Plays and Pageants

Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
From Francis Bond, Early Christian Architecture (1913)
Origin/Date: England || 1875

Dramatic and staged performances were common in medieval London, covering a range of religious and historical topics. Given his importance as the city’s patron saint, and the popularity of stories about him within the city, it is perhaps surprising that there is only one surviving record of a performance of the birth, life, and death of Thomas Becket. This may be more an accident of which sources have survived, as well as the destruction of any evidence at the Reformation.

The evidence which survives relates to a pageant put on at Midsummer 1518/19 by the Worshipful Company of Skinners. Accounts of expenditure on costumes, staging, and actors show that the pageant focused on the legendary birth and Middle Eastern mother of Thomas Becket, and his martyrdom. The pageants would have been on large moving carts and paraded around the main streets of the City. Playing minstrels and actors dressed as giants accompanied the pageant wagons, creating an exciting sensory atmosphere.


From the Greek ‘martus’ meaning ‘witness'. One who suffers death on account of faith.

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


24 June, a day marking the mid-point of summer and associated with feasts and celebrations in the Middle Ages.


A medieval play usually on a religious theme, often taking place on a mobile wagon or float and part of a series or cycle of plays on the same subject.

Worshipful Company of Skinners

Originally an association of merchants trading in animal skins and furs, and recognised by royal charter in 1327. One of London’s Livery Companies.

20d to Hans for playing the giant and to his wife with a taboret

16d for a hat for him

3s 4d to Thomas Bakehowse for playing the Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket with all the properties both nights

10d to Richard Ward for bearing the ladder for St Thomas’ pageant both nights, and for cord and nails to mend the pageant by the way

18d to Richard Mathewe for playing Gilbert Becket and for his clerk both nights

7s 4d to 6 men to bear the pageant prison for Gilbert Becket both nights

7s to the Wardens of St Giles for hiring a pageant for the Martyrdom of St Thomas, and for taking it home again

9s 6d to Halle, carpenter, for making Becket’s prison, and for mending 2 other pageants and materials

8d for carrying a pageant from Paul’s wharf to the Prince’s wardrobe