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Stand up, servants of the canons: Vicars choral did all the work, as
Nicholas Orme discovers
IN THE 12th century, our cathedrals entered a golden era that lasted for 700
years. During this time they were rich. As a result, the canons who staffed
them grew too grand and busy to say the daily services; and to do so they
appointed vicars choral, clerics who lived in their houses like servants, and
did odd jobs when they were not in church.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the vicars coalesced into bodies of
their own within the cathedral body. They acquired property, statutes, and
houses where they lived and ate in common. These dwellings sometimes lay in
little streets such as the delightful Vicars' Close at Wells.
There was always a strong flavour of the servants' hall about vicars choral.
Canons were from the gentry; vicars were sons of farmers and shopkeepers. Some
became parish clergy, but hardly any crossed the divide to be canons. They
could be unruly: at Exeter they dripped wax on the clerks in the lower rows of
the choir, and got out of the cathedral close at night to roister in the city
The Reformation largely spared cathedrals, and vicars, too - though some
were now lay-vicars, some priest-vicars. More than 50 of them feature in
The Dictionary of National Biography, mostly as minor composers and
musicians. These were the cream. By the 19th century, vicars were notorious for
slack attendance in choir, disputes with the cathedral chapter, and mediocre
singing. One vicar of St Paul's, who lost his voice, did his duty by a proxy
for 40 years.
In the end, they were casualties of democracy. Once canons no longer lived
like gentry, vicars became a nuisance and expense. Their corporations were
abolished in the 1930s, and they gradually faded out, save for the retention of
the title for some of those who sing in cathedral choirs today.
There is no complete history of vicars choral; and this book is a welcome
contribution towards one. It is not comprehensive, since the focus is on the
Middle Ages, and on the vicars' premises rather than on their social history.
But several of the contributors follow the history of the premises down to
modern times, and in doing so say a good deal about vicars after the
Within that framework this is an excellent, ground-breaking book. The
history of the vicars' dwellings is particularly good, and well supported by
maps, plans, and photographs. Anyone interested in cathedrals will find a new
world in these pages: the world of those who served in the building and lived
in the village that formed the cathedral close.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Professor of History at Exeter University.
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