St. Nicholas

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Boy Bishops or Nicholas Youth Bishops
Boy Bishop, Salisbury Cathedral
2004 Salisbury Boy Bishop

Photo: Salisbury Cathedral

Used by permission

Selecting Nicholas or Boy Bishops was once a popular tradition throughout Western Europe—especially in England, Germany, France and Spain. Reaching its height in the 16th century, the practice continued in some places until the 19th. Being a Boy Bishop for the church is a bit like being "mayor-for-a-day" with a full staff of young officials. The motive is partly to impart religious values, partly a love of youthful pranks, and partly a bit of subversion of normally constituted authority. The ceremony is a lesson in humility and recognition of the wisdom of youthful innocence.

The young age at which Nicholas was selected to become a bishop forms the basis for the custom. During the Middle Ages, choristers would choose one of their number to be the Boy or Nicholas Bishop. By acting the part of a bishop, the boy was expected to learn all about the great ceremonies of the church. From St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, until Holy Innocents Day, December 28th, inversion became the order of the day. The boys, dressed in full episcopal regalia, led in solemn procession. The boy's regular roles, such as acolyte or altar boy, were filled by the reverend canons. The boys taking places of dignity in the higher choir stalls, with the Boy Bishop seated in the bishop's or dean's place. There was fun as well, for during his period in office, the "bishop" could declare holidays and treats as well as distribute sweets and gifts. In York the Boy Bishop and his attendants rode on horseback, visiting all the parishes in the diocese. On Holy Innocents' Day, the complete service was given over to the lads, with the Boy Bishop preaching a proper sermon. After the service he, and his entourage, called at homes, singing songs and giving blessings—receiving entertainments and money gifts in return.

Salisbury
Salisbury Cathedral
Photo: J Rosenthal/Anglican World
Used by permission

The custom spread the length and breadth of England—first in cathedrals, collegiate churches and schools, later in every parish church with enough choristers. The practice became more raucous and disorderly, until, by the time of the Reformation, there were calls to put a stop to the high jinks. The sometimes riotous and rude behavior wasn't limited to the boys--the clergy, as "choiristers" were also known to disrupt services. In England Henry VIII thought it a distraction from real worship and ended the custom. His Catholic daughter Mary revived it, but, under the influence of the protestant Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I put an end to it again. On the continent it survived the longest in Germany—until 1799 in Meiningen.

The last vestige of the old custom was celebrated at Eton College from 1440 until 1844. The Eton Montem took place in on the Tuesday after Whitsunday in June, though it was originally on St. Nicholas Day. The scholars processed to Salt Hill, led by the captain and his chaplain (the head boy of the highest and second classes). The chaplain was dressed as a priest, with a bushy wig. Two boys, "salt bearers" with "scouts," dressed as footmen, begged from passersbys and all the houses for miles around. All the collected money was put in a bag, sprinkled with salt, and given to the captain to use for his expenses as he continued his education the next year. By the mid-19th century, the chaplain read prayers on Salt Hill and then kicked the clerk down the hill. This so offended Queen Caroline that an Act of Pariliament abolished the ceremony in 1847. 

The custom of selectiing a youthful Nicholas Bishop has been revived and updated in some English cathedrals and parishes. Now, as before, the lad, or sometimes lass, is fully outfitted as a bishop, with cope and miter, and carries the Lord Bishop's crozier. At the words from the Magnificat, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly," the Nicholas Bishop processes through the Quire, taking the Bishop's seat; the adult Bishop then takes a lower place. In Salisbury and Hereford cathedrals, the installed Boy Bishop preaches a sermon he's written himself, leads the prayers, and asks for God's blessing on the people. At Hereford the young bishop, a retired chorister, is accompanied by two attendants, also retired choristers, who each read one of the biblical lessons.

English Cathedrals & Parishes That Have Nicholas Youth Bishops

 

Girl Bishop
Saint Nicholas Girl Bishop
Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Cazenovia, New York
Used by permission

Other Places with Nicholas Youth Bishops

USA Australia Austria
  • Graz
France Germany Scotland Spain
  • Village of Safe, where the boy bishop rides on a small native horse
  • Zegama, where the young boy bishop, between three and six years old, is escorted by twenty of his classmates
  • Arraaste
  • Burgos
  • Burriana
  • Legazpia
  • Palencia
  • Segura
Video image
Boy Bishop in Berden, Essex, 1921, click image for preview (page checks browser before loading)
Custom revived from 1901 - 1937, with a Children's Guild of St. Nicholas
More information

Pictures of Youth and Boy Bishops Around the World

Boy Bishop Ceremony Orders of Service

Boy Bishop Sermons

In Medieval England


Links
St Nicholas in Old England
A summary of the tradition in England
Another summary
Historical Notices of the Office of Choristers at Magdalen College School, Oxford (PDF file,seepages 26, 28, 29)
Two Medieval Boy Bishop Sermons
One preached at St. Paul's, London, before 1496 and the other at Gloucester Cathedral in 1558.

For more information: The Medieval Boy Bishops
by Neil Mackenzie, Troubador Publishing, England, copyright 2012.

Carefully researched account all aspects of the medieval tradition—its origins, election of the boy bishop, ceremonies, activities and sermon. Thke book covers the suppression and decline of the practice and its more recent revival. Contains extensive notes and bibliography with eleven appendices. 

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