• Gordon MacLellan

Pilgrims, plague and well-baked bread

the Chapel of our Lady of Bradwell

Come ye pilgrims of Bradwell Abbey

Come to the chapel to see our Mary

We are here to show you the story

Creation to Doomsday in all the glory 1

A sunny day, old buildings, a herb garden nodding flowerheads over the wall, bright sky, cheerful company, carefully spaced audience: a delightful afternoon in anticipation

Hoarding rarely works

Then the Sins arrived. All seven of them, with extra magpies and ducks and chickens (you had to be there). A stray cuckoo foiled a plot and loo-paper hoarding was shown up as Greed’s downfall and that was just the start. The Bradwell Abbey Mystery Play hit an unready world on Sunday 13th September at the City Discovery Centre in Milton Keynes (you might also visit their youtube channel as well)

When that Aprill with his shoures shoote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veynes ins wich licour….(1)

Based in the beautiful remains of a medieval Benedictine Priory, the Centre is an educational charity focussing on the history of Milton Keynes throughout the ages. From the development of the 20th Century New City to this 12th Century Priory, Roman settlements and older still, mammoth tusks from Ice Age visitors, the Centre holds a remarkable archive of resources about the area including the ancient villages that were incorporated into modern Milton Keynes.

The Mystery Play is part of the Centre’s response to this difficult summer. Drawing on old traditions of pilgrimage and mystery plays where Bible stories were told as performances mixing storytelling, music and drama, this play grew as a community project reflecting feelings about the summer. And those old pilgrims on their long wandering walks, what stories did they tell each other round the campfire of an evening? We met bursts of Chaucer, that sense of an old language on the edge of our understanding, of tales we could almost follow, moments of Middle English seized in breathing spaces in the main performance until someone would bustle our scholar off the stage. The stage? This was an outdoor performance and that stage, in good medieval tradition, was an old wooden waggon. Originally Mystery Plays were mostly performed by craft or merchant guilds: a derivation of the craft (ministerium) employed by each guild giving us the term “mystery”. The guilds performed their plays from and around decorated vehicles (and suddenly modern carnival floats take on an older resonance!).

But back to our pilgrims and a slow progress to the Abbey

Once upon a century, there was a statue of Mary on the outer wall of the Abbey that in the 14th century, became noted for the healing she offered and a new pilgrimage destination evolved. A chapel was built to protect the statue (not at all to manage, control and charge the pilgrims!), a chapel decorated with some of the few period paintings in the UK of pilgrims arriving carrying votive offerings of the ailments they hoped Mary would heal ( carved legs, hands etc).

The chapel attracted many pilgrims including, in this account, a wealthy Matron who sponsored a Bradwell Abbey Bake Off….breads were baked, and pies and buns. A building thought to be the original Abbey Bakehouse still stands on the site. The prizewinning loaf being a portrait of the Good Lady herself. This unfortunately proved to be baked so hard that no-one could eat it. Quietly the baked head was tucked away into the walls of the Abbey, fossilising there for centuries until just recently it was found and amid much excitement identified as an original medieval carving quite possibly of Eleanor of Aquitaine!

CelebrationEarth! ? For us this project and its associated performance held a promise of linking old ideas with modern communities: a cast and a script that grew out of local interest, a beautiful setting linking modern communities (of any or of no faith) to their local heritage and exploring how communities have responded to this year’s issues. The Play project brought together heritage, religious heritage and modern experience to offer an example of building feelings into drama and sharing strong messages in a light-hearted (and often signed – I was very impressed) way.

If our St Albans event had managed to happen, we were due to be visited by a swarm of Plague Doctors from Bradwell Abbey, bringing us fear and despair but reminding us that renewed connections with local places has been one of the lovelier discoveries of the summer.

O, the Four Horsemen of the Calypso were there as well (typo)…

This was a joy. An afternoon of laughter and silliness built around intense and determined creativity. This was clever: words, music, action fitting smoothly together, beautiful banners, wonderful costumes. A real sense of pageantry and celebration and a chance to simply laugh. There were lots of openings that next time (We’re all hoping!) the audience might be able to join in more. There were clap-along moments, times to sing, times when we could – should – have been up dancing

An afternoon of delight

There is a streamed film of the performance (60 minutes) here and a set of highlights will follow


1: taken from the script of the play

Photos: all images c. G MacLellan

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