Light Over England Historical Pageant
‘Arranged under the auspices of the British and Foreign Bible Society and was organised by a large committee thoroughly representative of the Anglican and Free Churches of London’ (Surrey Mirror, 2 December 1938, 9).
Place: New Scala Theatre, Tottenham Court Road (Camden Town) (Camden Town, Middlesex, England)
Number of performances: 22
19 September–8 October 1938
Performances at 7.30pm on: 19 September, 20 September, 21 September, 22 September, 23 September, 25 September, 26 September, 27 September, 28 September, 29 September, 30 September, 2 October, 3 October, 5 October, 6 October and 7 October.
Performances at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on: 24 September, 1 October and 8 October.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Parry, Hugh
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Parry, Hugh
Names of composers
Numbers of performers100
Object of any funds raised
Linked occasionThe 400th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into English in 1538.
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 20000
The Surrey Mirror reported that the pageant ‘was seen by over twenty thousand people.’2
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Boxes £2 (for four people)
Stalls 7s. 6d.; 5s.
Dress Circle 7s. 6d.; 5s.; 3s. 6d.
Arena Stalls 3s. 6d.; 2s. 6d.
Upper Circle 2s. 6d.
Balcony (unreserved) 1s.
Groups of fewer than 10 under the age of 16 could get half price tickets.
Scene I. The Gebeorscip, 680AD
A rude hovel-inn where herdsmen and field-labourers are gathered for evening entertainment. Gurth is serving mead and ale with Cedric, the leader of the conviviality. Caedmon is less at ease with the scene. All speak with thick Newcastle accents in a series of jests and riddles, one of which is about a cuckoo. Caedmon refuses to join in the joviality and singing and leaves.
Scene II. The Neat Stall
In a dim light, Caedmon is seen asleep. Strange music, as from many voices, is heard calling to him, eventually waking him and calling him to ‘sing forth praise: praise unto the Lord’. Eventually Caedmon sings, in his own tongue, ‘Praise we the Lord / Of the heavenly kingdom / God’s power and wisdom / The works of his hand: / As the Father of Glory / Eternal Lord’.
Scene III. The Abbey Gates
Chanting is heard of Novitiates and Nuns, followed by the Abbess Hilda. Caedmon is heard singing and all listen to the miracle of his song. Caedmon recounts the miracle and then all join in his hymn of praise.
Scene IV. A Cell in the Monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Were Mouth (Jarrow)
Bede is sitting in a cell surrounded by a writing boy and monks. The aged Bede hears a divine song of Caedmon and sets to dictate it to the boy. Though frail, he perseveres to complete the recording of Caedmon’s song, before falling asleep.
Episode I. Alfred of England, The Moot Hill, 900AD
People acclaim Alfred, accompanied by Queen Elswitha, Asser and Eadward. Alfred holds a moot court listening to a number of plaintiffs, including Tammas, whose wife Hilsha wishes to leave him for the Earl Odfurth’s household. Alfred proclaims the sovereignty of the husband, proclaiming Mosaic Law. Alfred forcibly unites the husband with his violent wife. Odfurth apologises for not knowing the scriptures. Alfred acknowledges that he is soon to die and calls on his son Eadward to lead the people as a good King.
Episode II. Wicliff, Lutterworth: The Village Green
Three mendicant friars are disputing with John Ashton, leader of the ‘Poor Preachers’, waiting for Wicliff so they can tell him of the error of his ways. They criticize his heterodoxy and his gospel that ‘all men are equal in the sight of God’, which they see as fomenting revolution against their masters. One, Ashton, who is sympathetic to Wicliff, suggests that he is widely loved. The second Friar says ‘That be the evil; this Wicliff has given you the scriptures in your own tongue’. Wicliff, the ‘Poor Preachers’, and Lollards enter singing hymns, accompanied by John Purvey and John Horn. The Friars attempt to dissuade him from preaching and accuse him of being a false shepherd among other things. The First Friar accuses him: ‘In translating the Holy Word out of the sacred Latin into the vulgar English, thou hast made it to be the more open to the laity and to women who would read than it has formerly been to the most learned of the clergy’. They continue to dispute and the Friars leave, whilst Ashton remains. Wicliff asks the lay preachers to spread the word of God in vernacular English and to ‘suffer joyfully some pain for it at the end’.
Episode III. Tyndale
Scene I. The Hall at Little Sodbury Manor, May 1524
Lady Walsh and her children are listening to Ethelwyn singing. There is a long discussion with Brother Anthony about singing and religion. It is admitted to him that the boys’ tutor, Tyndale, is translating the Bible, which Anthony sees as blasphemy. Tyndale arrives from London with John Frith, who he met whilst dining with Erasmus at Cambridge. He greets them at length and relates his meeting with a Bishop where he failed get a job as official translator. He also tells of his preaching at St Dunstan’s-in-the-west, where he was given shelter by Humphrey Monmouth. Brother Anthony berates both John Walsh and Tyndale for wishing to translate. John Walsh replies that there are four prisoners who must be freed: ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who have been too long prisoned in the Latin tongue’. Brother Anthony curses them and leaves, and the household prays.
Scene II. The Printing House of Peter Quentel in the City of Cologne, Germany, 1526
Friars Roye and Jerome are engaged in sorting the sheets. Roye, who repeatedly breaks out into verse, and Jerome discuss that Cochloeus, whose book they are publishing, is in fact spying on Tyndale’s efforts. They agree they must flee before they are arrested but also decide to take copies of Tyndale’s Bible to a ship they mean to escape on. Tyndale enters furtively and tells that men are coming to arrest them. They pack up the printed quarto sheets before Cochloeus knocks at the door. After a moment they overpower and gag him before knocking him unconscious with the sack containing the sheets. By the time the German authorities arrive they have escaped.
Scene III. Greenhithe, 1526 AD
A ship is docking in a busy harbour. John Frith embarks, having come from Worms. He unloads a ‘cotton bale’ actually containing illicit copies of the Tyndale Bibles that Augustus Packington and Robert Necton buy. Two officers appear to search their cargo. Humphrey Monmouth grants them shelter. Packington admits that he was sent by the King to buy the books with the object of burning them. However, Frith is not dismayed and declares: ‘I have the money for the purchase, and this will I send to our friend across the sea for the continuance of his work’, which will lift Tyndale out of debt. The soldiers find copies of the books and take Necton away, who joyfully remarks his gladness that ‘these books shall give light even unto all the city. I will gladly give my life for that.’
Scene IV. Hampton Court, 1526 AD
Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Tunstall with Sir Thomas More are seated with Dr Robert Barnes. Wolsey is being accused of extravagance, which he defends as necessary for his station. He then accuse Barnes of lavishness. Barnes exits and they reflect on the perilous state of the Catholic Church and the need to stem the ‘tidal wave of Lutheran heresy’. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn enter, besotted with one another (though Henry is still married to Catherine of Aragon). Anne confesses, against Wolsey’s harsh questioning, to finding a great appeal in Lutheran services. She tells Wolsey she is thus a heretic: ‘You’d as like roast me at the stake as look at me’. Henry replies this cannot be so and dismisses Wolsey before leaving. Wolsey laments Henry’s weak will and prays for the state of the church.
Scene V. The English House at Antwerp, 1535AD
Ann Poyntz is chiding Tyndale over his forgetfulness, brought on by bookishness. A caller, Henry Phillips, enters. Ann distrusts him. Phillips asks Tyndale to dine but he is already occupied. Tyndale lends Phillips money, and the latter promises to return. Thomas Poyntz comes in saying again that he does not like Phillips and warns him that Tyndale’s enemies will try to take him back to England. There is danger if Tyndale leaves the sanctuary of the house. Roye appears and they discuss the printing and dissemination of thousands of Bibles. Phillips re-enters to escort Tyndale to dine with merchants of the town. After they both leave, the others suspect him of treachery.
Scene VI. Outside the English House
Dufief and Phillips are talking (this part is set moments earlier) about the ‘English mischief-maker… while he lives there can be no hope of stamping out his work.’ Dufief, Procureur-General, surrounds the house with soldiers who arrest Tyndale before the others arrive. Tyndale proclaims ‘I am betrayed (sorrowfully looking at Phillips), and by him I thought my friend.’ It transpires (if the allegory of the scene were not already heavy enough) that Tyndale had given Phillips forty pieces of silver. Tyndale is escorted to prison but before that says goodbye to his friends.
Episode IV. The Great Bible
Scene I. Hampton Court, 1537AD
Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell are talking about the King’s impending command to allow the Bible to be printed in the vernacular, translated by Miles Coverdale whilst at the same time relying heavily on Tyndale’s own translation. A messenger enters with the order that this be done, at which Cranmer rejoices.
Scene II. The Great Door of Old St Paul’s, 1538AD
A great crowd is assembled. A procession enters with Cromwell, Cranmer and Henry VIII who proclaims: ‘This day we give thanks unto Almighty God for the mighty gift of His Own Gracious Word, given in our own English tongue, which shall be for you and your children unto all ages.’
Episode V. Light Over the World
Scene: The Meeting Room of the Religious Tract Society, 7 December 1802. Rev. Joseph Hughes is introducing the Rev. Thomas Charles from Bala in Wales at the Religious Tract Society. Charles complains that he can no longer get hold of Welsh language Bibles. He tells the story of a girl from Cadr Idris who walked fifty miles to purchase a Bible in Welsh. The scene shifts to Charles’ study where he is working, retelling the story of the girl, Mari Jones. Unfortunately, Charles has sold out of Welsh-language Bibles. He tells her sadly that there is unlikely to be any further as there is little demand. Mari Edwards plans to return home and memorize a friend’s Bible, but Charles promises to give her his final Bible. The scene returns to the Religious Tract Society which pledges to found a similar society in Wales to propagate the Bible.
Unto all the World
This final episode was broken into a series of short scenes.
I. John Eliot in America talking with the Indians and promising to translate the Bible into their native tongue.
II. John Wesley preaching in Bath in front of Beau Nash. Nash tells Wesley not to preach but is told to desist by an old woman.
III. William Carey in an Indian house (c.1830), having translated the Bible into ‘no less than thirty-five languages’ of the subcontinent.
IV. Henry Martyn at Dinapore giving Bibles in the Arabic, Hindu and Persian tongues to native people.
V. Robert and Mary Moffat with John Chapman in Africa, discussing the conversion of the locals.
The characters gather ‘in noble array: poets, painters, sculptors, singers, leaders in every walk of life—men and women who, by their dreams and songs and sacrifices, inspired by the Holy Word of God, have helped the sons of men on their journey towards the heights. And THE OPEN BIBLE remains with its Open Secret for all mankind to read, and its great light lights the seven lamps before the Throne which are the seven Spirits of God—Truth, Memory, Power, Liberty, Obedience, Life, Love.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Cædmon (fl. c.670) poet
- Hild [St Hild, Hilda] (614–680) abbess of Strensall–Whitby
- Bede [St Bede, Bæda, known as the Venerable Bede] (673/4–735) monk, historian, and theologian
- Alfred [Ælfred] (848/9–899) king of the West Saxons and of the Anglo-Saxons [also known as Aelfred, the Great]
- Asser (d. 909) bishop of Sherborne
- Edward [called Edward the Elder] (870s?–924) king of the Anglo-Saxons [also known as Eadward]
- Wyclif [Wycliffe], John [called Doctor Evangelicus] (d. 1384) theologian, philosopher, and religious reformer
- Tyndale, William (c.1494–1536) translator of the Bible and religious reformer
- Roy, William (d. in or before 1531) Observant friar and evangelical author
- Frith, John (1503–1533) evangelical theologian and martyr
- Wolsey, Thomas (1470/71–1530) royal minister, archbishop of York, and cardinal
- More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535) lord chancellor, humanist, and martyr
- Barnes, Robert (c.1495–1540) religious reformer
- Tunstal [Tunstall], Cuthbert (1474–1559) bishop of Durham and diplomat
- Henry VIII (1491–1547) king of England and Ireland
- Anne [Anne Boleyn] (c.1500–1536) queen of England, second consort of Henry VIII
- Cranmer, Thomas (1489–1556) archbishop of Canterbury
- Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540) royal minister
- Hughes, Joseph (1769–1833) Baptist minister
- Charles, Thomas (1755–1814) Methodist preacher
- Eliot, John [called the Apostle to the Indians] (1604–1690) minister and missionary in America
- Wesley [Westley], John (1703–1791) Church of England clergyman and a founder of Methodism
- Nash, Richard [known as Beau Nash] (1674–1761) master of ceremonies and social celebrity
- Carey, William (1761–1834) orientalist and missionary
- Martyn, Henry (1781–1812) missionary and translator
- Moffat, Robert (1795–1883) missionary in Africa and linguist
- Chapman, John (bap. 1705, d. 1784) theologian and classical scholar
Newspaper coverage of pageantThe Times
Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser
Book of words
- Parry, Hugh. Light Over England Historical Pageant Book of Words. London, 1938.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
Sources used in preparation of pageant
The vast majority of pageants included scenes highlighting the importance of the Christian religion to a place or people, and also to the development of the English nation. Yet, for all that religion loomed very large in many Edwardian pageants, the English Church Pageant of 1909 had been the only pre-1914 pageant exclusively devoted to the place of religion in society. The post-war era saw a significant rise in church pageants, a number of which commemorated anniversaries of particular churches. The inter-war and immediate post-war period also saw a number of church missionary pageants, such as Portchester 1932, the Rock 1934 (written by T.S. Eliot) and the 1949 Bristol Flame of Freedom Pageant. These aimed to raise religious awareness as well as funds for overseas missionary work or for church building and restoration at home. They tended to be directly run by church organisations and to attract a specifically religious audience from local congregations. London-based pageants, such as The Rock (1935) and tended to be held indoors in theatres rather than in places with historical associations with particular events.
The 1911 Oxford Pageant of English Literature had staged a scene to commemorate the tercentenary of the publication of the King James Bible, and it also featured Caedmon. However, the commemoration of the tercentenary of the Tyndale Bible in Light Over England was more focused on the emergence of a vernacular tradition dissenting from the established church, stressing the independence of religion from state control. Hugh Parry, a Welsh Congregationalist minister, had previously written and acted as Pageant Master in the 1920 Plymouth Mayflower Pageant, as well as the Pageant Play, The Templar Knights, staged at the Crystal Palace in April 1933.3 Parry had also produced a huge pageant on the history of the Order of Rechabites (a religiously-themed Friendly Society that promoted temperance), which was performed at Manchester in June 1935 before 93000 members of the order to mark the movement’s centenary.4
‘Light over England’ is structured around the history of vernacular English rather than the evolution of the church, which was the focus of most religiously-themed pageants. Caedmon, whose song is famously the first piece of vernacular poetry to be recorded, and Bede, who translated St John’s gospel into English, are linked together as founders of the tradition taken up by John Wicliff. We are given an account, made famous by Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, of Tyndale’s quest to translate the New Testament into English and the constant attempts of the English authorities to prevent this and to capture those responsible. The scene at the Greenhithe docks, where smuggled copies of Tyndale’s Bible are discovered and sent to be burnt, attests to the power of the gospel over oppression: rather than the endeavour coming to nothing, the money paid to Tyndale allows him to continue his work. The scene at Hampton Court, where Henry VIII’s then mistress confesses to the appeal of Lutheranism (then considered a heresy punishable by death), gives credence to the view that Henry’s conversion was a matter of expediency to allow him to marry Anne rather than a result of any deeply-held religious conviction; there is a contrast between the consistently firm faith and ultimate martyrdom of Tyndale and his friends, and Henry’s own shocking volte-face which allowed the Bible to be printed.
The scene then jumps to further instances of translating the Bible into vernacular tongues including Welsh, Native American, Hindu, Persian, and various African languages. The message of the post-1538 scenes is that the spreading of the gospel is best done by nonconformists rather than state-sanctioned religions and that it is the word of God, translated into one’s own tongue, that encourages faith on one’s own terms rather than those imposed by earthly authority – a central tenet of Protestantism which many nonconformists accused the Anglican church of disregarding.
Like T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, critical views were split depending on one’s religious perspective. While the programme hailed the pageant as commemorating the ‘Greatest Anniversary of the Century’ and stressed that ‘Everybody should make a special effort to see these intensely moving and dramatic scenes which are certain to inspire in each spectator a greater love for the ever-living BOOK which is our priceless heritage,’5 the Times begged to differ, calling the pageant ‘hardly a just celebration of the noble book we know’.6 The review went on, in scathing terms:
But Mr Parry is unfortunately overawed by the greatness of his undertaking and its opportunity for a playwright. He knows the names and the events chiefly associated with them, but he is prevented from translating them into terms either of a pageant or of a play. The adventures of the spirit can be presented as a spectacle only with difficulty, and to make a play of them requires more than the interminable repetition of commonplaces which is all Mr Parry’s embarrassment allows him to offer.7
Special opprobrium was singled out for the scene with Caedmon, suggesting that ‘Even the genealogical trees of the Bible are not so dull as this’!8 The reviewer had the most polite things to say about the performers themselves: ‘It is the greater pity, seeing that Mr Parry has the services of a large and most enthusiastic company, who might at least have been employed in a large and grandiose pageant instead of wasting their time on dialogue with which professional actors could do little.’9
Other smaller newspapers were more sympathetic about the play, which was visited by a number of congregations from outside London.10 In a review of the year, the Surrey Mirror singled the pageant out as a cultural highlight, labelling it ‘spectacular’: ‘By reason of its beauty and inspiration it scored an immediate triumph. It was only put on for a short run of three weeks, but, during that period, it was seen by over twenty thousand people.’11 This judgment was possibly coloured by the fact that members of the local churches had been so inspired by the pageant that they had asked Parry to re-stage it, with the newspaper posting a number of calls for performers, suggesting the spiritual benefits of performing: ‘This pageant is designed to be an act of thanksgiving in dramatic form for our English Bible, and, properly presented, to stimulate the religious life of the participants and of the community. Those who take part in this spirit will be rendering high service in the cause of spreading the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures’.12 The pageant was restaged at Redhill, Surrey, from 30 January–5 February 1939 with Parry acting as the producer.13
Despite the condescension of the Times at the overwrought and clearly drawn-out nature of the pageant, it seems that both audiences and performers were deeply drawn to the message of the play and believed that Tyndale’s achievement should be celebrated as an inspiration to the present-day church.
- Surrey Mirror, 12 August 1938, 4.
- Surrey Mirror, 2 December 1938, 9.
- Biggleswade Chronicle, 7 April 1933, 4.
- Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 28 June 1935, 4.
- Hugh Parry, Light Over England Book of Words (London, 1938), 3.
- Times, 21 September 1938, 8.
- Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 23 September 1938, 5.
- Surrey Mirror, 2 December 1938, 9.
- Surrey Mirror, 12 August 1938, 4.
- Surrey Mirror, 2 December 1938, 9.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Light Over England Historical Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1121/