The Ordinalia Mystery Plays

Coming again to St Just's historic open air theatre site
4 -18th September 2021

A spectacular celebration of Cornish culture and heritage

St Just Ordinalia 2021

St Just Ordinalia 2021

In September 2021, at the historic Plen an Gwari site in St Just, we will be holding a two week festival of open air repertory performances of all three Ordinalia plays, and Cornish language and theatre Workshops.

Under autumn sunsets and the dark skies of West Cornwall, we shall be creating a true celebration of Cornish cultural life. Our funded project will start next spring with a series of exhibitions and taster sessions across Cornwall, to coincide with the loan of the Bodleian Ordinalia manuscripts to Kresen Kernow, Cornwall's new archive centre.

We will be storing and preserving our costumes, sets and equipment, and maintaining a complete blueprint and archive of activities to enable the Ordinalia to be performed in St Just every three to four years thereafter, as a permanent event on the Cornish cultural calendar.

The Ordinalia play texts represent a Cornish heritage that has survived the Reformation and the destruction of the magnificent college at Glasney which created them; the whims of erratic kings and queens, the very Church itself, political rivalry and puritanical governments, rebellions, civil wars, world wars, and the loss of all but two of the playing places they were created for. In all their long history, nothing and no one has managed to suppress and stifle these plays, which can still speak to and move modern audiences.

We are a company of professionals, semi-professionals and talented volunteers who will create a community led production in an historic setting. A core group of people who were involved with the 2000 - 2004 productions are helping to lead the project, and to build upon and transfer experience and expertise to a new generation. We have opportunities for work shadow, paid and volunteer roles with our exciting project.

The legacy of our productions will benefit schools, the community, the Cornish language, tourism and will showcase the talents of the many participants who work with us.


The Ordinalia Trilogy

We shall be performing 6 plays each week, two evening performances of each play

Cornish language

Our choirs will sing in Cornish. The plays will be mainly in English, with some interesting Cornish features

Cornish Markets

On Sundays, with Cornish language and Ordinalia history workshops, Cornish wrestling and Cornish dancing

A Spectacular Outdoor Setting

In the historic Plen an Gwari amphitheatre, under autumn sunsets and the dark skies of West Cornwall

Modern, secular themes

reflected within the original medieval Christian narrative

Evening performances

With extra schools' matinees for each of the three plays

Mynstrels, gwreugh dhen-ny pyba, may hyllyn warbarth donsya,

'Minstrels do ye pipe for us, that we may dance together'


Ordinalia booking and festival information

Ordinalia booking and festival information

For those interested in receiving information and updates from us

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Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteer Opportunities

All the information you need about the 150 or so volunteer roles and how to register your interest.

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Work Shadow Opportunities

Work Shadow Opportunities

All the information you need to know about the 18 work shadow opportunities we have open and how to apply

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2 Paid Internships

2 Paid Internships

Gain useful paid work experience as part of the Ordinalia.

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To help our Ordinalia 2021 project reach its target, please consider making a small donation.

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Ordinalia Plays

Ordinalia Plays
An Tas a Nev y'm gelwir, formyer puptra a vydh gwrys. Onan ha tri on yn hwir, an Tas ha'n Mab ha'n Spryt 

I am called the Father of Heaven, Creator of everything that is made. We are truly three in one, the Father, the Son and the Spirit
(Origo Mundi, verse 1)

The Ordinalia Cycle of scripts and stage plans consist of 3 plays written in the late 14th century: The Creation of the World (Origo Mundi); The Passion (Passio Domini), and The Resurrection (Resurrexio Domini). The aim of the original performances was to convert the local population to Christianity, and they were performed by local people, with local place names, jokes etc. to have general appeal.

The three plays together cover the whole scope of the bible stories from the beginning of the world to doomsday.

The plays, although similar to the mystery plays of the North of England, are unique to Cornwall and an important part of its heritage. They are the oldest surviving theatrical plays in Britain.

The plays were written in medieval Cornish with Latin subtitles by the clerics of Glasney College in Penryn, when Cornish was the predominant language spoken in Cornwall, to teach ordinary people the stories of the bible in an accessible and appealing manner. Only three manuscripts still exist, two of which are held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and one which is in the National Library of Wales.

In July 1969, Bristol University Drama Department performed the Ordinalia cycle at Perran Round, Perranporth. This was believed to be the first production of the Ordinalia for 300 years

From 2000 to 2004 the St Just community instigated a series of productions of the Ordinalia Cycle of plays. These productions involved over 150 community volunteers (across a multi- faith /no faith sector) as actors, musicians, choir, makers and crew. Each play consisted of a circle of eight stages (mansions) with large set pieces on a central stage e.g. Noah's Ark, the Crucifixion. Our modern playwright, guided by the 14th century stage plans & scripts produced highly engaging and successful plays accessible to all.

A small paid production team comprised of skilled local professionals with an eye for detail and authenticity of staging, ensured high quality, spectacular results. The plays attracted larger audience numbers each year, with over 15,000 people coming to see them.

St Just's Plen an Gwari is the oldest working open air theatre space in Britain.

Past Productions

Origo Mundi - 'The Creation of the World'

September 2000

Our First Production, being a new adaptation from the original Cornish manuscripts by Pauline Sheppard, Cornish playwright and author, who represented Cornish theatre at the 1981 International Berlin Festival

The Passion

August and September 2001

Building on the success of the previous year, with the same experienced production team led by Dominic Knutton, artistic director of the Cornish Theatre Collective

The Resurrection

August and September 2002

Our productions received funding support from Millenium Festival; Heritage Lottery Fund; European RD Fund; Penwith DC; Cornwall CC; and commercial sponsorship

The Ordinalia Full Cycle

August 2004

All three plays performed in repertory, at the Plen an Gwary in St Just - the historic theatrical site used for all our earlier Ordinalia productions

Sponsors and Supporters

Sponsors and Supporters
The main sponsor of our Ordinalia Project is the charity St Just and District Trust, founded in 1997. The Trust has specific objects linked to the culture and heritage of the area, which lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage site.

The Trust raised the funds for, built and operates the Knut in St Just - 'the big little space for creative community contributions and collaboration' - which is a heritage centre and backspace facility specifically designed to support Ordinalia productions.

As a community initiative, our project is supported by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of St Just Town Council, by the creative faculties at Falmouth University, and by the talented actors, singers, makers and musicians of St Just.

The St Just Ordinalia project is also supported by Sir Mark Rylance, actor, theatre director and playwright; Emma Rice, actress, director and theatre professional; and Michael Eavis CBE, creator of Glastonbury Festival.

Below is an extract from Sir Mark Rylance's letter of 6th May 2019

'I am delighted to support this visionary project, and lend my name to its promotion. I have always been an avid supporter of community theatre, and the benefit it brings, helping people to feel more confident, that they matter, and have a contribution to make, where they can be part of a larger wonderous and joyful thing. Ever since I created a performance at The Rollright Stone Circle in Warwickshire, I have been excited about the potential of our ancient sites for gathering a community in a profound experience of story, history and nature. Our culture is old and intimately connected to the land. A sense of belonging is the obtainable objective, belonging to something sustainable and unique. This must be one of the deepest satisfactions possible.

This project is special in that the St Just community have already raised money for, and successfully produced the Ordinalia Cycle of plays from 2000 to 2004, and subsequently raised money for, and built, a backstage facility adjacent to the historic Plen an Gwari in St Just - the oldest working theatre in Britain, a project I supported at the time...........'

And an extract from Emma Rice's letter of support to our project:

'These astonishing plays are a wonderful resource that span centuries of Cornish culture and
allow Cornwall to celebrate its own history, landscape and unique brand of theatrical spirituality.

I had the pleasure of seeing a production of these rare plays in 2000 - 2004 and it was a profoundly moving experience to see members of the community, young and old alike, coming together with such diverse creativity and joy.

think this would be a wonderful addition to the Cornish cultural calendar and one that could attract much needed business to the area, as well as offering a meaningful large scale community event that.......would bring joy, meaning, pride and hope to the community.'

Barbara Santi's 'Creation' Documentary

September 2000

Barbara Santi's 'Passion' Documentary

September 2001

Schools and Resources area

Use this link
This is accessible to schools, colleges and universities by appointment, and ranges across:

  • the books, studies and materials used to research the context and settings of the plays; 
  • the history of the Plen an Gwari site; 
  • the development of the project and funding arrangements; 
  • the original and final scripts used for the performances; 
  • flyers and brochures for the productions, newspaper cuttings, and photographs of the cast, the sets, the costumes and the performances; 
  • cast lists, cue lists and rehearsal schedules; and
  • the working diary of the director of the performances, Dominic Knutton, after whom the building at the Knut was named.
According to different sources, they may pre-date or post-date  the York Cycle of Mystery Plays - a cycle of 47 extant pageants or plays performed by the craft guilds of that city. They are believed to have been written in the second half of the 14th Century, after the devastation of the Black Death plague in 1349.

However, the tradition of these mystery plays emanates from France, and it is more likely that Cornwall, with its traditional close links to Brittany, was the point of entry in England for this new type of theatrical production.
​​​​The opening words of the written text for the first play are 'Hic incipit Ordinale de Origo Mundi'. A free translation may be 'Here begins the script of the play Origin of the World.'

The text then continues in Cornish with Latin stage directions
The Ordinary was on stage directing the amateur actors, the majority of whom had not been taught to read. He carried the entire script,  and acted as the prompter when lines were forgotten.

The nature of the role would have depended on the character of the 'Ordinary' - some of whom were probably far from that!
There is reference in the Ordinalia scripts to pipers - '

Origo Mundi - Abarth an Tas, Menstral a ras, Pebough ware (In the name of the father, Minstrels of grace, pipe at once)

Passio - Mynstrels, gwreugh dhen-ny pyba' (Minstrels do ye pipe for us).

There is an example of Cornish pipes carved in the early sixteenth century on a bench end in Altarnun Church, Bodmin Moor. Other examples of carvings of Cornish pipes are in churches at nearby Davidstow, St Austell and Braddock,

The bagpipe shown has two long chanters of slightly different lengths with small bell ends. The chanters are fingered independently - one playing the upper half of the octave, the other the lower half.
Glasney was a centre of ecclesiastical power in medieval Cornwall and probably the best known and most important of Cornwall's religious institutions. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1548.

It was a college, or collegiate church, not an abbey (there were no monks there). It had an establishment of one provost and 12 secular canons and held the patronage of sixteen parishes.

Glasney College composed the Ordinalia trilogy, and another miracle play Bewnans Meriasek (the Life of St Meriasek)
Plen an Gwari survives as a name for two Cornish villages, one near Redruth and one near Goldsithney. There is also a village called 'Playing Place' near Truro. However,  there are only two remaining surviving complete circular theatrical structures  - one in St Just in Penwith, and the other at Perran Round, near Perranporth.
The Cornish Language  was one of the six European Celtic languages, and was in the Brittonic Group comprising Breton and Welsh - although more closely linked to the former.

Cornish died out as a spoken language in the late eighteenth century, and much of our understanding of it comes from the Ordinalia plays. Apart from Old Cornish fragments in the Bodmin Manumissions, and some references in a Latin manuscript of Boethius, the only complete references are to be found in Middle Cornish manuscripts.

With the Ordinalia plays are the two other important records of the Cornish language - Beunans Meriasek, written around 1504, and Bewnans Ke, written around 1500, respectively commemorating the lives of the Saints Meriadoc and Kea.
The plays attracted larger audience numbers each year, with over 15,000 people coming to see them. We used a dilapidated shed as a backstage resource for the above, but in 2014 after generating over £30,000 from local fundraising initiatives and over £150,000 in grants, our beautiful purpose built facility was opened - called ‘The Knut’ in memory of Dominic Knutton who directed all four re-enactments of the Ordinalia plays, and who sadly died in 2007.

Keep in the know about Ordinalia 2021