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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 8. The Hock-Tuesday Play

In the form in which its scanty remnants have reached us, the folk-play has mainly been affected by humanist learning through the hands of the local scholar. A play—at least a performance consisting of “actionz and rymez”—which appears to have comparatively or entirely escaped that kind of improvement, was the “olld storiall sheaw” of the Hock-Tuesday play at Coventry. Our knowledge of it is chiefly derived from the description in Robert Laneham’s letter to his friend Humfrey Martin, mercer, of London, describing the festivities before Elizabeth at Kenilworth in 1575, during which the play was revived. We there read that it was “for pastime woont too bee plaid yeerely”; that it

  • had an auncient beginning, and a long continuauns: tyll noow of late laid dooun, they knu no cauz why, onless it wear by the zeal of certain theyr Preacherz.
  • Its argument, according to Laneham, was: how the English under Huna defeated the Danes and rid the realm of them in the reign of Ethelred on St. Brice’s night (13 November, 1002— gives the date in error as 1012). Rous ascribed to it another origin, the sudden death of Hardicanute, and the suspicion of his having been poisoned at a wedding, together with the delivery of England from the Danes at the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042. Both explanations are held by some to be later substitutes for the real origin, which, in their opinion, was the immemorial folk-custom of obtaining by force a victim for the sacrifice. Hocktide—the Monday and Tuesday after the second Sunday after Easter—has parallel customs in other parts of the country, in which the women “hocked” the men (caught and bound them with ropes), or vice versa, or strangers or natives were whipped or “heaved.” Women acted prominently on the offensive in these customs, and they did the same in the Hock-Tuesday Coventry play. First of all, the Danish “launs-knights” and the English, armed with alder poles, entered on horseback and fought together; then followed the foot and, after manoeuvring, engaged.
  • Twise the Danes had the better; but at the last conflict, beaten doun, overcom, and many led captive for triumph by our English wéemen.
  • It is possible that the combat for the victim’s head referred to above may have had some influence on the game; and the evolutions of the footsoldiers in ranks, squadrons, triangles, “from that intoo rings, and so winding oout again” may be connected with the sword-dance, mentioned below. It seems clear, however, that this was a genuine folk-play; and it is suggested that “the rymez” had been worked up from local cantilenae of the folk. The Hock-Tuesday play, as we have seen, was only a revival in the early days of Elizabeth, and it is not heard of afterwards.