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It is “the middle summer's spring.” On the day before the feast of Corpus Christi all the roads leading to Coventry have far more than their accustomed share of pedestrians and horsemen. The pageants are to be acted to-morrow, and perhaps for the last time. The preachers in their sermons have denounced them again and again; but since the Queen's Majesty was graciously pleased with the Hock-play at Kenilworth, that ancient sport, so dear to the men of Coventry, has been revived, and the Guilds have struggled against the preachers to prevent their old pageants from being suppressed. And why, say they, should they be suppressed ? Have not they, the men of the Guilds, been accustomed to act their own pageants long after the Gray Friars had gone into obscurity ? Has not the good city all that is needful for their proper performance ? Do not they all know their parts, as arranged by the townclerk ? Are not their robes in goodly order, some new, and all untattered ? Moreover, is not the trade of the city greatly declined -its blue thread thrust out by thread brought from beyond sea—its caps and girdles superseded by gear from London ;* and was not in the old time “the confluence of people from far and near to see this show extraordinary great, and yielded no small advantage to this city ?”+ The pageants shall be played in spite of the preachers; and so the bruit thereof goes through the country, and Coventry is still to see its accustomed crowds on the day of Corpus Christi.
It requires not the imagination of the romance-writer to
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
* See “A Briefe Conceipte of English Pollicye,” 1581. † Dugdale.
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 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 Gray 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 :
“ Ones y me ordayned, as y have ofte doon,
With frendes, and felawes, frendemen, and other;
And began for to spryng in the gray day." + The morning of Corpus Christi comes, and soon after sunrise there is stir in the streets of Coventry. The old ordinances for this solemnity required that the Guilds
* Coventry had altogether separate jurisdiction. It is called "a shire-town” by Dugdale, to mark this distinction.
† See Percy's Reliques :" On the Alliterative Metre. We give the lines as corrected in Sharp's “Coventry Mysteries.”
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 Gray Friars' Gate on the south, and from Broadgate on the west to Gosford Gate on the cast. The crowd is thronging to the wide area on the north of Trinity Church, and St. Michael's, for there is 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 ro
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 the car. There is a moveable scaffold erected for the more
distinguished spectators. The men of the Guilds sit firm on their horses. Amidst the sound of harp and trumpet the curtains are withdrawn, and Isaiah appears, prophesying the blessing which is to come upon the earth. Gabriel announces to Mary the embassage upon which he is sent from Heaven. Then a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, and the scene changes to the field where shepherds are abiding in the darkness of the night-a night so dark that they know not where their sheep may be; they are cold and in great heaviness. Then the star shines, and they hear the song of “Gloria in excelsis Deo." A soft melody of concealed music hushes even the whispers of the Coventry audience; and three songs are sung, such as may abide in the remembrance of the people, and be repeated by them at their Christmas festivals. “ The first the shepherds sing :"
“As I rode out this enderst night,
So merrily the shepherds their pipes can blow.”
† Enders night-last night.
There is then a song “the women sing :"
“Lully, lulla, you little tiny child ;
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters two, how may we do
Herod the king, in his raging,
That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
The shepherds again take up the song :
“Down from heaven, from heaven so high,
Of angels there came a great company,.
The simple melody of these songs has come down to us; they are part songs, each having the treble, the tenor, and the bass.* The star conducts the shepherds to the “crib of poor repast,” where the child lies ; and, with a simplicity which is highly characteristic, one presents the child his pipe, the second his hat, and the third his mittens. Prophets now come, who declare in lengthened rhyme the wonder and the blessing:
"Neither in halls nor yet in bowers
The messenger of Herod succeeds; and very curious it is, and characteristic of a period when the king's laws were delivered in the language of the Conqueror, that he speaks in French. This circumstance would carry back the date of the play to the reign of Edward III., though the language is occasionally modernized. We have then the three kings with their gifts. They are brought before Herod, who treats them courteously, but is inexorable in his cruel decree. Herod rages in the streets ; but the flight into Egypt takes place, and then the massacre. The address of the women to the pitiless soldiers, imploring, defying, is not the least curious part of the performance; for example
“Sir knightes, of your courtesy,
This day shame not your chivalry,
* This very curious Pageant, essentially different from the same portion of Scripture-history in the “ Ludus Coventriæ," is printed entire in Mr Sharp's “Dissertation, as well as the score of is the mild address of one mother. Another raves
“He that slays my child in sight,
If that my strokes on him may light,
The fury of a third is more excessive :
“Sit he never so high in saddle,
With him will I fight.”
“Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus'd
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen. had heard the howlings of the women in the Coventry pageant. And so “fynes lade de taylars and scharmen."
And now the men of Coventry lead the way of the strangers to another spot, with the cry of “The Hock-play, the Hock-play!" There was yawning and illrepressed laughing during the pageant, but the whole population now seems | animated with a spirit of joyfulness. As one of the worthy aldermen gallantly presses his horse through the crowd, there is a cry, too, of " A Nycklyn, a Nycklyn !” for did not the excellent mayor, Thomas Nycklyn, three years ago, cause “ Hock Tuesday, whereby is mentioned an overthrow of the Danes by the inhabitants of this city, to be again set up and showed forth, to his great commendation and the city's great commodity ?"+ In the wide area of the Cross-cheaping is the Crowd now assembled. The strangers gaze upon “that stately Cross, being one of the chief things wherein this city most glories, which for workmanship and beauty is inferior to none in England.”I It was not then venerable for antiquity, for it had been completed little more than thirty years ; but it was a wondrous work of a gorgeous architecture, story rising above story, with canopies and statues, to a magnificent height, glittering with vanes upon its pinnacles, and now decorated with mumerous streamers. Around the square are houses of most picturesque form ; the balconies of their principal floors filled with gazers, and the windows immediately beneath the high-pitched roofs showing as many heads as could be thrust through the open casements. The area is cleared, for the play requires no scaffold. The English and the Danes marshal on opposite sides. There are fierce words and imprecations, shouts of defiance, whisperings of counsel. What is imperfectly heard or ill understood by the strangers is explained by those who are familiar with the show. There is no ridicule now ; no laughing at Captain Cox, in his velvet cap,
and flourishing his tonsword ; all is gravity and exultation. Then come the women 1 of Coventry, ardent in the cause of liberty, courageous, much enduring ; and some one tells, in the pauses of the play, how there once rode into that square, in a deathlike solitude and silence, a lady all naked, who, “ bearing an extraordinary affection for this place, often and earnestly besought her husband that he would free it from
"Henry V.,” Act in., Scene III.
The Cross has perished, not through age, but by the hands of Common-councilmen and Commissioners of Pavement. The Turks broke up the Eigin marbles to make mortar for their Athenian hotels, and we call them barbarians.