Life in a Medieval College: The Story of the Vicars-Choral of York Minster

By Frederick Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
YORK MINSTER IN THE MIDDLE AGES

On the panels below the canopies of forty of the stalls in the choir of York Minster are to be seen, in letters of gilt, a number of inscriptions. Amongst them are (1) DECANUS, PRECENTOR, CANCELLARIUS, THESAURARIUS, and SUCCENTOR CANONICORUM, (2) many names of parishes, most of them in the diocese of York, and (3), opposite to each other, two stalls labelled SUCCENTOR VICARIORUM and VICAR CHORAL. Other stalls, similarly labelled, are reserved for the three archdeacons of the diocese and the chancellor of the diocese. When, not long after the Norman Conquest, Thomas of Bayeux, the first Norman archbishop of York, arrived at York, he began to plan for his cathedral to be governed and served by clergy who should be not monks but secular canons, he himself having been, as treasurer of Bayeux cathedral, a secular canon. What Thomas began, others continued, until, within little more than a century, the constitution of the body known as the dean and chapter of York was complete, consisting of quatuor majores personae (the four greater persons or parsons, namely, dean, precentor, chancellor and treasurer), and thirty-three other canons. How long it was after the completion of this constitution before the canons began to employ deputies or vicars to represent them in the singing of the daily offices is not known. But in the middle of the thirteenth century the vicars-choral became a corporate body recognised not only by the archbishop of the time ( Walter de Gray, who held the see from 1215 to 1255), and by the dean and chapter, but also, in the year 1268, in letters-patent issued in the name of Henry III. Though adapted to changed circumstances from time to time, this constitution lasted at York, as in the other eight secular cathedral foundations in this country, till the year 1936, when, in all the English cathedrals except St. Paul's, the vicars-choral lost their corporate status.

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