From the little we know about the life of a medieval chorister, it was a far cry from the standard of education and care that is received by the St George’s Chapel choristers today. It is, therefore, a special pleasure to uncover signs of the fourteenth century choristers having some fun.
In some of the Chapel’s earliest accounting records (SGC XV.56.2, 4 and 5, dating 1369-1380) are lines of expenditure for string, tacks for a throne and vestments for episcopus puerorum, “the boys’ bishop”. This indicates that a common medieval custom was practised at St George’s at the time: once a year the choristers would be permitted to elect one of their peers to be a temporary bishop.
No more was spent in any single year than 5 pence In clavo et filo empticius per sede Episcopal, “for tacks and string bought for the Bishop’s throne”. Even in the fourteenth century that was not a lot of money, about the equivalent of £15 today.
A few pennies on string and tacks may make this sound a little like a school art project, but if we look further into the archives, it appears there was rather more to the custom than that. The Dean and Canons’ inventory of the Chapel’s valuable goods for 1384 is the earliest that survives (the original is now held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford). In this it is recorded that the Dean and Canons owned “a good mitre decorated with precious stones” as well as two pairs of gloves, one plain and one decorated with buttons, two pairs of shoes, a pair of sandals and vestments including an alb (a long, white garment), an amice (a white cloth to cover the neck and shoulders) and two rochets (a shorter, white garment with narrow sleeves) just for the use of the boys’ bishop. A pastoral staff is also recorded, but the compiler of the inventory notes that this was “practically of no value”.
The popular practice of appointing a boys’ bishop dates back to the thirteenth century in England. A chorister would be elected on the 5 December, the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and hold his office until Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December. We have no records of the specific ceremonies that were carried out by the boys’ bishop at St George’s Chapel, but around the country it was typical for them to visit people around the local area and to sing and dance for them.
On the final day of the season, the young bishop would be dressed up as his adult counterpart while the other choristers dressed as senior clergy. They would sit in the senior stalls in the church, conduct services and the boys’ bishop would even deliver a sermon. Records from other cathedrals show that this was typically written beforehand by one of the clergy!
The boys’ bishop’s vestments disappear from St George’s Chapel’s inventories by 1501, which indicates that the practice had been discontinued in Windsor. As the English Reformation unfolded through the sixteenth century, it was to be condemned by Henry VIII, revived by Mary I and finally abolished by Elizabeth I.
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian