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SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Beverley Corpus Christi plays organization mediation craft guilds butchers fines default duties processions festivals

Subject: The Corpus Christi and Pater Noster plays in Beverley
Original source: Humberside Records Office, Beverley Corporation archives; items 1 and 2: Great Guild Book, ff.12-13; items 3 to 5: Governors Minute Book, ff.83, 121, 150
Transcription in: Arthur Leach, ed. Beverley Town Documents, Selden Society, vol.14 (1900), 33-35, 37; Arthur Leach, Report on the Manuscripts of the Corporation of Beverley, Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1900, 135, 139, 142-43.
Original language: Latin, French
Location: Beverley
Date: late 14th and 15th centuries


[1.] Ordinance for the perpetual performance of the Corpus Christi play

On 3 April 1411, to the praise and honour of God and Corpus Christi and for the peaceful unity of the worthier and the lesser of the commons of the town of Beverley, a restrained negotiation took place involving William Rolleston merchant, Nicholas de Ryse, Adam Tirwhitt, John de Holme, William Wilton, Adam Barker and other respectable men of the worthier sort, who do not – unlike those belonging to other crafts of Beverley – have liveries each year nor are otherwise involved in performing the play, [on the question of] whether the worthy men should (even though they were not accustomed to previously) at their own expense mount, support and arrange to be performed, in a fitting and creditable manner, a particular pageant on the festival of Corpus Christi. Regarding which, those worthy men, on behalf of themselves and others of their sort, insofar as as they were able, agreed to accept the decision and judgement of Richard Aglyon, Thomas Coppandale senior, William Dalton, William Melburne, and their associates, the 12 keepers of the community of the town of Beverley.

Those 12 keepers gave the following judgement: that, around the festival of Corpus Christi coming in the present year, the worthier sort should – through [the agency of] four of them and the supervision of the 12 keepers of the community in office at that time – at their own costs and expenses cause to be constructed a fit and proper pageant and a suitable play to be performed therein, under penalty of 40s. to be levied from the worthy men for the use of the community.

Furthermore, so that the honour of God and good reputation of the town be glorified with greater devotion and respect, as many as were present of the aldermen and stewards of the crafts in Beverley – viz. mercers, drapers, tanners, weavers, tailors, leather-workers, watermen, dyers, fullers, saddlers, bakers, butchers, smiths, skinners, and others – on behalf of themselves, their crafts, and the whole community, insofar as they were able, agreed to accept the decision of the 12 keepers regarding both the erection of castles and the maintenance of the Corpus Christi play.

Whereupon the keepers announced their decision: that each and every craft accustomed to erect and have a wooden castle in honour of God and St. John of Beverley, or doing so in the future, shall from henceforth and forever erect them each year and cover them with greater ornamentation than is customary, under penalty of 6s.8d to be levied from any craft failing to do so, for whatever reason. And that every year from now on they shall perform those pageants of the Corpus Christi play which they have been accustomed to perform, and which shall be assigned to them at the discretion of the sworn governors of the town, when given a reasonable amount of advance warning by the 12 keepers. And that the worthier men of the town shall, as indicated above, henceforth each year arrange for a presentation to be performed in their pageant. Under penalty of 40s. to be levied to the use of the community for failure to do this, whether by the worthier or the lesser of the community. If any individual, whether of the worthier or the lesser sort, refuses to perform or have performed [the pageant], he shall pay 3s.4d to the use of the community, plus his share of the 40s. should it happen that any craft or pageant default in its entirety.

[2.] Ordinance regarding the performance by the hairers of Beverley, called "Paradise"

On 13 January, 1391, John de Erghes hairer came into the gildhall before the twelve keepers of the town of Beverley, and undertook on behalf of himself and his fellow craftsmen to perform properly a certain play called Paradise every year on Corpus Christi day, when the other craftsmen of the town perform, at the cost of the same John Erghes while he is alive. He willingly granted that he will pay to the community of Beverley 10s. each and every occasion when he defaults in [producing] the play, Nicholas Fauconer being his pledge. In addition he undertook, under penalty of 20s., that at the end of his life he would redeliver to the 12 keepers of the town in office at that time all the items in his possesion that pertain to the play, viz.: 1 wagon, 8 hasps, 18 staples, 2 visors, 2 angel wings, 1 pine beam, 1 serpent, 2 pairs of linen hose, 2 pairs of undershirts, 1 sword.

[3.] Allocation of the Corpus Christi play [1450]

Memorandum that the pageants of the Corpus Christi play are assigned to be performed as written below. First at the North Bar. Again at the Bullring. Again at the house of John Skipwith. Again next at the Fishmarket. Again between the [? illegible] and the bell-tower. Again at the Minster. Again at the stream.

[4.] Penalty paid by the butchers regarding the Corpus Christi play

On 5 June 1459, Thomas Law, alderman of the butchers gild of Beverley, and other fellow gildsmen came into the Gildhall of Beverley and handed over 40s. of English money to the disposal of the community, because they and their players had been late in arriving at the North gates of Beverley for performing their pageant last Corpus Christi day, contrary to the ordinance on that matter. Of which 40d. was received and the rest remitted, on condition they not do it again.

[5.] Performance of the Pater Noster play this year

On 29 May 1467, the various crafts of the town of Beverley agreed to perform the Pater Noster play within Beverley on Sunday, 2 August 1467. Those agreeing: merchants, glovers, sailors, barbers, barkers, tilers, smiths, coopers, fletchers, walkers, weavers, tailors, leather-workers, dyers, bakers, labourers, cellarers, brewers.

Records [of the decision?] were delivered to: the barbers, glovers, sailors, tanners, fletchers, coopers, fishermen, butchers, bakers, weavers, tailors, smiths, carpenters, leather-workers, fullers, dyers, tilers, labourers, cellarers, brewers, merchants.

Places assigned for performances: first at the North Bar, the Bullring, at the threshold of Richard Conton's house, in the High Street, at Cross Bridge, the Wednesday Market, Minster Bow, and Beckside.

Plays: Pride, Envy, Anger, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Cruelty.

The crafts and misteries were assigned to perform the said play. All the venerable men and craftsmen were assigned to perform different pageants within Pater Noster, as shown below:

  • To the pageant Cruelty: gentlemen, merchants, clerks, and yeomen; Roger Kelk and John Copy have been appointed aldermen of that pageant.
  • To the pageant Pride: shoemakers, goldsmiths, glovers, glasiers, skinners, and fishermen; William Downes has been appointed alderman.
  • To the pageant Lust: dyers, walkers, weavers, pinners, cardmakers, wire-drawers; Robert Johnson has been appointed alderman
  • To the pageant Sloth: watermen, husbandmen, labourers, saddlers, ropers, creelmen, millers, and furbishers; Richard Bliton has been appointed alderman.
  • To the pageant Gluttony: bakers, vintners, brewers, cooks, tilers; John Spaldyng has been appointed alderman.
  • To the pageant Envy: butchers, wrights, coopers, fletchers, pateners; John Wod has been appointed alderman.
  • To the pageant Avarice: tailors, masons, braziers, plumbers, cutlers; Nicholas Gedney has been appointed alderman.
  • To the pageant Anger: tanners, barbers, smiths, and painters; John Robynson has been appointed alderman.


In the late Middle Ages Beverley was a thriving seaport and more prominent among the towns of England, in terms of wealth and comparative population, than it is today. Its church of St. John, a pilgrimage site and sanctuary since the late Saxon period, had become an archepiscopal minster in the eleventh century; the town had developed as a community serving the needs of the minster and its visitors, and the archbishop was the town's lord. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Beverley as one of the places where a Corpus Christi play evolved. An ordinance of 1390 lists 38 gilds required to put on parts of the play; whether each had its own pageant or there were partnerships is not revealed, but 37 plays were listed in the early sixteenth century. However, at Beverley the craft gilds were not as formally structured as at York; only about half were sufficiently organized to be electing aldermen to lead them, and there were frequent amalgamations of the smaller crafts.

No copies of the scripts performed at Beverley have survived, but there are ample references in the town records to indicate that performances were an annual occurrence from at least 1377, when the tailors were ordered to present a financial account of their costs in producing their part of the play. A later document – a petition which was probably adopted as an ordinance (1457) – reflects that there had been some slacking off, since its aim was to reaffirm that the play would be presented every year. In the years immediately previous there are instances of the authorities taking the fishermen and carpenters to task for failing to put on their parts of the play, the skinners were receiving a financial subsidy from the borough to help pay costs of its pageant, and the hairers had turned over to the ropers production of "Paradise". It seems that from the 1430s the play was not being performed annually, and even after 1457 there may not have been performances every year. All this evidence shows that, as at York, the urban authorities were regulating and supervising the performances by the various gilds, although in mid-fourteenth century a gild of Corpus Christi, consisting mainly of priests, had been founded to organize the procession itself. Borough control is again indicated by the fining of the smiths in 1392 for failing to put on their part (the Ascension) of the play, although the fine was remitted upon humble submission by the leaders of the gild and writing of a bond guaranteeing no future defaults.

The procession that took place on Corpus Christi day also came to be regulated by borough authorities; in 1430 the keepers ordered that the gild alderman and stewards represent their gilds, without any additional gild members, in the carrying of candles or torches in the procession, and the precise order in which each of the gild representatives would appear in the procession was laid out. A few weeks before Corpus Christi there was another procession, in Rogation week, in which the shrine of St. John of Beverley was carried from the minster to St. Mary's church, passing liveried members of the craft gilds stationed at points along the way, then later back again with the gildsmen now joining in the procession. This was an even older tradition than Corpus Christi and more important in Beverley, since the tomb of St. John was the focus of pilgrimage. But whereas Rogation Day was an occasion for the gilds to display their wealth and status, Corpus Christi was more an opportunity for the expression and reinforcement of communal solidarity. Taken together, the period from Rogation Day to Corpus Christi was the ceremonial apex of the year for the townspeople of Beverley.

The Rogation procession was a case of a "performance" passing fixed audience points. In the case of the Corpus Christi play, the evidence from mid-fifteenth century suggests a similar approach of a series of stations at which each pageant was performed; although the number of stations was fewer than that at York, the fining of the butchers for starting late suggests that the total number of presentations to be made on Corpus Christi day required a strict schedule to be followed. A list of stations in 1449 had some small differences. The route of the play seems to have been a linear one beginning at the northern entrance into the town, south-eastwards along the High Street, passing through the Saturday and Wednesday marketplaces – the latter formerly serving as the fishmarket – until the Minster was reached, when the pageants verred eastwards for a final presentation beside the Beck (a tributary of the River Hull), where there was a prosperous suburb.

Despite the apparent reluctance of some gilds to participate in the Corpus Christi play, it was evidently popular enough to introduce another play later in the summer, the Pater Noster, whose component parts featured the Seven deadly sins, in this case expanded with an eighth (Cruelty). Although the 1467 orders have the appearance of establishing the performance, the Pater Noster play is mentioned as early as 1441, when the performance was given on 23 June, and the assignments of part of the play to specific groups was quite different from that of 1467. Production of this play was apparently under the supervision of a gild of the same name, possibly created for that purpose.



These were the 'uniforms' worn by at least the more prosperous members of each gild on ceremonial occasions, to identify them with a particular craft; poorer craftsmen could not afford these liveries.

"12 keepers"
The keepers, or governors as they came to be known during the 15th century, were the town council, similar to Ipswich's capital portmen and Maldon's wardemen but, from the early 14th century, the sole source of governmental authority – Beverley not having, with the exception of brief experimental intervals, a chief executive officer at the head of its urban administration (except insofar as the merchant gild's alderman represented burgess interests in 12th and 13th centuries).

Leach translated pagenda more literally as the physical stage, and ludus as the pageant or play. It does appear that ludus might be used for either; however, I prefer to interpret pagenda as possibly including not only the stage itself but also any associated backdrop scenery or props.

It is not clear whether the castles had any association with the play. Other references indicate they were wooden frameworks with decorative coverings (perhaps ad hoc, e.g. bedspreads of gildsmen) large enough to hold a number of persons sitting or standing, and served as shelters from which leading gildsmen watched the procession of St. John in Rogation week. Each gild that was formally recognized by the borough authorities had its own castle, and each castle was reserved solely for the members of a gild – thus, a presence in the castle on ceremonial occasions defined and publicized gild membership. Each gild had a particular spot in the town reserved for its castle. Whether they may have been brought out again for the Corpus Christi performance is not clear, although other evidence suggests that only the keepers watched from a castle on that occasion.

"St. John of Beverley"
A bishop of York who retired ca.714 to a monastery traditionally considered the magnet for settlers who founded Beverley. Bishop John's tomb at Beverley acquired a reputation for miracles and, whether or not the tradition is historically reliable, the town became a moderately important religious centre from the 10th century, thanks in part to royal patronage, and in part to the efforts of the archbishops of York in building up the minster and its powers, as well as in having John canonized. Edward the Confessor made the archbishop the lord of Beverley. (A somewhat similar process is seen at Bury St. Edmunds.)

"hasps" "staples"
The hasps were either part of the harnessry for the wagon or hardware associated with the erection of a backdrop on the wagon. The staples likewise were probably required for fixing in place a backdrop.

Probably masks for the actors.

Where bulls were baited before being slaughtered for sale in the butchery. In 1449 the allocation of sites had specified "next to the Bullring". It was located at the northern end of the main (Saturday) marketplace.

"house of John Skipwith"
In 1449 Skipwith's house was indicated as being in the High Street.

All Leach could read of this word were the first few letters cer.... Possibilities include an alehouse, sail-yard, weathercock, fishpond, butchery, or a round tower. The location evidently lay between the Wednesday Market and the Minster, so we can probably rule out the butchery, as this is believed to have been in the northern part of the Saturday Market.

This would be an unusual craft in a town, unless it refers to a group specializing in providing storage facilities for merchandize. The original Latin may be tellarii rather than cellarii, suggesting craftsmen associated with the cloth industry.

A kind of porter, distinguished by (and named after) the type of baskets they used for carrying goods from the quayside into town.


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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: April 13, 2003 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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