But that which gave to the place its name and chief glory was the fact that once a year at least the parish clerks of London came here to perform their mystery plays and moralities. “Their profession,” wrote Warton, “employment and character, naturally dictated to this spiritual brotherhood the representation of plays, especially those of the scriptural kind, and their constant practice in shows, processions, and vocal music easily accounts for their address in detaining the best company which England afforded in the fourteenth century at a religious farce for more than a week.” These plays were no ordinary performances, no afternoon or evening entertainment, but a protracted drama lasting from three to eight days. In the reign of Richard II, A.D. 1391, the clerks were acting before the King, his Queen, and many nobles. The performances continued for three days, and the representations were the “Passion of Our Lord and the Creation of the World,” which so well pleased the King that he commanded L10, a very considerable sum of money in those days, to be paid to the clerks of the parish churches and to divers other clerks of the City of London. Here is the record of his gift:
“Issue Roll, Easter, 14 Ric. II.
“11 July. To the clerks of the parish churches and to divers other clerks of the city of London. In money paid to them in discharge of L10 which the Lord the King commanded to be paid to them of his gift on account of the play of the ’Passion of Our Lord and the Creation of the World’ by them performed at Skynnerwell after the feast of St. Bartholomew last past. By writ of Privy Seal amongst the mandates of this term—L10.”
[Footnote 57: English Poetry, vol. ii. p. 397.]
Skinners’ Well was close to the Clerks’ Well, and it was so called, so Stow informs us, “for that the Skinners of London held there certain plays yearly of Holy Scripture,”
A few years later, in the succeeding reign, 10 Henry IV, A.D. 1409, the fraternity of clerks were again performing at the same place. Stow says: “In the year 1409 was a great play at Skynners’ Welle, neere unto Clarkenwell, besides London, which lasted eight daies, and was of matter from the creation of the world; there were to see the same the most part of the nobles and gentles in England”—a mighty audience truly, which not even Sir Henry Irving could command in his farewell performances at Drury Lane.
[Illustration: A MYSTERY PLAY AT CHESTER (FROM A PRINT AFTER A PAINTING BY T. UWINS)]
These religious plays or mysteries were a powerful means for instructing the people; and if we had lived in mediaeval times, we should not have needed to fly to Ober-Ammergau in order to witness a Passion Play. In the streets of Coventry or Chester, York, or Tewkesbury, Witney, or Reading, or on the Green at Clerkenwell, we could have seen the appealing spectacle; and though sometimes the actors lapsed into buffoonery, and the