Church sports

Sports in Churches

By Rev. J. Charles Cox, ll.d., f.s.a.


IN  mediæval and feudal days, as is well-known, our parish churches, in addition to their primary purpose of providing places for public worship and religious instruction, commonly served for various secular objects. They were used for manorial courts and other legal purposes of an entirely civil character, as well as for the meeting of spiritual and ecclesiastical tribunals; they served, particularly in troublous times, for the storage of wool and for the safe-custody of treasure chests; and they occasionally gave shelter, as at fair times and during the parish wakes, to hucksters' stalls, and to booths for the sale of victuals. Public opinion of those days saw nothing specially reprehensible in such uses of the churches, provided they were confined to the naves, and did not interfere with divine service, more particularly on the Sunday and festivals.

This being the case, it is not surprising to find that churches were, from time to time, used for what may fairly be termed “sports,” or amusements.

The custom, once so prevalent in the great churches, of appointing a Boy-Bishop, or Nicholas-Bishop, which is so abhorrent to modern ideas of reverence, and which gradually developed in extravagance, had a praiseworthy commencement. It originated in the idea of rewarding, after a religious fashion, the most deserving choir-boy or scholar of the church-school. The selected lad was appointed bishop of the boys on St. Nicholas' Day (the patron saint of boys) during the solemn singing of the Magnificat, and was vested in special pontificals of a small size. He held the office from December 6th (St. Nicholas' Day) to December 28th (Holy Innocents). “The custom,” says Precentor Walcott, “prevailed in the great schools of Winchester and Eton, and was perpetuated by Dean Colet in his foundation of St. Paul's, no doubt as a stimulus to Christian ambition in the boy, just as the mitre and staff are painted as the reward of learning on the scrolls of Winchester, or in honour of the Holy Child Jesus.”

The following is the statute of Dean Colet, a.d. 1518, on this subject:—“All these children shall, every Childermas Daye, come to Paule's Churche, and hear the Childe Bishop's sermone; and after be at the hyghe masse, and each of them offer a 1d. to the Childe Bishop, and with them maistors and surveyors of the scole.”

The ceremonies attached to this boyish parody of a most solemn office varied considerably, but it is known to have existed in all the cathedral churches of France and Spain, as well as in many parts of Germany and Switzerland. In England, every cathedral, which possesses post-reformation records, yields abundant evidence of the Child-Bishop customs. We found interesting mention of it in several places when setting in order the chaotic mass of capitular muniments at Lichfield. An inventory of 1345 names four small choir copes for the use of boys on the feast of Holy Innocents. The next century names a mitre, cope, sandals, gloves, and staff for the Nicholas Bishop. An invariable part of the proceedings seems to have been a sermon from the Boy Bishop, delivered from the usual pulpit. He was doubtless well drilled in the discourse by the chancellor, or by his substitute, the choir school master. Indeed, several of the sermons that were learnt by rote by the Boy Bishop are still extant. At Salisbury, the whole details are set forth in the printed procession of the cathedral church. In the order of the procession, on the eve of Innocents' Day, the dean and canons residentiary walked first, and were followed by the chaplains; the boy-bishop, with his boy-prebendaries, closing the procession as the position of the greatest dignity. The boy-bishop and his attendants took the highest places in choir, the canons carrying the incense, tapers, etc. At the conclusion of compline the boy gave the benediction, and until the close of the procession on the following evening none of the clergy of any condition were allowed to ascend to the upper part of the sanctuary, which was reserved for the choir boys and their prelate.

In most churches the boys performed all the ceremonies, and said all the offices save mass during this period; in some they were even permitted to make a travesty of mass. On the Continent, a variety of indecent levities were by degrees admitted, such as the boy being dressed in a bishop's robes reversed, and old shoes being burnt instead of incense; and when they had raised sufficient scandal in the church itself, they then paraded the streets, or sought to make levies in the market-place. To the credit of the church, it should be remarked that these excesses were on several occasions interdicted by pre-reformation councils, though apparently with but partial success. The Council of Basle, which sat in 1431, issued the following stringent canon:—“This sacred synod, detesting that foul abuse frequent in certain churches, in which, on certain festivals of the year, certain persons with a mitre, staff, and pontifical robes, bless men after the manner of bishops, others being clothed like kings and dukes, which is called the Feast of Fools, of Innocents, or of Children in certain countries; others practising vizarded and theatrical sports; others making trains and dances of men and women, move men to spectacles and cachin-nations; hath appointed and commanded as well ordinaries as deans and rectors of churches, under pain of suspension of all their ecclesiastical revenues for three months space, if they suffered these and such like plays and pastimes to be any more exercised in the church, which ought to be the house of prayer, nor yet in the churchyard, and that they neglect not to punish the offender by ecclesiastical censures and other remedies of law.”

Boy-bishoping was by no means confined in England to the cathedral and large collegiate churches, but it was so generally prevalent and popular that it appears to have prevailed wherever there was a choir school, attached to any church, whether in town or country. The churchwardens' accounts of St. Mary Hill, London, 1485-6, contain the two following entries:—“Item, six copes for children of dyvers sortes. Item, a myter for a bishop at Seint Nycholas tyde, garnyshed with sylver and anelyd, and perles and counterfete stones.” The same accounts make mention of the purchase of properties for a like purpose in 1549-50 during Queen Mary's reign. We have met references to a like children's pageant in comparatively out-of-the-way places of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and West Somersetshire.

So far as England was concerned, the show of the boy-bishop, which the Church had failed to suppress or to keep within decent limits was summarily put an end to (save for a slight revival in the days of Mary Tudor) by a vigorous proclamation of Henry VIII. This proclamation, issued on July 22nd, 1542, thus concludes:—“Whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitious and chyldish observancies have been used, and yet to this day are observed and kept in many and sundry partes of this realme, as upon Saint Nicholas, the Holie Innocents, and such like, the children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priests, bishops and women, and to be ledde with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people, and gathering of money; and boys do singe masse and preach in the pulpitt, with such unfittinge and inconvenient usages, rather to the derysyion than anie true glorie of God, or honour of His Sayntes. The Kynge's Majestie wylleth and commandeth that henceforth all such superstitious observancies be left and duly extinguished throughout all this realm and dominions.”

The writings of the early reformers, as well as allusions in secular literature of the sixteenth century, help to prove how well-known, nay almost universal, was this boyish sporting and strange burlesquing of things sacred throughout England. In “The Catechism of the Offices of all Degrees,” issued by Thomas Beacon, Chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer, in the time of Edward VI., occurs the following passage:—

Father.—What if he preach not, neither can preach?

Son.—Then is he a Nicholas bishop and an idol, and indeed no better than a painted bishop on a wall: yea, he is, as the prophet saith, ‘A dumb dog, not able to bark;' he is also, as our Saviour Christ saith ‘Unsavoury salt, worth for nothing but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.' Wo be to those rulers that set such idols and white daubed walls over the flock of Christ, whom he hath purchased with His precious blood! Horrible and great is their damnation.”

At the first blush, any connection with dancing and church attendance or worship may seem profane and impossible; but further reflection at all events qualifies any too hasty generalisation. Emotions of joy and sorrow universally express themselves among mankind in movements and gestures of the body. Efforts were therefore made in early days, particularly among the more demonstrative people of the east and south, to reduce to measure, and to strengthen by unison, pleasureable emotions of joy. The dance is spoken of throughout the Old Testament as symbolical of rejoicing, and the rejoicing in their feasts is emphatically and repeatedly enjoined upon the Israelites. So, too, with both Romans and Egyptians, the dance, in certain circumstances, was associated with religious ceremonies, and was intended to express the thankful worship of the body. The dances led by Miriam, by Jephthah's daughter, by Judith, and doubtless too by Deborah, soon occur to the mind. David also himself led the dance on the return of the Ark of God from its long exile; whilst from the mention in association of “damsels,” “timbrels,” and “dances” as elements of religious worship in Psalms cxvii, cxlix, and cl, it may be concluded that David incorporated these joyous movements in the formal rites of the established Tabernacle service. In later Judaism the dance certainly survived in the religious festivities of the feast of Tabernacles. It may therefore have come to pass that early Christians, realising the joyous feature of their special creed, expressing its constant belief in the “resurrection of the body,” may have desired in all honesty and innocency to occasionally associate the dance with festal service. The results were, however, unfortunate; pagan practices of a like character were, as a rule, of a licentious nature, and it became necessary to try and suppress all such forms of expression of joy or thanksgiving. St. Augustine mentions with abhorrence that dancers invaded the resting place of St. Cyprian at night and sang songs there, a custom that died out on the institution of vigils. Pope Eugenius II. (824-7) prohibited dancing in churches, thereby showing how usual the custom became. In 858 the Bishop of Orleans condemned the dancing of women in the presbytery on festivals. The Council of Avignon, which sat in 1209, prohibited the theatrical dances in churches which were sometimes the accompaniment of the vigils of Saints' days. The Councils of Bourges in 1286, and of Bayeux in 1300, condemned all dances which took place in church or churchyards.

In the later mediæval period Morris-dancing was associated with churches, and the wardens not infrequently had in their possession certain properties that were necessary for its due performance. The Morris-dancing was occasionally actually performed within the churches, that is in the nave or at the west end; the mummers not going forth on their Whitsuntide round until the first dance had been given within the sacred fabric. Nor is it difficult for the antiquary to trace the connection between the Morris-dancing and the active expression of Christianity. When the Fifth Crusade succeeded in effecting thecapture of Constantinople, the Latins in their joy celebrated the event by solemn dances in the great church of St. Sophia. The usual, nay almost invariable, subject of the mumming-play, as apart from the miracle-play, was one drawn from the crusading legend. St. George rescuing a Christian maid from her Turkish masters was the usual stock piece, whilst the joy of victory was invariably celebrated in the Morris (that is the Moorish) dance.

The earliest of the Kingston-upon-Thames churchwarden accounts, which cover the last years of Henry VII. and the reign of Henry VIII., have various references to these dances. In the inventory of church property for 1537-8 are enumerated:—“A fryers cote of russet and a kyrtele welted with red cloth, a mowrens (Moor's) cote of buckram, and four morres daunsars cotes of white fustian spangelid, and too gryne satin cotes, and disarddes cote of cotton, and six payre of garters with belles.”

In the recently published and highly-interesting churchwardens' accounts of St. Mary's, Reading, are the following entries for the year 1556-7:—

“I'tm payed for the morrys daunsers and the
mynstrelles mete and drinke at Whitsuntide 
I'tm payed to them the Sondy after Mayday  xx.d
Pd to the painter for paynting of their Cottes  ii.s.viij.d
Pd for a peir of showes for the morris daunsers  iiij.s
Pd for iiij dozen belles for the morrys daunsers  ij.s
Pd for sowing of the morrys Cottes  vij.d

The churchwardens' accounts of St. Helen's, Abingdon, for the second year of Queen Elizabeth (1559) show that “two dozen of morres belles were bought by the parish for a shilling.”

An injunction of Henry VIII. laid down the principle, now so generally accepted, that “all soberness, quietness, and godliness ought there (in the churches) to be used,” and enjoined that “no Christian person should abuse the same by eating, drinking, buying, selling, playing, dancing, or with other profane or worldly matters.” But this injunction was often treated as a dead letter up to the close of the century in which it was issued. In Stubb's “Anatomie of Abuses,” first printed in 1585, we read:—

“The wild heades of the parish, flocking together, chuse them a grawnd captain of mischief, whom they innoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule. Then marche these heathen companie towards the church and churchyard, their pipers pypyng, drummers thonderyng, their stumpes dauncyng, their belles jyngling, their handkerchefes swyngyng about their heads like madmen, their hobbie-horses and other monsters skyrmishyng amongst the throng; and in this sorte they go to the church (though the minister be at praier or preachyng) dauncing and swyngyng their handkerchiefs over their heads in the churche, like devilles incarnate, with such a confused noise that no man can heare his owne voyce. Then the foolish people, they looke, they stare, they laugh, they fleere, and mywnt upon the formes and pewes to see these goodly pageants solemnized in this sort. Then, after this, about the church they go againe and againe, and so fourthe into the churchyard, where they have commonly their summerhalls, their bowers, arbours and banquetyng houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet and dance all that day, and peradventure, all that night too, and thus these terrestrial furies spend the sabbath daie.”

In the days of the antiquary, Sir John Aubrey, who died in 1697, there was Christmas dancing in various Yorkshire churches, accompanied with songs of Yule.

The mounted reindeer antlers, as well as the dresses and other properties of the remarkable horn dancers of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, are still kept in the parish church, where we recently had an opportunity of examining them when investigating the history of this highly interesting survival. The dance still continues year by year, and there seems no doubt that the tradition is true which assigned to the performers a preliminary dance through the churches before they started on their rounds through the parish and neighbourhood, collecting money for church purposes. There are those living who can recollect the accompanying music being played in the church porch, whilst the dancers executed their steps in the adjacent parts of the churchyard.

A singular and attractive relic of the custom of dancing in churches is still practiced three times a year in the great cathedral of Seville, namely on the feasts of the Immaculate Conception, and of Corpus Christi, and on the last three days of the Carnival. Ten choristers, dressed in the costume of pages of the time of Philip III., with plumed hats, dance a stately but most graceful measure, for about half-an-hour, within the iron screens in front of the high altar. They are dressed in blue and white for the Blessed Virgin, and in red and white for Corpus Christi. The boys accompany the minuet-like movements with the clinking of castanets. During the measure, a hymn, arranged for three voices with orchestral accompaniment, is sung in honour of the Blessed Sacrament. The refrain to the verses is as follows:—

“Tu nombre Divino,
Jesus, invocamos,
Y Dios Te adoramos
Por nos encarnado,
Yen hostia abreviado
De celico pan!”

The canons of the Church of England, as well as the visitation articles of several of our bishops soon after the Reformation, afford plain proof of the not infrequent continuance of sports and feastings within the churches.

The 48th of Bishop Hooper's visitation articles runs as follows:—

“Item, that the churchwardens do not permit any buying, selling, gaming, outrageous noises, tumult, or any other idle occupying of youth, in the church, church porch, or churchyard, during the time of common prayer, sermon, or reading of the homily.”

Still more explicit is the 61st article of the provincial visitation of Archbishop Grindal:—

“Whether the ministers and churchwardens have suffered any lords of misrule, or summer lords or ladies, or any disguised persons, or others, in Christmas or at May-games, or any morris-dancers, or at any other times to come, unreverently into the church or churchyard, and there to dance, or play any unseemly parts, with scoffs, jests, wanton gestures, or ribald talk, namely in the time of Common Prayer; and what they be that commit such disorder, or accompany or maintain them?”

The 88th Canon of the Church of England (1603), under the heading, “Churches not to be profaned,” says:—

“The churchwardens or questmen, and their assistants, shall suffer no plays, feasts, banquets, suppers, church-ales, drinkings, temporal courts or leets, lay-juries, musters, or any other profane usage to be kept in the church, chapels or churchyard.”

With regard to plays in churches, it has to be recollected that the mediæval Miracle Play, particularly in England, had its origin in an elaboration of the liturgy at special seasons, in order to bring home Christian truths more closely to the understanding of an unlettered people. The primitive Passion play consisted in the solemn removal of the Crucifix on Good Friday, the laying it away beneath the altar or in a specially constructed “sepulchre,” the setting of a watch to guard it and the raising it again with joyous anthem on the Resurrection morn of Easter. After the third lesson, before the Te Deum  at mattins on Easter Day (according to the English use), the clergy walked in procession to the high altar, where two singingmen took the parts SS. Peter and John, whilst three altos, in albes, represented the three Maries, to each of whom certain words were assigned. The same colloquy was repeated at Mass as part of the sequence. So, too, with Nativity plays, they had their origin in the parts assigned to the choir boys and singing men, as representing angels, shepherds, wise-men, etc. A manger was always erected in one part of the church, and as the play developed a throne for Herod was placed in another position, whilst a distant corner was supposed to represent Egypt.

As the Miracle Plays grew in importance and popularity, their representation in churches became increasingly impossible, if any regard was to be had to scenic effects. Hence the actors ceased to be the clergy and choir, their place being taken by members of trade-gilds, or by wandering players. Occasionally, however, these playing troops were allowed to use the churches, of which, if space permitted, a variety of instances, many of our own culling, could be given. Nay, the authorities, both in pre-reformation and post-reformation times were occasionally lax enough to suffer secular country dramas and rude representations of historic scenes to be given by the players in the naves of the parish churches.[1]

In the churchwarden's accounts of St. Michael's, Bath, under the year 1482, are several entries pertaining to the miracle players, who doubtless performed in the church, and who certainly partook of their refreshment in the same place. The players received a preliminary refresher on their arrival, which is thus expressed in the original:—

Propotatione le players in recordacione ludorum
diversis vicibus

They seem to have been paid chiefly in kind, as the accounts are charged with—

Two bushels of corn, two dozen pots of beer, and cheese, to the value of 1.s. 1.d. for the play. The wardens also paid for this play 20.d. for skins, which would be used for disguisements, and 3.s. for staining diverse properties that were provided for the occasion.

Another entry relative to the same visit, has, we think, been misinterpreted by Rev. Prebendary Pearson, when he edited these accounts in 1878. The entry reads:—

Et Johi Fowler pro cariando le tymbe a cimiterio
dicto tempore ludi

Mr. Pearson thought this meant a tomb (tymba ), but it is far more likely that it was a bulky platform of timber, placed in the churchyard when not in use, and only brought into the church when it was required to serve as a stage.

With regard to feasting in churches, one of the canons put forth in 1571 specially enjoined the churchwardens to disallow the holding of feasts, drinking parties, banquets, and public entertainments within the walls of churches. The Church-ales, Clark-ales, and Bid-ales, about which so much has been written, were originally held within the fabric, and a variety of other drinking and eating customs in the same place were at one time prevalent, lingering on for some time after the Reformation in certain places, and even lasting almost to our own days in occasional retired parishes.

Funeral banquets, for the entertainment of mourners, were not infrequently held in the church when the ceremony was over, or even on the next Sunday.

In Strype's edition of Stowe's London  it is recorded that:—

“Margaret Atkinson, widow, by her will, October 18th, 1544, orders that the next Sunday after her burial there be provided two dozens of bread, a kilderkin of ale, two gammons of bacon, three shoulders of mutton, and two couples of rabbits, desiring all the parish, as well as rich as poor, to take part thereof, and a table be set in the midst of the church, with everything necessary therto.”

We have seen wills pertaining to Porlock and Cutcombe, Somersetshire, to Scropton, Derbyshire, and to Easingwold, Yorkshire, all of the latter part of the sixteenth century, which expressly provide for the refreshment of the mourners within the church.

Occasionally, too, parochial charities provided that the bequest in kind should be consumed in the church. This was the case with regard to a small seventeenth century charity, by the terms of which a certain quantity of bread and beer were to be distributed in the parish church of Barton-le-Street, Yorkshire, on Holy Thursday to the children of the parish, to be by them consumed within the church, close to the tomb of the testator. This custom prevailed until about 1820, when it was abandoned in favour of the churchyard. The reformed custom prevailed for some twenty years, when it in turn gave way to a distribution of the fund in money to the aged poor.

Sad and quaint instances of the occasional evil uses of churches in recent times, even during the present century, could be gleaned, such as cock-fighting, card-playing, etc.; but the record would be of no profit, for they would not be examples of any once established custom, but mere freaks of wanton impiety.