ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry Corpus Christi plays craft guilds smiths partnership expenditures royal visits gifts food socio-religious guilds regulations

Subject: The Corpus Christi pageants at Coventry
Original source: Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book
Transcription in: Mary Dormer Harris, ed. The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 115-16, 195, 205-206, 300, 312.
Original language: Latin, Middle English
Location: Coventry
Date: 15th century


[1. Leet court session, 15 April 1428]

Memorandum that at [this session] the smiths of Coventry put forward a petition in the following words: "To the honorable mayor, recorder, bailiffs, and to all your wise councillors, the craft of smiths informs you that they were discharged from [assisting with] the cutlers' pageant by a leet in the time when John Gote was mayor and [by] mutual acquittances made between the two crafts, as is well known and as they are ready to prove. And now, when Giles Allesley was lately in the mayoralty, he requested the smiths craft to take on the production of that pageant during his term of office, and no longer. The craft willingly did so, to please him. The result of which is that the pageant has again been assigned to the craft, although it is by no means their responsibility to undertake it. They therefore beseech you to be so good as to discharge the craft of smiths from the pageant, for the sake of God and the truth, and assign it to some other [craft] which your wisdom tells you would be a better choice." Which petition, by the counsel of all the worthy [men] of the leet, and everyone else in attendance on the leet, was answered and endorsed thus: "It is ordained that the smiths shall henceforth take charge of the pageant every year, upon penalty for default of £10 to be paid to the use of the chamber."

[2. Leet court session, 22 April 1441]

It is ordained that Robert Eme and all the others who perform at the festival of Corpus Christi are to perform well and properly, so that no problems occur in any of the plays. Upon penalty of 20s. for each default, levied by the mayor and chamberlains for application to [maintenance of] the [town] wall.

[3. Ordinances regarding the pageant of the cardmakers, saddlers, masons and painters crafts, 1444]

By the recommendation of the mayor and his council, it is ordained that the 4 crafts shall associate with each other in bearing the costs, charges, and all other payments regarding their pageant and their association.... Also, every member of the crafts is to pay annually to the masters 12d. and all other customary and lawful payments that relate to the pageants and to the association.... Also that no man of the 4 crafts is to perform in any pageant on Corpus Christi day except that pageant of his own craft, unless he has permission from the mayor then in office.

[4. The Queen visits on 15 June 1457]

On the evening before Corpus Christi the queen came by night from Kenilworth to Coventry. She did not wish to be greeted formally on that occasion, but came privately to see the play there on the following day. And she then saw all the pageants performed, except Doomsday, which could not be presented because daylight ran out. She was lodged at the grocer Richard Wood's [house], where Richard Sharp once lived, and all the plays were performed there first. On which occasion the mayor and his associates sent her a gift comprising the following: that is, 300 demesne loaves, a pipe of red wine, a dozen plump capons, a dozen large pike, a large basket full of "Pescodes" and another basket full of pippins and oranges, two coffers of confectioneries, and a pot of green ginger. She was accompanied at that time by the following lords and ladies: that is, the Duke of Buckingham, his wife, and all their children; Lord Rivers and his wife; the dowager Countess of Shrewsbury and the Countess of Shrewsbury; and many other lords and ladies.

[5. Leet court session, 19 April 1460]

It is ordained that every craft that has a pageant to perform is to make preparations for the pageant and have it ready to be performed, upon penalty of 100s. to be levied from the 4 masters of the crafts that fail to comply.


A gild dedicated to Corpus Christi was founded at Coventry in 1348; around this period such gilds were springing up in many towns for the purpose of organizing a procession to celebrate that festival. It may have been around the same time that the city fair which, in 1218, had been granted to be held following Trinity Sunday, became known as the Corpus Christi fair. We hear nothing explicit of the Corpus Christi plays until the next century, but reference to a pageant house in 1392 suggests that they were already being performed then, and in 1416 the pageants were said to have been performed before the king and his nobles; they were to be performed for the enjoyment of royalty several times during the century, and Coventry became renowned for the quality of its plays. The pageants probably took place after the early morning procession – itself an exciting affair, with the streets decked out with freshly-leafed boughs, town officers in their official robes and craftsmen in their liveries, the city waits playing musical accompaniment, and the ringing of church bells in the background. There were several stations at which plays were performed, probably chosen in part because they could accommodate a crowd.

The Corpus Christi plays are mentioned only briefly in the Coventry records, and texts of only two of the plays have survived, but it is clear that there was a similar cycle to that performed in other towns. Some of the texts may have been copied or adapted from those elsewhere, and the plays evolved through frequent rewriting. There does not seem to have been at Coventry the degree of local government supervision over the performances that we see at York, except insofar as the city government was concerned to ensure the gilds acted responsibly in fulfilling their duties in presenting the plays. We can see from the above extracts and other references that at Coventry, as elsewhere, there were problems with the financial burden of putting them on. It was not only a question of the regular yearly pageants; when royalty visited the town there were often special presentations of selected plays from the Corpus Christi repertoire, or pageants of a pseudo-historical bent, with the Corpus Christi props sometimes being called upon.

To address the financial difficulties various steps were taken. In 1424, a settlement of disputes between the master weavers and the journeymen of that craft included the requirement that journeymen contribute 4d. annually to the cost of the weavers' pageant. In 1435 it was ordered that the saddlers and painters join with the cardmakers in financing and mounting the latter's pageant. The pinner and needlers were joined in supporting their pageant by the tilers and wrights at some time before 1436, when the carpenters were added as well; the coopers joined this consortium in 1459. Partnerships between crafts continued to be a trend throughout the century and into the next.



"John Gote"
Mayor in 1420.

"Giles Allesley"
Mayor in 1427.

Not approved, as we would use "endorsed" today, but simply meaning that the response was written onto the dorse of the petition. The response took the form of an approval, in essence.

The Latin impedicio implies the kind of problems that might disturb or hold up a performance; since the target of the ordinance is the actors, we may surmise past problems with the actors perhaps becoming embroiled in arguments.

A village with castle a few miles southeast of Coventry; a common refuge for the beleaguered king and queen.

"demesne loaves"
Paynemaynes (panis dominicus), a high quality bread produced for consumption by lords.

Roosters castrated to improve edibility.

Unknown; perhaps some kind of fruit, although the London Lickpenny refers to the sale of "Hot peascods".

A type of apple.

main menu

Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 27, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | Search | About ORB | HOME

The contents of ORB are copyright © 2003 Kathryn M. Talarico except as otherwise indicated herein.