The Wakefield Mystery plays are a cycle of 32 scriptural plays dating from the early 15th century, which were performed as part of the summertime religious festival of Corpus Christi.
The text of the plays has been preserved in the Towneley Manuscript, so called after the Towneley family from Burnley in Lancashire that once owned it, and is now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The plays are sometimes referred to as the Towneley Cycle.
Originally performed in York these plays were transferred to Wakefield, probably in the later 14th century, and there established as a Corpus Christi Cycle. Each Cycle then developed in its own way although six of the plays in each are almost identical, and there are similar speeches in others.
The Wakefield plays are considered superior in a literary sense to any other surviving Cycle due mainly to the work of a talented reviser, known as the Wakefield Master, who had a particular skill for language and rhyme, as well as wit and satire.
The Cycle begins with the fall of Lucifer and ends with the Last Judgment. It is not known how long it took in performance although the Chester Cycle, which is shorter, was given over three days; the York Cycle, which is longer, was given in one. Two plays about Jacob are peculiar to the Wakefield Cycle, which omits many narratives from the New Testament that are found in all the other surviving Cycles. The Cycle is also unusual in that there are two shepherds' plays.
Performances of selected plays have been given in Wakefield and other places from 1951 onwards. The Wakefield Cycle was performed in its entirety in 1977 and again in 1980 as part of the Wakefield Festival.
- See 'Related Links' for the full text of the plays
The Wakefield Libraries Local Studies Department has posters, programmes and photographs relating to some of the performances. There is also a collection of newspaper cuttings from about 1974 onwards, and articles in the Wakefield Express have been indexed since the early 1950s. These can be consulted on microfilm.