On the Canonical Chapter of Lyons

The Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Lyons

The canonical chapter of St John’s Cathedral in Lyons long distinguished itself as one of the most powerful and most liturgically dedicated cathedral chapters in Christendom. It was principally due to the efforts of these canons, who had to learn the entire Office by heart in order to be accepted into the chapter, that the mediæval Lyonese use survived until the 18th century. In this extract, the eminent liturgist Archdale King describes the characteristics of the Lyonese chapter:

The Church of Lyons has been distinguished through the centuries for its loyalty to liturgical tradition. St. Bernard (ob. 1153) in his reproof to its canons for their adoption of a new feast (Conception of our Lady) reminds them of their customary conservatism: ‘Among all the churches of France the church of Lyons is well known to be pre-eminent for its dignity, sound learning, and praiseworthy customs. Where was there ever so flourishing strict discipline, grave conduct, ripe counsels, and such an imposing weight of authority and tradition? Especially in the offices of the Church, has this church, so full of judgement, appeared cautious in adopting novelties, and careful never to permit its reputation to be sullied by any childish levity.’

A similar homage was paid to the Church of Lyons in the 17th century by Cardinal Bona (ob. 1674): ‘A Church which knows nothing of novelties, clinging tenaciously, in the matter of chant and ceremonies, to ancient tradition.’

This laudable conservatism was due in great measure to the unprecedented authority exercised by the canons. In the 12th century, they numbered seventy-two in remembrance of the disciples of our Lord, but after a certain amount of fluctuation their numbers were reduced to thirty-two by a charter of King Philip V in 1321. This arrangement was confirmed by a bull of Clement VI (1342-52) in 1347. In 1173, the canons of the primatial church of St. John had been granted the temporal jurisdiction of the city by Guy, count of Forez, and at the same time the title of ‘count’ was conferred on them. Lyons came under the control of the king of France in 1312, but Philip the Fair expressly maintained the nobility of the canons, who, in 1745, were authorized by Louis XV to wear a cross of white enamel over their mozettas. This qualification of ‘count’ ceased with the Revolution, but the cross is still worn. Spiritual authority was in no way impaired by the loss of temporal power. In 1230, the chapter even defied the Pope by declining the proposal of Gregory IX (1227-41) that Peter of Savoy should become one of their number. Peter, however, accepted the non placet of the canons, and consoled himself with marriage! When Innocent IV (1243-54) in 1244 expressed his intention of appointing personally to certain of the prebendal stalls, the canons told him that his nominees would be thrown in to the Saône, if they presented themselves.

Other officers in the primatial church included four guardians (two for the parish and two for the cathedral), representing the four evangelists; seven knights for the Apocalyptic ‘seven spirits of fire’ [1]; thirteen perpetual chaplains in place of Christ and the apostles [2]; forty assistant priests; twenty inferior clerics; and twenty-four altar and choir boys. In addition to these, the statues of 1330 mention one hundred and twenty supernumeraries. There were altogether one hundred and thirty persons in the choir.

The archbishop ranked as a ‘perpetual’, and, although accorded reverence by reason of his office, his powers were limited. He pontificated no more than four times in the year—Christmas, Holy Thursday, Easter, and Pentecost. Like the canons, he took an oath to keep, respect, and defend the rights and privileges of the chapter, and, although the dean vacated his stall for him, the primate, when in chapter, did not appear in pontificals. It was the capitular cross, not that of the metropolitan, which was carried before him at ceremonies. A cleric had taken the archbishop’s cross at the threshold of the cloister, and ‘hidden’ it behind the altar, until such time as he had quitted the primatial church. The archbishop exercised authority over the chapter in the time of Leidrade and Agobard, but by the 13th century he was no more than the first of the perpetual chaplains [3], and he was to be little more than a ‘guest’ in his own cathedral church until the 18th century. Attendance at choir was strictly enforced, and an absentee was precluded from assisting at the capitular Mass on the following day. When the archbishop pontificated, it was necessary for him to officiate at first Vespers, and, if he failed to do so, the dean took his place at the altar. In 1743, on the occasion of the jubilee of the church (St. John), Cardinal de Tencin went to see a display of fireworks, and in consequence absented himself from Matins on the following day without the permission of the chapter, whereupon the canons refused to allow him to assist at either Mass or Vespers. So late at 1757, it was the chapter, not the archbishop, who gave faculties for the hearing of confessions in the churches of St. John, St. Stephen, and Holy Cross.

The jealous attachment to rights and privileges, with a constant fear lest they should be infringed by the archbishop, is signified by the two crosses which may be seen today against the wall behind the high altar: ‘When the archbishop raises his cross, the canons raise theirs on the other side.’ This must surely be the explanation of the two crosses, rather than a reminder of the union of the Western and Eastern Churches at the second council of Lyons in 1274, when the Latin and Greek crosses were set up behind the altar during the solemn Mass celebrated by Pope Gregory X. In the last quarter of the 18th century we find a denial of the privileges of the chapter, and they were also rescinded by the Parliament of Paris. About this time also, the archbishop, Mgr. de Montazet, substituted the neo-Gallican missal of Paris for the authentic Roman missal of Leidrade and Agobard.

[1] These knights were incorporated into the ranks of the clergy in the 16th century.

[2] The perpetual chaplains had charge of the chant and ceremonies, and also the maintenance of the secular traditions of the church. They were at one time removable, and a change in this respect may have caused them to be styled ‘perpetual’.

[3] Tredecim capellanos perpetuos inter quos et praecipuus Archiepiscopus, qui representat Dominum Jesum Christum inter apostolos existentem. Stat. 1337.

Archdale A. King. Liturgies of the Primatial Sees. Longmans, Green and Co, 1957, pp. 18-21.

4 thoughts on “On the Canonical Chapter of Lyons

  1. I recall reading in Archdale King that there was an uproar in Lyons in the 19th century when there was an attempt to suppress the local rite/use. In Braga, 20 years later, the same thing happened. Did Lyons have its own style of chant; I know Braga previously did.


    1. Unhappily, the suppression of the ancient Lyonese use in 1776 & its replacement with an imitation of the neo-Gallican use of Paris was met with little opposition. The chapter’s power had already been broken and most canons meekly acquiesced to Archbishop de Montazet’s new books. Dom Guéranger does report that a few canons wrote a pamphlet against the reforms, which was condemned to be burnt by the Parlement de Paris. In the 19th century, however, there was an interesting struggle between those who wanted to retain the neo-Gallican use, those who wanted to restore the old Lyonese use, and those who wanted to impose the Roman Tridentine books.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. And I’m sure there was a distinctive way of chanting in Lyons–France was filled with local chant customs that survived until the efforts to impose the Solesmes style everywhere. But I haven’t come across any specifics in the Lyonese graduals I have seen


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