The Vicars Choral are the altos, tenors and basses of the Cathedral Choir.
They are not in holy orders; the word ‘vicar’ comes from ‘vice’ and simply means a deputy (as in vice-president). Historically, vicars were the substitutes or deputies for the canons, who were often away from the Cathedral while engaged on the affairs of their estates or on the King’s business.
The body of Vicars Choral has been in existence since the 1100s, singing the daily round of divine services in the Cathedral in place of the canons. Initially they lodged among the townsfolk rather than on Cathedral grounds, allowing them to succumb to worldly temptation.
To rectify this unsatisfactory situation, in 1348 Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury founded a College of Vicars, of whom there were more than forty, and provided a communal hall and buildings for accommodation grouped around a quadrangle, in much the same manner as an Oxford or Cambridge college. Bishop Ralph also endowed the Vicars with a landed estate which provided them with a small income. In the early fifteenth century a chapel was built for the Vicars, and the quadrangle was converted into a street, now known as Vicars’ Close. Largely undisturbed, Vicars’ Close is the oldest continually inhabited street in Europe and still houses the organists and the men of the choir, as well as other employees of the Cathedral.
Today there are nine Vicars Choral and three Choral Scholars, all professional singers, who are paid by Chapter and are provided with housing in Vicars’ Close. The twelve men of the choir sing the daily services in the Cathedral together with either the boy or girl choristers, performing an extensive repertoire of music from all historical periods and the present day.
At Evensong on Wednesdays the men sing without the choristers, allowing a different repertoire to be sung, in particular, plainchant. Every year in November the men sing a Commemoration Concert in honour of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury and in appreciation for his vision in founding the College of Vicars Choral.