Monday, February 9, 2009

The Boy Bishop

Hidden for a long time underneath some seats near the pulpit, this monument was brought to light in 1680, and moved to its present position. At first it was covered with a wooden box; for which later on, owing to the great curiosity shown by the public, the strong iron grating which now protects it was substituted.

Notwithstanding that the ceremony of the Boy Bishop was observed at Salisbury for many centuries, there is no reasonable proof that this effigy has any connection therewith. Even John Gregory, whose famous treatise on the Boy Bishop is printed in "Gregorii Posthuma," 1649-1669, admits there that it might well seem impossible to everyone that either a bishop should be so small in person or a child so great in clothes. Thomas Fuller also echoes the same objection when he writes: "But the curiosity of critics is best entertained with the tomb in the north of the nave of the church, where lieth a monument in stone of a little boy, habited all in episcopal robes, a mitre upon his head, a crozier in his hand, and the rest accordingly. At the discovery thereof, formerly covered over with pews, many justly admired that either a bishop could be so small in person or a child so great in clothes; though since all is unriddled; for it was then fashionable in that church (a thing rather deserving to be remembered than fit to be done), in the depth of Popery, that the choristers chose a boy of their society to be a bishop among them from St. Nicholas' till Innocents' day." If the effigy represents a boy it is hard to explain why it is not life-size. Stothard in his "Monumental Effigies," in common with most later authorities, favours the idea that it is a miniature representation of a real bishop. Canon Jones suggests probably Walter Scammel, Henry de Braundeston, or William de la Corner. Mackenzie Walcott inclined to the belief that it represented Bishop Wykehampton, who died 1284. A small figure of Bishop Ethelman, 1260, about the same date, is in Winchester Cathedral; there is also one 14-½ inches long in Abbey Dore Church, Herefordshire, one at Ayot, St. Lawrence, Herts, 2 feet 3 inches, and other small effigies of knights and civilians elsewhere. According to Digby Wyatt the custom of burying different portions of the body in different places was common in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; from which he infers that probably these figures commemorated the place of sepulture of the heart.

Whether the monument in question be connected with the Chorister Bishop or not, there are so many records of the function with which popular credence has associated it, that a short digression is almost unavoidable. The pamphlet by John Gregory is elaborately minute and much too long to be quoted fully, yet some of the facts he brought together may be briefly noted. It seems that on the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the choir-boy elected one of their number, who from that day to the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28th, bore the rank and exercised the functions of a bishop, the other choristers being his prebendaries. During his term of office he wore episcopal vestments. On the eve of the Holy Innocents he performed the entire office, excepting the mass, as a real bishop would have done. At Salisbury on that day the boy-bishop and his boy-prebendaries went in procession to the altar of the Holy Trinity, taking precedence of the dean and resident canons. At the first chapter afterwards the boy bishop attended in person and was permitted to receive the entire Oblation made at the altar during the day of his procession. The names of many of the choristers and the amounts of the oblations offered for the boy-bishops are the subject of many entries in the capitular registers of both English and continental churches. Bishop Mortival in his statutes, still preserved among the cathedral muniments, orders that the bishop of the choristers "shall make no visit (some commentators consider this has been misinterpreted, to infer that elsewhere he held visitations), nor keep any feast, but shall remain in the Common Hall, unless he be invited to the table of a Canon for recreation." The order of service in use in this diocese has been preserved (MS. No. 153 of the Cathedral Library); in it we find as a special collect, "O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings," etc., not, however, quite in the form in which it appears in the Prayer Book of Ed. VI.

The spectacle was so popular, and attracted such great crowds, that by special edict it was prescribed that the penalty of the greater excommunication should be incurred by those who might interrupt or press upon the boys during their procession or in any part of their service.

In spite of the doubts thrown upon the monument at Salisbury, it is distinctly recorded that if a boy-bishop died during his term of power, he was to be buried in his vestments and have his obsequies celebrated with the pomp pertaining to an episcopal funeral.

This custom was not confined to this cathedral, but practised at many others in England and on the Continent, where we find records of much greater power being exercised by the boy-prelate, extending even to the presentation to prebends. At Winchester it was certainly observed. So far back as 1263 we find it described at St. Paul's Cathedral as an ancient custom. Several sermons preached by the boy-bishops are still preserved; one is reprinted in the Camden Society's "Miscellany," vol. vii. Dean Colet (once a prebendary of Sarum) in his statutes for St. Paul's school directs: "All these children shall every Childermas day come to Paules Church, and here the Childe-bishoppes sermon, and after be at high masse so each of them offer one peny to the childe bishoppe. And with the maisters and surveyors of the scoole in general procession when they be warned they shall go tweyne and tweyne togither soberly, and not singe oute, but saye devoutly tweyne by tweyne seven psalmes with letany." (Add. MS. 6174.) At York the mock prelate held office longer, and wielded far more power than his fellows of Sarum.

In 1299, on December 7th, a boy-bishop at Hoton, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, said vespers before Edward I., then on his way to Scotland.

At Salisbury in 1542 Henry VIII. forbade the ceremony by royal proclamation. It was revived under Queen Mary, and finally abolished on the accession of Queen Elizabeth.

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