York Mystery Plays

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What are the York Mystery Plays?

York Mystery Plays are a magnificent example of medieval drama. Using the colourful language of medieval Yorkshire, they present the 'history of the world' from the mystery of God's Creation, through the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, to the Last Judgement.

Herald announces 1954 PlaysTo the townspeople who first drew together to perform and watch what they called the Corpus Christi Plays, the battle between Good and Evil was not theoretical theology, but an all-pervading fact of life. Disease and sudden death were an ever-present threat.  The Plays taught a simple message, but not in a simple way. Written to appeal to all sections of the community, they were sophisticated, often lavish, always theatrical.  Here is an article about the history of the Plays by the City Archivist.
2002 Last Judgement
The Cycle of Plays is made up of a number of individual pageants: 48 are known.  These separate episodes were originally presented on wagons through the streets, by York's guilds of craftsmen: their crafts were also known as 'mysteries', hence the name of the Plays. Different guilds often presented appropriate scenes, so for example the Shipwrights were responsible for the Building of the Ark, while the Butchers played the Death of Christ. A list of the guilds and plays is available on this page of the archive.

Revived in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, they used text transcribed by Rev. J. S. Purvis from British Library manuscript, Add MS 35290.  The Plays have been performed many times since in a variety of venues - always by an enthusiastic cast to an enthralled audience.  This is indeed the 'greatest story ever told'.  Recent productions:

2012 - In Museum Gardens, produced by York Theatre Royal
2014 - On wagons around York, produced by York Guilds
2016 - In York Minster, produced by the Dean and Chapter. 
 Below left, young Eve bites the apple which she just offered to young Adam (2012). Below right, Jesus (Ehren Mierau) is baptised (2014).  Ehren played Judas in the Minster 2016 production (cast list here).
Young Adam and Eve 20122014 Baptism of Christ


As part of the celebration of York's famous 1212 charter from King John, the City Archivist in 2012 organised an exhibition of York's City Archive material, at the central library. The Mystery Plays featured in this display, using images from the City Archives, the National Centre for Early Music and the National Railway Museum. In the Yorkshire Museum's medieval gallery an exhibition included the manuscript of the Scriveners' Guild's Play and the medieval Pageant Accounts of the Mercers' Wagon Play, from the York Merchant Adventurers' archives.