ANCIENTLY PERFORMED BY THE INCORPORATED COMPANIES OF NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE.
The religious dramas called Corpus Christi plays were long a favourite amusement
in England. Gregory Nazianzen, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the fourth century
composed plays from the Scriptures, one of which, called Christ's Passion, is extant.
Menestries thinks that the Mysteries were introduced among us by the pilgrims who
went to the Holy Land. Warton adds that the clergy presented them, in order to
displace the profane mummeries exhibited at fairs by buffoons; and that monks were
the first performers. (fn. 1) Spelman observes that the play of St. Catherine, made in
1100, is among the first known. The first trace of theatrical representation in England is recorded by Matthew Paris, who says that, in 1110, Geoffrey, a learned Norman, master of the school of the abbey of Dunstable, and author of the above play,
had it acted by his scholars. Fitz-Stephen, writing in 1174, says, that "London, for
its theatrical exhibitions, has religious plays, either the representations of miracles
wrought by holy confessors, or the sufferings of martyrs." The earliest notices,
however, which we meet with of the performance of Mysteries by trading societies,
are those concerning the religious guild or fraternity of Corpus Christi at York,
which was obliged annually to perform a Corpus Christi play. These religious entertainments were, according to Drake, instituted about the year 1250; though, as
Hone observes, English interludes were at least contemporaneous with the ceremony
of the Boy Bishop, which was exhibited at Heaton near Newcastle, on December 7,
The Chester plays, ascribed to Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk, appear to
have been first performed there in the year 1328, at the expense of the incorporated
trades of that city, with a thousand days of pardon from the Pope, and forty days
of pardon from the Bishop of Chester, to all who attended the representation. The
society of parish clerks of London were peculiarly eminent in this species of performance. On the 18th, 19th, and 20th of July, 1390, they played interludes at the
Skinner's Well, before King Richard II. his queen, and their court; and at the same
place, in 1490, they played the Creation of the World, and subjects of the like kind,
for eight successive days, to splendid audiences of the nobility and gentry from all
parts of England. The Coventry Mysteries appear to have been written in the year
1416, concerning which, Dugdale relates, in his History of Warwickshire, published
in 1656, that, "Before the suppression of the monasteries, this city was very famous
for the pageants that were play'd therein, upon Corpus Christi day (one of their ancient faires), which occasioning very great confluence of people thither from far and
near, was of no small benefit thereto: which pageants (were) acted with mighty state
and reverence by the Grey Friers."
The earliest mention of the religious ceremony of Corpus Christi play and procession in Newcastle upon Tyne, occurs in the ordinary of the Coopers' Company, dated
January 20, 1426; though the great popularity of these exhibitions, at York and
other places, must have induced the clergy, merchants, and incorporated trades of
that town, to adopt them long before this time. There can be little doubt but that
the several trades strove to outvie each other in the splendour of their exhibitions.
The company of Merchant Adventurers were concerned in the representation of five
plays, (fn. 2) The Hoastmen, Drapers, Mercers, and Boothmen, had probably each one.
"Hoggmaygowyk" was the title of one of their plays, the representing of which, in
1554, cost £4, 2s. This company, in 1480, made an act for settling the order of their
procession on Corpus Christi day. About the year 1578, the Corpus Christi plays
seem to have been on the decline; for the ordinary of the Millers, dated that year,
says, "Whensoever the generall plaies of the town shall be commanded by the
mayor," &c, they are to play "the antient playe of," &c. Similar expressions are
used in the ordinary of the House-Carpenters in 1579, in that of the Masons in 1581,
and also in that of the Joiners in 1589. (fn. 3) Weaver, in his Funeral Monuments, says,
that these plays were finally suppressed, in all towns of the kingdom, about the beginning of the reign of James I.
The only vestige that remains of the Newcastle Mysteries was preserved by
Bourne. It is entitled, "Noah's Ark, or the Shipwrights' ancient Play, or Dirge,"
wherein God, an angel, Noah and his wife, and the devil, are the characters. Brand
says he sought in vain in all the archives of the several societies in that town for another; and observes that, after the Reformation, they were probably destroyed as
reliques of popish superstition.