Medieval Salisbury Cathedral

A Description of the Boy Bishop Ceremony

from "The Festival of the Boy Bishop in England" by Edward F. Rimbault

Boy bishop's tomb
Salisbury Cathedral, England
Photo: J M Rosenthal
The most important feature of the festival of St. Nicholas was the election of the BOY-BISHOP, Episcopus Puerorum, Episcopus Choristarum. This festival was not confined to one country, and, of course, therefore, it may be easily imagined that it assumed a very different complexion according to time and place, being in one locality of a serious character, and in another verging closely on the burlesque. The best account we have of it in the first of these forms is from the learned John Gregory, whose attention was called to the subject by happening to find that "in the cathedral of Sarum there lieth a monument in stone, of a little boie habited all in episcopal robes, a miter upon his head, a crosier in his hand, and the rest accordingly. The monument lay long buried under the seats near the pulpit, at the removal whereof it was of late years discovered, and translated from thence to the north part of the nave, where it now lieth betwixt the pillars, covered over with a box of wood, not without a general imputation of raritie and reverence, it seeming almost impossible to everie one, that either a bishop could bee so small in person, or a childe so great in clothes."

Finding that he could obtain no solution of this mystery from the learned, Gregory obtained a sight of the old statutes of the Cathedral, and was fortunate enough to find one amongst them with the title DE EPISCOPO CHORISTARUM—of the Chorister-Bishop. This referred him to the Sarum Processionale, in which he found the following minute and curious description of the ceremony:

The Episcopus Choristarum was a chorister-bishop chosen by his fellow children upon St. Nicholas' daie . . . . From this daie till Innocents' day at night (it lasted longer at the first), the Episcopus Puerorum [Boy-Bishop] was to bear the name and hold up the state of a bishop, answerably habited, with a crosier or pastoral staff in his hand, and a miter upon his head; and such an one too som had, as was multis episcoporum mitris sumtuosior, saith one—verie much richer than those of bishops indeed. The rest of his fellows from the same time beeing were to take upon them the style and counterfaict of prebends, yielding to their bishops (or els as if it were) no less then canonical obedience. And look what service the verie bishop himself with his dean and prebends (had they been to officiate) was to have performed, the mass excepted, the verie same was don by the chorister-bishop and his canons upon this Eve and the Holiedaie.

By the use of Sarum,—for 'tis almost the onely place where I can hear anie thing of this,1—a that of York in their Processional seemeth to take no notice of it—upon the Eve to Innocents' daie the chorister-bishop was to go in solemn procession with his fellows ad altare Sanctce Trinitatis et omnium Sanctorum (as the PROCESSIONAL—or ad altare Innocentium sive Sanctce Trinitas, as the PIE2) in capis, et cereis ardentibus in manibus, in their copes, and burning tapers in their hands, the bishop beginning and the other boies following, Centum quadraginta quatuor, &c. Then the vers, Hi empti sunt ex omnibus, &c. And this is sang by three of the boies. Then all the boies sing the PKOSA3 Sedentem in superna majestatis arce, &c. The chorister-bishop in the mean- time fumeth the altar first, and then the image of the Holie Trinitie. Then the bishop saith, modesta voce, the verse Lcetamini; and the respond is Et gloriamini, &c. Then the praier which wee yet retain Deus cujus hodierna die, &c. But the rubrick to the pie saith, sacerdos dicat, both the praier and the Lcetamini—that is, som rubricks do; otherwise I take the benediction to bee of more priestlie consequence then the oremus, &c., which yet was solemnly performed by the chorister-bishop, as will follow.
In their return from the altar, precentor puerorum incipiat, &c.—the chanter-chorister is to begin De Sancta Maria, &c. The respond is Felix namque, &c. Sic processio, &c. The procession was made into the quire by the west door, and in such order (as it should seem by Molanus) that the dean and canons went foremost, the chaplains next, the bishop with his little prebends in the last and highest place. The bishop taketh his seat, and the rest of the children dispose of themselves upon each side of the quire upon the uppermost ascent, the canons resident bearing the incens and the book, and the petit canons the tapers, according to the rubrick. And from this hour to the full end of the next daies procession, none of the clergy, whatever may be their rank, ascend to the upper seats.
Then the bishop from his seat says the vers, Speciosus forma s &c. Diffusa est gratia labiis tuis. Then the praier, Deus qui salutis aterna, &c. Pax vobis. Then, after the Benedicamus Domino, the bishop of the children sitting in his seat is to give the bene- diction, or bless the people in this manner: Princeps Ecclesite, pastor ovilis, cunctam plebem tuam benedicere digneris, &c. Then turning towards the people hee singeth or saith (for all this was in piano cantu; that age was so far from skilling discants or the fuges that they were not come up to counterpoint) Cum mansuetudine humilitate vos ad benedictionem, the chorus answering Deo gratias, Then the cross-bearer delivereth up the crosier to the bishop again, and then the bishop, having first crossed his forehead, says, Adju- torium nostrum in nomine Domini, the chorus answering qui fecit ccdum et terram. Then, after some other like ceremonies performed, the Episcopus Puerorum, or chorister-bishop, begineth the Completorium or Complyn, and that don he turneth towards the quire and saith, Adjutorium, &c. Then last of all he saith, Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus pater, et films, et spiritus sanctus.

ON INNOCENTS' DAY, at the second vespers, let the cross-bearer receive the crosier of the boy-bishop, and let them sing the antiphon as at, the first vespers. Likewise let the boy-bishop bless the people in the way above-mentioned, and the service of this day be thus fulfilled. (RUBRIC PROCESSIONAL). And all this was don with that solemnitie of celebration and appetite of seeing that the statute of Sarum was forced to provide that no man whatsoever, under the pain of anathema, should interrupt or press upon these children at the procession spoken of before, or in anie other part of their service in anie waies, but to suffer them quietly to perform and execute what it concerned them to do. And the part was acted yet more earnestly, for Molanus saith that this bishop in some places did receive rents, capons, &c. during his year, &c.; and it seemeth by the statute of Sarum that hee held a kind of visitation, and had a full corespondencie of all other state and prerogative. More then all this, Molanus4 a tells us of a chorister-bishop in the church of Cambraie who disposeth of a prebend which fell void in his moneth (or year, for I know not which it was) to his master. In case the chorister-bishop died within the moneth, his exsequies were solemnized with an answerable glorious pomp and sadness. He was buried, as all other bishops, in all his ornaments, as by the monument of stone, spoken of before, it plainly appeareth."5

After having performed the functions of a bishop within his own cathedral church and city, the next part the boy-bishop had to play was that of making a visitation. That this was not unusual we learn from the Northumberland Household Book, in which it is mentioned that the Earl was annually accustomed to entertain the boy-bishop of York and Beverley, and from the notice we have of the boy-bishop at Winchester.6

  1. This is a somewhat extraordinary statement to make, for Gregory had the reputation of being a man of research. The custom of electing a Boy Bishop was universal. back
  2. The PIE was the old Romish Ordinal, in Latin called Pica. "Ordinale quod usitato dicitur Pica sive Directorium Sacerdotum." back
  3. The PROSA. or PROSE is a name for certain songs of rejoicing, chanted before the gospel, and so called because the regular laws of metre are not obserred in them. back
  4. "D. Joannes de Molanus, De Historia S. Imaginum de Picturarum," 12mo. Laghmi, 1619. back
  5. "Episcopus Puerorum, in Die Innocentium; or, A Discourse of an Antient Custom in the Church of Sarum, making an anniversarie Bishop among the Choristers." Pages 95-123 in Gregorii Posthuma; or Certain Learned Tracts written by John Gregorie, 4to. Lond. 1649. back

  6. "It was upon this festival that some wealthy man or another of the parish would make an entertainment on the occasion for his own household, and invite his neighbours' children to come and partake of it; and of course Nicholas and his clerks sat in the highest place. The Golden Legend tells how 'a man, for the love of his sone that went to scole for to lerne, halowed every year the feast of Saynt Nycholas moche solemply. On a tyme it happed that the fader had to make redy the dyner, and called many clerkes to this diner.' (Wynkyn de Worde, Lond. 1527.) Individuals sometimes bequeathed money to find a yearly dinner on St. Nicholas's day for as many as a hundred scholars, who were, after that, to pray for the soul of the founder of the feast." Dr. Rock's Church of our Fathers, iii. part 2, 216. back

From Edward F. Rimbault's introduction to Two Sermons Preached by the Boy Bishop at St. Paul's, Temp. Henry VIII, and at Gloucester, Temp. Mary, John Gough Nichols, editor, Camden Society, 1875, Internet Archive.

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