In the Middle Ages the life of a chorister was harsh and severe. The daily routine was rigorous, food not over-plentiful and corporal punishment frequent. Thus one can imagine that once a year the prospect of feasts, power over their superiors and freedom to travel the diocese was looked forward to with the utmost expectation by these young boys.
The dates of these festivities varied greatly from diocese to diocese. Some started on 6 December (St Nicholas Day) and others on 28 December (Holy Innocents Day). A few continued from 6 December to 28 December without break.
The election of the Boy Bishop also varied from cathedral to cathedral. In some, the boys themselves elected their bishop but in others, especially as time went on, the bishop was elected by the clergy. He would be dressed in cope and mitre and carry a bishop's crook and his fellows would be attired in colourful robes.
This attracted enormous crowds to the cathedrals, all pressing to get a better view of the boys, also of the clergy descending from their accustomed seats and taking the lowest pews. During the exchanging of seats the canticle Magnificat was sung, also the office of Vespers during the ornate procession which wound its way round the whole cathedral with censers swinging in the light of many candles. After the service the boys would expect an enormous feast with wine.
At York the Boy Bishop and his young attendants would set off on horseback to tour the diocese, visiting monasteries and houses of the nobility where they were given money and presents. In most cathedrals the Boy Bishop preached a sermon carefully prepared for him by an adult for fear of what he might say if left to his own devices.
Only three of these sermons survive, including one preached at Gloucester. The theme of this sermon was how wicked all the young people were, even the youngsters in the choir school including their behaviour in the cathedral. His conclusion was that the parents and school masters were to blame. This had a familiar ring. There were deaths at St Petersburg, Ratisbon and Paris, and in Paris after a riot the Boy Bishop himself was murdered.
In England the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop were put to an end in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, but on the continent they continued until the end of the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century there has been a very modified revival in many parish churches, in Hereford Cathedral and also in Salisbury Cathedral.