Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
The subject of miracle plays is interesting to us because almost the only remains of ancient Cornish literature are mystery plays. One of them, "The Creation of the World," by William Gordon, of Helstone, in 1611, has been published by the late Mr. Davies Gilbert. Others, of earlier date, have been translated and published by Mr. Norris, to which we may add St. Meriseck, lately translated by Mr. Whitley Stokes. Many of our ancient amphitheatres, where the "Guary miracle" used to be acted—still exist, as the "Round," or plain, in St. Just Church-town; the Plan-an-guary, Redruth; and others farther eastward. In this age of restoration (would it were also one of restitution) these old Plan-an-guaries should be rebuilt and restored as public places of recreation, common to all.
We know that miracle plays continued to be performed in the western parishes during Queen Elizabeth's reign, and probably much later. A short time ago William Sandys Esq., F.S.A.,
published in his learned paper, entitled the "Cornish Drama," in the "Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall," an extract from a MS. volume, entitled, "A Book declaring the Royalties of which Sir John Arundell, of Lanhern, and his ancestors, have had within the Hundred of Penwith," &c. which sayeth that—
"Ao. 10, E. John Veal of Boraine, gentleman, of the age of 78. Sworn at a Court holden at Penzance the 20th day of June, Ano decimo E., by William Gilbert, under Steward of the Hundred Court of Penwyth, being upon his oath examined touching the liberties of Connerton, and the Hundred of Penwyth appendant unto the same manor, saith that when he was a Boy of good remembrance his grandfath. and his Father both dwelling then at Sancras, within the hundred of Penwyth, did see one Sr. John Trwrye (or Trevrye) knight, a sanctuary man at St. Borains, which had committed some great offence then against the King, and thereupon committed to the Tower, and by means of a servant which he had, broke prison and came into Cornwall to St. Borian, and claimed the priviledge of the Sanctuary. It fortuned within a while after there was a mirable (sic) Play at Sanckras Parish, divers men came to the play amongst whom came a servant of this Mr. Trevrye, named Quenall and (in the place before the play began) the said Quenall fell at variance with one Richard James Veane, and so both went out of the Play and fought together, the said Quenall had a sword and a buckler, and the other had a single sword, the said Quenall was a very tall man in his Fight, the other gave back and fell over a mole Hill, and ere he could recover himself the said Quenall thrust his sword through him and so he immediately dyed, and Quenall taken and bound to the end of the Play and before the Play was done his Mastr. hearing thereof came to the Place with other Sanctuarymen and by force would have taken him away from his said Grandfather, Mr. Veal, and others, but he was not able so to do, but with a sufficient Guard he was carried to Conertone Gaol, where he was after hanged on the Gallows in Conerton Down, and so was more in his time, for there was no prisoner then carried to Launston Gaol."
It will be observed that the name of the parish where the miracle play "fortuned" to be held is, in this interesting document, spelt as the country folk still pronounce it—Sanckras. The name has been much speculated ion, and antiquaries are undecided whether the proper designation is Sancreed, Sancrist; Sancrus, or Sancras, (both holy cross.) Now it happens, however, that the learned antiquary, to whom we are indebted for the above, has also preserved in his interesting work, "Christmas-tide," another legend which we think will throw some light on the matter and show that the popular name is probably
correct; or that, like many other places, it has long rejoiced in two names.
There is a curious story on the subject, (the true cross) related in Harl. MS., 2252 (temp. Hen. 8) entitled, 'A grete myracle of a knyghte, callyde Syr Roger Wallysborrow.' Being in the Holy Land, he wished to bring off privily a piece of the cross, and, praying to that effect, his thigh opened miraculously, and received it. He then returned to Cornwall, his native country, having, in the course of his voyage, by virtue of the fragment of the cross, appeased the elements, and prevented shipwreck. On his arrival his thigh opened to liberate the precious relic, of which he gave part to the parish where this happened, hence called Cross parish, and the remainder to. St. Buryan, where his lands were."
Those who came to Sancras play got more entertainment than vas promised in the bill. And Carew in his "Survey of the County," gives an anecdote of the stupidity, feigned or real, of a performer in the Plan-an-guary, St. Just, that afforded much amusement. It having come his turn, the ordinary, or manager, said, "Goe forthe men, and shew thyselfe." The actor stepped forward and gravely repeated, "Goe forthe man, and, show thyselfe." The ordinary, in dismay, whispered to him, "Oh, you marre all the play!" The actor, in very emphatic gesture, repeated aloud, "Oh, you marre all the play!" The prompter, then losing his patience, reviled the actor with all the bitter terms he could think of, which the actor repeated with a serious countenance as part of the play. The ordinary was at last obliged to give over, the assembly having received a great deal more sport than twenty such guaries could have afforded.
We are become too fastidious and pious to be amused with such rude entertainment as the old guary miracles afforded to our simple forefathers. One might even think parts of these ancient dramas irreverent, if not profane; for example, a scene in Noah's flood, where the venerable patriarch and his wife have a scuffle because she wouldn't enter the ark before she had a gossip, with another dame, about a piece of anti-diluvian scandal. She swears by St. John that she will not enter the ark without her gossips, every one; and when she is at last forced in, she salutes Noah with a hearty box on the ear. In the Cornish Mystery of the Creation of the World, by Jordan, the lady is much more civil, and like a thrifty Cornish housewife, is very careful to collect all her property, because, as she says, "they cost store of money." No doubt she took good care to carry into the ark all her milking-pans and bussa-pots, as well as temberan things and gaard for scouring them, not forgetting her brandes and baking-iron, and the clome in the dresser.
In one of the Townly Mysteries, Mak, the buffoon of the piece, steals a sheep from the shepherds, while they are asleep, and takes it home to his wife, who puts it into the cradle, endeavouring to make it pass for a child, and praying that if ever she beguiled the shepherds, who have come in search of it, she may eat the child lying there. The trick, however, is discovered. One of the shepherds going to kiss the child, finds the long snout.
There are many other comic passages in these mysteries, which would now be considered rather gross than witty. Yet, with all that and their ludicrous anachronisms, those who take an interest in ancient manners and customs will be gratified by their perusal.
Mr. Sandys, in the work from which we have largely quoted, also gives us the following interesting bit of information:—
"In 1428, a sum of four pounds was given to Jakke Trevaill and his companions, for making various plays and interludes before the king at Christmas."
Surely Jakke and his comrades went up from St. Just or Sancras, to show king Henry VI what a Cornish guise-dance was like.
The re-introduction of mediaeval mysteries and other middle-age mummeries, as well as the federation of extreme religionists, is a curious and significant sign of these times, in which all unite to pleasantly "trickle the trout," or to extend the good work, as parties of different views may choose to regard this rare union of extreme links.