Watch the Oldest Play from Britain: The Harrowing of Hell (1st and 8th July)

The Harrowing of Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Harrowing of Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This year marks the 400th anniversary since the death of Shakespeare, Britain’s greatest playwright, but British drama can trace its origins much further back to some 1,300 years ago. This 1st and 10th July in Durham there’s a unique opportunity to watch The Harrowing of Hell, a play that has a claim to be the earliest dramatic work from Britain, having possibly been composed on Lindisfarne in the eighth century. 

Like many plays from this early period, The Harrowing of Hell has its basis as a religious performance. Probably written on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne about the year 740, this Anglo Saxon play depicts Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion to redeem the souls of the departed.

According to orthodox Christian belief, the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise placed all humanity in the power of the devil until Christ redeemed those who accepted the faith by his death on the Cross. But what about those who had lived and died before Christ’s incarnation? This led to the legend, first found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, that between his death on the Cross and his resurrection, Christ went to Hell, overthrew the devil, released the ancient righteous along with Adam and Eve, and led them to heaven. This is the subject of the Latin Harrowing of Hell.

The play survives in fragments, found in the ninth-century Book of Cerne but possibly derived from eighth-century Lindisfarne, which has a good claim to the title of the earliest dramatic work from the British Isles. It breaks off early in Eve’s appeal to Christ, but an Old English version of it, recast into sermon form, survives in the tenth-century Blickling Homilies, where it is preceded by a scene in which the lesser devils blame Satan for bringing Christ to Hell and allowing him to defeat them. Researchers from the Records of Early English Drama North East project have pieced these together to form a modern English version with music dating from the same period.

This version, which will be performed in modern English, includes both scenes and links them with a ninth-century ceremony for the dedication of a church in which the bishop sings Christ’s words in the Gospel of Nicodemus derived from Psalm 24: Atollite portas principes vestras, et elevamini, portae eternales, et introibit rex gloriae ‘Lift up your gates, you princes, and be lifted up, you eternal doors, and the King of Glory will come in’, to which a priest inside the church responded with Satan’s Quis est iste rex gloriae ‘Who is that King of Glory?’ and received the reply Dominus virtutum, ipse est rex gloriae ‘ The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory’. ‘Satan’ then fled from the church back to Hell.

The Harrowing of Hell will be performed along with a second liturgical play, Lawrence of Durham’s Peregrini, in St Oswald’s Church on 1st and 8th July at 19.30. A combined ticket for The Harrowing of Hell and Peregrini costs £5.00, payable on the door or purchasable in advance from Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre

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