Leisure and culture: Plays, sports and customs before 1700

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.

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J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne, 'Leisure and culture: Plays, sports and customs before 1700', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) pp. 247-255. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp247-255 [accessed 27 May 2024].

J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne. "Leisure and culture: Plays, sports and customs before 1700", in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) 247-255. British History Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp247-255.

Barrow, J S. Herson, J D. Lawes, A H. Riden, P J. Seaborne, M V J. "Leisure and culture: Plays, sports and customs before 1700", A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005). 247-255. British History Online. Web. 27 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt2/pp247-255.

In this section


Plays, Sports, and Customs Before 1700

Chester's celebratory activities in the later Middle Ages and the Tudor period fell into three broad categories. (fn. 1) First, there were formal civic and guild occasions in which the mayor, aldermen, and guildsmen participated in their ceremonial robes, processing or standing in customary hierarchy. They included regular events such as the weekly attendance of mayor and aldermen at church or the election and accounting days of the craft guilds, and special occasions like the visit of a noble or royal personage. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the informal sports, recreations, and pastimes of the populace, often rowdy and even illicit, which at their most disorderly included frequenting brothels and drinking in alehouses. They might involve illegal games such as dice, cards, tables, bowls, and shovelboard indoors (fn. 2) and football outdoors. (fn. 3) The Midsummer bonfires built in 1546 and 1568 may represent the final futile attempts to sustain an old custom. (fn. 4) Cock fighting, and bull and bear baiting at the Cross, (fn. 5) were legal, though condemned by puritans as strongly as the illicit activities. Bowling greens were laid out in the 17th century. (fn. 6) Hawking and greyhound coursing went on in the area around Chester. (fn. 7) Additional entertainment might be had from a procession to execution, usually at the gibbet at Spital Boughton but occasionally by burning. Under the Tudors there were private archery butts in the city, (fn. 8) and public shoots were held on the Roodee, at which practice for children of six years and older was made compulsory in 1539–40. (fn. 9)

Between the two extremes was a range of customary activities which had the features and potential of the informal celebrations but were shaped to fulfil the civic functions of the more formal occasions: the Whitsun plays, the Christmas and Midsummer watches, the Sheriffs' breakfast, the Shrovetide homages, and the licensing of minstrels. Their origins are not all known, but in the Tudor period Cestrians accepted traditions linking them to important events in the city's history, constantly reinvented the exercises, purging them of unacceptable elements, and created new occasions, often of a sporting and competitive character. They were valued in the early 17th century as evidence of the antiquity and continuity of the community of Chester, and as the means of furthering that sense of communal solidarity. (fn. 10)

Objections to indecorous and profane activities on religious and public order grounds increased from the later 16th century. In response, supporters sought new justifications, or modified or abandoned them. At the same time the range of civic celebration was extended through triumphs and shows sponsored by private citizens, and plays produced by touring professional companies or the boys of the King's school, making Chester familiar with large-scale visual spectacle, the developments of Elizabethan theatre, and classical drama. As a result, the identity of specifically local communal culture was undermined.

The Civil Wars and Interregnum increased the pressures, interrupting the city's celebratory cycle, but significantly the city sought to revive its celebrations after 1660. Chester seems to have clung to its customary practices more tenaciously than most other English cities, apparently needing to reassure itself in times of difficulty about a past which it imagined as more glorious and prosperous. The resurgence was artificial and brief: revived for sentimental reasons or as tourist spectacles to promote trade, the observances generally lacked their former social and economic functions, and most were discontinued during the later 17th or early 18th century.

The Chester Plays

Corpus Christi Procession and Play

By the early 15th century and perhaps by 1399 Chester was clearly celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi (varying according to the date of Easter within the period 23 May to 24 June) with a procession escorting the consecrated Host through the streets. (fn. 11) The city companies or craft guilds were required to process and to provide a light, presumably a large shielded candle. In the 1470s the guilds processed in a set sequence, as on other civic occasions, from St. Mary's church to St. John's, (fn. 12) sites associated in earlier centuries with the earl of Chester and the bishop of Lichfield. (fn. 13)

The earliest reference to a play performed at Corpus Christi by the city's companies occurs in 1422, (fn. 14) when the Ironmongers' and Carpenters' guilds both sought assistance from the Fletchers and the Coopers in putting on their Corpus Christi pageant. The inquirers decided that the Fletchers were to continue to be responsible for the Flagellation, the Ironmongers for the Crucifixion, and the Carpenters for an unnamed pageant already assigned to them in what was called 'the original'. In 1429 members of the Weavers' company were assessed for contributions to the lights of Our Lady and Corpus Christi and to the Corpus Christi play each time the light was carried or the play performed. (fn. 15) Similar responsibilities lay with the Bakers c. 1463 (fn. 16) and the Fletchers in 1468. (fn. 17) The problems and burdens which the play and procession presented for the companies were apparent in 1472, when the Saddlers complained of the reluctance of strangers to contribute to the costs incurred by the company in participating. (fn. 18)

The matter for which each guild was responsible was contained in an official document ('the original') and enforced by the city's administration. Nothing is known about the text, the method of production, or the place or places of performance. There was no specific mention of the Corpus Christi play after 1472, although in 1488 a claim was laid against the Cooks and Innkeepers' company for payment for performing the role of the demon in their play; as the claimant was a baker, not an innkeeper, performers were perhaps generally bought in from outside. (fn. 19)

By the early 16th century the civic Corpus Christi play had been replaced by a civic Whitsun play. The Corpus Christi procession and a play performed by the clergy, however, continued perhaps until Corpus Christi was cancelled as a feast of the English Church in 1548. The pre-Reformation banns announcing the Whitsun play indicated that it and the Corpus Christi procession had the authority of the city's governing body, the Assembly. The banns may have been composed to announce the change of date of the civic play from Corpus Christi to Whitsun and reassure the populace that the celebration would continue in its original form. (fn. 20)

Whitsun Play: History

A civic play at Whitsun, 11 days before Corpus Christi, was being performed by the guilds before 1521. (fn. 21) By then the guilds were clearly no longer obliged to contribute to a Corpus Christi play, and the pairing of responsibility for the Whitsun play and the Corpus Christi light strongly suggests that the Whitsun play replaced that at Corpus Christi. In the mid 1520s the Cappers claimed that they had been given responsibility for their play, Balaam and Balaak, by Mayor Thomas Smith (who held office in 1504–5, 1511–12, 1515–16, and 1520–2). Their allegation that they had been promised financial help for the production from the Mercers' company implies that it was a recent responsibility undertaken only with such guarantees. (fn. 22)

A proclamation for the Whitsun play was drawn up by the town clerk, William Newhall, in 1531–2. (fn. 23) It contributed significantly to the myth of the play's origins, (fn. 24) and described it as 'a play and declaration and diverse stories of the Bible, beginning with the Creation and Fall of Lucifer and ending with the general judgement of the world'. It also set out the play's purpose as a mixture of religious edification and civic prosperity: 'not only for the augmentation and increase of the holy and catholic faith of our Saviour Jesus Christ and to exhort the minds of common people to good devotion and wholesome doctrine thereof but also for the commonwealth and prosperity of this city', a claim not, perhaps, without political significance in 1531–2. Its combination of spiritual and civic interests and sanctions against breakers of the peace, together with other details, suggests a possible origin in St. Werburgh's abbey, though responsibility for production clearly rested with the mayor. The proclamation referred to 'plays' in the plural and might suggest that an original single play had been divided into separate parts. It also contained indications that the traditions of performance had not been consistently maintained. A new beginning seems implied, combined with a desire to affirm solidarity with the past. Performance was said, vaguely, to be in Whitsun week, whereas the pre-Reformation banns announced that the play would be performed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of that week. As a three-day production, the play was evidently regarded as a trilogy rather than a single work. If those inferences are valid, then the shift from a one-day to a three-day production may have occurred between 1521 and 1531–2.

Whereas the Corpus Christi play was probably an annual event, the Whitsun play seems to have been less regular. It is unlikely that productions were maintained annually in the political and religious circumstances of the middle and later 16th century.

Both Newhall's proclamation and the postReformation banns for the Whitsun play defended it against expected opposition by an account of its alleged antiquity, its value to Church and town, and its alleged authorship and initiation. (fn. 25) In 1568 there was an 'original book', apparently the authorized version, in the custody of the mayor. (fn. 26) The text, however, had by 1572 been subject to revisions over a period of time, though the corrections had not always been adopted in performance. (fn. 27)

Performances were staged at recognized places in 1568 and on at least two previous occasions. (fn. 28) The penultimate performance took place in 1572 during the mayoralty of John Hankey. By then, opposition to it was mounting, (fn. 29) largely under the leadership of Christopher Goodman, a protestant reformer of national standing and a Cestrian by birth who had returned to the city in 1571. He lobbied the mayor, the president of the Council of the North, and the archbishop of York, apparently with the support of fellow preachers, and accused the bishop of Chester, William Downham, of supine acquiescence and the mayor's supporters of intimidation. (fn. 30) Accordingly, the archbishop sent an inhibition to prevent the production but it arrived too late and the plays were performed at Whitsun 1572. (fn. 31) Goodman reported the disobedience to the archbishop and complained of the treatment of those 'honest men' who, on conscientious grounds, had refused to pay their contribution towards the production and had been imprisoned. (fn. 32) The mayor was later called before the privy council to explain his responsibility in the decision. (fn. 33)

In 1575 the Assembly voted to hold that year's Whitsun play at Midsummer, and authorized the mayor, Sir John Savage, to amend the text after taking appropriate advice, (fn. 34) presumably bearing in mind Goodman's objections to its unscriptural and popish content. The move was probably caused by the threat of plague at Whitsun; when the threat receded preparations were evidently sufficiently advanced to hold a performance. Goodman protested privately to the mayor and publicly in a sermon. (fn. 35) The performance began on the afternoon of Sunday 26 June and ended on the evening of the following Wednesday. (fn. 36) The change of date transferred the play from the liturgical cycle to Chester's carnival period. Not all the plays were performed, some being thought superstitious, (fn. 37) and there was certainly dissent among the citizenry, (fn. 38) partly because the play took place in only one part of Chester, (fn. 39) but also on puritan grounds. (fn. 40)

For ignoring a new inhibition of the archbishop of York, Sir John Savage was summoned before the privy council, but his assurance, supported by a certificate from his successor as mayor, that the decision to perform the play had been taken by the whole council appears to have satisfied the authorities. (fn. 41) Nevertheless, the claim that 'divers others of the citizens and players were troubled for the same matter' suggests that pressure was put upon all who were in any way connected with the production. (fn. 42) There is no evidence of further performances of the play, even though the Cappers, Pinners, Wiredrawers, and Linendrapers later claimed that they were ordered to receive the Bricklayers into their fellowship in 1589 to help carry the costs of the Whitsun plays. (fn. 43)

As in other cities, individual plays from the Whitsun cycle were occasionally performed before visiting dignitaries. In Chester the Assumption of Our Lady, the responsibility of the Worshipful Wives (perhaps a religious guild), was performed at the Cross for George Stanley, Lord Strange, in 1490, (fn. 44) and at the Abbey Gate for Prince Arthur in 1498, in the month of the feast of the Assumption (15 August). (fn. 45) In 1516 it was played with the Shepherds' play in St. John's churchyard, though the occasion is not known. (fn. 46) The play was part of the cycle before the Reformation but was dropped afterwards. The Shepherds' play was put on at the Cross by the mayor for Henry Stanley, earl of Derby, and his son Ferdinando, Lord Strange, during a private visit to Chester in 1577, (fn. 47) the last occasion before the 20th century that a play from the cycle was performed in the city. (fn. 48)

Whitsun Play: Myths of Origin

Official public pronouncements during the 16th century included statements about the authorship and origins of the plays. The constant claim before the Reformation was that they began in the mayoralty of John Arneway, who was later thought to have required a short rehearsal time and the provision of a carriage for each pageant. Until 1594, when errors in the official mayoral lists were revealed and the historical dates of his mayoralty established, Arneway was believed to have been Chester's first mayor. The proclamation of 1531–2 ascribed the text of the plays to a monk of St. Werburgh's, Henry Francis (fl. 1377–82), (fn. 49) but after the Reformation it was ascribed to Ranulph Higden (d. 1364), also a monk of St. Werburgh's and widely known as author of an influential universal history, the Polychronicon. (fn. 50) Higden's historical and Arneway's erroneous dates coincided, making it possible to claim that the cycle was composed and first produced c. 1327. The traditions were without historical foundation, though antiquarians of the late 16th and early 17th century attempted to reconcile them with more certain facts, (fn. 51) and their persistence has fostered the mistaken idea that Chester's plays were the earliest of the English cycles. They nevertheless hint at the possible political functions of the plays. The Arneway connexion linked their origins with the office of mayor, who certainly had complete authority over both the text and the allocation of the individual pageants. (fn. 52) Moreover, the transfer to Whitsun occurred in a period when other forms of civic ceremonial were being developed. Goodman attributed the initiative for the productions of the 1570s to the personal will of the mayors, and the privy council summoned Mayor Savage to answer the charge that he alone was responsible. (fn. 53)

The association with the abbey was less closely definable, but the proclamation asserted the play's Catholicism, and Goodman seems to have had that in mind in his objections. The post-Reformation banns responded to such criticism, defensively linking the play to two of the most famous Cestrians, the supposed first mayor and the abbey's greatest scholar. Higden presumably superseded the largely unknown Francis as a better known, more scholarly, and so more defensible author. The fact that he was a monk was addressed by representing him as a proto-protestant who, at considerable danger to himself, invented the play in order to bring the Scriptures to the people in their own tongue. The banns also emphasized the play's antiquity and stressed its archaic language and the lowly nature of both actors and audiences in the past: it was to be seen, in its original context, as a revolutionary work of which the city should be proud. (fn. 54) A similar view was held by David Rogers, who argued in 1609 (perhaps citing his father, Archdeacon Robert Rogers) that there was no longer need for such plays because the Bible had been translated into English. (fn. 55)

The claims made for the play's origins suggest a continuing civic function - the celebration of the mayoralty - and an occasional politicized religious function, varying according to the religious climate. Those diverse considerations may go some way towards explaining how the myths of origins developed and why the play was defiantly performed in the 1570s. The myths conferred upon Chester's cycle respectable scholarly credentials, implying a priority of text over production and linking the history of the play with that of the city. They reflected or created a pride in the cycle which seems unique to Chester among English towns with play-cycles and probably contributed to the survival of the written text.

Whitsun Play: Content, Text, and Performance

There are three kinds of evidence for the content of the Whitsun play. The first is lists of companies and their plays from the later 16th century; an earlier version may represent the order of guilds in the cycle, since it includes the Worshipful Wives and the title of their play, the only one to be named. (fn. 56) The second is the descriptions of the plays in the pre- and post-Reformation banns, and the third is the eight extant copies of part or all of the text, more than for any other English play-cycle. (fn. 57)

All the complete manuscripts of the cycle were copied long after the last production by men of scholarly pretensions and evident protestant orthodoxy. They derived from a common exemplar, presumably the city's book. (fn. 58) None seems to have been used in a production and all were probably prepared out of antiquarian interest. The manuscripts attest a cycle of 24 plays, of which the Flagellation and Crucifixion was divided into two separate plays in the four earliest manuscripts, recalling the dispute of 1422 about that section of the Corpus Christi play. The cycle has a stylistic uniformity and a thematic and structural coherence which support the view of single authorship or revision at some point in its development. Goodman's claim, however, that the text had been revised over a period of time can also to some extent be substantiated: copyists seem to have found many places in the manuscript where alterations had been made, sometimes not clearly, and had to choose between alternative versions ranging from individual words to a complete play.

The manner of production is known from David Rogers's description. On St. George's Day (23 April) a rider 'published the time and the matter of the plays in brief', accompanied by the stewards of the participating companies, and perhaps also by actors wearing play costume. On the performance dates, each pageant was performed first at the Abbey Gate in Northgate Street and then at the Cross. Rogers saw the route as symbolic of the partnership of Church and city; the clergy watched at the abbey and the mayor and his brethren at the Cross. (fn. 59) Each play moved 'then to Watergate Street, then to Bridge Street, through the lanes, and so to Eastgate Street'. The movement of the carriages was co-ordinated by reports taken from station to station. No single design for the carriages was possible: some plays (for example Noah's Flood) required a special vehicle. When the plays became a three-day production, carriage-sharing agreements were possible among companies playing on different days, like the earliest known, from 1532, involving the Vintners (Day 1, the Three Kings), the Masons and Goldsmiths (Day 2, Massacre of the Innocents), and the Dyers (Day 3, Antichrist). (fn. 60) Such agreements reduced the burden of storing, refurbishing, and dismantling what were clearly enormous and specially designed vehicles. The emphasis in the pre-Reformation banns was upon the spectacular carriages rather than the text.

The companies spent heavily in relation to the plays on food and drink, as well as on payments to actors and the renewal of props and costumes. Choristers from the cathedral and professional musicians were hired. (fn. 61) The cycle required over 200 actors for speaking parts, and if the 'putters' of the carriages and the backup teams are included, it is clear that the celebration involved virtually the entire community.

City Watches And Midsummer Show

Chester's Christmas and Midsummer watches seem to have originated in practical arrangements for defence by the citizens, who were required to possess arms, produce them when required, and swear to defend the city. By the late 16th century the watches were largely ceremonial, traditions about their origins had developed, and they had become another means of manifesting civic hierarchy and promoting the established order.

Christmas Watch

The traditional origins of the Christmas muster of armour were set out in a speech written for the illiterate mayor Robert Brerewood, who learned it by rote and addressed the watch at Christmas 1584, and also by David Rogers c. 1620. (fn. 62) It was supposed to have been established after a Welsh raid on Chester at Christmas, when King William I gave lands to four men charged with defending the city. The responsibility remained with those holding the lands. In the 16th century the watch was charged to safeguard the city against breaches of the peace, but in practice it was simply an occasion for civic banqueting. The participants, usually deputies for the landholders, were required to attend the mayor on the first night of Christmas and the sheriffs on the next two, in order to receive their commission to patrol the streets and protect the city from fire and criminal acts on those evenings. The mayor and sheriffs retired on each evening to banquet. The watch was not observed while the city charter was suspended, but its observance was resumed in 1672, only to fall victim to successive cancellations from 1678 and final abandonment in 1682. (fn. 63)

Midsummer Watch or Show

Chester's second watch was linked to the Midsummer fair, which until 1506 was under the jurisdiction of the abbot of St. Werburgh's. It developed into a great carnivalesque parade, more popular and enduring than the Corpus Christi and Whitsun plays. David Rogers claimed that the show was older than the play, but elsewhere its origins were attributed to the mayoralty of Richard Goodman in 1498–9, when Prince Arthur visited Chester and the north wing of the Pentice was rebuilt. (fn. 64) However, the first contemporary record of the show occurred only in an order of 1564 for the replacement of pageant figures which had evidently been destroyed, (fn. 65) implying that the show had been discontinued and was being revived in its traditional form.

Each guild was required to provide an armed escort, and its members attended the mayor in their gowns on St. John's Eve, where they were summoned by the crier to process in an established sequence from the Northgate round the other town gates, ending at the common hall. Repeated orders by the guilds reflected a reluctance of members to attend and to dress appropriately. In the later 16th century the show was primarily a carnivalesque celebration of the town and its hierarchy, Chester's equivalent of London's lord mayor's show, involving groups of armed men escorting the sheriffs, leavelookers, and mayor, together with the city's drummer and ensign, the waits, morris dancers, and men to keep the companies in their due order. (fn. 66) Each group had specially constructed figures: the mayor, his Mount; the sheriffs, the Elephant and Castle; and the leavelookers, the Unicorn, Antelope, Fleur-de-Lys, and Camel, with hobby-horses. Other features were four giants, and a dragon escorted by six 'naked boys'. In the 1660s preparations for the show took at least six weeks. (fn. 67)

Rogers claimed that when the Whitsun plays were put on, the Midsummer show was not, and vice versa, but in fact the two celebrations interacted. The guilds might include in their Midsummer shows the more popular figures from their Whitsun pageants, including 'the devil, riding in feathers before the Butchers' (from their play, the Temptation of Christ) and 'a man in woman's apparel with a devil waiting on his horse, called Caps and Cans' (from the Cooks and Innkeepers' play, the Harrowing of Hell), as well as 'Christ in strings' (presumably from the Fletchers' play, the Flagellation). (fn. 68) The Cappers provided Balaam's talking ass from their play, Balaam and Balaak, evidently an elaborate structure since in 1610 they spent £4 1s. refurbishing it and making a new banner. (fn. 69) The Painters provided stilt-walkers described in 1577 as 'the two shepherds', (fn. 70) recalling their play of the Shepherds. By the 17th century, however, most companies were escorting a richly dressed boy on horseback. Nevertheless, the ready interchange between religious plays and carnival show invested the transfer of the 1575 performance of the plays from Whitsun to Midsummer with added significance.

The show encountered opposition during the later 16th century, both for its carnivalesque character and more particularly for the inclusion of quasi-Scriptural figures. In 1611, when Midsummer Day fell on a Sunday, the Assembly was concerned about profaning the sabbath and moved the show to the Saturday and the fair to the Monday, against opposition; (fn. 71) those arrangements were followed thereafter whenever Midsummer Eve fell on a Sunday. In 1600 the puritan mayor, Henry Hardware, had the giants broken up and banned the dragon, the naked boys, and the devil; instead, the show was led by an armed man with every company following a boy on horseback. (fn. 72) His successor, however, restored the figures and the company characters at popular request, to the disapproval of David Rogers in 1609. Nevertheless, their inclusion became increasingly unusual and in 1617, when Mayor Edward Button insisted that the Cooks and Innkeepers include their comic alewife and devils, it was to the disapproval of both clergy and people. (fn. 73) By 1622–3 Rogers felt that the reforms had gone sufficiently far to make the show a decorous activity bringing honour and profit (in all senses) to Chester. (fn. 74)

The show was discontinued during the Civil War, but in 1658 the mayor reported to the Assembly that the greater part of the companies desired its revival on commercial grounds. (fn. 75) The Assembly voted narrowly in favour of revival in 1659, (fn. 76) but the decision was perhaps not put into effect until 1661. (fn. 77) The requirement made in 1666, that all Assembly and company members attend the show, indicated continuing reluctance on the part of some citizens. (fn. 78)

In 1671 the show was moved to Tuesday in Whit week, on the grounds that it would attract many people 'by whom no little money may be expended'. Holding the show at fair time was said to be prejudicial to trade since, in order to take part, company members were compelled to shut their shops for lack of apprentices. The show was thus by then regarded as a tourist attraction held for commercial benefit. (fn. 79) In 1678 the Assembly finally decided to stop putting it on. (fn. 80) Proposals to revive it were voted down in 1680 and 1681, (fn. 81) by when it had apparently outlived even its commercial usefulness.

Sporting Customs

Shrovetide Celebrations

In 1540, during the second mayoralty of Henry Gee, the Assembly approved an order reforming certain customary homages to the Drapers' company on Shrove Tuesday. (fn. 82) Three existing homages were covered. First, in the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday at the cross on the Roodee and in the presence of the mayor, the Shoemakers presented the Drapers and the Saddlers with a football, to be played from there to the common hall, an event conducted with much violence and injury. Secondly, at the same time and place, each master of the Saddlers, on horseback, presented the Drapers with a painted wooden ball on the point of a spear, decorated with flowers and arms. Thirdly, every man married in Chester during the previous year, or living in Chester but married elsewhere, offered the Drapers a ball of silk or velvet. The Drapers then provided bread and beer for the Saddlers, Shoemakers, and the mayor on Shrove Tuesday, leeks and salt on Ash Wednesday, and gave a banquet on the Thursday, all at the common hall. The customs were said to be long-standing, and perhaps dated from a time when the three companies separated from a united body.

Mayor Gee took the opportunity of Henry VIII's legislation promoting archery to change those customs. First, the Saddlers, instead of the football, were to give the Drapers six silver arrows, each worth 6d. or more, as the prize for a foot race to be run on the Roodee before the mayor. Secondly, instead of the wooden ball, the Saddlers were to give the Drapers a silver bell, valued at 3s. 4d. or more, as the prize for a horse race. Thirdly, the married men's homage was commuted from a ball of silk to a silver arrow valued at 5d. or more, to be the prize in an archery competition with longbows. The feasting remained. The changes stemmed from a dual concern, to maintain public order and decorum under mayoral authority, and to rationalize a practice whose origins had been forgotten. Gee transformed a discrete series of homages into an organized sporting competition for the city while retaining the element of homage. In the early 17th century David Rogers commended the homage, but despite fines for non-compliance, there was evidently continuing laxity in its observance and in 1626 the mayor arbitrated over points of procedural difficulty. (fn. 83) The custom was reaffirmed in 1684, but dissent continued. (fn. 84) In 1691 the Drapers were fined for not keeping Shrovetide, (fn. 85) and when in 1698 the race was postponed to 22 March, the Drapers were particularly admonished to 'resume and perform their ancient ceremonies'. (fn. 86) Gee's reforms marked the origins of horse racing on the Roodee at Chester. (fn. 87)

Sheriffs' Breakfast

On the Monday of Easter week the sheriffs, mayor, and aldermen engaged in an archery contest on the Roodee. The practice is said to have begun in 1511. (fn. 88) After the contest, the participants processed to the common hall, the winners carrying arrows and the losers bows, to consume a breakfast of calves' heads and bacon, for which the winners contributed 2d. and the losers 4d. Two long tables were also set for what were variously described as 'loose' and 'straggling' people, making the occasion also one of public charity. (fn. 89)

The presence of the unofficial guests evidently made the occasion one of some rowdiness. (fn. 90) Perhaps for that reason, the breakfast was another of the customs reformed by Henry Hardware in 1600, though it was later restored. (fn. 91) A more determined attempt at reform was made in 1640, when the sheriffs provided a piece of plate for a horse race to be run on Easter Tuesday, and, by removing the long tables and excluding the unofficial guests, made the Easter Monday breakfast into a private dinner for the aldermen, gentlemen, and archers. (fn. 92) Some sheriffs and leavelookers evidently believed that the feast was observed at their discretion, but in 1674 the Assembly determined that it was not, and levied retrospective fines for negligence. (fn. 93) Moreover, the substitution of a different sporting spectacle for the archery contest was resisted, since in 1681 a request to substitute an Easter Tuesday horse race was turned down. (fn. 94)

Civic Bull and Bear Baiting

Bulls and bears were baited in Chester as early as the late 12th century. (fn. 95) In later times each mayor's departure from office was marked by a bull bait at the Cross 'according to ancient custom', (fn. 96) the bull being provided by the companies of Butchers and Bakers. Bears were also baited there, as in 1611, (fn. 97) and elsewhere. (fn. 98) There was opposition to both sports, especially among puritans. (fn. 99) Mayor Henry Hardware had the bull ring taken up in 1600 and banned baits, (fn. 100) but baiting proved particularly resistant to suppression and survived in the city until 1803. (fn. 101)

Music And Minstrelsy

City Waits

Chester employed a group of musicians, the city waits, by 1476. (fn. 102) In 1540 Mayor Henry Gee regularized their duties. (fn. 103) They were to play as accustomed in the mornings and evenings of Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, and additionally on Sunday and Tuesday mornings. The waits were entitled to a stipend, new cloaks every three years, and 10s. for playing upon 'any extraordinary rejoicing day', but complaints about non-payment and the lack of livery persisted into the 18th century, and from 1707 gowns were renewed only every five years. (fn. 104) The waits continued in existence until the 1770s or later. (fn. 105)

In 1591 the waits had hautboys, recorders, cornets, and violins, (fn. 106) and in 1614 a group which absconded left behind only a double curtal (a kind of bassoon) and a tenor cornet. (fn. 107) The waits could be hired, individually or collectively, as freelance performers for special occasions, such as the Whitsun play, the Midsummer show, guild election days or dinners, church gatherings, civic occasions like mayoral banquets, and private functions, (fn. 108) though sometimes the inducements of freelance playing conflicted with their obligations to the city. (fn. 109) Other musicians besides the waits laid claim to official recognition, and there were complaints in the early 17th century about 'apish imitators' not only from the waits but from two private companies of musicians. (fn. 110)

Minstrels' Court

In 1477 the abbot of Chester, the mayor, and William Thomas were empowered to convene a court of minstrels at Midsummer, immediately after the Midsummer show. (fn. 111) Traditions recorded in the mid 17th century associated the court with a grant by Earl Ranulph III to his constable of authority over the 'cobblers, fiddlers, merry companions, whores, and such routish company' who had assisted him in a victory over the Welsh. The constable was supposed to have vested his power in the Dutton family, whose successors as owners of the manor of Dutton retained it in the 1640s. By then, the court had been elaborated into an annual event on Midsummer Day which began with a proclamation in Eastgate Street summoning musicians and minstrels to play before the lord of Dutton, who then rode to St. John's church, followed by the musicians playing. More music was played inside the church. A licensing court for minstrels was then held elsewhere, in later years at an inn. Courts were held by successive owners of Dutton until 1756. (fn. 112)

Other Musicians

Musical activity in the city was diverse. At one level were outsiders and itinerants, licensed in groups or solo and termed 'musitioners' or 'minstrels'. Many of them were pipers or fiddlers who played in inns or for private functions. A late but typical example was John Peacock, a piper resident with a Chester vintner in 1612. (fn. 113)

At the other extreme was George Kelly, member of a family of musicians and in 1607 the first musician enrolled as a freeman of the city. He was in the service of William Stanley, earl of Derby, apparently as the leader of the earl's musicians, but also had his own consort of musicians and taught dancing. (fn. 114) His group took over from the waits who absconded in 1614, with the understanding that they would provide their own instruments. (fn. 115) In 1615 he petitioned the Assembly to suppress incomers who had gained the favour of guilds and individuals and set up as teachers of music and dancing, an indication of increasing competition; (fn. 116) he also allied with other groups of musicians, including the waits, in petitioning the Cooks and Innkeepers, who were the main company patrons of musicians. Among his earlier competitors had been his brother Robert, who served the Savage family with his own consort of musicians. (fn. 117)

There was also a tradition of amateur music-making in the city. Some of the wealthier families possessed virginals or viols, and by 1670 Chester had a specialist musical instrument maker. (fn. 118)

The Whitsun play contained a great deal of music, both sung and instrumental, and called for minstrels in certain pageants. The guilds also employed cathedral choristers and made use of various musical instruments, such as a portable organ or regal. (fn. 119) For the Midsummer show they hired musicians to accompany them. It is likely that the organizers drew upon all available resources: the waits and other official companies, licensed minstrels, and singingmen and choristers, according to availability and expense. (fn. 120)

Private Patronage

Increasingly during the later 16th century and the 17th public celebrations became occasions of private patronage by prominent citizens, and professional touring companies began to visit the city. Those developments augmented the range of civic entertainment and changed the context within which the older celebrations were viewed. The new perception is evident in the defence of the Whitsun plays in the postReformation banns against criticisms more relevant to the conventions of later 16th-century drama, and in the elaboration of the minstrels' court in the following century. The decline of communal celebration was due in part to changes in religious and civic attitudes, in part to the spectacular and more spectatorial public entertainments which allowed more centralized control, and in part to the growth of private entertainments.

Entertainments in the private houses of the wealthy must always have been held. In 1568 Richard Dutton, the mayor, was said to have kept open house during Christmas, with a lord of misrule. (fn. 121) Mayors were expected to provide hospitality during their term of office, but Dutton's was unusual in its public lavishness. Mayor Thomas Bellin hosted a private performance of a Terence comedy in his house when the earl of Derby and Lord Strange visited the city in 1577, (fn. 122) and a masque was held at Lady Willoughby's house during the Christmas celebrations of 1582–3. (fn. 123) Christmas Day breakfasts and banquets, mummings, and unlawful games were banned as a nuisance in 1555. The breakfasts, given by senior figures in the city, were a recent innovation, prohibited because they were held before the end of divine service and led to disorderly behaviour; but citizens were encouraged to provide hospitality on the other days of Christmas. (fn. 124)

Impromptu public entertainments included the stranger who performed a rope-dance at the Cross in 1606, (fn. 125) unspecified shows and pastimes staged by the mason John Brookes (d. 1614) on the steeples of Holy Trinity and St. Peter's, allegedly watched by thousands, (fn. 126) and the wager between William Hinckes and Jo Tizer in 1606–7, when Tizer failed to collect together 60 stones set in line before Hinckes completed a circuit of the city walls on horseback. (fn. 127)

Theatrical Companies

In 1529–30 an interlude, King Robert of Sicily, was performed at the Cross, (fn. 128) perhaps by a touring company. It is not clear if the performance of King Ebrauk with all his Sons in 1588–9 was a civic or a professional production. (fn. 129) The Queen's players performed for the dean and chapter several times between 1589 and 1592, and in 1606 William Stanley, earl of Derby, asked the mayor to allow the earl of Hertford's players to perform in the common hall. (fn. 130) Visits by noblemen's players were regarded as numerous in 1613. (fn. 131)

Interludes, minstrels, and tumblers were among the spectacles complained of by puritans in 1583, (fn. 132) while plays were banned within the city limits in 1596. (fn. 133) By 1615 plays put on at the common hall by permission of the city were frequent enough and their audiences sufficiently disorderly for the Assembly to ban all performances after 6 p.m. (fn. 134)

Triumphs and Shows

Triumphs were large, spectacular events in which the visual impact was more important than the text. On the Sunday after Midsummer 1564 the city sponsored a triumph devised by William Crofton, an officer of the palatinate, and Mr. Man, master of the King's school, of the history of Aeneas and Dido of Carthage, which was played on the Roodee and featured 'two forts raised and a ship on the water, with sundry horsemen'. (fn. 135) Triumphs on the Roodee were among the entertainments seen by Henry Stanley, earl of Derby, in 1577. (fn. 136) Local groups might also mount shows, in part to promote trade. In 1621 the citizens of Bridge Street put on a show for May Day, and those in Foregate Street another for St. James's Day (25 July), the latter drawing in many country people. (fn. 137)

The most elaborate show known was that sponsored by Robert Amery for the inauguration of the St. George's Day horse race in 1610. It consisted of a parade of characters: two giants, a horseman in the armour of St. George, Fame, Mercury, Chester, horsemen bearing the king's arms and regalia and a bell also dedicated to the king, others carrying the arms of the prince of Wales and a bell dedicated to him, the bearer of the St. George's cup, another St. George, Peace, Plenty, Envy, and Love. (fn. 138) The text of the show was published. (fn. 139) A further ambitious show was planned but not executed in 1621–2. (fn. 140)

The shows, with their mixture of folk and classical elements, reflected the growing fashion for allegorized spectacle set by national celebrations in London. Such events underlined the rise of individual philanthropy and professional entertainment at the expense of earlier, more communally focused celebrations.


  • 1. The data for this section derive from REED: Chester, and from research carried out by Elizabeth Baldwin and David Mills for REED: Ches. (forthcoming) and conducted with the support of the Leverhulme Trust and of the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy.
  • 2. C.C.A.L.S., ZQRL 1–3.
  • 3. e.g. Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 235.
  • 4. C.C.A.L.S., EDD 3913/1/1, p. 68; EDD 3913/1/2, p. 61.
  • 5. Below, this chapter: Sporting Customs (Civic Bull and Bear Baiting).
  • 6. Below, Sport after 1700: Bowls.
  • 7. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZQSE 11/29.
  • 8. Ibid. ZCX 10.
  • 9. Ibid. ZAB 1, f. 62 and v.
  • 10. REED: Chester, pp. xxvii–xxxv; S. E. Hart and M. M. Knapp, 'The Aunchant and Famous Cittie': David Rogers and Chester Mystery Plays.
  • 11. Cf. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 1, ff. 55v.–56.
  • 12. Ibid. ZMB 5, f. 216.
  • 13. Above, Collegiate Church of St. John; Medieval Parish Churches: St. Mary.
  • 14. Para. based on C.C.A.L.S., ZG 7/23.
  • 15. Ibid. ZMR 85; REED: Chester, 7–8.
  • 16. B.L. Harl. MS. 2054, f. 36v.
  • 17. REED: Chester, 12.
  • 18. P.R.O., CHES 2/144, f. 7.
  • 19. C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 356, m. 1.
  • 20. B.L. Harl. MS. 2150, ff. 86–88v.; R.M. Lumiansky and D. Mills, Chester Mystery Cycle: Essays and Docs. 272–310.
  • 21. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 12, f. 24v.
  • 22. B.L. Harl. MS. 1996, f. 120; below, Lists of Mayors and Sheriffs.
  • 23. Para. based on C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 1, f. 12 (emended version); B.L. Harl. MS. 2013, f. 1 (fair copy); ibid. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 86 (post-Reformation version, c. 1540).
  • 24. Below, this section: Whitsun Play (Myths of Origin).
  • 25. B.L. Harl. MS. 2013; Harl. MS. 1944; Bodl. MS. 175; C.C.A.L.S., ZCX 3.
  • 26. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 19, f. 45v.
  • 27. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/839, p. 121.
  • 28. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 19, f. 52.
  • 29. B.L. Add. MS. 29777, no. 246.
  • 30. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/839.
  • 31. B.L. Harl. MS. 2133, f. 43.
  • 32. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/839, p. 121.
  • 33. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 3, f. 28; B.L. Harl. MS. 1046, f. 164v.
  • 34. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 3/25.
  • 35. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/843.
  • 36. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 3, f. 28v.
  • 37. B.L. Harl. MS. 2133, f. 43v.
  • 38. Ibid. Add. MS. 29777, no. 249.
  • 39. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 40v.
  • 40. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 13.
  • 41. B.L. Harl. MS. 1046, f. 164v.; Harl. MS. 2173, ff. 107v.–108; C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 3, f. 28 and v.; ZAB 1, ff. 162v.–163.
  • 42. B.L. Harl. MS. 1046, f. 164v.
  • 43. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 40C/35.
  • 44. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 41; Add. MS. 29777, no. 163.
  • 45. B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, f. 26v.; Harl. MS. 2125, f. 32; Add. MS. 11335, f. 23.
  • 46. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 33v.
  • 47. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 13v.
  • 48. Below, Revival of Mystery Plays.
  • 49. Adlington Hall, deeds, bdles. 5.5, 16.2; B.L. Harl. MS. 2071, f. 23.
  • 50. R. Higden, Polychronicon (Rolls Ser.).
  • 51. e.g. B.L. Harl. MS. 2124, entry before f. 1.
  • 52. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 86.
  • 53. C.C.A.L.S., ZCHB 3, f. 28.
  • 54. REED: Chester, 240–7.
  • 55. C.C.A.L.S., ZCX 3.
  • 56. B.L. Harl. MS. 2104, f. 4.
  • 57. Manchester Public Libr., MS. 822.11c2 (fragment of play 18, Resurrection; date uncertain); Nat. Libr. of Wales, Peniarth MS. 399 (play 23, Antichrist; c. 1500); San Marino (California), Huntington Libr., MS. 2 (originally full cycle but now lacking play 1, Creation and Fall of Lucifer; 1591); B.L. Add. MS. 10395 (full cycle; 1592); C.C.A.L.S., ZG 7/5 (play 16, Flagellation; 1599); B.L. Harl. MS. 2013 (full cycle and post-Reformation banns; 1600); Bodl. MS. 175 (full cycle and part of postReformation banns; 1604); B.L. Harl. MS. 2124 (full cycle; 1607); Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and D. Mills (E.E.T.S. suppl. ser. iii, ix).
  • 58. 'Texts of Chester Cycle', in Lumiansky and Mills, Essays, 3–86.
  • 59. Liverpool Univ., MS. 23.5.
  • 60. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 1, f. 11.
  • 61. Below, this chapter: Music and Minstrelsy.
  • 62. B.L. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 5v.; Harl. MS. 1948; C.C.A.L.S., DCC 19, on which rest of para. based.
  • 63. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, ff. 175v., 176v., 183, 187v., 189, 191, 195v., 196v.; ZML 3, no. 423.
  • 64. e.g. ibid. ZCR 60/83, f. 8v.; above, Municipal Buildings: Pentice.
  • 65. B.L. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 208.
  • 66. Ibid. ff. 201–203v.
  • 67. C.C.A.L.S., ZMF 87/46–7.
  • 68. B.L. Harl. MS. 1948.
  • 69. C.C.A.L.S., ZG 6/2, f. 28v.
  • 70. Ibid. ZG 17/1, f. 66.
  • 71. Ibid. ZAB 1, f. 312; B.L. Harl. MS. 2133, f. 47; cf. B.L. Harl. MS. 1948.
  • 72. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 45v.
  • 73. Toronto (Canada), Massey Coll., MS., f. 33v.
  • 74. B.L. Harl. MS. 1948; C.C.A.L.S., ZQSE 9/69.
  • 75. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, f. 119.
  • 76. Ibid. ZAF 37A/4.
  • 77. Ibid. ZAB 2, f. 132; cf. ZAF 38A/5; ZAF 38B/5.
  • 78. Ibid. ZAB 2, f. 155; cf. ZAF 39C/17.
  • 79. Ibid. ZAB 2, f. 171 and v.
  • 80. Ibid. f. 188.
  • 81. Ibid. ff. 190v., 192.
  • 82. This para. and next based on ibid. ZAB 1, ff. 64–5.
  • 83. Ibid. ZAB 2, ff. 6v.–7v.
  • 84. Ibid. ZAB 3, ff. 4v., 31v.
  • 85. Ibid. f. 29v.
  • 86. Ibid. f. 60.
  • 87. Below, Chester Races.
  • 88. B.L. Add. MS. 11335, f. 23.
  • 89. Ibid. Add. MS. 29779, f. 49v.; Harl. MS. 2125, f. 133.
  • 90. e.g. ibid. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 133.
  • 91. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2133, f. 46.
  • 92. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2125, ff. 64v., 133; below, Chester Races.
  • 93. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, ff. 177v., 185, 194.
  • 94. Ibid. f. 194.
  • 95. Lucian, De Laude Cestrie, 61.
  • 96. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, ff. 52v.–53.
  • 97. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2158, f. 80.
  • 98. C.C.A.L.S., EDV 1/14, f. 22v.; ibid. ZQSE 11/71.
  • 99. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/844; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 243v.
  • 100. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 45v.; Harl. MS. 2133, f. 46.
  • 101. Below, Sport after 1700: Other Sports.
  • 102. C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6B, f. 44.
  • 103. B.L. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 108.
  • 104. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, ff. 147, 149v.; ZAF 39A/22 (1666); ZAF 40C/23 (1672).
  • 105. Ibid. ZAB 4, ff. 235V., 288, 305.
  • 106. Ibid. ZMB 25, f. 45.
  • 107. Ibid. ZMB 30, f. 22.
  • 108. e.g. ibid. ZQSF 67, no. 6, 10 Aug. 1620.
  • 109. e.g. ibid. ZQSE 9/2, f. iv.
  • 110. C.C.A.L.S., ZG 13/46, unnumbered petition.
  • 111. P.R.O., CHES 2/149, m. 11.
  • 112. REED: Chester, 461–6; C.C.A.L.S., DLT/B3, ff. 143–144v.; Lysons, Ches. 523–7; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 644, 651–4; 3 Sheaf, xi, p. 46; xl, pp. 121–2; Notes & Queries [1st ser.], ii. 21, 77; x. 244–5.
  • 113. C.C.A.L.S., ZQSF 61, no. 47; cf. ZMB 20, f. 44v.; ZQSE 5/46; 3 Sheaf, lvii, pp. 51–2.
  • 114. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 10/53; ZAB 1, f. 302v.; ZG 13/46, unnumbered petition.
  • 115. Ibid. ZMB 30, f. 22.
  • 116. Ibid. ZAF 10/53.
  • 117. B.L. Harl. MS. 2054, f. 101.
  • 118. C.C.A.L.S., ZAF 40B/20.
  • 119. B.L. Harl. MS. 2054, f. 18v.
  • 120. R. Rastall, 'Music in the Cycle', in Lumiansky and Mills, Essays, 111–64.
  • 121. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 39.
  • 122. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 13v.
  • 123. Ibid. ZQSF 34, no. 46.
  • 124. Ibid. ZAB 1, f. 85.
  • 125. Ibid. ZCR 60/83, f. 20; B.L. Add. MS. 29779, f. 34.
  • 126. B.L. Harl. MS. 2177, f. 84.
  • 127. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 20.
  • 128. B.L. Harl. MS. 2133, f. 39; Add. MS. 29777, no. 204.
  • 129. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 43; C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 15.
  • 130. C.C.A.L.S., ZML 2, no. 184; E. K. Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, ii. 116–17.
  • 131. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83, f. 24v.
  • 132. Denb. R.O., DD/PP/844.
  • 133. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 243.
  • 134. Ibid. ZAB 1, f. 331v.; ZQSF 51, nos. 55, 57–8.
  • 135. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 39.
  • 136. Ibid. f. 41; C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 60/83.
  • 137. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 53v.
  • 138. Ibid. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 186 and v.
  • 139. Chester's Triumph in Honor of her Prince (Chetham Soc. [o.s.], iii).
  • 140. B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, f. 36.