Medieval Mystery Drama at Widecombe and Ashburton

Plays in cornwall

Any history of theatre in the South West has to begin with some mention of the mystery plays we know to have been performed in Cornwall from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Three are extant: the Ordinalia (a trilogy comprising Origo MundiPassio Domini, and Ressurexio Domini), Beunans Meriasek (a life of the patron Saint of Camborne) and Gwryans an Bys (the Creation of the World). These works, composed in the Cornish language, rank alongside the best of the religious plays enacted elsewhere in England during this period, and their performance in the Cornish ’rounds’ – the manuscript of each of the three Ordinalia plays ends with a diagram indicating the position of characters on a circular stage – must have given them a dramatic dimension not experienced elsewhere. Richard Carew, in his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602, draws a vivid if somewhat scornful picture of such a performance.

Pastimes to delight the minds, the Cornish men have Guary miracles and three men songs. The Guary miracle, in English, a miracle play is a kinde of Enterlude, compiled in Cornish out of some scripture history, with that grossenes which accompanied the Romanes vetus Comedia. For representing it, they raise an earthen Amphitheatre, in some open field, having the diameter of his enclose playne some 40 or 50 foot. The country people flock from all sides, many miles off to hear and see it, for they have therein devils and devices to delight as well the eye as the eare: the players conne not their parts withoute book, but are prompted by one called the Ordinary, who followeth at their back with the book in his hand, and telleth them softly what they must pronounce aloud. (Carew, 1602)

The fourteenth century Ordinalia is notable for its inclusion of twenty four Cornish place-names amid the biblical subject matter, most of them in the vicinity of Penryn, showing the importance of the influence of locality at that period.

medieval mystery drama widecombe ashburton
Model of actors in a mystery play within a ’round’, made by Olivia Young

The barrier of language might be expected to have effectively prevented the Cornish play tradition as such crossing the River Tamar. Nevertheless the fact that in 1360 Bishop Grandisson issued an Inhibition on Unbecoming Plays to Exeter Cathedral and the colleges at Crediton and Ottery St Mary as well as to the college at Glasney in Penryn, giving as his reason that a practice which had originally stimulated devotion had been perverted into irreligion, suggests that some kind of religious drama was being performed in Devon in the 14th century (Bakere, 1986). Caution also has to be exercised in drawing too hard and fast a boundary between Devon, in particular Dartmoor, and Cornwall. The stannary or tin-mining organisation in the two counties was traditionally a joint one until 1305, and the ‘parliaments’ or Great Courts at which their members met were held on Hingston Hill in Cornwall (Worth, 1953). After that time, Great Courts for the Cornish stannaries took place in various towns, while the Devon stannaries continued the open-air tradition by meeting at Crockern Tor in the centre of Dartmoor. The theatrical nature of the open-air stannary Great Courts at Crockern Tor suggests a link with the same tradition of outdoor assembly that produced the Cornish round. Dartmoor’s British river names, its remoteness and its mining connections with Cornwall all support the possibility that Cornish (which is a British language) may have been understood, if not spoken, on Dartmoor long after the rest of Devon was confined to English. As late as 1571 a stannary Court for the whole of Cornwall was held at the Dartmoor town of Tavistock, emphasising the links between Cornwall and Dartmoor (Worth, 1953). It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the culture of the Dartmoor tin-mining towns, given the strength of the dramatic traditions which later emerged there, carried with it this innate theatricality. Pre-historic earthworks which could have been adapted to make temporary ’rounds’, as is thought to have been the practice in Cornwall, are after all plentiful on the fringes of Dartmoor. Tom Greeves has supplied the following information which bears on the connection between tin mining and drama on medieval Dartmoor. Tom writes (31/10/2013)

“Robert Furse of Morshead, Dean Prior writing in 1593 about his grandfather John Furse (1481-1549)  said he ‘had a great delight to be a tinner’ and owned ‘two hundred tinworks in Devon and Cornwall which in his time…were very profitable unto him.’ He ‘kepte a bowntefull howse’ at March in Swimbridge, ‘spessyally at Crysemas for then he hade his lorde of mysserule his mynstereles and some viiij tall fellows in his leverye and there made grette waste whiche myghte have bynne better spente’ (Travers, Anita. ed.2012, Robert Furse – A Devon Family Memoir of 1593 (Devon & Cornwall Record Society, New Series Vol.53), pp.43, 45)

Written Records

Certainly, written records of theatre in the South West begin with a reference to the Dartmoor stannary town of Tavistock, when in 1325 Robert Busse the abbot-elect of Tavistock Abbey was accused of parting with £60 worth of trinkets over the space of two months while he was living in Exeter to ‘male and female actors, prostitutes and other untrustworthy and dishonest persons ‘(ystrienibus maribus ac feminis ac meretricibus et personis aliis levibus and inhonestis)[i]. Perhaps his soft spot for actors had an influence in Tavistock – it is interesting that we find a reference to the Queen’s Players coming to Tavistock in 1561 and being paid 13s 4d for their visit, and a record of the Players of Tavistock also being paid for a performance in the same year[ii]. The same Players of Tavistock are recorded as being paid for a performance in the Plymouth Receivers’ Accounts for 1568-9[iii]. Again, the Earl of Warwick’s Servants were paid for a play in Tavistock in 1572-2[iv]. There was clearly some kind of theatrical tradition in Tavistock during the middle of the 16th century, but we do not know much about it.

While bearing in mind the possibility of Cornish influence on Dartmoor, we need also to look at the context in surrounding Devon at the time. Wasson (1986) found that only ten per cent of parishes have preserved records which might reveal the occurrence of theatrical activity before the Civil War. Records of drama at this period are heavily dependent on it having some link with the Church. Generalised disapproval of drama by the Church authorities is evident in a number of 12th, 13th and 14th century documents written by Devon clerics (Wasson, 1986). Nevertheless, there are records of mystery plays being held on the feast of Corpus Christi (Whitsun) in Exeter during the 15th century – as early as 1414 a Corpus Christi cycle drama is described as a tradition in a Mayor’s Court Roll[v]. and at the end of the century records reveal that the Skinners’ guild was presenting a single Corpus Christi play, supported financially by the city (Wasson, 1986). It appears that a more liberal attitude on the part of the church at the end of the medieval period had gradually absorbed theatre into its ritual. While Corpus Christi plays seem to have been uncommon in Devon, Christmas plays (presumably portraying the nativity) held in churches were not. Nor was it just drama about Christian subject matter which the Church took under its wing, as is evident from the records of Robin Hood plays in churchwardens’ accounts from various parts of Devon. During the 16th century there were also visits to a number of Devon towns by touring theatre companies under the patronage of the English aristocracy. At Barnstaple such touring visits are first recorded in the 15th century from minstrels of noblemen, but as the 16th century progressed, companies such as the Queen’s Players are frequently referred to (Wasson, 1986). This is the kind of touring theatre mentioned as coming to Tavistock in the 1560s and 70s, presumably bringing Elizabethan London stage plays with no ecclesiastical content, but still being supported out of Church funds.


It is to a stannary town on the other side of the Moor, Ashburton, that we must turn for details of the first continuous dramatic tradition recorded on Dartmoor. The Churchwardens’ Accounts for Ashburton (Hanham, 1978) in 1487-8 record ’20s 111/2 d received from Roger Colpstone and John Ferys for le play ale’. This is the first in a long series of references to plays performed in Ashburton up until 1563-4. That they were often mystery plays is confirmed by entries such as ’20d for 4 Ratilbaggez and vysers bought for the players on the feast of Corpus Christi’ (1516-17), ‘2s 1d for devils’ heads and other necessary things for the players’ clothing’ (1542-3) and ‘2s for a pair of glovys for him that played Chryst on Corpus Christi Daye’ (1558-9). Other biblical characters mentioned are Herod and God Almighty. There is even evidence for a religious play based on the life of a local saint (as with the Cornish Beunans Meriasek) in the record for 1555-6 that 1d was paid ‘for wyne for hym that played Saynt Rosmonous’ – ‘Saynt Rosmonous’ is probably St Rumon of Tavistock. Beyond this we are given no idea of the nature of the plays’ content by the church wardens’ accounts. Devils’ heads, and rattlebags to run among the audience with, bring to mind Carew’s description of ‘devils and devices to delight as well the eye as the eare’ in the Cornish religious plays, while a play about St Rumon of Tavistock suggests that Ashburton and possibly the other stannary towns were not merely copying a Cornish tradition, but creating a tradition of their own, perhaps with reference to local topography even in biblical plays. Jane Bakere, in her book about the Cornish Ordinalia, comments on the land grants of medieval Cornish places made by the biblical characters in the Ordinalia, that ‘anachronistic transactions bring home the significance of the action far more forcefully than any historically accurate reconstruction (Bakere, 1980).

The mystery plays at Ashburton constitute the best documented tradition recorded from Devon – the only other tradition which rivals it was that of the cathedral city of Exeter. The plays seem to have been generally performed on the feast of Corpus Christi, in the middle of summer, and therefore probably outside, though where and how we do not know. In the accounts for 1496-7, 16d was paid ‘for mending le pagentes’, which could be interpreted as suggesting that stages were used, although Wasson (1986) believes these to have been permanent tabernacles in the church not connected with performance. If they were stages, there is no indication whether these were arranged on the perimeter of a ’round’ as in Cornwall (Rawe, 1978), erected in the churchyard, or brought into a flat space such as a town square on wheels after the manner of the English mystery play cycles.[vi]

Other references are to players performing at Christmas and at Epiphany – these were paid for (2s), indicating that they came from elsewhere. In 1563-4 payment was made to the ‘chyldren of Totnes’ for a play they brought to Ashburton, suggesting that children were being trained as accomplished actors. The Corpus Christi mystery plays, though, were almost certainly performed by Ashburton players, usually[vii] only given expenses for costumes, props and refreshments – for example in 1499 4s was paid ‘for food and drink to the players on Corpus Christi Day’.


The players’ ‘clothes’, or costumes, were clearly very important. They were well looked after, at first by Thomas Druyste and John Soper, who is recorded as making them (or some of them) for 10d in 1491-2, and keeping them for 2s 8d in 1519-20, then by John Wyndyat, a tailor, and ultimately for many years (until a final reference in 1559-60) by William Bound for an annual payment of around 2s. These costumes had bright colours on them: for example in 1556 -7 the accounts record that some were painted at Ilsington and some at Totnes. They were sometimes hired out to other parishes – for example in 1491-2 12d was received from Widecombe for ‘playerclothyng’. This hiring out was another means, in addition to selling ale at performances, whereby the church recouped what it spent on players’ expenses. The mystery plays were both supported by church funds and contributed to them.

Mark Beeson

[i] St Mary’s Abbey Plea Roll. Devon Record Office: Bedford Papers W 1258 Add 1/3 mb 3 (13 November)

[ii]St Eustace’s Churwardens’ Accounts. Devon Record Office: 482A/PW31 mb 1 (Allowances)

[iii]West Devon Record Office: W131 f 45v (Costs, expenses and payments).

[iv] St Eustace’s Churchwardens’ Accounts. Devon Record Office 482A/PW31.

[v] Devon Record Office ECA: MCR 1/2 Henry V mb 38d.

[vi] In the Coventry Cycle, the Passion plays were performed not on a series of pageants, but on standing stages gathered in one place. See Block 1922. Preface, vi.

[vii] There is one reference in the Ashburton Churchwardens’ Accounts (1547-8) to players being paid 2s for the Corpus Christi performance.


A selection of entries from Ashburton church accounts indicating
the performance of mystery plays at Ashburton and also at Widecombe
in the late 15th century and the first half of the 16th century 

1491-2: xijd (twelve pence) received from Widecombe for ‘playerclothyng’

1492-3: viijd for the cost of bread and ale on Corpus Christi day to the players

1516-7: xxd for iiij ‘ratilbagges’ and ‘vysers’ bought for the players at the festival of Corpus Christi

1528-9: ixs ixd (nine shillings and nine pence) for painting cloth for the players, and making their tunics, and for ‘chequery’ for making tunics of the aforesaid players, and for making staves for them, and crests upon their heads on the feast of Corpus Christi

1537-8: jd for a pair of gloves for King Herod on Corpus Christi day

1542-3: ijs jd for ij devils’ heads (capita diabolorum) and other necessary things in the clothes for the players

1555-6: id ‘for wyne for him that played Saynt Rosmonous’

1556-7: xxd for painting the players clothes at Totnes and jd for ‘fettyng’ [= ‘fetching’] the same from Totnes, ijs iijd for five yards and a quarter of canvas for ij players ‘cotes’

Hanham, A. ed. 1970. The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Ashburton (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, New Series, 15)