Borseley, although a member of a prominent family of Coventry cappers, was granted leave to take a role in the Weavers play, a clear case of having the
Contrast him with poor John Careles, a weaver jailed for his radical views but released in June 1556 to perform in the guild’s play. Afterwards, he was sent in chains to London, where he died in prison and his body was "cast on a dunghill".
In the 1450s the Smiths Guild employed Thomas Colcow, a skinner, to organise their pageant for them. In the 1530s, Robert Crow, the most prominent impresario of the Coventry mysteries, re-wrote the Weavers’ and the Shearman and Tailors’ plays.
By Crow’s time, the writing was on the wall for the Coventry mystery plays. In an increasingly Protestant and anti-theatrical city, it became harder and harder to justify the lavish staging of plays associated with a Catholic tradition. Traditionalists like the master upholsterer Thomas Massey fought a rearguard action to preserve them but the last complete cycle of the plays was performed in 1579.
The Shearmen and Tailors’ Nativity play is the only one to have survived in any substantive form, and its blend of earthy humour and raw emotion allows us to see the characters as medieval audiences would have seen them – querulous and ridiculous Joseph, comic shepherds and a ranting, violent Herod.
Those characters may well have made a deep impression on one young audience member from the sixteenth century. In Hamlet,Shakespeare’s sweet prince mocks an actor in Elsinore whose ranting style, he says, "out-Herods Herod".
Could that have been a memory lodged in the mind of a writer who as a boy had seen the plays performed, not 20 miles from his native Stratford?