Saint Nicholas and the Boy Bishops of Salisbury Cathedral

Saturday 16 April 2011

I visited Salisbury Cathedral today for the first time in at least twenty-five years and, as a result, saw things with very different eyes to the last time I was there. In fact, it was like I'd never been there before.

One of the things that stood out for me was a statue of Saint Nicholas with three young boys sitting on a barrel. My son was able to tell me it was Saint Nicholas precisely because he was pictured with children, but I decided not to relate the legend of the Boys in the Barrel to him. (He's still only 6 years old after all.) You can find the full story in What is Myrrh Anyway?* but I'll re-tell it for you here and now.

The story goes that three boys were travelling to Athens, where they were to be educated, but had been told by their father to stop off at Myra on the way to receive the bishop’s blessing. When they arrived at the town, night had already fallen and so they took a room at a local inn, intending to visit Nicholas the next morning.

Unfortunately for the boys, the innkeeper decided to rob them, thinking that their possessions would make easy pickings. That night the felon crept into the room where they slept and murdered them where they lay. To hide his heinous crime, and profit still further from the villainous deed, he chopped up their bodies, pickling them in barrels of brine, planning to sell their flesh to his customers as salted pork.

However, Bishop Nicholas learnt that the boys were due to visit him and so set out in search of them. His enquiries eventually brought him to the inn and, when questioned about the boys, the innkeeper panicked, telling Nicholas that the boys had been there but had left the following morning. Nicholas was having none of it and set about searching the premises. It did not take him long to find the barrels which held the boys’ dismembered corpses.

With a dramatic change of heart, no doubt brought on by extreme guilt, the innkeeper broke down and confessed his sins, begging the bishop for forgiveness. The saint was utterly convinced by the innkeeper’s desire to repent and prayed for both him, and the dead boys. As he concluded his prayer, the body parts reunited and the boys emerged from the brine barrels, alive and wholly intact. And so they continued on their way to Athens.

Something else I saw during my visit to the cathedral today, was a monument to a Boy Bishop, which is something else that I cover in What is Myrrh Anyway?

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it was the custom within the great cathedrals to appoint a boy bishop from among the choristers on the feast of Saint Nicholas. Wearing full episcopal garb – mitre and crozier included – his term of office lasted from 6 December until Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December. During this time the boy bishop carried out all the functions of a priest, from taking church services to appointing canons (from among his fellow choristers). This practice began to die out in Tudor times, when both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tried to ban the potentially blasphemous tradition.

So, all in all, it was a most educational visit.

* a.k.a. Christmas Miscellany in the States.


Post a Comment

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

The Chrismologist © 2008. Template by BloggerBuster.