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THE city of Coventry, within a moderate distance of Stratford upon Avon, was amongst the last places which retained the ancient pageants. Before the Reformation, these pageants, “acted with mighty state and reverence by the friars of this house [the Grey Friars], had theatres for the several scenes, very large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city, for the better advantage of spectators; and contained the story of the New Testament composed into old English rhyme, as appeareth by an ancient manuscript, entitled Ludus Corporis Christi, or Ludus Coventriae.”* Henry W. and his nobles took great delight in seeing the pageants; Queen Margaret, in the days of her prosperity, came from Kenilworth to Coventry privily to see the play, and saw all the pageants played save one, which could not be played because night drew on ; the triumphant Richard III. came to see the Corpus Christi plays; and Henry VII. much commended themt. In these Corpus Christi plays there were passages which had a vigorous simplicity, fit for the teaching of an uninstructed people. In the play of ‘The Creation,” the pride of Lucifer disdained the worship of the angels, and he was cast down—
“With mirth and joy never more to mell.” * Dugdale.
# See Sharp's quotations from the manuscript Annals of Coventry, ‘Dissertation,' page 4.
The pageants thus performed by the Guilds of Coventry were of various subjects, but all scriptural. The Smith's pageant was the crucifixion; and most curious are their accounts, from 1449 till the time of which we are speaking, for expenses of helmets for Herod, and cloaks for Pilate ; of tabards for Caiaphas, and gear for Pilate's wife ; of a staff for the Demon, and a beard for Judas. There are payments, too, to a man for hanging Judas, and for cock-crowing. The subject of the Cappers' pageant was the Resurrection. They have charges for making the play-book and pricking the songs; for money spent at the first rehearsal and the second rehearsal ; for supper on the play-day, for breakfasts and for dinners. The subject of the Drapers' pageant was that of Doomsday; and one of their articles of machinery sufficiently explains the character of their performance—“A link to set the world on fire,” following “Paid for the barrel for the earthquake.” We may readily believe that the time was fast approaching when such pageants would no longer be tolerated. It is more than probable that the performances of the Guilds were originally subordinate to those of the Grey Friars; perhaps devised and supported by the parochial clergy*. But when the Church became opposed to such representations—when, indeed, they were incompatible with the spirit of the age—it is clear that the efforts of the laity to uphold them could not long be successful. They would be certainly performed without the reverence which once belonged to them. Their rude action and simple language would be ridiculed; and, when the feeling of ridicule crept in, their nature would be altered, and they would become essentially profane. There is a very curious circumstance connected with the Coventry pageants, which shows the struggle that was made to keep the dramatic spirit of the people in this direction. In 1584 the Smiths performed, after many preparations and rehearsals, a new pageant, the Destruc
* It is clear, we think, that the pageants performed by the Guilds were altogether different from the “Ludus Coventriæ,’ which Dugdale expressly tells us were performed by the Grey Friars.
We regret that this play, so liberally paid for when compared with subsequent payments to the Jonsons and Dekkers of the true drama, has not been preserved. It would be curious to contrast it with the beautiful dramatic poem on the same subject, by an accomplished scholar of our own day, also a member of the University of Oxford. But the list of characters remains, which shows that the play was essentially historical, exhibiting the contests of the Jewish factions as described by Josephus. The accounts manifest that the play was got up with great magnificence in 1584; but it was not played again until 1591, when it was once more performed along with the famous Hock Tuesday. It was then ordered that no other plays whatever should be performed; and the same order, which makes this concession “at the request of the Commons,” directs “that all the May-poles that now are standing in this city shall be taken down before Whitsunday next, and none hereafter to be set up.” In that year Coventry saw the last of its pageants. But Marlowe and Shakspere were in London, building up something more adapted to that age; more universal: dramas that no change of manners or policies can destroy. The ‘Chester Mysteries,” which appear greatly to have resembled those of Coventry, were finally suppressed in 1574. Archdeacon Rogers, who in his MSS. rejoices that “such a cloud of ignorance” would be no more seen, appears to have been an eye-witness of their performance, of which he has left the following description:--(See Markland’s ‘Introduction to a Specimen of the Chester Mysteries.') “They weare divided into 24 pagiantes according to the côpanyes of the Cittie; and