Today’s post on the theme of a Christmas in a Tudor Town is about the medieval and early Tudor custom of electing boys as Bishops. This custom was widespread throughout pre-Reformation Catholic England but was banned by Henry VIII in 1542, revived by Mary 1 in 1552 and then finally abolished by Elizabeth. There were boy-bishops elected in major abbeys, university colleges of both Oxford and Cambridge, major schools (such as Eton), and wealthy collegiate churches. Henry VIII appointed St Nicholas Bishops from his choristers at the Chapel Royal. Usually a boy was elected as a ‘Bishop’ on the Feast of St Nicholas (6th December) and he replaced the authority of the real Bishop until Holy Innocents day (28th December). Records of boy-bishops at King’s College, Cambridge have survived – the Boy Bishop’s costume was especially made for the child, and he wore a white wool coat, with a scarlet gown with its hood trimmed with white ermine. He also wore knitted gloves, gold rings, a crozier, and a mitre of white damask. (Ronald Hutton, The Rise of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1994) p11.)
As well as grand establishments having boy-bishops, many parishes of England also appointed boy bishops for their parish. Although they wouldn’t have worn such grand garments as King’s College. Unfortunately no records survive as to what they actually did or who these boys were. Were they the sons of the upper echelons of the parish, or were they the middling sort? As it must have been a great honour for a family to have their son elected bishop, it is unlikely they were the poorer members of the parish. It is probable that these bishops travelled around their parish during the 22 days of their tenure – maybe even going over the parish boundaries into neighbouring parishes – singing and blessing people and collecting money from them.
The historian, Ronald Hutton, in his book The Rise of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1994), comments
‘At Bristol it was appropriately enough the church of St Nicholas which set forth a Boy Bishop upon its patron’s feast [6th December], with a procession bearing eight banners. The corporation came to receive his blessing and then entertained him and his retinue of boys to a banquet. But at least seven London parish which had no association with the saint paraded robbed and mitred children upon his feast. The same was true of others in Norwich, Cambridge, Nottingham, Coventry, Leicester, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Shorpshire, Worcestershire, Somerset, Dorset, Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Suffolk. Records of more have doubtless perished. The surviving entries make plain, that while going on procession the boys collected money from spectators which was handed over to the churchwardens.’ [page 12]
The north Essex parish of Great Dunmow was another such parish who elected a boy bishop on St Nicholas day. In 1533, there is an entry in the churchwarden accounts for money received on St Nicholas’s Day ‘Item rec[evied] of[f] the offering hon [on] Seynt nycolas daye – iijs iiijd [3s 4d]’ (folio 20v]. This entry makes no mention of a boy bishop, so it is likely that this was a collection within the church on the 6th December which raised 3s 4d. However, in the mid 1530s, there is the tantalising glimpse that the parish had actually appointed a boy-bishop on the feast-day of St Nicholas.
‘the rec[eipts] of the bisshop at seynt Nicolas tyme iijs iiijd [4s 4d]’ (folio 23v) [The final few characters appear to be from the margin note running down the right side of the page.]
In all my transcribing of the churchwardens’ accounts, this section is one of the hardest to decipher because there is marginalia notes on both the left and the right side of the page which run into the main text. Also, this whole section appears to be very hastily scribbled entries into the churchwardens’ accounts from a new set of churchwardens who were trying to tally-up the financial happenings which had occurred during the tenure of a previous churchwardens. The line above the ‘bisshop at seynt Nicolas tyme’ reads ‘Also the old debt of of [sic] the last acompute [accounts/compute]’ and the two lines underneath appears to be a summing up of other finances. Or possibly even summing up the boy-bishop’s receipt – I really can’t make head nor tail of these two lines! Did the receipts of the bishop of Saint Nicholas also include viijli xs ob [£8 10½s]?
The precise year of this Bishop of St Nicholas is also hard to pin-down. The folio starts ‘Anno pp h viijth visimo nono’ i.e. the twenty-ninth regnal year of Henry VIII’s reign (1537) – and the first margin note on the left confirm this ‘At Seynt Andrews tyme Ao XXIX vn’. i.e. these are the accounts for the year 1537 recorded during the feast-day of St Andrews (30th November). So the bishop of St Nicholas couldn’t have been in 1537 because his feast-day was after St Andrews day. (Remember, we are dealing with financial accounts which have been recorded after the event.) Moreover, this is the tallying-up of a previous set of accounts. So it’s impossible to ascertain the actual year of Great Dunmow’s ‘(boy) bishop of Saint Nicholas’.
Although it is difficult to decode this entry, it does appear that sometime in the mid 1530s, the parish of Great Dunmow did have a boy-bishop appointed on the feast-day of St Nicholas whose purpose was to collect money for the parish church.
(As an aside, intriguingly the final margin note on the left side of this folio reads ‘of the rking [reckoning] sum of xvs id [25s 1d] the owld wardons have payed xjs [11s] & therof ther be ?? dischargdd of ?? ?? xvs jd [25s 1d]’. I smell some wrong financial accounting by the old churchwardens’!)
Notes about Great Dunmow’s churchwarden accounts
Text in square [brackets] are The Narrator’s transcriptions.
The original churchwarden accounts (1526-1621) are in Essex Record Office (E.R.O.), Chelmsford, Essex, D/P 11/5/1. All digital images within this blog appear by courtesy of Essex Record Office and may not be reproduced.
Examining these records from this Essex parish gives the modern reader a remarkable view into the lives and times of some of Henry VIII’s subjects and provides an interpretation into the local history of Tudor Great Dunmow.
You may also be interested in the following posts
– Christmas in a Tudor town
– Medieval Christmas Stories
– Transcripts of Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts – 1526-1621