When students today do work experience, they might carry out menial tasks like filing paper or making the tea. Imagine what it must have been like, then, when each year in medieval Durham a young person was chosen to act as Bishop of Durham for the day. The tradition of electing Boy Bishops goes back hundreds of years, and in 2016 a theatrical festival will bring a Boy or Girl Bishop back to the city. Could the next one be you, or someone you know? Auditions for the role are taking place next week.
The Boy Bishop harks back to medieval festivities in select English Cathedral cities, such as London, Salisbury, or Newcastle. The most deserving boy was chosen from the choristers, and he would then be ‘bishop’ for a day, dressed in the same magnificent robes. He would give a sermon, sing, and command a troupe of monks. The date usually fell on St Nicholas’s Day.
Durham’s tradition is exceptional in that Durham had two boy bishops, not one; they officiated in late spring, not winter. In the fifteenth century, one boy bishop was chosen from the Almonry School (the predecessor of the current Chorister School). Another boy bishop, the so-called Bishop of Elvet, came from St Oswald’s parish.
Processions from the Cathedral to the parish churches featuring these bishops took place in Ascension week. The Rites of Durham, a sixteenth-century manuscript describing pre-Reformation religious ceremony in Durham, gives further details of the context of the ceremony, although the actual use of boy bishops had probably come to an end about 1475.
The person playing the part of the Boy or Girl Bishop in 2015 will need to learn one or two simple hymns. There will also be roles for child monks, banner carriers, torch bearers and other character parts. There will be a meeting and first rehearsal in spring; expect fortnightly rehearsals in June and another couple of rehearsals close to the show itself. Precise dates will be negotiated with you once the group has been established. More information for performers is available here.