« ForrigeFortsett »
Ir is the middle summer's spring." On
thereof goes through the country, and Coventry is still to see its accustomed
It requires not the imagination of the romance-writer to assume that before William Shakspere was sixteen, that is, before the year 1580, when the pageants at Coventry, with one or two rare exceptions, were finally suppressed, he would be a spectator of one of these remarkable performances, which were in a few years wholly to perish; becoming, however, the foundations of a drama more suited to the altered spirit of the people, more universal in its range,—the drama of the laity, and not of the church. What a glorious city must Coventry have been in the days when that youth first looked upon it—the “Prince's Chamber," as it was called, the "third city of the realm," a "shire-town,"* full of stately buildings of great antiquity, unequalled once in the splendour of its monastic institutions, full of associations of regal state, and chivalry, and high events! As he finally emerges from the rich woodlands and the elm-groves which reach from Kenilworth, there would that splendid city lie before him, surrounded by its high wall and its numerous gates, its three wondrous spires, which he had often gazed upon from the hill of Welcombe, rising up in matchless height and symmetry, its famous cross towering above the gabled roofs. At the other extremity of the wall, gates more massive and defying—a place of strength, even though no conqueror of Cressy now dwelt therein a place of magnificence, though the hand of spoliation had been there most busy. William Shakspere and his company ride through the gate of the Grey Friars, and they are presently in the heart of that city. Eager crowding is there already in those streets on that eve of Corpus Christi, for the waits are playing, and banners are hung out at the walls of the different Guilds. The citizens gathered round the Cross are eagerly discussing the particulars of to-morrow's show. Here and there one with a beetling brow indignantly denounces the superstitious and papistical observance; whilst the laughing smith or shearman, who is to play one of the magi on the morrow, describes the bravery of his new robe and the lustre of his pasteboard crown that has been fresh gilded. The inns are full, "great and sumptuous inns," as Harrison describes those of this very day,
able to lodge two hundred or three hundred persons, and their horses, at ease, and thereto, with a very short warning, make such provision for their diet as to him that is unacquainted withal may seem to be incredible: And it is a world to see how each owner of them contendeth with other for goodness of entertainment of their guests, as about fineness and change of linen, furniture of bedding, beauty of rooms, service at the table, costliness of plate, strength of drink, variety of wines, or well using of horses." So there would be no lack of cheer; and the hundreds that have come into Coventry will be fed and lodged better even than in London, whose inns, as the same authority tells us, are the worst in the kingdom. Piping and dancing is there in the chambers, madrigals worth the listening. But silence and sleep at last fitly prepare for a busy day. Perhaps, however, a stray minstrel might find his way to this solemnity, and forget the hour in the exercise of his vocation, like the very ancient anonymous poet of the Alliterative Metre, whose manuscript, probably of the date of Henry V., has contrived to escape destruction :
*Coventry has altogether separate jurisdiction. It is "the County of the City of Coventry." It is called "a shire-town" by Dugdale, to mark this distinction.
Perhaps the inquiring youth from Stratford would meet with some old Coventry man, who would describe the pageants as they were acted by the Grey Friars before the dissolution of their religious house. The old man would tell him how these pageants, "acted with mighty state and reverence by the friars of this house, had theatres for the several scenes, very large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city for the better advantage of spectators; and contained the story of the New Testament composed into old English rhyme, as appeareth by an ancient manuscript, entitled Ludus Corporis Christi, or Ludus Coventriæ."+ That ancient man, who might have been a friar himself, but felt it not safe to proclaim his vocation, might describe how Henry V. and his nobles took great delight in seeing the pageants; how Queen Margaret in the days of her prosperity came from Kenilworth to Coventry privily to see the play, and saw all the pageants played save one, which could not be played because night drew on; how the triumphant Richard III. came to see the Corpus Christi plays; and how Henry VII. much commended them.‡ He could recite lines from these Corpus Christi plays with a reverential solemnity; lines that for the most part sounded rude in the ear of that youth, but which, nevertheless, had a vigorous simplicity, fit for the teaching of an uninstructed people. He would tell how in the play of The Creation' the pride of Lucifer disdained the worship of the angels, and how he was cast down—
"With mirth and joy never more to mell."
How in the play of The Fall,' Eve sang
"In this garden I will go see
All the flowers of fair beauty,
And tasten the fruits of great plenty
That be in Paradise;"
and how the first pair lost that garden, and went forth into the land to labour. He could repeat, too, a hymn of Abel, very sweet in its music:
Almighty God, and full of might,
By whom all thing is made of nought,
To thee my heart is ready dight,
Moreover, in the play of Noah,' when the dove returned to the ark with the
* See Percy's 'Reliques:' On the Alliterative Metre. We give the lines as corrected in Sharp's Coventry Mysteries."
See Sharp's quotations from the manuscript Annals of Coventry, Dissertation,' page 4.
olive-branch, there was a joyful chorus, such as now could never be heard in the streets of Coventry :
Much more would he have told of those ancient plays, forty-three in number, but time would not.* He defended the objects for which they were instituted: the general spread of knowledge might have brought other teaching, but they familiarized the people with the great scriptural truths; they gave them amusements of a higher nature than military games, and contentions of mere brute force. They might be improved, and something like the drama of Greece and Rome might be founded upon them. But now the same class of subjects were to be handled by rude artificers, who would make them ridiculous. There was much truth in what the old man said; and the youth of Stratford would go thoughtfully to rest.
"Mare vidit et fugit,
Jordanis conversus est retrorsum.
The morning of Corpus Christi comes, and soon after sunrise there is stir in the streets of Coventry. The old ordinances for this solemnity require that the Guilds should be at their posts at five o'clock. There is to be a solemn procession-formerly, indeed, after the performance of the pageant—and then, with hundreds of torches burning around the figures of our Lady and St. John, candlesticks and chalices of silver, banners of velvet and canopies of silk, and the members of the Trinity Guild and the Corpus Christi Guild bearing their crucifixes and candlesticks, with personations of the angel Gabriel lifting up the lily, the twelve apostles, and renowned virgins, especially St. Catherine and St. Margaret. The Reformation has, of course, destroyed much of this ceremonial; and, indeed, the spirit of it has in great part evaporated. But now, issuing from the many ways that lead to the Cross, there is heard the melody of harpers and the voice of minstrelsy; trumpets sound, banners wave, riding-men come thick from their several halls; the mayor and aldermen in their robes, the city servants in proper liveries, St. George and the Dragon, and Herod on horseback. The bells ring, boughs are strewed in the streets, tapestry is hung out of the windows, officers in scarlet coats struggle in the crowd while the procession is marshalling. The crafts are getting into their ancient order, each craft with its streamer and its men in harness. There are "Fysshers and Cokes,-Baxters and Milners,-Bochers,-Whittawers and Glovers,-Pynners, Tylers, and Wrightes, Skynners,- Barkers, Corvysers,-Smythes,-Wevers,— Wirdrawers, Cardemakers, Sadelers, Peyntours, and Masons,-Gurdelers,-Taylours, Walkers, and Sherman,-Deysters,-Drapers, Mercers." At length the procession is arranged. It parades through the principal lines of the city, from Bishopgate on the north to the Grey Friars' Gate on the south, and from Broadgate on the west to Gosford Gate on the east. The crowd is thronging to the wide area on the north of Trinity Church and St. Michael's, for there is
See the Ludus Coventriæ,' published by the Shakespeare Society.
the pageant to be first performed. There was a high house or carriage which stood upon six wheels; it was divided into two rooms, one above the other. In the lower room were the performers; the upper was the stage. This ponderous vehicle was painted and gilt, surmounted with burnished vanes and streamers, and decorated with imagery; it was hung round with curtains, and a painted cloth presented a picture of the subject that was to be performed. This simple stage had its machinery, too; it was fitted for the representation of an earthquake or a storm; and the pageant in most cases was concluded in the noise and flame of fireworks. It is the pageant of the company of Shearmen and Tailors which is now to be performed,-the subject the Birth of Christ and Offering of the Magi, with the Flight into Egypt and Murder of the Innocents. The eager multitudes are permitted to crowd within a reasonable distance of There is a moveable scaffold erected for the more distinguished spec