It has been said that next year’s Passion Play, to be performed in the streets of central Kendal and at the Castle at the Easter weekend, is the first passion play in the town for 400 years. But what and when was the last one?
Many towns in England had their own locally-produced “Mystery” plays, performed on set occasions from medieval times through to the end of the 16th Century, often in the open air, at festival times such as Easter, Christmas and Whitsuntide. These plays represented, in a popular form (often with comic interludes) various events described in the Bible, including a play or plays on the passion of Jesus from trial to crucifixion and resurrection. They came to be put on mainly by members of guilds, or craft associations, each guild having one or more story to tell in its play.
These plays could be performed at any time of year, though festival times, when both performers and audiences were more likely to be available, were the most popular occasions.
Often a whole series of mystery plays – so called because of the “mystery” or craft of the guild members – would be produced in sequence over several days at this time, and they were great events in the towns and villages which had them.
One of the most important of these festivals was Corpus Christi (“The Body of Christ”). This festival, observed today by the Roman Catholic church and some Anglican and other denominations, celebrates a belief in the actual presence, in mystical form, of the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine at each holy communion service. The plays were not exclusively performed at Corpus Christi time (varying between late May and late June), though they usually kept the name.
Kendal’s Corpus Christi “play”, which would have been a series of plays as in other towns, was very well-known and people came from miles around to watch them. There was great resistance when, in 1534, the government tried to ban their performance. This followed the establishment of the Church of England, and the authorities believed that the plays helped keep “the old religion” (Roman Catholicism) in the minds of the populace at a time when Protestantism was being officially and firmly promoted. There was also a very strong hostility from the puritan element in the Reformation to the practice of impersonating Biblical figures on public stages. The campaign was relentless and some cities caved in, but the defiant persistence of this religious folk-drama in Kendal is remarkable. During the years following the ban, it was enforced, sometimes slackly, sometimes rigorously, and local landowners and civic leaders could be imprisoned for permitting the plays to take place, with punishment no doubt for the performers. Between 1570 and 1580 the plays were finally put down in all the major cities. But not in Kendal!
The Kendal Corpus Christi group of plays were famous throughout a very wide area. Records show that the town council was very nervous but recognised that the “common inhabitants…covertly and earnestly cry for the … play yearly to be had, used, and played here as in former times”. A law decreed that the Alderman might not permit the play to be performed by his own decision, but only if it were agreed by the town council. That does not seem to be an absolute prohibition, and indeed in 1600 or 1601 payment is recorded as having been made for the paving of the street “where the play was”.
But it could not last for ever in defiance of central government, and after government commissioners had turned up in 1605 to make enquiries, the annual religious play in Kendal finally came to an end. So the answer to the question of “when?” posed at the beginning of this article is that the last time a Passion Play was presented in Kendal (for one of the Corpus Christi plays would have been on the passion theme) was in 1605 or thereabouts, ending a tradition of several hundred years.
The effect of these plays on the ordinary man in the street is illustrated by the memoirs of John Shaw, a Lancashire vicar who assisted in pastoral care in Cartmel. In 1644 he interviewed an old man in the parish. Shaw says that the man was sensible in most things, but what we learn from that interview tells us of the great impression made by the Kendal play, and no doubt by other such plays. Shaw says:
“I told him that I desired to be informed of his knowledge of religion, and asked him….how he thought to be saved? He answered, he could not tell….I told him that the way to Salvation was by Jesus Christ, God and man, who, as man, shed his blood for us on the Cross. ‘Oh Sir (said he) I think I heard of that man you speak of, once in a play at Kendal, called Corpus-Christi play, where there was a man on a tree, and blood ran down’, etc. And after, he professed, that though he was a good churchman, and constantly went to Common Prayer, yet he could not remember that ever he heard of salvation by Jesus but in that play.”
Next year’s passion play, “A Passion for Kendal”, is a community project, not sponsored by any church, but it would be gratifying to find in the years ahead that some aspect of its drama remained so firmly in the memories of its spectators!
(with acknowledgments to Professor Philip Edwards)