Boy Bishops and May Queens in Berden
Boy Bishops and May Queens in Berden :
Traditions of the Church of St Nicholas, Berden.
England has over 400 Anglican churches named after St Nicholas, and Berden became well-known for celebrating his feast day: the day he died, 6 December, AD343, with the ‘Boy Bishop’ custom. This still continues in places such as Hereford and Canterbury Cathedrals and a handful of parish churches.
The Rev. Herbert Hudson played a significant part in village life. His re-introduction of the miracle play that led to the crowning of a Boy Bishop made national headlines in the Daily Mirror in 1935.
The Boy Bishop ceremony originated in the 15th century and was first performed by the Dean of St Pauls, J Colet (1467-1519). He was the founder of St Paul’s School and the boys would attend the Cathedral on St Nicholas’ Day. The choristers of cathedrals on St Nicholas’ Day chose one of their number to act as Bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day on 28 December. The Boy Bishop was paid one penny for his sermon, but by the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the practice was stopped because of riotous behaviour.
The Reverend Hudson formed the Guild of St Nicholas in 1901 and introduced the Boy Bishop ceremony to Berden. NB – For more information on Rev. Hudson go to www.berden.org or see the leaflet: Key People in the History of St Nicholas Church, Berden.
Both boys and girls joined the Guild. Each child took an oath to do their best. The election of the Bishop was taken very seriously, with each child receiving a ballot paper to be placed in a box in his study. The results would be announced, and after a password was given the elected Bishop was allowed to be robed and crowned by the Reverend Hudson.
The first Boy Bishop was Aelfric Hudson, the eldest son of the Vicar.
The miracle play was set in a Greek house in the 4th century, and based around stories of St Nicholas. The prologue was spoken by the retiring Boy Bishop, and the village children supplied the cast, which was as follows:
Jason – a rich merchant
Eunice – his wife
Agatha, Irene and Dora – his children
Demas and Silas – friends of Jason
A household servant
Monks of the Augustinian Order (Berden Priory was once an Augustinian Priory)
St Nicholas – always played by the Boy Bishop.
The costumes were copies of 15th century dress. One thing to note is that in the early thirties a film was made at the Installation of the Boy Bishop, by the Gaumont Graphic Film Unit. This was shown first in St Nicholas’ Church, and later at various cinemas, including that at Bishop’s Stortford.
At the end of the play a St Nicholas’ Day tea was held with party games in the Parish Room. A similar party was held on 2 February to commemorate Candlemas.
The girls also had their ceremony based around the May Queen, celebrated on 1 May with the first Queen being Maud Hudson, the vicar’s daughter. On this day at six o’clock in the morning the Reverend Hudson would take the May Queen and Boy Bishop and climb the tower, negotiating the vertical ladder, to look out at the view.
The Boy Bishop remained in office for a year and then became cross bearer to his successor. It was an important symbolic position, and he was deemed to be the spokes-person for youth in the village.
ACKNOWLEDEMENT AND THANKS
I would like to acknowledge here the excellent books written by Mrs C. I. Cherry (1980) and Maurice Ancell (1993) on which much research has been based. However any mistakes are entirely my own and corrections and additional information will be warmly received.
Berden Local History Recorder