The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Boy Bishop

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 68-71

It is uncertain at what period the custom of electing boy bishops on St. Nicholas’s Day commenced in England; but there is little doubt that after it had been established on the continent, it would soon be imported hither, The association of this saint with the rite was, of course, due to his patronage of children. Warton thought he found traces of the religious mockery of the boy bishop as early as 867 or 870, in the Greek Church. H.E.P., by Hazlitt, 1871, ii., 228-32, where farther particulars may be found.

The ceremony has been traced to Canterbury, Eton (1441), St. Paul’s, London, Colchester, Norwich, Winchester (1380), Exeter, Salisbury, Wells, Westminster, Lambeth, York, Beverley, Rotherham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and to several places abroad; there can be little doubt that it was almost universal. Gregory thought that the boy bishop was peculiar to Salisbury, perhaps because he met with the usage in the Sarum service book, and Warton supposed that the custom was confined to collegiate churches. It seems to be thought that this character was originally known as Episcopus Choristaram merely. In the archives of Norwich, down to 1521, are sundry entries relevant to the expenses incurred here on this anniversary, and notices of moneys left to support the institution. Aubrey’s Letters, &c., 1813, i. 302-4. In the statutes of Salisbury Cathedral, enjoined anno 1319, Tit. 45, it is ordered that the boy bishop shall not make a feast. The boy bishop, as it should seem from the Register of the capitulary Acts of York Cathedral under the date 1367 was to be corpore formoses, or the election to be void; and as in the same church, under a regulation of 1390, every chorister was bound to possess "claram vocem puerilem," such a quality was as justly imperative in the episcopes puerorem. Hazlitt’s Warton, 1871, iv., 237. The Boy Bishop at Salisbury is actually said to have had the power of disposing of such prebends there as happened to fall vacant during the days of his episcopacy.

Edward I., in the 28th year of his reign, being near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, gave forty shillings to the Boy-Bishop and his companions for singing before him on St. Nicholas’s Eve. It was during the King’s passage through Newcastle on this occasion that a boy-bishop said vespers before him in his chapel at Heton. It appears that at Canterbury in 1464 there was no election of a boy bishop in the Grammar-school owing to the default or negligence of the masters. Liber Johannis Stone. monachi eccl. Cant. de Obitibus, &c. sui Cenobii (1415-67), a MS. in the library of C. C. C. Camb. One of the original rules drawn up for the scholars of Dean Colet’s Foundation, in 1510 was: "Your chylde shal, on Chyldermas Daye, wayte vpon the boy byshop at Pauls, and offer there—.’ In the Statutes of St. Paul’s, 1518, the following clause occurs: "All these children shall every Childermas Daye come to Paulis Churche and hear the Childe Bishop sermon: and after be at the hygh masse, and each of them offer a ld. to the Childe Bishop, and with them the Maisters and Surveyors of the Scole."

A tract by Hugh Rhodes, one of the children of the chapel under Henry VIII., appeared, according to Herbert, in 1555 containing, in thirty-six 6-line stanzas, the "Song of the Child-Bishop of St. Paul’s," as it was snug before the queen at her manor of St. James in the Fields in her privy chamber on St. Nicholas’s Day and Innocents’ Day that year. It is described as a fulsome panegyric, in which the queen is compared to Judith, Esther, the Queen of Sheba, and the Virgin.

In cathedrals this Boy Bishop seems to have been elected from among the children of the choir. After his election, being completely apparelled in the episcopal vestments, with a mitre and crozier, he bore the title and state of a Bishop, and exacted ceremonial obedience from his fellows, who were dressed like priests. Strange as it may appear, they took possession of the Church, and, except mass, performed all the ceremonies and offices. Northumb. Househ. Book, ed. 1827, p. 439, for an ‘Inventory of the Robes and Ornaments of a Boy or Bearn Bishop." In Hearne’s "Liber Niger Scaccarii, 1728, vol. ii. pp. 674, 686, we find that Archbishop Rotheram bequeathed "a myter for the Barnebishop, of cloth of gold, with two knopps of silver gilt and enamyled." But in the ordinary churches the appointments were almost equally sumptuous and costly. The Churchwardens’ accounts of St Mary at Hill, 10 Henry VI., mention two children’s copes, also a mitre of cloth of gold, set with stones. In 1523, 2s. 8d. are charged for the Bishop’s dinner and his company on St. Nicholas’s Day in the same accounts at Lambeth. Even posterior to the Proclamation of 33 Henry VIII., in the St. Mary at Hill books, 1549, is: "For 12 oz. silver, being clasps of books and the Bishop’s mitre, at vs. viijd. per oz. vjl. xvis. jd." These last were sold. In the "Inventory of Church Goods" belonging to the same parish, at the same time, we have: "Item, a mitre for a Bishop at St. Nicholas-tyde, garnished with silver, and enamyled, and perle and counterfeit stone." Maskell pointed out that, from the services to be said by the Boy Bishop and his choristers, as laid down in the Sarum Processional, it appears that "not only upen the Innocents’ or Childermass Day did the ‘Episcopus Puerorum’ claim his rights, and perform all the ecclesiastical duties of his temporary rank, except the mass, but from the feast of St. Nicholas to Innocents’ Day, a period of nearly a month. Whence it does not seem so extraordinary, as it otherwise might, that during this time the Boy Bishop might die, in which case he would be buried with the due honours; and the tomb at Salisbury is explained." Selected Centuries of Books, 1843, pp. 15-16, note.

On the eve of Innocents’ Day, the Boy Bishop was to go in solemn procession with his fellows, to the altar of the Holy Trinity and All Saints, or (as the Pie directs) to the altar of Holy Innocents or Holy Trinity in their copes, and burning tapers in their hands. The Bishop beginning, and the other boys following: "Centum quadraginta quatuor," &c. Then the verse, "Hi emti sunt ex omnibus,’ &c. and this was sung by three of the boys. Then all the boys sang the "Prosa sedentem in supernâ majestatis arce," &c. The Chorister Bishop, in the mean time, fumed the altar first, and then the image of the Holy Trinity. Then the Bishop said modestâ voce the verse "Lætamini," and the response was, "Et gloriamini," &c. Then the prayer which we yet retain: "Deus cujus hodierna die," &c. In their return from the altar Præcentor puerorum incipiat, &c., the chanter-chorister began "De Sancta Maria," &c. The response was "Felix namque," &c., et "sic processio," &c. The procession was made into the quire, by the west door, in such order that the dean and canons went foremost: the chaplains next: the Bishop, with his little Prebendaries, in the last and highest place. The Bishop took his seat, and the rest of the children disposed themselves upon each side of the quire, upon the uppermost ascent, the canons resident bearing the incense and the book: and the petit canons the tapers, according to the Rubrick. And from this hour to the full end of the next day’s procession no clerk is accustomed (whatever his condition may be) to take place above his superiors.

Then the Bishop on his seat said the verse: "Speciosus forma, &c. diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis," &c. Then the prayer, "Deus qui salutis æternes," &c., "Pax vobis," &c. Then after the "Benedicamus Domino," the Bishop, sitting in his seat, gave the Benediction to the people in this manner: "Princeps Ecclesiæ Pastor ovilis cunctam plebam tuam benedicere digneris," &c. Then, turning towards the people, he sang or said: "Cum mansuetudine & charitate humiliate vos ad benedictionem" : the chorus answering, "Deo gratias." Then the cross-bearer delivered up the crozier to the Bishop again, et tunc Episcopus puerorum primò signaindo se in fronte sic dicat, "Adjutorium nostrum," &c. The chorus answering "Qui fecit Cœlum & Terram." Then, after some other like ceremonies performed, the Bishop began the Completorium or Complyn; and that done, he turned towards the quire, and said, "Adjutorium," &c., and then, last of all, he said, "Benedicat Vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, and Filius, & Spiritus Sanctus." All this was done with solemnity of celebration, and under pain of anathema to any that should interrupt or press upon these children. See Gregory’s Works, 1649, p. 114.

The show of the Boy Bishop, rather on account of its levity and absurdity, than of its superstition, was formally abrogated by a Proclamation, July 22, 1542. But it had been interdicted abroad, a century before, by the Council of Basle, 1431, as appears from a citation in Prynne’s "Histriomastix,", 1633, and the later statutory prohibition was more or less disregarded in England. The conclusion of Henry VIII.’s Proclamation is: "And whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitious and chyldysh observauncies have be used, and yet to this day are observed and kept, in many and sundry partes of this Realm, as upon Saint Nicholas, the Holie Innocents, and such like, children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit Priests, Bishops, and Women, and to be ledde with songes and dances from house to house, blessing the people, and gathering of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt, with such other unfittinge and inconvenient usages, rather to the derysyon than anie true glorie of God, or honour of his sayntes. The Kyages Majestie wylleth and commaundeth that henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished throwout all this Realme and Dominions." Bishop Tanner, in a letter to Hearne, says in allusion to the abuse of the ancient custom, that the choristers chose a bishop and waited on him in procession to several houses in the city, where the little rogues took great liberties. And Tanner traces to this circumstance the bye-name of St. Nicholas’s Clerks conferred on them.

In Hall’s "Triumphs of Rome" (Triumphs of Pleasure) he equally animadverts on the licence, which had crept into this Romish Observance, when he says, "What merry work 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 chimers, rochets, surplices, to counterfeit bishops and priests, and to be led, with songs and dances, from house to house, blessing the people, who stood girning 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 edifyingly) 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. Strype, however, in his "Memorials," speaking of the Boy Bishop, among scholars, says: "I shall only remark that there might be this at least be said in favour of this old custom, that it gave a spirit to the children, and the hopes that they might at one time or other attain to the real mitre, and so made them mind their books."

With the Catholic Liturgy, all the pageantries of popery were restored to their ancient splendour by Queen Mary. Among these, the procession of the Boy Bishop was too popular a mummery to be overlooked. In Strype we read that, Nov. 13, 1554, an edict was issued by the Bishop of London to all the Clergy of his Diocese, to have a Boy Bishop in procession. In the same volume, however, we read, "The which was St. Nicholas Eve, at even-song time came a commandment that St. Nicholas should not go abroad nor about. But, notwithstanding, it seems, so much were the citizens taken with the mock of St. Nicholas, that is, a Boy Bishop, that there went about these St. Nicholases in divers parishes, as in St. Andrew’s, Holborn, and St. Nicolas Olaves in Bread-street. The reason the procession of St. Nicolas was forbid, was, because the Cardinal had this St. Nicolas Day sent for all the Convocation, Bishops, and inferior Clergy, to come to him to Lambeth, there to be absolved from all their perjuries, schisrns and heresies."

In the accounts of St. Mary-at- Hill, London 1554, is the following entry: "Paid for makyng the Bishops myter, with staff and lace that went to it, his. Paid for a boke for St. Nicholas, viijd." Strype says, that in 1556, on SL Nicholas’ Even, " St. Nicholas, that is a boy habited like a bishop in pontificalibus, went abroad in most parts of London, singing after the old fashion, and was received with many ignorant but well-disposed people into their houses, and had as much good cheer as ever was wont to be bad before, at least in many places."

The Boy Bishop would naturally be put down again when Queen Elizabeth came to the crown: and yet, by Puttenham’s account, it was exhibited in the country villages after her accession. Puttenham wrote his "Art of English Poesy" many years before it was published in 1589. He says: "Methinks this fellow speaks like Bishop Nicholas: for on St. Nicholas’s night, commonly, the scholars of the country make them a bishop, who, like a foolish boy, goeth about blessing and preaching with such childish terms as make the people laugh at his foolish counterfeit speeches." The special service for Innocents’ Day, in an early printed copy of it, is described as "In die innocentium sermo pro episcopo puerorum." It commences with the words: "Laudate, pueri, dominum, psalmo centesimo xiiº et pro buius colacionis fundamento."

In the Posthumous Works of John Gregory, 1650, there is a monograph on this subject with three engravings; it is called: Episcopus Pnerorum, In die Innocentium; or a Discoverie of an Antient Custom in the Church of Sarum, making an Anniversarie Bishop among the Choristers." In 12 Edward III., while the King was at Antwerp, the Boy-Bishop there received 13s. 6d. for singing before his majesty in his chamber. Hazlitt’s Warton, 1871, ii., 229.

Aubanus tells us, that scholars on St. Nicholas’s Day used to elect three out of their numbers, one of whom was to play the bishop, the other two the parts of Deacons. The Bishop was escorted by the rest of the boys, in solemn procession, to church, where with his mitre on, he presided during the time of divine worship: this ended, he and his deacons went about singing from door to door, and collected money, not bogging it as alms, but demanding it as the Bishop’s subsidy. On the eve of this day the boys were prevailed upon to fast, in order to persuade themselves that the little presents which were put that night for them into shoes (placed under the table for that purpose), were made them by St. Nicholas: and many of them kept the fast so rigorously on this account, that their friends, in order to prevent them from injuring their healths, were under the necessity of forcing them to take some sustenance. Bowle says, that in Spain formerly, on this commemoration- day, a chorister being placed with solemnity in the midst of the choir, upon a scaffold, there descended from the vaulting of the ceiling a cloud, which stopping, midway, opened. Two angels within it carried the mitre, and descended just so low as to place it on his head, ascending immediately in the same order in which they came down. This came to be an occasion of some irregularities; for till the day of the Innocents, he had a certain jurisdiction, and his prebendaries took secular offices, such as alguasils catchpoles, dog-whippers and sweepers. From a paper in the St. James’s Chronicle," for Nov. 16-18, 1797, it appears that at Zug, in Switzerland, the ceremonies of this day were suppressed in that year in consequence of the complaint addressed to the authorities against the exactions of the Boy Bishop and his attendants, who visited all the booths, &c., and demanded money.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin passages.

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