Vicars Choral at English Cathedrals

02 November 2006


Oxbow Books £50 (1-84217-153-4); Church Times Bookshop £45

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 taverns.

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 Reformation.

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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