The History of the Lichfield Mysteries

When the words "Mystery Plays" are mentioned, we automatically think of those performed in Lichfield in recent years. Following the Society's AGM on 9th March, members were treated to a fascinating talk by Hugh Ashton on the wider origins of Mystery Plays. We soon discovered that in Lichfield we are but "bit players" in a much wider historic landscape of such materials and performances.

Why "Mysteries"? Most of the plays emerged in manuscript form in the 14th and 15th centuries, depicting the holy mysteries of Christianity. What mysteries you may ask? What occurred at the Creation? What is Man's place in the universe? How did the reincarnation of Jesus Christ occur? The plays explored these and other questions in a way that was understandable by all. Most people were illiterate and the Bible and religious services were in Latin; so understood by few. Presenting the stories in English made them accessible. One suspects that it was also good entertainment.

Mystery plays can be witnessed at York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry. York's cycle of plays is extensive, no less than 48, which can take a month to perform. Not surprisingly, this is only attempted every four or five years. Wakefield's cycle comprises 32 plays, Chester's 23 and Coventry's 42. Unusually, the Coventry play cycle is also presented elsewhere around the country. Most cycles as currently performed are revivals. Many restarted as part of the celebration of the Festival of Britain in 1951.

By comparison, Lichfield had just two surviving full plays and a fragment of a third. These date from about 1430, their origins being found in a book of liturgical music which is now in the possession of Shrewsbury School. They are part sung and part spoken. In the early 1990s, using the surviving fragments as a very partial skeleton, Robert Leach created a whole integrated cycle of dramas for Lichfield, drawing on other existing medieval mystery plays, editing and adapting these as necessary. These "new" Lichfield plays were specifically designed for presentation to a modern audience by amateur performers.

The final complete Lichfield Mysteries is divided into three parts: Of Heaven and Hell and Middle Earth, telling the story of the Old Testament, The Getting of Grace, centring on Jesus's nativity, and Drops of Blood, which recounts Jesus's passion, death and resurrection. The plays (or "pageants") are preceded by a Prologue, spoken by a scene-setting "everyman" character, and conclude with an epilogue, Doomsday, dealing the Ascent to Heaven or, for the undeserving, the Descent to Hell.

The Lichfield Mysteries were first presented in 1994 and were performed in the Market Square, on Stowe Fields and at the west door of the Cathedral. A conscious decision was made to relate the performances to the local community, which would have been the case in the mediaeval period when local guilds would have taken part in the performances. The original intention was to perform the plays every three years. They are a major undertaking, requiring about 500 performers and 300 other people in various support roles. Initially schools were central to the arrangements, supported amongst others by drama groups. The last performance of the cycle was in 2016. Since then, major reductions in arts budgets, the pandemic, and the resultant need for schools to concentrate on catching up on learning disrupted during the past two years, has meant that the funding and capacity to perform these plays has been dramatically reduced.

Hugh is Secretary of the lead organisation, Lichfield Mysteries Community Arts Ltd. He freely admitted that, currently, the future for the continuation of the project looks bleak. Props and costumes languish in store at the Cathedral and at Wade Street Church. We can only hope that some way is found to again revive this historic tradition.

If you would like to learn more about this fascinating subject, a few copies of Robert Leach's book, The Lichfield Mysteries, are still on sale at the Johnson Birthplace Museum.

Roger Hockney
March 2022