Boy Bishops

In conjunction with celebrations of the feast of the popular patron saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, the custom of enthroning a boy from the cathedral or parish choir as bishop was widespread in Europe for more than three hundred years. The practice was particularly popular in England. However, King Henry VIII suppressed boy bishopping because he thought it "unfitting and inconvenient".  In spite of Henry, the tradition  never completely died out.  It has continued to emerge over the centuries in various corners of the Church, wherever a childlike spirit of joy and wonder informs and enlivens faithful hearts.

Winter in northern Europe can be a dark and dreary season. Long before the arrival of Christianity, people coped with the season by keeping midwinter festivals which featured revelry of every  kind.    In  southern  Europe,  too,  such   festivals  were

A medieval boy bishop, attended by his canons

common.  According to Lucian, at the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December "nothing was lawful save drinking, playing, singing, making imaginary kings, setting servants at table with their masters" and other games that turned the world topsy turvey.  When the Church established the festival of Christmas in the 4th century, it was a simple matter to convert the same spirit of festivity to Christian purposes and to incorporate whatever was appropriate from it into the new festival.

Boy bishopping arose as part of the merriment and pranks  which  turned  the  world upside down to combat the dreariness of midwinter.  Customs varied, but in general, the program began on St. Nicholas' Day, December 6th, when the boy bishop was elected by his fellow choristers, and it reached its conclusion on Holy Innocents' (Childermass) Day, December 28th.   In some places, it appears that the boy bishop reigned for three weeks, though the more normal practice seems to have limited his career to the twenty-four hours commencing with First Vespers of Holy Innocents' Day.

The boy bishop was invested with all of the symbols of the episcopal office (some cathedrals owned elaborate sets of vestments for the boy bishop and his attendants) and he was seated in the bishop's throne.  Although he could not celebrate the Eucharist, he had the authority to bless the people, was required to preach at least one sermon, and in cathedral cities he made a formal visitation of the parishes of the city and received certain revenues from parishes and church officials--in York he and his assistants traveled on horseback around the whole diocese.  He was assisted by choristers who took the offices of the senior clergy of the cathedral and diocese and he and his canons could expect to be lavishly entertained. Records show that on occasion the celebrations degenerated into rude and even riotous behavior, boys being boys, after all.

The boy bishop was given a supply of tokens to distribute to the poor. These could be redeemed for food and drink in local shops. The lead coin below, probably minted in Bury St. Edmund, depicts a bishop's mitre on the obverse (left) and a cross on the reverse. The quadrants created by the cross each have three gold balls, one of the symbols of St. Nicholas. The inscription around the cross on this coin reads: AVE REX GENTIS, "Hail, King of the [English] people." This helps to identify the coin as a coin from Bury Abbey where this is part of the text of an anthem sung to St. Edmund, the martyred king whose shrine stood there. The legend on the obverse usually refers to St. Nicholas--we are still working on this one and welcome your help!

Abuses notwithstanding, boy bishopping expresses a meaning that is at the heart of the Gospel.  In a boy bishop's sermon which has survived from the middle ages, the preacher takes as his text these words of Jesus, "Except you will be converted, and made like unto little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven."  There is no room for pride of person or place in the Kingdom of Heaven, whose King emptied himself of the divine majesty and assumed the form of a servant.  As Isaiah says, in God's peaceable kingdom a little child leads the way, and the world is truly turned upside down.

Commemorative stamp and envelope signed by the Boy Bishop of Hereford, England, in 1986.

Various edicts of kings and councils in England and on the Continent prohibited boy bishopping at the end of the middle ages.  It was revived in England in the reign of Queen Mary Tudor, but stopped again under her sister Elizabeth I--it stopped but it was not forgotten.  In 1973, it was revived for a special children's service in Hereford Cathedral, but without the traditional ceremonies.  Then, in 1982, a fuller revival took place and since then the installation of the boy bishop at Hereford has become a popular annual event.  In 1986, there was even a special commemorative stamp to mark the occasion.  The modern event now incorporates much of the medieval ceremonial into Evensong on the Sunday within the octave of the feast of St. Nicholas.  The Precentor of Hereford Cathedral, the Reverend Canon Paul Iles, describes what takes place in The Boy Bishop Ceremony (RJL Smith & Associates:  Much Wenlock, Shropshire):

The service begins as the choristers with their Boy Bishop and his assistants enter the cathedral from the song school carrying candles and singing the plainsong "sedentem in supernae majestatis" (They are seated in heavenly majesty), a prose for the feast of the Holy Innocents.  After the first lesson, there is a procession round the cathedral which finishes with the Boy Bishop kneeling in front of the Lord Bishop to pray and to be given the pastoral staff.  Then comes the moment he has been waiting for and he goes to the throne [as the choir sings the Magnificat with its proclamation "He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek"].  After the anthem, the Boy Bishop preaches his sermon and, finally, at the conclusion of the service he receives two pence from the Canon Treasurer....  The Boy Bishop holds office until Christmas Eve....

Similar ceremonies are now found at Salisbury Cathedral and a number of parish churches around England.  In the United States, one of the first revivals of the custom took place in 1979 at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York, and continued for many years as part of an annual medieval faire held in the great gothic church.  More information about boy bishopping in Britain and the U.S. can be found on the website of the St. Nicholas Center.

In 2012, Neil Mackenzie published a new, extensively researched study of the phenomenon of boy bishops throughout Europe: The Medieval Boy Bishops. A link to this highly recommended book may be found in our Bookshop.



according to the late 20th century use of
the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York

[While boy bishopping is most at home in a cathedral, it was not limited to cathedrals in medieval times and need not be today, either.  Many parish churches have a chair set aside for the use of the bishop when he makes his regular visitation and, where such a chair does not exist, a suitable throne may always be improvised.  In keeping with the whimsical spirit of boy bishopping, the following order should be freely adapted to meet local circumstances.]

The Presenter, standing before the Dean with the Boy Bishop-elect, addresses the Dean:

Mr. Dean, I present to you N.N., whom, you approving and God willing, we would seal as Boy Bishop.

                      N., do you desire to become the Boy Bishop?
Boy Bishop-elect:     I do.
Dean:                      Will you be diligent in service and virtuous in conduct,
                                both in public and in private?
Boy Bishop-elect:    I will, the Lord being my helper.

                      Let us pray.

                                Lord, have mercy upon us.
                                Christ, have mercy upon us.
                                Lord, have mercy upon us.

                                Our Father.....

O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and infants art pleased to perfect praise: Grant this thy son grace, that he may praise thee with a child-like heart.  Keep him, O Lord, from wandering thoughts and all irreverence, and from whatsoever other sin may most easily beset him; and make us all to glorify thy holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Boy Bishop kneels before the Dean, who blesses him, saying

Christ, the Lamb of God, whose Name we praise, grant thee to sing his song amongst the choirs of angels in heaven. Thrice Holy Lord, before whom angels veil their faces, we confess our unworthiness to praise thee. Pardon, O Lord, all our sins, negligences, and ignorances of the time that is past. Forgive our wandering thoughts, our heedless words, and our unworthy lives, and enable us so to sing thy praises now that we may be numbered among thy blessed ones, who, with robes washed white in the Blood of  the Lamb, praise thee day and night in thy Temple, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Boy Bishop is then invested with the apparel of his office as the following prayers are said.

At the Pectoral Cross:

Vouchsafe, O Lord Jesus Christ, to defend him against all the assaults of the enemy with the sign of thy most holy Cross.

At the Stole:

Render back to him, O Lord, everlasting life's raiment, made forfeit in the transgression of our first parents; and grant that he may be found worthy to wear the same in everlasting gladness.

Boy Bishop Benjamin Odell, enthroned at
All Saints' Cathedral, Albany, NY, in 1992

At the Cope:

Clothe him, O Lord, with the robe of salvation and the garment of gladness and righteousness.

At the Mitre:

Set on his head, O Lord, the mitre and helmet of salvation, that he may be unhurt of the assaults of the ancient enemy and all his adversaries.

When the Boy Bishop has been invested, he stands up and the Dean conducts him to a throne.  The Dean then invests him with the Crozier and says,

N., we do deliver into your hands the pastoral staff and install you in the chair pertaining to your office with all and singular its rights and privileges. May the Lord preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forth, for evermore. Amen.

The Boy Bishop then stands and says:

                      The Lord be with you.
People:          And with thy spirit.
Boy Bishop:   Let us pray.

Almighty God, who in thy love didst give thy servant Nicholas a perpetual name for deeds of mercy both on land and sea: We pray thee that thy Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the poor, and those tossed by the tempests of doubt and grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be thanks and praise from all the company of saints, now and for ever. Amen.

Boy Bishop:
   Sit Nomen Domini benedictum.
People:          Adiutorium nostrum in Nomine Domini.
Boy Bishop:   Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, +Pater, et +Filius, et
                      +Spiritus Sanctus.
People:          Amen.

The Doxology is sung and the altar party all retire, except the Boy Bishop who remains in his throne to receive the homage of the people and to give them his blessing.



Boy bishopping has emerged in many places over the years, and not only in cathedrals.  Years before there was a boy bishop at the Cathedral in Albany, several parishes in the same diocese had a joint festival with a boy bishop.  In this photo from the 1960s, a boy bishop distributes St. Nicholas cookies to children from parishes in the lower Adirondacks.




Links:  The Saint Nicholas Center - Boy Bishops
           Historical Notices of the Office of Choristers (especially see pages 26 and 28)
           Another Brief History

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