CW Was a Socialist? Summary of “Judgement at Chelmsford”

41DcYp0tASL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Judgement at Chelmsford is a pageant play, written for a church setting. The Diocese of Chelmsford was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 1939, and the theatre director Phyllis Potter, with whom Williams had worked before, commissioned him to write them a play. So he did, under his nom de plume “Peter Stanhope” (yes, the playwright from Descent Into Hell). He actually kept up something of a double existence, going under that name at rehearsals. Hadfield claims, in her usual confused way, that there CW had some kind of fight with his wife over the rehearsals of this play, but it is hard to tell from her nearly illiterate syntax what exactly the cause of the argument was (probably CW’s time commitment to the rehearsals and his emotional relationships with members of the cast) or how it was resolved.

In Judgement at Chelmsford, CW created a huge, sprawling drama about the history of Chelmsford. The play is a very long one, in 8 episodes with a prologue and an epilogue (93 pages in the original 1939 OUP publication; 85 pages in Collected Plays) and has an enormous cast and extremely complex staging, with music written by Martin Shaw


A programme for ‘Judgement at Chelmsford’ at the Scala Theatre on the 26th June 1947.

It was scheduled for performance at the Scala Theatre in London from 23 September to 7 October 1939, but “by 28 August, Phyllis Potter was making blackout curtains instead of costumes” (Hadfield 175). The outbreak of war on September 3rd prevented its being performed. Instead, it was published at the end of 1939 as a pamphlet by the OUP, under CW’s pseudonym Peter Stanhope. He sent copies to the members of the Order of the Coinherence, which had been founded almost simultaneously with the start of the War. Judgement at Chelmsford was eventually performed (after CW’s death) in June of 1947. (Programme courtesy; see the image on the right).

The premise of the play is that the Diocese, personified as a young woman, has been brought to Judgement Day on her birthday to see whether she will be allowed to enter heaven. An Accuser stands forth to show each of her works so that she may be judged. “If you were called to-night to be judged, how / could you answer?” She is asked, and The Accuser says:

I show fact
outward and inward. It is her business
if the facts of her history rise between her and you
to shut the gate of heaven in her face, and her fate
leaves her outside.

This led me to wonder: Is this a works gospel? It seems not to be: Judgement Day is a showing-forth of her faith in deeds. She needs to show evidence of her salvation, rather than earn it by her works. There is an ongoing question: How is she any different from the world? Is the Church any different from the world; are believers any different from nonbelievers?

The Accuser is one of those ambiguous figures, like the Skeleton in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, who is, according to Hadfield, “not so much an actively malicious figure as the presentation of how evil things happen” (81). In this play, The Accuser is, apparently, each person’s desire revealed:

God made me to be the image of each man’s desire—
a king or a poet or a devil—and rarely Christ.
Most men when at last they see their desire,
fall to repentance—all have that chance.

And—spoiler alert—it turns out in the end that the Accuser is really Chelmsford’s Lover. He has been putting her through all this because it is good for her. Lovely, eh?

The play is in eight episodes:

  1.      1939: How to get the young people into the churches nowadays?
  2.      1566: Witch hunt.
  3.      1517: The Reformation, martyrs who translated the Bible into English
  4.      600s: girls perform a play on the Seven Deadly Sins at Barking Abbey
  5.      1381: John Ball and Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Rising
  6.      700: Martyrdom of St. Osyth
  7.      300s: King Cole, father of Helena who became the mother of Constantine
  8.      17th cent: Thomas Ken preaches about St. Helena’s finding of the True Cross

Yet it is not only the history of the Diocese; it is also the history of the soul of man. CW writes in his synopsis that

“the complete pageant offers a representation not only of the history of the diocese, but of the movement of the soul of man in its journey from the things of this world to the heavenly city of Almighty God.”

This could be compared to Outlines of Romantic Theology, in which the life of each individual couple is mapped onto the life of Christ, or, saying the same thing the other way around, in which the universal spiritual truth is acted out in both Christ’s earthly life and in the universal church, but also particularly in the life of each couple.

This leads me to ask: Is it an allegory? I suppose it is, in a way. Chelmsford has to watch her past unfold on the stage before her, seeing what she has done right and what she has done wrong. Meanwhile, this is also what happens to an individual Christians: we are shown our lives in the light of eternity, and they don’t show up well at all. And yet, they are redeemed.

In another way, this play is about the healing of schisms. There are terrible divisions in the play: between those inside and those outside the church; between witches and witch-hunters (who is the real villain?); between martyrs and their executioners; between rich and poor, establishment and revolutionary. The contemporary opening of the play suggests that the audience themselves will soon be facing a horrible schism, as it begins to: “the sound of aeroplanes and bombs.” Remember, this was written in the summer BEFORE World War Two started, before the Blitz. Yet CW was prescient enough to know what would soon happen to his beloved London. It would be torn by bombs while his family was torn apart and his adored coworkers torn from their place and scattered. Grevel Lindop argues that CW is making a strong political point in favor of socialism in this play, making reference to Thaxted, the town whose well-known vicar was Conrad Noel, “the Red Vicar,” a famous Christian socialist. There is also a lot about “social justice” in this play, and a theme that we must take care of people’s bodies before we can take care of their souls, and that salvation is for this life as well as the next.

chelmsford-logoAll of this had to be approved by the Diocesan authorities. This play “required him to integrate historical episodes with his own mystical view of Christianity” and both with official Church approval (Lindop 293). The Rural Dean would not allow the word “lechery,” so CW had to change it to “Luxury” (Lindop 294). I find myself rather surprised that it had to pass the censors, so to speak, but more surprised that it did. Its explicit depiction of witchcraft, full of invocations, and its negative portrayal of the witch-hunter; its frank discussion of sexuality as expressed by a young working-woman; its extremely high-church, even Roman approach to martyrs and relics; and its political overtones—kudos to the Rural Dean for being cool with all this. Or perhaps he just didn’t understand what it was all about.

censorAnd then there are two other rather astonishing pieces of content. One is sexual, the other magical. Or, rather, they are the same thing. Lindop writes:

Here and there Williams’s private fantasies emerge. The pageant’s climax, where the young woman representing Chelmsford is bound to a cross, illustrates how complex were the links between his erotic imaginings and his mystical theology. The image of the crucified woman undoubtedly appealed to his mildly sadistic tendencies; but it also represented the archetypal Christian soul taking on the Cross, mystically participating in the sacrifice of Christ. Image21Moreover, it replicated the Rosicrucian Adeptus Minor initiation of twenty years before, in which Williams had been “raised on the cross of Tiphereth.”

Indeed, CW wrote a letter to the director in which he pointed out and explained the Kabbalistic symbolism to her. Gareth Knight, in The Magical World of the Inklings, writes that pageant plays use many of the same methods as ritual magic, and that Judgement at Chelmsford invokes “archetypal forces” and evokes “place memories.” It is “a form of initiation drama” that “contains the mechanics of a magical evocation of consciousness.”

These should not surprise us by now. And perhaps England had gotten used to CW’s oddities by then. It is very good poetry and quite good drama.

There are places in which the old Gospel is retold in powerful new language: Jerusalem says:

I am the oldest and youngest of all the Sees,
Jerusalem; the body of my Bishop was never shrined
after it was twined on the criss-cross pontifical chair,
and a mitre there of a sharp kind on his head.

And then there are two of my favorite parts. One is a commentary on the difficulties of being a poet:

The Girl-Abbess: Do you like writing poetry?
Udall: It is rather difficult sometimes. One has to work extremely hard at it, even though I am one of the best poets in the kingdom.
The Girl-Abbess [with interest]: Really? I thought it all just… [she waves her hand vaguely] came. Did King David have to work when he wrote the psalms? are they poetry?
Udall: They are, Lady Abbess, and he did. if anyone tells you that poetry comes [he waves his hand as she did] Lady Abbess, tell him—tell him he is an infidel and an unbeliever. Almighty God does not give those things as easily as all that.
The Girl-Abbess: Really? You astonish me, father. The Lady Abbess […] always gave us to understand that that was the way in which she composed her hymns.

And the other is a commentary on what makes Christian art. The priest wonders why the most devout girl in the school isn’t playing Mary Magdalene. Well, explains the director, because she can’t act.

The Confessor: Why couldn’t she have been the Magdalen?
The Producer: She’s a worse actress, Father. She does much better as Sloth. Mary makes a finer show.
The Priest: But she’s not so pious.
The Producer: If piety can’t act, Father, piety ought not to be in a play.

Hear, hear. That’s my new favorite line: If piety can’t act, piety ought not to be in a play. Maybe I’ll make that the new motto for Ekphrasis. It’s a good line for any Christian in the arts to remember.984c08419bd58dae439b5ef0a6b9873c


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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23 Responses to CW Was a Socialist? Summary of “Judgement at Chelmsford”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for such a vivid, detailed overview and consideration, with all the helps and encouragements to explore further! Such, as: the fascinating-looking Scala link and the notice of Martin Shaw’s part in the proceedings, to name but two!

    The latter had never properly registered with me, as far as I recall: very interesting to read the “Martin Shaw (composer)” Wikipedia article and follow its ‘external link’ to


    The Thorn of Avalon, an Opera (performed on 6 June 1931 – and published by OUP in that year!) sounds interesting, with, as ” Dramatis Personae: St Joseph of Aramathea, The Archangel Gabriel, Sir Bevedere, now a hermit; The spirit of King Arthur; Sir Lancelot, a penitent; and A Puritan” (text by Barclay Baron (1884-1964), whom describes as “a 20th Century Anglican layman who was dedicated to the cause of Christian social work throughout his adult life”).

    And, there is a curious sentence under Judgement at Chelmsford: “The Chelmsford Diocese had wanted to produce ‘The Rock’ but copyright issues had prevented this” – Dr. Shaw having written the music for Eliot’s 1934 “Pageant Play”.

    The Wikipedia article also links a transcription of Erik Routley’s memorial “appreciation”, with the interesting details that “when the Diocese of Chelmsford created for him the office of diocesan music organizer – as it were, bishop of music – in 1936, one simply comments, ‘Why on earth did they wait so long?’ […] Martin was turned sixty by then, yet only then did he get recognition from the Church. Of course, in the light of later history this isn’t surprising: the office, when Martin Shaw retired, was not continued and no other diocese imitated the fitful enterprise of Chelmsford.”

    “The Redeemer: An Oratorio for Lent” with “words, selected by Shaw’s wife Joan Cobbold, […] taken from the Gospels and poetry written between the 4th and 20th centuries” and written in 1943-44 and “broadcast on Saturday March 10th 1945 on the Home Service” sounds like it would be interesting to compare with C.W.’s work of the period, especially plays (finished and unfinished):

    The Home page says, “Contact us for performance recordings of: THE GREATER LIGHT an anthem for double choir – the finale to The Rock, Shaw’s collaboration with T.S. Eliot,” – sadly, there is nothing similar for any of the Judgement at Chelmsford music, which apparently survives in the British Library and which it would be fascinating to hear!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The “commentary on what makes Christian art” reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers, not least The Zeal of Thy House (according to Wikipedia presented at the Canterbury Festival in June 1937 and “later produced in London at the Westminster Theatre in March 1938”). I don’t see a Judgment at Chelmsford entry in volume two of her letters, and am insufficiently ‘up on’ C.W. and D.L.S. to know if there is other evidence of their discussing it, but it wouldn’t surprise me!


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “King Cole, father of Helena who became the mother of Constantine” and “Thomas Ken preaches about St. Helena’s finding of the True Cross” make me think it would be fun to try reading this play and Adam Fox’s Old King Coel next to each other – the latter was published by OUP in 1937 and he was Professor of Poetry when Williams arrived in Oxford. (I wonder if there’s any evidence of interesting exchanges between them on this matter – or among the Inklings more widely?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      For that matter, one might further compare David Jones’s attention to this idea that the mother of Constantine was the daughter of Cole/Coel – though I can’t recall how much (if any) was expressed in In Parenthesis (1937), which C.W. read in proof (I suppose, thanks to Eliot), and how much in The Anathemata (1952) – and, further, Evelyn Waugh’s in Helena (1950).


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your detailed description and reflections also make me want to read this play and the Amen House masques next to each other, to compare the workings of a publishing house and a diocese and the use of allegory and ritual in depicting each.

    (Speaking of comparisons, “He has been putting her through all this because it is good for her” made me think of Anthony and Damaris in The Place of the Lion, and one conversation in particular!)


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thomas Ken is someone very interesting – but a quick check of the C.W. manuscripts in the Wade via online catalogue did not find his name, and I can’t recall, and have not yet tried to check, if he comes into the Rochester biography, and so don’t know if he comes up elsewhere in Williams’s writings. I can imagine he might have happened to turn up in Inklings conversations, if they turned to hymns, or the late Seventeenth-century, for example, or, say, bishops or saints named ‘Thomas’ whose integrity you admired without necessarily agreeing with their conclusions!

    I ran into a post about him not so long ago, on Stephanie Mann’s blog:


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just ran into a couple quotations from the encyclical Quadragesimo anno of Pius XI (coming up for its 85th anniversary on 15 May), reminding of how lively attention to, and debate about, Christianity and socialism were in the 1930s: “Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned [q.v.], cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth” (117), and “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms” (120).

    It is also worth recalling in this context how many of Williams’s shorter or longer works (including Seed of Adam and a selection of Taliessin through Logres poems in early versions) were first published in ‘Christendom, A Journal of Christian Sociology’, edited from 1931 to 1950 by “Maurice Benington Reckitt (May 19, 1888 – January 11, 1980) [who] was a leading British Anglo-Catholic and Christian socialist writer” (to quote his Wiikipedia article).


  7. Another intelligent post. And another reason for me to pick up the collected plays off the shelf (which I bought new to support the publisher who took the risk to publish them).
    Am I right that Lewis’ “Personal Heresy” critique is of no help at all wrt Charles Williams? CW seems to bleed belief and personality everywhere. His biography haunts every verse and line.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There needs to be a COMPLETE plays — there isn’t yet. There is at least one more in the Wade. I’ll probably read it on this upcoming visit. But I *don’t* think I should be the one to transcribe and publish it.
      It’s been a while since I read “The Personal Heresy,” but I think you’re right. CW poured himself into his work in an obvious way that’s essential to understanding what he’s up to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I haven’t tried to check the work in Collected Plays as a textual critic, but if we assume it is largely well done, perhaps it could be treated as Volume I of a ‘Collected Plays’ to which a subsequent volume or volumes could be added (though, of course, if it were not too cumbersome, (eventually) having everything between the boards of one physical volume would be great!).

        I’ve got (thanks to Ruth Spalding) a photocopy of The House of David (the play composed entirely of Biblical quotations for churches that would not allow non-Biblical texts to be pronounced within them: cf. “CW / MS-96 THE HOUSE OF DAVID. 22 pp. TMs. in 22 lvs. with revisions”, and “CW / MS-433 / X […] (ca. 1939) 16 pp. TMs. pc. in 16 lvs.” and “CW / MS-434 / X […] (ca. 1939) 21 pp. TMs. pc. in 21 lvs” (both “with revisions by Ruth Spalding”).

        Which one(s) in the Wade were you thinking about? (There are interesting fragments of a late play where Christ appears as ‘the Mask’ (if I remember aright – though I’m not sure whether in Bodleian, Wade, or both!)

        (I’d love to see what-all existed textually of the ‘dark’ play-of-various-titles, never performed, but clearly with connections with the composition history of C.W.’s last novel, the eventual All Hallows’ Eve, which Grevel discusses so interestingly, but briefly!)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      A very interesting question about the “Personal Heresy”! Lewis addresses matters in a general way that is also Williams-specific in his commentary part of Arthurian Torso – with respect to ‘unshared background’, for one thing. I’ve never read those two back-to-back, and am probably (over?-) due for a rereading of each, in any case…

      Further interesting would be to compare and contrast with Lewis’s PH-AT, Williams’s The English Poetic Mind and Reason & Beauty. He looks at what would seem the obviously, very autobiographical Prelude by Wordsworth as a poem about some character called ‘William’, and Milton’s seemingly obviously theological Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained as poems including characters called ‘God’ and ‘the Son of God’! (The Figure of Beatrice could be added to this conversation, too!)

      Again, what of Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress? In how far might we equally accurately say of it, “His biography haunts every verse and line”? Yet he seems (too optimistically?) to have expected its ‘matter’ (and the ‘manner’ of expressing it) to ‘work’ without the reader knowing anything about the author.

      A rich field for thought and discussion!


      • See, I am missing the whole Williams piece in this conversation (other than you, David, or Sorina).I allowed Lewis to build in my mind slowly, but I found Charles Williams all in one gulp (a 6 month exploration period). I know him, yet I don’t know all his works yet. So I very much could be wrong.
        As a Lewis scholar, it should here be known that I commit the Personal Heresy with Lewis. I don’t think his argument holds, overall. He is write that we cannot look to any particular poem and know the author–beyond the skill of the verse. The author might take a character’s voice. I do so as writer or teacher. But, granted that, I think that Lewis “leaks” into his literature.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I just caught up with John Rateliff’s “The Lost Letter: Seeking the Keys to Williams’ Arthuriad”, reprinted from Mythlore, issue 127 (Vol.34 No.1), Fall/Winter 2015, pages 5 – 36, in installments from 27 February through 8 March on his

          It is not only interesting in itself (with lots to enjoy arguing about, from my point of view), but interesting to read in this context for its combination of generally concluding the Arthurian poetry is perhaps more like a roman-à-clef than anything else (but one where some of the wards of the keys have been sawn or filed off to prevent unlocking, as it were) on the one hand, and, on the other, for the case made in ‘Appendix A: How to read Williams’ Arthuriad”, which proposes the likeliest successful way will be to ignore all that and relax and read it like a long poem or cycle about “the failure of the Arthurian experiment and the withdrawal of mythic Britain” but with a last poem “which transforms that disaster into a eucatastrophe”.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Perhaps ‘we’ (experienced and/or game-for-the-challenge Williams-tacklers) should brainstorm about a suggested reading order (or series of options) least likely to discourage new readers: things combining most evidently attractive – or at least, intriguing – and least bewildering or immediately annoying?

    Maybe post-Cranmer plays (plus Chapel?) would be a good general recommendation – with The English Poetic Mind and Reason & Beauty added for those already interested in the (English) poetical ‘classics’ (and Figure of Beatrice for, say, those interested in (looking into) Dante, Courtly Love, the Pre-Raphaelites)?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And wouldn’t a (modest) analogue of the BBC Shakespeare for sample performances be jolly/


  9. Pingback: Who is this King? CW as Contemporary Commentator in “Henry VII” | The Oddest Inkling

  10. Hi Sørina Higgins. Thanks for this thoughtful article on the play. I am especially grateful for the date of the actual performance as it is not printed on the programme! I am currently working on a list of Martin Shaw’s compositions and seeing as how this would have been a first performance, wonder how I can reference the date you give for it here.


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