THE BOY BISHOP CEREMONY OF SALISBURY CATHEDRAL
The ordination of Boy Bishops was a medieval tradition in which a choir boy would become Bishop from St. Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December), wearing the Bishop's vestments, leading prayers and preaching the sermon, in a complete role reversal. Although the practice was banned in the 16th century, a few cathedrals re-introduced a version of it in the 20th century, of which Salisbury is one.
Photograph © Salisbury Cathedral/Finbarr Webster
The Boy Bishop Tradition
Like many traditions established centuries ago, the origins and purpose of the Boy Bishop is unknown, with some believing its purpose to be teaching humility to the powerful Bishops, teaching responsibility to the boys, or a form of a 'Switch the Ranks' which takes place in many other formal organisations such as the military or gentry, which have clear divisions of superiors and inferiors in terms of status, who will reverse roles for a day of merriment.
The Boy Bishop tradition probably started in Europe, but had reached Salisbury by the early 14th century, with the ceremony first recorded in the statutes of Salisbury Cathedral in 1319 where, 'it is ordered that the boy bishop shall not make a feast.' It is possible that Salisbury was the originator of the tradition in this country, as other major cathedrals have no record of the ceremony until the late 14th and 15th centuries.
Boy bishops originated at a time when the Catholic Church held a great deal of power and influence in European society, with the position of Bishop being highly prestigious and held by wealthy and powerful men.
The Church also believed in the importance of humility and the idea that even the youngest and most innocent could serve a spiritual purpose and as a result, the tradition of boy bishops possibly emerged as a way to celebrate the innocence and purity of youth while also serving as a reminder of the humility and service that was expected of those in positions of spiritual authority.
What is standard across the board though is that the Boy Bishop is inaugurated on 6th December, which is the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. St. Nicholas was an early Christian Bishop during the Roman era, and his habit of secret gift-giving led to the tradition of St Nicholas on the continent, and Father Christmas in the UK and USA.
To become a Boy Bishop, a young boy would be chosen from among the choir or community and given a special ceremony in which he was ordained. Originally known as Episcopus Choristaram (Chorister Bishop), he was expected to be corpore formoses (beautiful in body) and to possess claram vocem puerilem (a clear childish voice). His reign would last up to the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which is celebrated on December 28th. Once ordained, the boy bishop would be given all of the same rights and privileges as a regular bishop, including the ability to officiate at mass and administer the sacraments.
In Salisbury it is thought that the Boy Bishop also had the power to dispose of prebends during his brief reign, although he would usually be guided in this by the clergy. The boy bishops would choose friends to take the role of canons in his staff, together they would dance, sing and lead processions through their local towns, leading to accusations of the practice being flippant and sacrilegious.
The tradition of the Chorister Bishop was formally abrogated on the continent in 1431, but continued in the UK until Henry VIII became Head of the Church, and he decided that the levity and frivolity which was attached to the practice was not befitting his new role. Issuing a Proclamation in 1542, it concluded,
"And whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitious and chyldysh observauncies have be used, ... 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 practice was resurrected in Salisbury in the 1980s, but now the realm of the Chorister Bishop lasts for less than an hour, for the duration of the Evensong service nearest St Nicholas. These days it is just as likely to be a girl chorister, as Salisbury Cathedral was the first English cathedral to introduce female choristers (in 1991) and this has extended to the role of Chorister Bishop.
Attending the Chorister Bishop Ceremony in Salisbury Cathedral
Anyone can attend the Evensong service which takes place on the Sunday evening nearest 6th December, around 4.30pm. If you get there early enough you can get a seat in the quire so you can see everything that takes place. The procession leads in as normal led by the Bishop of Salisbury, and Evensong continues as normal, but during the reading of the Magnificat, when the line, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek" is read, the Bishop relinquishes his robe, mitre and ring, while the Chorister Bishop is helped into his robes by his revenue of friends, and ascends into the Cathedra, the Bishop's throne.
From here he leads the prayers and gives a sermon. In the ceremony I attended, where Rory Law took on the role of Bishop, he spoke with much maturity and clarity about how it is the children who are expected to clean up the mess of the adults, ('twas ever thus) and about young, inspirational leaders such as Greta Thunberg, Malala and Tent Boy who are leading protests against environmental destruction, overpopulation, deforestation and so much more. At the end of the service the procession files out, with the bishop looking somewhat defenestrated without his mitre.
It is a rather lovely event to attend. In the depths of winter it is dark outside, the cathedral is softly lit, the choir sounds as melodic as ever and there is an air of excitement amongst the congregation, many of whom are probably friends and relatives of the Chorister Bishop and his young retinue. The service itself is conducted with much solemnity, but just after the procession out, I saw the Boy Bishop and the Bishop having a giggle about the event, probably with relief that all had gone smoothly.
After the service, have a look for the 'Boy Bishop's tomb'. It was thought that if a Boy Bishop died while incumbent, he would be buried with the full accoutrements due a bishop, and in the cathedral is a small tomb with the image of a bishop on the lid. For many years this was thought to be the tomb of a Boy Bishop, but recent research has determined that it is probably some of the internal organs of an adult bishop, probably Bishop Poore, the bishop who moved the cathedral from Old Sarum and founded the cathedral in its current location.
The Salisbury Cathedral website will have details about the ceremony towards the end of each November.
Read our definitive guide to Salisbury Cathedral
Find out more about tombs and memorials within Salisbury Cathedral
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