Religious Clothing: Boy Bishops

Figure 1.--The custom of Boy Bishops was a cherished tradition at the English St. Mary of the Angels Song School in the mid-20th century.

A popular custom of the medieval Christian church was the Boy Bishop or Nicholas which became part of the Christmas festival. This custom was very common in countries throughout Europe, including Italy north to Scandinavia and the Hebrides and from Ireland east to Hungary. A boy of the Cathedral choir (and later at schools as well) was elected on Saint Nicholas day (December 12). On the Eve of Feast of the Holy Innocent (December 28) he took with his colleagues possession of the cathedral performing all the ceremonies and offices except mass. Several ecclesiastical councils attempted to abolish or restrain the abuses of the custom, and the Council of Basel prohibited it in 1431. It was however too popular to be easily suppressed. In England it was finally abolished by Elisabeth I. An analogous custom survived until the late 18th century in Germany, were a schoolboy was elected as bishop in honour of St. Gregory the Great, the patron of schools.

Medieval Schools

After the fall of Rome, formal schooling in the West disappeared. The rare vestiges of school were the song schools of the cathedrals and monasteries. The boys chosen at first were taught to prepare them for holy orders. We have only limited information about the clothing for these early choristers. Formal schooling in Europe outside of church schools were rare in Europe until about the 10th century. The number of children attending schools was very limited for several more centuries. There were similarities in the development of schools throughout Europe, but the pattern varied significantly in many areas. We have little information at this time about clothing at these early schools. There does appear to have been some uniformity in the clothing worn by the choristers in the early song schools. This appears to have been less common in the secular schools which slowly developed during the second millennium.

Popular Custom

A popular custom of the medieval Christian church was the Boy Bishop which became part of the Christmas festival. It was widely observed. This custom was very common in countries throughout Europe, including Italy north to Scandinavia and the Hebrides and from Ireland east to Hungary. It sounds rather like some of the traditions from Saturnalia that so influenced Christian Christmas celebrations. The world was turned inside-out and upside down (an important feature of Saturnalia). Serving as a Boy Bishop was a bit like being "mayor-for-a-day" today, only in Medieval Europe, being a Boy Bishop was much more involved. A modern Church source suggests that two factors made the ceremony popular. First was medieval love of passion plays. The other was an interest in impressing on children the "honour and dignity" of holy orders. [Morse-Boycott] We are not sure that the second factor was an element in the polarity of the tradition, but it does seem to have been promoted by the Church.


We are not sure precisely when the Boy Bishop tradition began. One source indicates that the tradition is first mentioned in Latin as Ludus episcopi puerorum in the Casus Sancti Galli of Ekkehard IV of St Gallen, Switzerland describing Chistmas 912. It is likely that the tradition began well before that.


Some have attempted to ascribe serious religious origins to the tradition. Some believe that the Boy Bishop custom was based on the 12 year old Jesus telling the priests in the temple. This sounds more like a justification conceived after the Boy Bishop custom developed. After all the circumstances are quite different. One HBC reader writes, "This origin isn’t very likely, because Jesus told them about God and didn’t mock their religion." One church source suggests that "The ceremony was designed to show that we must all be as children before God, we are all equal, God has no favourites." This is, however, like a rationale that developed after the custom became widely accepted. The motive for the ceremony may developed to impart religious values, but more likely factors in the popularity of the custom were probably a love of pranks and a playful subversion of the established order.

St. Nicholas

The young age at which Nicholas was selected to become a bishop explains why the Boy Bishop tradition is associated with St. Nicholas.

Figure 2.--Some boy bishops, such as at this English choir school, were elected by the choristers. I am not sure that this is how the boys bishops were always chosen.

The Tradition

Choristers during the Medieval era would each year choose one of their number to be the Boy or Nicholas Bishop. The method of selection varied. At some monasteries and cathedrals the choristers elected the Boy Bishop. I am not sure how he was always chosen. The boy selected would have to learn all about the great ceremonies of the church. As he was often a chorister preparing to be a priest, this was not difficult. Later a Boy Bishop might be chosen from the schools that were becoming increasingly common in the late Medieval era. The Boy Bishop's reign lasted from St. Nicholas Day on December 6/12th. The Boy Bishop ceremony was held on or near Saint Nicholas' Day because he is the Patron Saint of children, especially those who sing in a choir. His reign would last until Holy Innocents Day, December 28th. The boys would be richly dressed in full ecclesiastical regalia and lead solemn procession. He and his colleagues would take possession of the cathedral performing all the ceremonies and offices except mass. The positions, such as acolyte (altar boy) that the boys normally filled were performed by the canons themselves while the boys took the places of dignity in the higher choir stalls. The Boy Bishop would be seated in the bishop or dean's place. There was a great deal of fun associated with this tradition. The Boy Bishops would often declare holidays and treats as well as call for sweets and gifts to be distributed. On Holy Innocents' Day, the complete service was given over to the boys, with the Boy Bishop preaching an actual sermon. The boys often told the people in their sermons their understanding of religion by criticizing in a funny and teasing way. After the service he and his entourage called at homes, singing songs and giving blessings--all in expectation of entertainment and money gifts. When a Boy Bishop died during his three weeks of reign, he was buried in pontifical robes.

There were many variations of the Boy Bishop tradition. The Boy Bishop tradition was called in some places abbots. In Augsburg they were even called even Popes. In Augsburh the election was January 13.

Actual Celebrations

Some idea of the celebrations and sermons follow:

As a preacher complained in 1558, they (the parents) “dandill him and didill hym and pamper hym and stroke his hedd…and gyve him the swetyst soppe in the dish” and make him say, “I am father’s boy” or “I am mother’s boy”. [Thomas, p. 46. citing "Two sermons preached by the Boy Bishop", John Gough Nichols, in the Camden Miscellany, vii (Camden Soc., 1875), p. 26].

Another account describes "Everywhere there were complains of choirboys, pouring noisily into church, jostling among themselves, fighting and arguing, pushing the elderly out of their seats, running round the church during the sermon, and trooping out before the service was finished. Yet, in the words of a Tudor preacher, if you looked in a chorister's face, “you would think that butter would not melt in his mouth”. [Thomas, p. 52. citing "Two sermons preached by the Boy Bishop", John Gough Nichols, in the Camden Miscellany, vii (Camden Soc., 1875), p. 25].


The Boy Bishop tradition appears very early in the Christian Church. One report suggests that the custom reached its height in the 16th century, but we can not confirm this. Perhaps its popularity was a factor in Tudor monarchs acting against it. Or perhaps it was to associated with the Catholic Church. Some sources suggest that it was not common by the 17th century. Another source suggests that it did not fully disappear until the 19th century.


The Boy Bishop custom spread throughout Europe. It at first was celebrated in cathedrals, collegiate churches and schools, but eventually parish churches with sufficient choristers adopted it. Church officials came to view the custom as mocking religion and thus worked to have it abolished. Several ecclesiastical councils attempted to abolish or restrain the abuses of the custom, and the Council of Basel prohibited it in 1431. It was however too popular to be easily suppressed. The festivities often became disorderly. I am sire if the celebrations were becoming more high-spirtited or that people were becoming less tolerant to such festivities during the Christmas season. At any rate, with the advent of the Reformation, many called for and end to the Boy Bishop custom and other raucous Chrristmas celebrations. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, who thought it a distraction from real worship and ended the custom, but it was perhaps revived by Catholic Mary as it was again abolished by Protestant Elisabeth I who appears to have largely put an end to it. The last traces of this custom were reported in Jena (1634) and Switzerland (1774). On the continent it survived the longest in Germany-until 1799 in Meiningen.

Country Trends

We note information about Boy Bishops and similar customs in several European countries.


The custom of electing a boy-bishop appears to have been very common in England. I am not sure why it would have been more common in England than elsewhere in Europe. It was reportedly practiced in the larger monastic and scholastic establishments, but it appears to have been a popular custom in many country parishes as well. Both ecclesiastical and civil authorities condoned the practice. The boy-bishop was chosen annually from the children of the monastery school or cathedral choir. In the more secular observations, the boy bishop might be chosen from the pupils of a grammar school. He was elected on St. Nicholas's day (December 6). The actual ceremonies and events varied in the monasteries, cathedrals, and parishes were the custom was followed. At a Cathedral or Abby, the boy would usually be chosen from the Abbey choir. In the Medieval era, many of the choristers would be preparing for the priesthood. The boy chosen would be the Bishop or Abbot. He would have authority over all the monastery and would lead some parts of the religious services. Often there would be presents for the local children and a feast for everyone. The Boy Bishop would be attired in pontifical vestments and followed by his assistants who would be attired as priests. There would be processions, sometimes throughout the parish in which the Boy Bishop would bless the people. He would next take possession of the church, where he presided at all the ceremonies (except the mass) and offices until Holy Innocents' day (December 28). At Salisbury he is said to have had the power of disposing of any positions (benefices) that fell vacant during his reign. If the boy died in office the elaborate funeral honours of an actual prelate were granted to him. Some claim that an actual monument to such a boy prelate exists at Salisbury, although some doubt its authenticity. There is in the north aisle of the nave a memorial to what looks like a Boy Bishop, a small effigy in stone dressed in full episcopal regalia. Another exists at Lulworth Castle which came from Bindon Abbey. The custom appears to have survived in England into Tudor times. When at least two different monarchs abolished it. [The Catholic Encyclopedia] I am not sure just why royal action was deemed necessary. Apparently they did not succeed as we note the custom at the St. Mary of the Angles choir school in the 20th century. We assume that there were other schools as well, but have few details at this time. A British reader reports, "I can recall seeing pictures of a boy bishop in more recent times at one of the cathedral choir schools - perhaps Hereford if my memory serves me right."


No information available.


The Boy Bishop tradition appears to have been a particularly popular custom in Germany. There were sometimes disturbances in Germany because of the festivities associated with Boy Bishops ( Kinderbischof ). The town council of Hamburg in 1304 said that too much teasing shouldn’t be associated with this custom. As selection was a great honor, we believe that these boys were often from prominent families. This was not, however, always the case. Boys of poor families could become boy bishops as well as boys from wealthy families. This was possible in part because these boys were often selected from a cathedral choir. We are not sure at this time just how the expense were handled. These days were known as the Feast of fools (probably originating from Roman Saturnalia or Germanic masquerades). An analogous custom survived until the late 18th century in Germany, were a schoolboy was elected as bishop in honour of St. Gregory the Great the patron of schools. According to the Wichern School in Hamburg, many families wanted their boys to be boy bishops. After selection, the boy was attired with insignias of a bishop and then rode through the streets giving presents to poor children.


No information available.


A ceremony survived in the Netherlands that was described by Erasmus of Rotterdam. The piece written by Erasmus of Rotterdam was a Boy Bishop sermon.


No information available.


The custom appears to have been popular in Medieval Switzerland. It was last reported in Switzerland in 1774.

Figure 3.--The Boy Bishop tradition is being revived in several countries. This is a modern Boy Bishop ceremony in England.


We have noted several recent instances of the Boy Bishop ceremony being revived. We are not sure why this ancient custom is being revived. We note that the English are trying to revive the liturgical ceremony as an ancient rite. The Germany appear to be updating it with a focus on social relevancy.


We note several English parishes and cathedrals reviving the Boy Bishop ceremony. The boys chosen are once again outfitted as a bishop, including the symbols of his office--the cope and miter. He carries the Lord Bishop's crozier. At the words from the Magnificat, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly," the Boy Bishop processes through the Quire and takes the Bishop's seat. In Hereford Cathedral, the commissioned Boy Bishop preaches a sermon, leads the prayers, and asks for God's blessing on the people. Wymondham Abbey, the Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Thomas of Canterbury, reported that on December 8, 2002 that the historic monastic ceremony of the Boy-Bishop was restored after an interval of several hundred years. Thomas Nicholas was chosen from the Abbey Choir to be the first Boy-Bishop in several hundred years. He was attired in bishop's robes and took most of the 6.30 pm Evensong service. He even preached a Sermon he had prepared himself. After the service he gave presents to children attending the service and welcomed everyone to the refreshments provided. The custom has also been revived in Hereford Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral and at some churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Other churches or parishes include: St. Andrew's at Chinnor; St. George the Martyr, Waterlooville; St. Johns, Claines; and St. Nicholas, North Walsham.


Several communities in Germany and Switzerland are trying to revive the custom. The custom was renewed in Fribourg (1900) and in Luzern (1978). Finally in 1987 Hans-Otto Wölber, Bishop of Hamburg, suggested introducing the custom again in church of St. Nikolai. As part of the celebrations revived by Wölber, the children read legends of St. Nicholas. The boy bishops are involved in preparing the festivities held during their reign. Beginning in 1994 a change was introduced--child bishops of both genders rather than just boy bishops. (The German word is in fact Kinderbischof meaning children not boy bishops, although all actual Catholic bishops are male.) The celebration is directed have been enforced by Bishopess Maria Jepsen of Hamburg. Girls are now being elected, three so far as of 2002. The aim today is to orient the activities toward social and ecological issues during their reign of each Kinderbischof. Activities include helping other children in poor areas, talking about their way of seeing the world, and discussing upcoming tasks of the future. The children are all from the “Wichern Schule” founded by Wichern who found “Das Rauhe Haus” in Hamburg.


Wichern Schule. Die Hamburger Kinderbischöfe, internet site accessed January 3, 2003.

Keith Thomas, "Children in Early Modern England," in Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs, ed. Children and Their Books: a celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie . Iona and Peter Opie are collectors of children's books (now at Bodlean Library, Cambridge) and writers about child lore and play.

Morse-Boycott, Desmond. A Pilgrimage of Song (Faith Press, 1972).

"Two sermons preached by the Boy Bishop"” ed. by John Gough Nichols, ed., in the Camden Miscellany, vii (Camden Soc., 1875).

" Boy Bishops", Catholic Encyclopedia.

Reinhard Mueller


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Created: January 3, 2003
Spell checked: January 16, 2003
Last updated: January 18, 2003