Medieval Boy Bishop Tokens

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

Lead boy bishop tokens have the image of the boy bishop, or a miter representing him, on one side and a long-armed cross, with three gold balls for Nicholas, on the other. Inscriptions include SANCTE NICOLAE (Saint Nicholas), ORA PRO NOBIS (pray for us), and AVE REX GENTIS ANGLORUM (Hail King of the English People). The quantity of these tokens attests to the popularity of the festival.

Token, both sides
Lead Boy Bishop groat token
Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, EnglandSt Nicholas Center Collection
Token, both sides
Lead Boy Bishop penny token
Found near Norwich, EnglandSt Nicholas Center Collection

The question of money struck for the boy -bishop—"St. Nicholas' pence"—is thus summed up in a MS. note by Mr. Nichols: "The only place in this country where I have detected any evidences of such imitative coinage is Bury St. Edmund's.

In the church of St. Mary in that town there was a Guild of St. Nicholas; and in the years 1842-3, during the removal of the priests' stalls from the chancel-aisles to the choir of that church, a number of leaden pieces, formed in imitation of money, were discovered. Some were published in the Numismatic Chronicle, and others in the Journal of the Archaeological Association; and as many as a dozen varieties, some of the size of groats and others of pennies, are described in 'An Architectural and Historical Account of the Church of St. Mary, Bury St. Edmund's. By Samuel Tymms, F.S.A., 1854.' 4to. pp. 6267. Mr. Roach Smith was disposed to regard these tokens as 'medals of presence,' struck to be given to those who at particular seasons assisted at particular services; but Mr. Daniel H. Haigh thought they were undoubtedly relics commemorative of the solemnity of the boy- bishop. He remarked that they were evident imitations of the groats and pennies of Henry VII. and his predecessors; and, as the coinage of St. Edmundsbury did not differ from that of the royal mints, they may be presumed to have followed the general type of the Bury coinage. He adds the following reasons for their not possessing the variety of devices which marks the continental monnaies des Eveques des Innocens.
The money of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of Durham, and the Abbot of Reading, was distinguished from that of our Edwards, Henries, and Richards, by a simple mint-mark only. The Abbot of St. Edmundsbury, in imitation of whose right of coinage these tokens were probably issued, is not known to have placed any distinguishing mark upon his coins. In France, where almost every prelate and baron was allowed to strike money in his own name, we find the names of the Bishops of Innocents, and of Fools, similarly commemorated upon their pseudo- coinage. In England, on the contrary, where all the current coin of the realm was impressed with 'the image and superscription' of the reigning King, and where also the ceremony of the boy- bishop was more exclusively a religious ceremony, the name of St. Nicholas appears on the tokens issued in commemoration of this festival, and that of the infant prelate is lost.
It was possibly the practice to sink a new die each year for this coinage, which will account for the varieties of type that are found; and it may have been from design, rather than accident, that some were thrown behind the stalls of the church.
There are, however, other similar tokens, which we can scarcely appropriate to the festival of the boy-bishop, though they may have been struck for other festivals of a similar character. One bears a mitred head between the letters s and M, with the legend SANCTE MARTINE ORA PRO, and on the reverse a shield charged with a chevron between them, and the legend GRATIA DEI SVM ADSVM. See also in Kigollot's work, p. 96, SANCTE AUGUSTINE ORA PRO NOBIS.
With respect to Mr. Roach Smith's suggestion that these were commemorative 'medals of presence,' it is to be remembered that the pilgrims' tokens, of which so many have been recovered in recent reseaches, were usually fastened on the cap or garment, and only figured on one side. These tokens, on the contrary, are evidently struck in imitation of money, and were, therefore, probably intended to be so regarded, at least in sport.

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.

back to top