Medieval Practice

King Henry VIII and Queen Mary

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

A medieval boy bishop, attended by his canons
Full Homely Divinity


The election and investment of the boy-bishop certainly proceeded from the festival of sub-deacons, also called Festum Fatuorum, Festum Stultorum, Fete des Fous, Festival of Fools, &c.; the burlesque election of a mock pope, mock cardinals and bishops, attended by a thousand absurd ceremonies, gambols, and antics. "It does not appear," says Strutt, speaking of the former, "at what period this idle ceremony was first established, but probably it was ancient, at least we can trace it back to the fourteenth century [thirteenth century].1 In all the collegiate churches it was customary for one of the children of the choir, completely apparelled in the episcopal vestments, with a mitre and crosier, to bear the title and state of a bishop. He exacted a ceremonial obedience from his fellows, who, dressed like priests, took possession of the church, and performed all the ceremonies and offices which might have been celebrated by a bishop and his prebendaries. Warton, and the author of the MS. which he has followed, add, 'the mass excepted'; but the proclamation of Henry VIII. for the abolition of this custom, proves they did sing masse.'"2

Boy Bishop Activity

After the election of a boy-bishop, he was escorted in his mitre by a solemn procession of the other boys to church, where, as we have seen, he presided at the worship, and afterwards he and his deacons went about singing from door to door, and collecting money; not begging, but demanding it as a subsidy. In 1274 the Council of Nice prohibited this mock election, though so late as the time of Hospinian, who wrote in the seventeenth century, it was customary at schools dedicated to Pope Gregory the Great, who was a patron of scholars, for one of the boys to be his representative on the occasion and to act as pope, with some of his companions as cardinals. As Brand wisely observes, 'Ecclesiastical synods and censures have often proved too weak to suppress popular spectacles, which take deep root in the public manners, and are only concealed for a while, to spring up afresh with new vigour.'

Monastery Support Important

The festival of the boy-bishop was largely aided by the contributions of the monastic establishments; to what extent may be gleaned from the following passage, extracted from a MS. note by Mr. Nichols. "In the yearly accompt rolls of the Priory of Finchale the Episcopus Elemosinarice is first mentioned in the year 1367. For some years the money paid him is mixed with other sums; but in 1395 it stands alone as iij s. iiijd.; and again in 1413 (after having disappeared for some years), 'Item Episcopo Elemosinariae ex curialitate, iijs. iiij d.;' that is, 'of courtesy,' and not absolutely of right; the same sum the next year; but in 1417 only ij s., and so for some years after. In 1423 the monks of Finchale, grown more generous, not only gave to the Bishop of the Almonry iij s., but also to the Bishop of Elvett, of courtesy, xxd. The latter must have been a boy- bishop elected in the parish, so called, an outlying portion of the city of Durham. In 1424 the Bishop of the Almonry again had iijs. iiijd., and so forward yearly until 1430; when again, and for several years after, the payment was only ij s. In 1439 the entry is, 'Et Episcopo Puerili Elemosinarise, ij s.' which is repeated in subsequent years. In 1449 the entry is, 'Et in diversis donis datis hoc anno, ac Episcopo Puerili Dunelm. et cantoribus ad festum Natalis Domini, xij s. vj d./ and so to 1457; but in 1458 the words 'sc Episcopo Puerili' are carefully erased in both copies that exist of the roll, and the sum of the entry is reduced from xxvj s. to xxij s. This shows that the contribution was in that year withdrawn; nor was it again made until the year 1466, when the Episcopus Puerilis received iij s. iiij d. The same is returned in subsequent years with some intermissions. In 1474 the entry is, 'Et solvit ad officium Feretrarii (the keeper of the shrine of Saint Cuthbert at Durham) pro Episcopo Puerili, iij s. iiij d.'; and in 1478, 'Et ad officium Feretrarii pro duobus annis Episcopo Puerili vjs. viijd.' The payment of iiij s. iiij d. continues to the latest roll in 1528."3

Dr. George Hall, Bishop of Chester (who died in 1668), in his "Triumph of Romanism" published in 1655, has a characteristic passage concerning this festival: "What merry work," exclaims the good bishop, "it was here in the days of our holy fathers (and I know not whether, in some places, it may not be so still) that upon St. Nicholas, St. Katherine, St. Clement, and Holy Innocents' day, children were wont to be arrayed in chimera, rochets, surplices, to counterfeit bishops and priests, and to be led, with songs and dances, from house to house, blessing the people, who stood grinning in the way to expect that ridiculous benediction; yea, that boys in that holy sport were wont to sing masses, and to climb into the pulpit to preach (no doubt learnedly and edifying) to the simple auditory. And this was so really done, that in the cathedral church of Salisbury (unless it be lately defaced) there is a perfect monument of one of these boy-bishops (who died in the time of his young pontificality) accoutred in his episcopal robes, still to be seen. A fashion that lasted until the later times of King Henry the Eighth, who, in 1541, by his solemn proclamation, printed by Thomas Berthelet, the King's printer, cum privilegio, stoutly, forbad the practice."4

King Henry VIII's Proclamation Banning Boy Bishops

The proclamation here alluded to was "devised by the Kings Majesty, by the advyse of his highness counsel, the xxii day of Julie, xxxiii Hen. VIII., commanding the feasts of Saint Luke, Saint Mark, Saint Mary Magdalene, Inuention of the Crosse, and Saint Lawrence, which had been vsed, should be nowe againe celebrated and kept holie days." And, following the example of the synod of Carnot, which in 1526 had decreed that no scholars, clerks, or priests should, under pretence of recreation, enact any folly or levity in the church on the feast of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, the Innocents, or any other days, and that the garments of the fools performing theatrical characters should be cast out of church, Henry concludes his proclamation thus:

Whereas here- tofore dyvers and many superstitions and chyldysh obseruances have be vsed, and yet to this day are observed and kept, in many and sundry parts of this realm, as vpon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priestes, bishoppes, and women,5 and so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatheryng of money; and boyes do singe masse and preach in the pulpitt, with svche other vnfittinge and inconuenient vsages, rather to the derysyon than any true glory of God, or honor of his sayntes: The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche as to aduance the true glory of God without vaine superstition, wylleth and com- mandeth that from henceforth all svch superstitious obseruations be left and clerely extinguished throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmvch as the same doth resemble rather the vnlawfull superstition of gentilitie, than the pure and sincere religion of Christe.6

Reinstatement by Queen Mary

In the second year of Queen Mary, when all the other ceremonies connected with the holidays of the saints had been revived, the festival of St. Nicholas was also resumed. Machyn tells us in his Diary, that on the 13th of November, 1554, it "was commanded by the Bishop of London (Bonner) to all clerks in the diocese of London to have Saint Nicholas, and to go abroad as many as could have it." On the 5th of December following, being the eve of the festival, this was counter-ordered; and "at the same time came a commandment (from what authority is not stated) that Saint Nicholas should not go abroad, nor about. But, notwithstanding, (adds Machyn) there went about Saint Nicholases in divers parishes, at St. Andrew's, Holborn, and St. Nicholas Olave, in Bread-street."7

Two years later the same writer notices the custom as fully re-established in the metropolis." The 5th of December (1556) was Saint Nicholas' even, and Saint Nicholas went abroad in most parts of London singing after the old fashion, and was received with many good people into their houses, and had much cheer as ever they had in many places."

The following story, preserved in the Actes and Monuments of John Foxe, belongs to the same year.

A godly matrone, named Gertrude Crockhay, the wife of maistre Robert Crockehay, dwelling then at Saint Katharins by the Tower of London, abstained herself from the Popish church. She being in her husband's house, it happened in anno 1556 that the foolish Popish Saint Nicholas went about the parish, which she understanding shut her doores against him, and would not suffer him to come within her house. Then Doctor Mallet, hearing thereof (and being then maister of Saint Katherin's8) the next day came to her with xx. at his taile, thinking belike to fray her, and asked why she would not the night before let in Saint Nicholas, and receive his blessing, &c. To whom she answered thus, "Sir, I knowe no Saint Nicholas (said she) that came hither." "Yes (quoth Mallet), here was one that represented Saint Nicholas." "In deede, Sir (saide she), here was one that is my neighboures childe, but not Saint Nicholas, for Saint Nicholas is in heaven. I was afraide of them that came with him to have had my purse cutte by them, for I have heard of men robbed by Saint Nicholas' clearkes," &c. So Mallet, perceiving that nothing could be gotten at her hands, went his way as he came, and she for that time so escaped.9
"With the Catholic liturgy," says Warton, "all the pageantries of popery were restored to their ancient splendour by Queen Mary. Among others, the procession of the boy-bishop was too popular a mummery to be forgotten. In the preceding reign of Edward the Sixth, Hugh Rhodes, one of the Gentlemen of the Royal Chapel, published an English poem with the title "The Boke of Nurture, for men servants and children, or for the governaunce of youth, with Stans puer ad Mensam." In the following reign of Mary the same poet printed a poem consisting of thirty-six octave stanzas, entitled "The song of the Chyld-Bysshope, as it was songe before the Queenes Majestic in her privie chamber at her manour of Saynt James in the ffeeldes on Saynt Nicholas day and Innocents' day this yeare now present, by the Chylde-Bysshope of Poules churche with his company. Londini, in sedibub Johannis Cawood, typographi reginae, 1555. Cum privilegio, &c." No copy of this curious poem is now known, although it is certain that Warton had seen it, for he thus describes it: "As to the song itself, it is a fulsome panegyric on the Queen's devotion, in which she is compared to Judith, Esther, the Queen of Sheba, and the Virgin Mary."10

The practice of electing a boy-bishop was common in colleges,11 grammar-schools, and parish churches. As patron of scholars, St. Nicholas had a double feast at Eton College, where, in Catholic times, the scholars to avoid interfering, as it would seem, with the boy-bishop on St. Nicholas's day, elected their boy-bishop on St. Hugh's day, in November. Brand, indeed, was of opinion that the anniversary Montem of Eton is merely a corruption of the procession of the boy-bishop and his companions; the scholars, being prevented by the edict of Henry VIII. from continuing that ceremony, gave a new face to their festivity, and began their pastime at soldiers, and elected a captain. Even within the memory of persons living in 1777, when Brand wrote, the Montem was kept a little before Christmas, although subsequently held on Whit Tuesday. . . .

The Custom's Important Influence

It would be no difficult task to enumerate the names of many eminent men who commenced life as choristers. Among popes we have Sergius I., Sergius II., Gregory. II., Stephen III., and Paul I.; among English saints, Wulstan, Bishop of Peterborough; among the first choir of Durham, Eata, Bishop of Lindisfarn; and from the choristers of Magdalen College, Oxford (of whom a nearly perfect list is preserved from 1546 to the present time), four bishops: Cooper, Bickley, Nicholson, and Hopkins; Pierce, after- wards President of the College; and Archdeacon Todd, the editor of Milton. 12

After all something may be said in favour of the custom we have endeavoured to describe. And, perhaps, Strype was not far wrong when he concludes "that it gave a spirit to the children, and the hopes that they might one time or other attain to the real mitre made them mind their books." The spirit of emulation has always had a beneficial effect upon youth. Let us look then kindly upon that ancient ceremony which has been denounced as "the foolish mummery of ignorant monks."

  1. "On December 7, 1299, the morrow of St. Nicholas, the boy-bishop in the chapel at Heton, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, said vespers before Edward the First, then on his way to Scotland, who gave a considerable present to him and the boys that sang with him." Hampson's Medii j&vi Kalendarium, i. 79. This is possibly the earliest notice we have of the boy -bishop in this country. See also the Wardrobe Account of 23 Edward I. 1299, published by the Society of Antiquaries, p. 25. back
  2. Sports and Pastimes, book iv. chap. 3, sect. 10. " Warton quotes the fragment of a computus of Hyde Abbey, near Winchester, which is at variance with the assertion, made by himself and Strutt, that the boy-bishop did not perform mass; it is a disbursement, in 1327, for feasting the boy-bishop, who celebrated mass on St. Nicholas's day." Hampson, Medii ^Evi Kalendar ium, i. 80. back
  3. Charters, &c. of Finchale Priory, Surtees Soc. 1837.
    In his Glossary (p. ccccxxviii) Dr. Raine has inadvertently connected the entries Episcopo Puerili with those Cantoribus ad ludum suum, adding that " in later years, before the Reformation, the latter entry was the only one, but it referred to both, and included the two constitutions." This, however, is not the case. The entry Episcopo Puerili^ iij s. iiij d. continues to the last, and more frequently than otherwise separated by a considerable interval from the entry, Cantoribus ad ludum suwm, ij s: The Christmas ludus of the singing-men was clearly a distinct matter from the celebration of the boy-bishop. It seems to have been simply a feast, like the Ludi Prioris, to which the cell of Finchale yearly made a contribution approaching or exceeding xxx s., and in 1483 a still larger sum, " Et in vino dato in ludis domini Prioris et in die annalis Capituli, xxxviij s. ij d." From the similar entry of xxxiiij s. in 1495, it appears that the Prior had yearly four of these ludi, of which Dr. Raine has given various particulars in his Glossary sub voce, and which are more fully developed in the Durham Household Book, another volume of the Surtees Society, 1844. The false impression that these " games of the lord prior " were connected with " the mock solemnity of the Boy Bishop " was carried on by Dr. Raine from his early work on " Saint Cuthbert," 4to. 1838, p. 136, where he also stated that the latter " was partly performed in the Infirmary, and always for its benefit." These I believe to have been misapprehensions. The profits or surplus of the collections made for the boy-bishop appear everywhere to have been given to the boy himself. J. G. N. back
  4. Quoted by Brand, Pop. Antiq. ed 1849, i. 422. back
  5. In explanation of this we may remark that there is an injunction given to the Benedictine nunnery at Godstowe, in Oxfordshire, by Archbishop Peckham, in 1278, that on Innocents' day " the public prayers should not any more be said in the church of that monastery per Parvulas," i.e. little girls. back
  6. This proclamation is printed in Wilkins's Concilia. back
  7. See the Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant Taylor of London, from A.D. 1550 to 1563. Edited by J. Gough Nichols, for the Camden Society, in 1848. back
  8. From a subsequent passage it appears that Mrs. Crockhay's brother married Dr. Mallet's sister. Mallet became Dean of Lincoln. back
  9. Foxe, edit. 1843-9, p. 1941. back
  10. History of English Poetry, edit. 1840, iii. 265. back
  11. At Magdalen College, Oxford, " on the eve of St. Nicholas, an entertainment at the expense of the College was served up to the choristers in the hall, at which the chaplains and clerks were also present, and occasionally the fellows. The boy-bishop was then chosen, and presented with gloves, &c. as marks of dignity, for which payments occur in the libri computi of the College." Millard's Historical Notices of the office of Choristers, 1848, p. 50. back
  12. See the Kev. J. E. Millard's Historical Notices of the office of Choristers. 12mo. 1848. 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, flip book on the  Internet Archive.

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