English Boy Choirs: History

Figure 1.--We had thought that this image showed the Lichfield Cathedral Choir wearing very elaborate high-collared choir robes. A former chorister, however, tells us, "The first picture is not of Lichfield Cathedral Choir! Another HBC reader believes it may be the St. Albans choir. Note the red robes and high collar. Also note the stalls with the lamp, elaborate background and wooden screen separating the choir from the nave or high altar.

Christianity in Roman Britain

Britain was conquered by the Romans in the 1st century AD during the reign of Emperor Claudius. This was while Rome was still pagan. Christinaity was brought to England by individual soldiers and other Romans. Considerable work has been done on the Roman history of Britain. Very little of that work has addressed the question of Christianity in Roman Britain. This is in part because of the limited available information. Roman culture by the 5th century was a thin veneer accepted by some Brythonic nobels and urban populations. Christianity does not appear to be well established when the last Roman garrisons withdrew from Britain in 409-10 AD. Historians disagree as to the extent to which Christianity ws established and its influenced in Roman Britain. Some of the best ecidence although sketchy is the archeological record. [Petts] Unfortunately, very few of the Roman archeolgical finds can be identified as Christian.

Foundation of the English Church

The early history of choral music in England as elsewhere is essentially the history of Christianity and the Church. As a result the founding of early church choirs is linked to the greatest figure in the English church--St. Augustine (??-604 AD). (Not to be linked with the great theologian St Augustine (354-430 (AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.) The earliest references we note come from the end of the 6th century with the founding of the English Church. Pope Gregory the Great dispatched Augustine or Austin to Britain for the purpose of converting the Anglo Saxons which had invaded Briton after the departure of the Romans. Augustine was a monk from the monestary of St. Andrew in Rome. When he and his fellow monks reached Aix in Provence, they were horrified at the accounts of the savage Britons. Augustine then returned to Rome asking to be allowed to give up the task of Christianizing the Britons. The Pope would not here of it and Augustine resumed his task. He arrived in Thainent in Kent during 597. Totally unknown to Augustine was that Queen Betha the wife of Saxon King Ethelbert was a Christian. She was the daughter of King Chairibert. Through his wife's intervention. King Ethelbert provided a residence at Canterbury. The King was baptized on June 2, 597. With the Kings's baptism, Christianity rapidly spread amnong the Saxons. Augustine was made a bishop and given authority over all future English bishops which is why the Arch Bishop of Canterbury became the head of the English Church.

Early English Choral Music

With Augustine's success church singers also arrived from Rome. They began to teach the Gregorian chant for Church services. Augustine as one of his earliest acts established a school at Canterbury Cathedral. This and other early schools taught Latin and music and provided the church choir. This school still exists today--the King's School said to be the oldest school in England. The early monastic communities in England which ran choir schools almost from the outset of their established beginnings. Many of these early schools were known as "song schools" showing the importance of choral muxic in the early church. There are other early records provuding scattered details about these eraly schools. Another early cathedral school was the song school at York Minster. (York Minster is the Cathedral in York, an old Roman town in Yorkshire.) Paulinus was a disciple of Augustine. He went north to spread the faith. He baptized King Edwin and founded the Minster (York Cathedral). A song school at York Minster was founded in 663. James the Deacon according to the Honorable Bede, "acted as Master to many in Church chanting after the Roman or Canterbury manner". Apparently the choral music tradition was not well established in Briton at the time. The Pope appointed Theodore as Achbishop at Canterbury Archbishop in 668. One of the tasks he initiated to to promote choral music in the English Church. St. Wilfrid before the arrival of Theodore was exercising episcopal functions at Canrerbury. He used two singers, Eddi and Eowan, to help revive chorla singing in the North. A monk, Benedict Biscup, founded monasteries at Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (682). Bede entered the monestary at Jarrow when he was 7 years old. He relates how, "I passed the whole of my life learning in that monastery . . . . and in the intervals of the observance of the discipline and daily singing in the church, I have always held it a pleasure to learn to teach or write." [Nicholson]

These early song schools wre not choir schools as we now know them. Rather boys entered the schools at an early age with the idea of entering the religious like. They were taught Latin, singing, and how to assist in the rituals of the church. Thus they served as both altar boys and choir boys as part of their religious training. Choirboys as we bow know them who were trained to sing, but not necesarily to vecome monkls and priests were a much alter development. One author writes, "... these child-monks, with their song-schools, clearly had an important share in the performance of the Opus Dei, which was the central object of all ecclesiastical foundations: so to them the modern chorister may look back as the earliest representative of his office." [Nicholson]


The English boy choirs were organized to supply needed musical accompaniment to early church services at monestaries and important English churches. The choral tradition was adopted from practices in Rome.


The history of modern British education begins with these early boy choirs and schools set up for the boys. Many of Britain's prestigious public schools can trace their history to the foundation of these early choir schools. Learning and reading itself were in eraly medieval England strongly assocaited with the Church. The educational program in England was evidence of the union between State and Church, represented by the King. In all monastic and cathedral colleges song became the basis of religious instruction and the sacred word. Only later did more secularly oriented schools develop.

Interest in Boys' Voices

Some historians report that since the 15th century, England has had a special liking for boys' voices. English muscians have likened the sound as "disembodied". The entire vocal heritage stems from this attraction: from John Taverner to Benjamin Britten.


The daily ritual pursued within the Church has been strictly observed with regard to tradition. The wishes of the Monarchs who founded the great Cathedral universities and choirs have thus been respected. One choir master indicates, he likes to think that, whenever we sing a "Magnificat" or a "Nunc Dimittis", we honour the memory of Henry VI, the solitary king, who, in order to get closer to us, had some of England's most beautiful colleges built.

The Reformation

The Reformation, the consequence of Henry VIII's breakaway from Rome, was to see the closure of all monasteries, some of which were centres of Roman liturgical and musical traditions. Composers were invited to conform to the new and more refined style requirements. For instance, the use of the organ was banned and the number of choristers reduced. "Thou madest Man lower than the angels: to crown him with glory and worship. Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet."

Historical Stability

Many of the oldest active choirs in Europe are currently English choirs. This is because of England's relatively stable history--at least in comparison to continental Europe. Since their foundation in about the 15th century, several choirs survived even the Civil War and have an unbroken history spanning centuries. Few European choirs, with the exception of the Austrians and Germans, have foundations dating back even a few decades.

Victorian Revival

We still have only limited historical information on the English boys' choir. As I understand it there were few such choirs by the 19th century and the tradition was sieing in England. There appears to have been a revival of choral music in the early Victorian era. I am not precisely sure the cause of it. I do remember reading of Prince Albert traveling, I think to Canterbury to hear a boys' cathedral choir which was considered something of a unusual wonder at the time, but here we need more information.

Early 20h Century

Societal changes have had a remarable impact upon choral singing in England and many other countries. It was in theearly 20th century much more common for families with tthe children to attend Church. Large numbers of the boys involved sang in the hundreds of Church choirs that existed throughout the country. This continued through and even after World War II (1939-45). Not only was the greater participation in Churches a factor, but boys did not have all the alterative opportunities for recrearion as well as the alure of television and video games that is the case today. As a result, large numbers of boys were involved in choral singing. And these were not just boys from middle class families. Large numbers of working-class boys were involved in the choirs. As one observer writes, "... the same type of teenage boys who are now wandering the streets, engaging in teenage sex and drugs, and generally leading lost lives." [Beet] It was socially acceptable for teen agers to be involved in Church choirs. Many of these choirs achieved a high standard of music, primarily to the dedication of many choir master and organists who voluntered or work for very low wages. Music Festivals and Music Halls provided many opportunities for the boys involved to sing. It was common to have liver performces in movie theaters between film showings. [Beet] There were many popular boy sophranos that sang in that tradition. Some examples are: Derek Barsham, Denis Barthel, Aled Jones, and Denis Wright.

Late 20th Century

Not only do fewer families now attend church, but a vaiety of other factors have afected he popularity of choral singing among boys. There are so many competing activities that boys can now persue. In addition, televuion, computer games, and other modern activities can be used to fill up a large part of a boys' after school activities. There are many opportunities to participate in organized sports. The attitudes toward singing has also changed. Singing did not affect how boys were viueed by their piers in the ealy 20th century. Singing in a choir in the late 20th century is not generally highly regared by other boys--especilly working class boys. Thus boys who persue choral singing are now more commonly those with a strong interest or who come from middle class families where such interests are promoted. There are also other factors such as changes in the way music is taught in school (if at all) to changes in popular music styles. [Beet]


Beet, Stephen. Sleeve notes from "Tis there, my child, the Better Land".

Nicholson, Sydney H. Quires and Places Where They Sing.

Petts, David. Christianity in Roman Britain (Tempus, 2003).


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Created: December 26, 2002
Last updated: February 7, 2004