* English boys choir costumes : individual cathedral choirs

English Boy Choir Costumes: Individual Cathedral Choirs

Figure 1.--We believe that this is a choir school, but we are not sure which one. We know the Litchfield choir had yellow caps, although some images show a different shield on the cap.

Most of the attention in England is given to a small number of very well known choirs--primarily the ones associated with a the major Anglican cathedrals. There are also quite a number of choirs located around the country, many associated with various private preparatory schools and individual churches. Some of these choirs have reached very high standards of choral music, often placing very well in competitions held periodically. They tend to wear the traditional school boy blazers. There is, however some variation. One choir, for example, wore a comfortable uniform of cord jackets and shorts. Some information is available on these individual English boy cathedral choirs. Some of the cahedrals such as Norwich have assocauted schools.


England's cathedrals are archetecual jewels of Medieval England. The oldest is Canterbury Cathedral. The construction of the cathedrals were enormous undertakings, often carried out over more than a century. The cathedrals towered over medieval towns, symbolizing the central role of religion in the life of Medievl Europe. The construction of the cathedrals is fairly well documented. The historical role of the choirs and choir schools is much less well documeted.

Cathedral Choirs and Choir Schools

While the archetecural history of English cathedrals is relatively well known, the historical role of the choirs and choir schools is much less well documeted. Much of the information we have on the choirs concerns the modrn operation of the choirs.

Canterbury Cathedral (Kent)

The world famous choir at Canterbury has been singing daily office in its present form since 1542--the date of the reformed Cathedral Foundation under Henry VIII. The choir normally sings eight services a week for most of the year but is also involved with making recordings, featuring on television and giving concerts both locally and abroad. The Choir of King's School traces its history to the founding of the Cathedral at Cambridge, in essence the founding of the English Church. It is one of the world's most renowed choirs and the oldest cathedral choir in Britain. They perform in traditional choir robes and surplices. A local reviewer commented on their "natty little Eton collars and black gowns." Another reader tells us, "Back in the 60's the Canterbury Cathedral Choir School wore bluish grey short trouser suits with the Catheral crest on the jackets. It was a stand alone school then. Now because of educational requirements the Choir School comes under the Umbrella of St. Edmund's School Canterbury, a large Public School. The campus is a mile away, so the boys live in Choir House in the Catherdral Precincts. They have choir practice early morning and are then bussed up to the main school for lessons and back at the end of the day for Evensong in the Cathedral. Music practice and prep then follows. They have a long day, as they have rehearsal on Saturdays for Sunday Services. For the Christian Festivals - Easter and Christmas they have to stay on for Choir Duties. They get a few extra days off later in lieu. They leave the choir at 13, whether their voices have broken or not; these days they usually have. This is because they enter the Senior School at 13 years, and Academic demands would clash with Choir Duties. The Choristers are exceptionally gifted musicians, being not only good singers, but most also play two instruments (eg piano and violin). There is plenty of opportunity for them to enjoy orchestral, ensemble and solo music in the Senior School. Once their voices have settled in an adult register they go on to join the School choirs. My grandson has recently enjoyed a tour of France Holland and Germany, singing in some of their wonderful Cathedrals in the School Chamber Choir. The Choristers frequenly sung abroad in the school holidays - sometimes in the United States, and South Africa, but more often in Europe. Girls are now admitted to the Junior and Senior Schools, but there are no girl choristers."

Chichester Cathedral (West Sussex)

Chichester was founded as a Roman town. The magnificent cathedral was built in Chichester by the Normans centuries after the Romans left. It was the first important Norman cathedral in recently conquuered Saxon England. It was part of the Norman policy of centralising Sees in existing population centers to simplify administraton. Many monastaries had been built in more isolated rural areas. An earlier Saxon cathedral had been built at nearby Selsey, founded by Saint Wilfrid in the late 7th century, while he was exiled in Sussex. The Normons began building their new cathedral in the center of Chichester around 1076 under bishop Stigand who had been the last Bishop of Selsey. Building cathedrals in the Medieval era was a major undertaking and normally took decadeds if not centuries. Construction continued into the 12th century. Finally Bishop Ralph Luffa dedicated the cathedral in 1108. We have no information on the operation of the Choir during historical periods. The construction of a Song School over the Chapter House in the 15th century suggests that there is a long history of choral singing at the Cathedral. The modern choir is quite active and one of the major English cathedral choirs. The statutes at Chichester Cathedral provide for the maintenance of 18 Trebles and six Lay Vicars. The Choristers and Probationers are educated at the Prebendal School, the Cathedral's own Choir School, where they are required to be boarders. The Choristers are afforded a first-class music education. The Prebendal School is operated as a preparatory school. The Prebendal School is the oldest school in Sussex. It has educated children on the present site since the 15th century.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral like cathedrals was built for the glory of God. We suspect that the Normans that built the Cathedral in the 11th-12th century also had political motives. Durham Cathedral is notable as the greatest Romanesque (Norman) building in England. Durham Cathedral's Anglican staff proudly points out that it is the only English cathedral which has kept almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, It is not only a magnificent edifice, but its setting only adds to the grandeur. The Cathedral abd Castle were one of Britain's first World Heritage Sites. The Cathedral along with Hadrian's Wall and the Angel of the North are some of the proncipal land mrks of northern England. The Cathedral and Castel testify to Norman effort to firmly establish their control over Saxon England. The Cathedral stands opposite the imposing castle which stands on top of a hill above the River Wear, the center of modern Durham. Construction of tge Cathedral began (1093) only a few decades after the Norman conquest. While there was political function, the Cathedrral was of course primarily a religious structure. It has served as a religious shrine, a destination for pilgrims, and the home for a community of worship and learning. An important element of Anglican religious worship is music. And the heart of the Durham Cathedral music program is the Cathedral Choir with traditions dating back centuries. The Choir sings eight services weekly. It is composed of 16 boy Choristers and 12 men.

Guildford Cathedral

Guildford Cathedral is one of the lesser known English cathedrals. Unlike most of the other cathedrals, the Guildford Cathedral is of modern origins. The Guildford Cathedral is the only one built in southern England since the Reformation. Construction began in 1936. The building was constructed during a very difficult time (the Depression, World War II, and post-War austerity). Guildford Cathedral was consecrated in 1961. The Guildford Cathedral Choir is one of the few such choirs founded in the 20th century. The Choir was founded at the time that the Cathedral itself was concecrated. The first Director was Barry Rose. Successive directors included Philip Moore, Andrew Millington and Stephen Farr. The Choir provides choral accompanment for cathedral services. Other activities include include recording, broadcasting and touring. The Choir also gives concerts at the cathedral and other locations.

Lincoln Cathedral (Lincolnshire)

We have not yet reserched the Lincoln Cathedral history and its choir. We do have one image of the choir in their robes.

Lichfield Cathedral (Staffordshire)

Lichfield Cathedral is located just 27 kilometers north of Birmingham. The city and Cathedral thus lie at the heart of England. The site 1,300 years ago stood at the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia. Bishop Hedda built a Cathedral here to house the bones of Saint Chad. Pilgrims have been coming here ever. The Cathedral sponsors a school and choir. The Lichfield Cathedral Choir wear very elaborate high-collared choir robes. Their traveling uniform is that of the school attached to the cathedral which includes a distinctive yellow cap and blazer.

Norwich Cathedral

The construction of Norwich Cathedral began over a few years after the great Norman triumph at Hastings (1066). Herbert de Losinga bought the bishopric of East Anglia from the Crown (1091). He endevored to build a great cathedral. Construction began only a few years later (1096). The Cathedral was begun as part of an already existing Benedictine monastery. The Cathedral was built in about 50 years, which in terms of medieval cathedral construction was relatively rapid. We do not know a great deal about the Cathedral School, but we have some basic information. The school is a private school, commonly referred to as an independent scgool. In the British system there is both a prep school referred to as the Lower School and a public school referred to as the Upper School. The Lower School is attached to the Cathedral grounds. All the Choristers excepth rhe older ones attend the Lower School. Most boys enter the Choir at 8-10 years of age. They must pass the Cathedral School´┐Żs entrance examination and then do well in a voice test conducted by the Cathedral Organist. The new boys rarely have any serious musical training. The goal is to find bright boys with a clear voice and a ear for music. Most boys continue in the Choir until about age 14 when their voives break. Participation in the Choir is a demanding undertaking for the boys. The Cathedral Choir Endowment Fund provides a bursary for each chorister and probationer while he is in the Choir. These amount to approximately half of Cathedral School day-boy fees and are paid direct to the School.

Rochester Cathedral Choir (Kent)

Rochester is located in the Thames Estuary of Kent. It has a beautiful Norman Cathedral, which is the second oldest in the country after Canterbury. There is also a fascinating castle ruin directly opposite the Cathedral. the city of Rochester is known for the fact that Charles Dickens once lived there and his house is maintained as a tourist site. Many of the shop names have a Dickensian theme. The Rochester Cathedral Choir is composed of men and boys. There is also a girls' choir and a Special Choir (adult). The Choir organizes many tours, including ine to America in 1998.

Salisbury Cathedral (Wiltshire)

We have limited informatiin on the Salisbury Cathedral Choir at this time. The Choir school is one of the oldest educational institutioins in the world. Salisbury Cathedral now has both a traditional boy's choir and a very successful new girl's choir.

St Albans Cathedral Choir

St Albans was a Benedictine monastery with a notable musical tradition in the medieval era. We have few details on this medieval tradition, but there was a choir school. The monestary was disolved by Henry VIII. The current choir was founded about 1880. The current choristers are local schoolboys who sing at services. They participate in a very rigorous training program, one of the most demanding we know of for a non-residebntial choir. Rhearsals are held 6 days a week. The 24 boy choristers receive a through and free musical education. They perform in concerts and tour around the world, The Cathedral Choir includes 12 adult Lay Clerks. The adults join with the boys on the weekend and for Feast days, concerts and tours. The choir has made several several commercial recordings.

St. Andrews

A HBC reader writes, "I am writing to ask if you know of this choir. Some time ago I heard a recording of the boys and would very much like to get a copy if possible." Unfortunately, this is not a choir that HBC has infornation on yet.

St. Paul's Cathedral (London)

St. Paul's Cathedral is the most famous in England. The photograph of St. Paul's standing steafastly as London burned around it under the NAZI blitz is one of the most stiring images of World War II.

St. Wolo Cathedral (Wales)

St. Wolo's is not an English cathedral choir, but a Welsh choir. Wales is known for the massive castles the Normans built. St. Woolos is the principal Welsh cathedral. As far as we know, however, St. Woolos is the only Welsh cathedral. Wales is also know for coral singing. Here is the coal miners that most commonly come to mind. The only major boys' choir we know of is the St. Woolos choir. St. Woolos Cathedral maintains a traditional boys' and men's cathedral choir. It is a relatively small, non-residential choir, but they have achieved an impressive standard of choral music.

Westminster Cathedral (London)

Westminster Cathedral is the only Catholic cathedral in England. It is a relatively new cathedral. Cardinal Vaughan promoted the construction of a new metropolitan cathedral. It was built in Westminister and open in 1895. An important part of the concept of the Cathedral was a residential Choir School--the Westminster Cathedral Choir School. Choral services have been held every day since the Cathedral opened. The Choir School bowing to financial necesities was convered to a Cathedral School in the 1970s and non-choristers were accepted into the school as day boys. This also permitted an elargement of the school and according the the School "a richer efducational environment". The Choir continues to maintain a very high standard as permitted by competent instructors and the boarding system.

Winchester Cathedral (Hampshire)

Winchester Cathedral is another of England's best known cathedrals and one with a highly regarded choir. The Choir's main duty is to sing at the services in Winchester Cathedral. The Choir during each term sing an average of eight services weekly. In addition, they give concerts both in the Cathedral and elsewhere in Britain. A particularly notable performance was in May 1996 when they took part in a performance of Arvo Part's 'Passio' in London's Brompton Oratory. Another notable performance was singing in a BBC Promenade Concert with the choir of New College, Oxford, and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. The Choir has not only performned in England, but around the world, invcluding tours of the Australia, Brazil, the United States and other countries. Their tur performances include a repertoire ranging from Taverner, Weelkes and Byrd to Howells, Leighton and Tavener.

Worcester Cathedral (Worcestershire)

Financed entirely by the Cathedral, the 18 choristers perform the office of Evensong with the men from the choir. Their director, Adrian Lucas, says that since his arrival at the Cathedral in 1996, he has attempted to bring about a more informal style.

York Minster Song School

The history of the sing school at York Minster is a fascinating account. It is arguavly the oldest school in Britain, quite a clim to fame. A complete history is unavailable, but a great deal of information is available during many historical periods. Choir or song schools are some of Britain's earlist schools. Presumably some schools exosted during the Roman era, butthere is no surviving information on indivisual schools and none survived the Anglo-Saxom invasions. Christianity itself was extinguished. As Britain was reChristinized, the first schools would have been those attached to monastaries or cathedrals. One of those was a song school at York. The origins are lost in the fog of early Anglo-Saxon history. Scholars have developed two principal theories. One theirizes that James the Deacon founded it (627 AD). Another dates the song school to Norman tumes (12th century). The Normans raised the early York Minster and built the magnificent modern cathedral in the center of York. It is of course possible that song schools existed at both times. In modern times the Sing Schooll was closed (1887) and reponed (1903). We do not have a lot of information on uniforms throughout the school's history. We note a boy in 1913 wearing a turle-neck sweater with the crossed keys that are the symbol of the school (figure 1). We note boys in the 1980s wearing both grey suits and cherry red blazers.

Information Needed

We are interested in adding more historical information on cathedral choirs n wold be interested in any sugested sources that readers could suggest. We would also be interested in hearing from former choristers who would ike to add memories of their experiences in these cathedral choirs.


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Created: September 20, 2003
Last updated: 1:21 AM 5/4/2011