Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Ancient tradition of the boy-bishop

by Anne O'Brien

Here is something with a festive connection today.

I find ancient historical traditions that still exist today most appealing.  Did the characters in my historical novels participate in or witness these traditions?  Did Joanna of Navarre and her husband King Henry IV of England acknowledge the tradition of appointing a Boy-Bishop during their own Christmas celebrations? history rarely tells us, but I am sure that they did.  Henry was a keen exponent of Christmas festivities both in his youth and in later life at Eltham Palace.

This is Hereford Cathedral where the custom of appointing a boy-bishop is still maintained today. In the great cathedrals of England this was a tradition widespread and going back to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, long before Henry and Joanna, when a boy was chosen to parody the role of the true bishop, becoming for a short time a 'boy-bishop.'

There were two purposes here.  One was to remind the congregation of humility, a child replacing an ecclesiastical lord and wielding his power.  The other purpose, since the ceremony took place on the Sunday nearest to the Feast of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, usually in the first week of December, to remind the congregation that there was a place for fun and revelry and celebration  to fight off the cold dark days of midwinter.  The medieval church was not necessarily a place of doom and gloom. The ceremony was originally planned with lively choristers in mind.  The boy bishop was chosen from one of their number, to recognise their importance in the musical life of the church.

This ancient custom was abolished by Henry VIII at the Reformation, revived by Mary I, then finally abolished by Queen Elizabeth I.  In recent years it has however been revived, most notably in Hereford Cathedral, as shown above, where a boy-bishop has been appointed with great ceremony every year in the first week of December since 1982.  His term of office runs from the Feast of St Nicholas to Holy Innocents' Day on 28th December.  Definitely a time for festivity and rejoicing.

This is how it works at Hereford.  The boy-bishop, in his early teens, is chosen from the senior choristers to take office.  It is written into the service of Evensong.  During the saying of the Magnificat, on the words 'he hath put down the mighty from their seat', the bishop of Hereford steps down from the Episcopal throne.  Then on the words 'and hath exalted the humble and meek' the boy- bishop takes his place.  He is dressed in full bishop's robes with mitre and stole and is given  the bishop's crozier to hold.  The new bishop leads the prayers, accepts the collection, blesses the congregation and preaches his own sermon.  A favourite text in medieval times was Mathew 18:3 'Then He said: in truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.'

What an experience for a young boy, to taste such magnificence and such authority.

For the rest of the festive period in Hereford, the new 'bishop' in full episcopal regalia plays an important part in all the services of the church except for Holy Communion.  Many see it as a chance to give a youthful perspective on life in a clerical community through their sermons.  One of the boy bishops, when asked which ability was most required to be boy-bishop for three weeks, confessed that it was the ability to drink so many cups of tea when meeting with members of the congregation.  Others quite simply enjoy the panoply and magnificence of it all, where they are the centre of attention.

In medieval times the boy-bishop and his retinue of choristers dressed as cathedral canons were expected to go on 'visitations' to ecclesiastical establishments and noble households.  There he would be entertained and given gifts, the whole often irreverent and unruly but much in keeping with medieval festivity.  This aspect of the tradition no longer takes place.  I am sure that many wish it did.

The boy-bishop will be installed once again this December in the magnificent setting of Hereford Cathedral with great ceremony and enjoyment for all involved.  I find it a great pleasure when the echoes of medieval life are carried on today.  Long may it continue.

My novel of Henry and Joanna which includes their celebration of Christmas at Eltham Palace, The Queen's Choice, will be published in the UK on 15th January 2016.

Please visit my website to keep up to date with all my events, signings and giveaways.


  1. What a lovely post - I didn't know any of this, so thank you. When I visited Hereford Cathedral some years ago it was completely empty but the organist was practising, so I had the privilege of wandering around by myself, with stirring organ music filling the air. Beautiful.

  2. I had heard of the boy-bishop tradition, but not the details. How fascinating! Thank you.


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