Boys Will Be Bishops

Drawing by Peter Gaber, specially-commissioned drawing by Peter Gaber, specially commissioned for the exhibition, imagining the Boy Bishop in procession at Durham Cathedral with his attendants.
Drawing by Peter Gaber, specially commissioned for the exhibition, imagining the Boy Bishop in procession at Durham Cathedral with his attendants.

We’re counting down an ‘advent’ calendar of highlights from the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Discovering Festive Traditions in the North East of England, which launches on 19th April. This exhibition celebrates some of the forgotten folk traditions, religious rituals, performance history, and plays from the region.

Most children enjoy dressing up as superheroes of some kind, but imagine not simply donning a costume but also being given some sort of real power, commanding the respect of adults. This is the type of experience that some lucky children underwent in the medieval period when they were given the chance to serve as Bishop for the day.

Boy Bishop ceremonies featured in Durham, York, Beverley and other places with important churches or cathedrals. On special feast days, often ones appropriate to children – such as the feast of St Nicholas (who became our familiar modern Santa Claus) or the Feast of the Holy Innocents (the children killed by King Herod) – churches would appoint a Boy Bishop from among their choristers, to dress in rich robes like those of a real bishop, go in procession through ‘his’ parish, lead the congregation in prayer, and preach a sermon.

Bishops of major churches or cathedrals were authoritative figures, so when boys got to act as Bishop for the day it must have entailed a real sense of importance and ceremony. Some of the records uncovered in the exhibition show that the robes produced for such Boy Bishops were extremely expensive. This was about far more than dressing up games using old t-shirts and cereal boxes!

As well as featuring in the exhibition, Durham’s tradition of Boy Bishops will be resurrected as part of the show The Sacred and the Profane, a brand new performance featured as part of the Theatrum Mundi celebrations.

Plays, Processions and Parchment runs from 19th April to 22nd May in the Chapel of Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Entry is free. Visit the website for more details, and to see the accompanying programme of weekly talks. The exhibition is curated by Records of Early English Drama North East


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