The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Adeste Fideles
A Study On Its Origin And Development


Dom John Stephan, O.S.B.
Publications,” Buckfast Abbey, South Devon

See Also: Adeste Fideles - Notes On The Carol


THIS STUDY was, undertaken in consequence of the chance discovery of a small musical Ms. book, described as Lot 1958 of the Mss. of the Harmsworth Library, with the following particulars “Choir book, Mss. on paper. 92 leaves, written in red and black musical notation. Reference to ‘Regem nostrum Jacobum' on p. 91, old calf, gilt (circa 1687 ?).” It was bought by Rev. Maurice Frost, Vicar of Deddington, Oxford, in 1946, and lent to the present writer for examination and study. It is carefully written from beginning to end, but unfortunately the title-page, which would have supplied useful hints, was missing, so that its origin was not easily apparent. Besides the Jacobite tendency, revealed by the Prayer for ‘King James,’ it struck its new owner by an unusual version of the ‘Adeste fideles,’ which was given immediately after the said Royal Prayer. The dealers found it convenient to deduce from the presence of this Jacobite prayer that the date of the Ms. must be fixed somewhere near 1687, while James II was still on the throne of England. This, if correct, would give the world a version of the Adeste 50 years older than any copy discovered up to date. My first reaction to this claim was that the JAMES referred to need not necessarily be James II, but might well be ‘James III,’ the Old Pretender, who lived till 1765, and had devoted followers all through that period. A close examination of the water-marks of the paper used for the writing soon confirmed the accuracy of that suspicion. The end-paper used for the cover bore the date ‘1795,’ but the rest of the book had different water-marks, which were traced by an expert to a period between 1720 and i 750.

The earliest copies of the Adeste all bear the signature of John Francis WADE, so that the next step was to secure photographs of some or all the known copies. On receiving the first of these photographs I was immediately struck by the similarity of the hand-writing with that of the new ‘Jacobite’ Ms. This was corroborated by the other copies which in time reached me, and I pointed out the coincidence to Mr. Frost. There was no escaping the conclusion to be drawn from this comparison of handwritings: the new Ms. was the product of the same scribe, who was discovered to have been a professional music-copyist at Douay, and invariably signed and dated every one of his books. For some reason or other a past owner of this newly discovered copy tore off that title-page, with the result that its origin had now to be laboriously searched for.

Internal evidence led to other inquiries, the most important being the question of the original authorship of the Adeste Hymn. This has puzzled many searchers for a long time, without any appreciable progress towards its solution. The late G. E. P. Arkwright, in 1910, contributed the most outstanding piece of evidence bearing on the question. This will be found in the text of this Study, thanks to the kindness of Mr. Frost, who pointed it out to me. In fact, this booklet owes so much to the assistance of this Reverend gentleman that it ought to bear his name rather than mine. But his modesty will have it otherwise, and besides, I have advanced such personal argumentation in the course of the treatise, that it would not be fair to ask him to share in the controversy that is likely to follow. I would rather bear the responsibility alone, while thanking my generous friend for his most valuable assistance in the substantial part of the work, and particularly for allowing me to use his property in the way I am doing. Let this be the excuse for the ‘egotistical’ tone of this Introduction.

Other acknowledgements must be made without further delay to the owners or caretakers of the documents used for the compilation of this Study:

1. To the Reverend Father Rector of Conglowes Wood College, Kildare, who tried to help by searching for the Wade Ms. of the Adeste, which had been in possession of the College for perhaps 200 years, but has recently ‘been lost or stolen' from the Library. This was sad news indeed, as the Conglowes copy was always given pride of place as the earliest known!

2. To the Reverend Father Rector of Stonyhurst College, Lancs., and his most helpful Librarian, the Rev. H. Chadwick, S.J., who supplied a photograph of their copy of Wade’s Ms., and granted permission to reproduce it.

3. To the Right Reverend the President of St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, Ware, for like favours in regard to two of Wade’s Mss. preserved in the College. The Rev. N. Kelly, Librarian, was the first to point out to me that St. Edmund’s College owned two Mss. volumes containing the Adeste, one of them the most perfect specimen of Wade’s handwriting likely to exist. Both belong to his best period (1760).

4. To the Librarian of the Henry Watson Musical Library at Manchester, for a photostat of the Wade Mss. kept there. This copy is written in ‘open’ notes, as if it had not been given the finishing touches. One page of it was reproduced in J. T. Lightwood’s “The Music of the Methodist Hymn Book,” before it had been tampered with — the lines of the stave appear to have been re-drawn, and not very exactly in their places.

The Euing Collection, at Glasgow, has also been credited with the possession of a Wade manuscript, which is referred to by such a conscientious scholar as the late Dom Gregory Ould, O.S.B., who was the first to publish the complete text of eight verses of the Adeste, with remarkable accompaniments to each verse by distinguished composers. This edition [Cantiones Sacrae: Musical Settings of The Roman Liturgy] was published by Novello and Co., in 1901. Now I have been assured by the Librarian of the University Library, Glasgow, that “there is no trace whatsoever that such a Ms. is now, or has ever been, in the Euing Collection.” This disposes of another ‘faked’ reference which future searchers need not trouble about, and leaves us with five genuine sources of the Hymn — or SIX, if the Conglowes College copy were to turn up again. These are the ‘Incunabula’ of the Adeste, and therefore extremely valuable. In order to forestall further losses I have secured the requisite authority for reproducing them in fac-simile in this booklet. This will enable scholars to study the originals without having to apply to the scattered homes of the Mss., and preserve the exact features of the original copies, were these to be lost or destroyed. This plan has the warm approval of the musical experts who have been consulted.

Let me add in conclusion that the theory herein expressed, concerning the exact identity of the author-composer of the Adeste, is not put forward in any dogmatic spirit, or that it may not be disproved by some forthcoming evidence which at present is not available. If it stirs up a fresh spirit of inquiry among musicologists, the principal aim of the present writer will have been achieved. We are face to face with a tantalising problem, which has now taken on the form of a jigsaw puzzle, since the discovery of the Jacobite Ms., and every effort ought to be made to answer it satisfactorily. The questions at issue are wider than the discovery of the Adeste’s authorship, as I have pointed out in a brief Appendix. Several other hymns may be affected as well. If my theory is correct it means that a hitherto overlooked English poet and composer must at last he given his place among our authors and musicians. Is this not a deserving question to set before our research students ?


Principal authorities consulted.

Besides the MSS. already referred to, the following are among the printed sources consulted

Notes and Queries. See various Indices.

A Dictionary of Hymnology, rev. Edition, 1915. John Julian D.D.

The Musical Antiquary, 1910—1914.

The ‘Musical Times.’ Art. by Dr. Grattan Flood, 1915.

Blackfriars. Articles by James Britten, Jan. and Feb. 1924. Fairly complete treatise, but not invariably accurate.

The Music of the Methodist Hymn Book, by J. T. Lightwood, 1925. Excellent.

The Music of the Church Hymnary, by W. Cowan and Lowe. 1901.

Textum Integrum. . . Hymni Adeste Fideles Praeludentibus Organis.. . nunc primum edit D.S.G. Ould, O.S.B. Novello, 1901.

An Essay or Instruction for learning the Church Plain Chant. Published by J. P. Coghian in 1782 and 1789. First printed edition of words and music, under S. Webbe’s direction.

A Collection of Motetts and Antiphons. By S. Webbe. 1792. Adeste in 4 parts.

The Evening Office of the Church. The 1760 edition has the words only. This is the first printed text. The previous editions of 1710, 1725 and 1748 did not contain the Adeste.

Peck’s Collection of Hymn Tunes, 1799. Gives Music with English translation and Discant.

La Priere de l’Eglise, 2 vols., par L. A. Molien, Paris 1924. Gives origin of the text used in France and other countries.

Tribune de Saint Gervais. Art. by A. Gastoue. April 1913.

History of Music. Burney (Dr. Charles).

The subject is dealt with in every other Dictionary or Encyclopaedia, etc., concerned with Hymnology.

Thanks are also due to Miss Vera Hubbard, of Abbey Farm, Buckfast, for designing the cover.



A Study on its Origin and Development


On March 18th, 1744, the Theatre de la Foire Saint Germain in Paris presented a new Play, a comic Opera in three Acts entitled ACAJOU, with Vaudevilles by M. Favart, based on the “Gomte d’Acajou” of M. Devos. It proved a great success and was repeated, with Vaudevilles only — owing to a ruling that the Opera-comique must not perform spoken Acts — at the Foire Saint Laurent during the following August, and again, in greater style, at the Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in October of the same year. Here let me quote the late G. E. P. Arkwright, to whose assiduity we owe these facts : “On p. 65 of Acajou is a song ‘Rage inutile,’ directed to be sung to an 'Air Anglois,’ which I believe to be a transcription of the original tune from which the first part of 'Adeste fideles' is derived. If so, it may be possible to find this Air in some of the English books of Dance-tunes or Ballad Operas of about the year 1740. My suggestion is that ‘Adeste fideles’ is nothing but an adaption of a popular tune, eked out with reminiscences of a favourite Opera song by Handel. This adaption, by which a really fine tune was compounded out of rather incongruous materials, may have been made by some choirmaster (probably between c. 1740 and 1750), for the use of a Roman Catholic choir.”1

The reader may like to see a reproduction of ‘Rage irutile,’ as given by G. E. P. Arkwright, which is as follows :

This tune is certainly very suggestive, and represents the nearest source unless it be a parody of the famous hymn we are dealing with in this study. After nearly forty years since the publication of the above in the ‘Musical Antiquary’ no one has come forward with any further elucidation, so that we must be satisfied with what is at least an important clue, which had been overlooked for well nigh two centuries. A Vaudeville is by its, nature a satirical song, and it is permissible to suppose that ‘Rage inutile' was meant by its author to parody something which was gaining popularity at the time of its composition. The concluding line

J’etais un enfant, je suis un Dieu,” is not without a Voltainan barb. A reliable French scholar whom I have consulted, and who has examined the whole song in question, does not take the satire as seriously as I suspected from the tenor of the first stanza.

It is not always easy to trace the exact origin of popular songs or hymns. Every author of such compositions is not as revealing as the late Dom Pothier the pioneer of the Gregorian revival and a prolific composer of religious pieces — who has given us a detailed account of how he came to write one of his popular numbers — the ‘Salve Mater.’ He tells us that he borrowed the words from a Carmelite hymn ‘dating back some centuries,’ and set it to music in the following manner: “The chorus is a reminiscence of a musical theme borrowed, as far as I can remember, from an Organ piece of German origin. . . There remained, for producing a whole, but to compose for the verses a melody which would harmonise with the chorus, without allowing the modern trend of the cadences to suggest too strong a contrast with the general tenor of the piece, which has about it a medieval turn and is not unlike the Notkerian style.” 2

Is the ‘Adeste fideles ‘ also a reminiscence, as Arkwright hinted, of some popular tune, or even of a favourite Opera song by Handel? There is something Handelian about it, especially in its later form, although its first form, as we shall see, suggests the work of an amateur, who may have been influenced by a finished composition in the classical style.

In this “Quest for the source” we cannot overlook Vincent Novello’s opinion which would, if corroborated, explain the title ‘Air Anglois' given to the melody by the author of ‘Acajou.’ Novello was successively employed as organist at the Sardinian Chapel, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Portuguese Chapel, Grosvenor Square, and the Spanish Chapel, Manchester Square) at the beginning of the nineteenth century, i.e. before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. As a boy at the end of the 18th century he must have attended these same chapels and no doubt heard the ‘Adeste’ sung there at Christmas time. Later on he attributed the composition of the original melody to John Reading the composer of ‘Dulce donum,’ and gave the date as 1680, both of which statements would point to the John Reading who was organist at Winchester Cathedral from 1675-1681, and is known as the author of 'Duice donum' as well as other musical compositions. But, in spite of searching examinations of Reading’s works nothing resembling the ‘Adeste’ has been found among them. There was another John Reading, born in 1677 — and therefore only three years old in 1680, the date mentioned by Novello — who later became organist at Dulwich College and St. John’s church, Hackney, but who does not fit in the picture, and is not even brought into it. Mrs. Cowden Clarke, in the Life of her father Vincent Novello, expresses herself as follows, re-echoing his conviction “The ‘Adeste fideles,’ although a composition by an Englishman named John Reading (who also wrote DULCE DONUM), obtained the name of “The Portuguese Hymn” from its having been heard, by the Duke of Leeds at the Portuguese Chapel, who imagined it to be peculiar to the service in Portugal. Being a Director of the Antient Concerts, his Grace introduced the melody there, and it speedily became popular under the title he had given it.. . So widely has its liking spread that Vincent Novello’s arrangement of this favourite hymn has been reprinted in France, Germany and America.” (Quoted by Lightwood and J. Britten).

It would be easier to accept Novello’s opinion if there were any confirmation from some other source. Samuel Webbe, as editor of the first known printed edition, (1782), in the “Essay or Instruction for Learning the Church Plain Chant,” Approbation dated July, 1781, and who incorporated it in his ‘Antiphons and Motetts’ (1792), with a four-part arrangement of his own, indicated no composer’s name for the ‘Adeste,’ though he was a most scrupulous editor. He was much nearer to the time of its first appearance than Vincent Novello, and likely to be at least as well informed as the latter.

The ‘Portuguese Hymn’ title, which has been satisfactorily explained by Mrs. Cowden Clarke, has caused some writers to ascribe the tune of the ‘Adeste’ to a Portuguese composer named Marcus (or Marcos) Portogallo, chapel-master to King Dom Joao VI of Portugal, who is credited with several Operas as well as much sacred music. S. W. Duffield, in his ‘English Hymns, their Authors and History,’ published in New York in 1886, by Funk and Wagnalls, and issued in London by the same firm, claims for Portogallo the authorship of the ‘Adeste,’ and a recent German book (Das Deutsche Kirchenlied im Ausland, by Karl Gustav Fellerer, 1935) repeats the claim. Now as Marcos Portogallo, whose real name was Marcus Antonio da Fonseca, but was nicknamed ‘Il Portogallo’ from his nationality, was born in 1763, the claim for him collapses, as the tune was certainly in use more than a dozen years previous to that date.” (Lightwood, p. 98).

It is somewhat surprising that such a claim should ever have been made, and been maintained for a century or more but documentary Hymnology is still in its infancy, and legends spread easily, though they die slowly. Another version of the Portuguese legend ascribes the hymn to King John IV (1640—56) of Portugal, on the strength of that king having possessed some musical talent, and perhaps because his name was easily confused with that of John VI, the patron of Marcus da Fonseca. There might be another explanation of the Portuguese title. A closer examination of the Stonyhurst Ms. reveals that this copy was made by J. F. Wade for the use of the English College at Lisbon. From this College it may have spread to other choirs of the Portuguese capital, and been exported to other countries. This has never been pointed out before, as far as we know.

The French ‘Dictionnaire Universel' of Larousse boldly asserts that the ‘Adeste' is of French origin, without giving any evidence for it. The Spaniards, not to be beaten, also press their title in their own direction. We do well to remember that seven cities laid claim to having given birth to Homer!

To sum up this first part of our enquiry: in 1744 ‘Acajou’ attributed a song with a great affinity to the 'Adeste' to an English source — Air Anglois. Vincent Novello, about a century later, gave the name of this composer as John Reading, the composer of ‘Dulce donum.’ This cannot he ruled out as an impossibility, but it is strange that no Anglican confirmation has been discovered of such a remarkable production of an Anglican Cathedral organist, and that no trace of it can be found among John Reading’s known works. That it should be left to a poor exiled Papist, as we shall see, to spread the hymn among his co-religionists, is certainly surprising if it originated in an Anglican organ-loft. The unjustifiable claims made for other composers, who cannot possibly have written it, only betray the irresponsibility with which many such titles are concocted, and ought to put us on our guard.

Let us now tread on safer ground, and consider authentic documents.


We have heard a faint echo—or rather the report of an echo—from the Winchester Cathedral organ-loft, thanks to Vincent Novello, who was convinced that the Adeste was composed there by John Reading about the year 1680. Then came a clear ‘evocation,’ like that of a mocking bird, of the same tune from a Paris theatre in 1744. The next report comes from Dublin a few years later, about the year 1748. Here the Dominican nuns have preserved, in Dr. Grattan Flood’s words, “a floating tradition” that the Adeste was sung for the first time in the Channel Row Dominican Priory, shortly after the 1745 rising in the British Isles in favour of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This clue at first appeared rather unpromising, owing to the circumstances of the times, but it could not be overlooked. It is true that bishops, priests, monks, nuns, etc., had to lie rather low amidst all the excitement and persecution that followed that disastrous adventure, but they were in no way cowed or discouraged. In order to recapture the spirit of those times I thought it right to apply to those who have inherited the traditions of the Irish clergy during that troubled period. This enquiry has been rewarded, as will be seen from the following extracts from a letter received from the present Dominican Prioress in Dublin. (St. Mary’s Priory, Cabra, Dublin, dated 16th May, 1947):

Dr. Grattan Flood’s statement about the Adeste being first sung in our Chapel in 1748 is quite authentic, though it does not appear from the Annals where the nuns got the music from. As the Channel Row Convent was a centre of ecclesiastical life — there were no fewer than three Bishops consecrated in the Convent Chapel — there was constant contact with Douay, whither young priests and ecclesiastical students travelled fairly constantly, so that it is possible that the Adeste came by that channel. But there is another possibility of Continental contact. Here is the history of the Dominican nuns in Ireland in a nutshell : 1644—the then Dominican Provincial, Fr. Gregory French, O.P., founded in Galway a convent of Dominican nuns, mostly belonging to families of the gentry. They flourished and multiplied for eight years. In 1652 Galway fell to the Cornwellians and all priests and religious went “beyond the seas.’ All the Galway Community went to Spain. They lived there until i686, when the two survivors of the original band came back to Galway — they were Juliana Nolan and Mary Lynch. They started once again the Dominican conventual life and grew and flourished up to the year 1698, when William of Orange seized the convent, scattered the nuns hither and thither with whatever treasures of Church plate they could carry. This time they did not leave Ireland, but hid themselves in groups of two or three here and there, kept in contact with their Prioress and kept up faithfully the recitation of the Divine Office. This state of things went on until the year 1717, when six of the most valiant of them, under the leadership of Dame Mary Bellew, prevailed on the Provincial to ask permission from the Archbishop of Dublin to allow them to settle there. The latter gladly gave his consent and they went to Dublin and took possession of the Convent which had been abandoned by a community of Benedictine nuns during William’s persecution. In September, 1717, six nuns, under the Prioress-ship of Mother Mary Bellew, began the conventual life in Channel Row Convent, living as a ‘family’ of ladies in secular dress, but living a full conventual life. They took parlour boarders for a livelihood, and had staying in the Convent several of the aristocracy as may be seen from the account books. Mother Mary Bellew was a woman of means, and she installed an organ and also presented some priceless pieces of Church silver now happily preserved here in Cabra. It is very probable that J. F. Wade (of whom we shall have more to say) was a visitor in Channel Row and possibly the Mss. in question (of the Adeste) came through him. The nuns lived there and braved the fearful persecution of 1745, and actually had priests and bishops in hiding many times during those dreadful years. The fortunes of the Community varied from very good to very bad, and on some occasions they were reduced to six, but they struggled on and hoped for better days. In 1808 the lease of the Convent expired and the owner was afraid to renew the lease. The nuns were forced to leave Channel Row and take a small house in Clontarf. They were now reduced to three and were in great poverty. Nevertheless they carried with them to Clontarf all the priceless Cromwellian silver Church plate now treasured in Cabra . . . They remained in Clontarf only eleven years (1808—1819), and in the latter year they transferred to Cabra . . . where we are now.” (Signed S. M. Peter, O.P., Prioress).

The above description of the adventures of a Dominican Convent in Ireland proves that a tradition preserved under such circumstances cannot be lightly dismissed. On inquiring what might have happened to Wade’s Ms. thus supplied to the Dublin Convent no reply has been obtained. It might have gone to Conglowes, who knows? The musical interests of Dame Mary Bellew lend further plausibility to the story, especially when coupled with the constant communications between Ireland and Douay, to which city we must now turn our attention. There it is all our best evidence comes from, though previous writers seem not to have suspected the fact. Thanks to assistance received from St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, Ware, (Herts.), I hope to be able to trace all the existing Mss. copies of the Adeste to Douay as their place of origin. For this purpose some biographical notes on the writer of those Mss., i.e. John Francis Wade, must be given, before describing in detail the Mss. themselves. Five out of the six copies known are signed and dated by the writer himself. The sixth, which has only recently been discovered, and is the SPECIAL feature of this Essay, has lost its title page, and with it the signature and date. But internal evidence will supply this missing corroboration, which has been arrived at after a good deal of research and a close examination of the peculiarities of the script, as well as of the water-marks on the paper used by the writer.

J. F. Wade is often described as a priest-musician by those who have referred to his Mss. It is not easy to see on what grounds this legend has been based. In the “History of St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall,” by the Very Reverend Bernard Ward (later Bishop of Brentwood) we read:

John Francis Wade. . . was not a student of Douay College, but a man who made his living by copying and selling plain chant and other music. He carried on his business at Douay, simply because it was a great Catholic centre. His death is thus chronicled in the Obituary List of the Catholic Directory for 1787 :— '1786, August 16th. Mr. John Francis Wade, a layman, aged 75, with whose beautiful manuscript books our chapels, as well as private families, abound, in writing which and teaching the Latin and Church song he chiefly spent his time.'” (op. cit., p. 142).

This quotation gives us all that can at present be gathered about the career of J. F. Wade. We might have wished it had been less reticent, though an Obituary Notice is generally not couched in fulsome language. But if we examine its quiet statements carefully they may suggest more than they say, and lead us to an interesting discovery. Wade was not only a copyist of beautiful music Mss.; he was also a teacher of “Latin and church song.” This work, judging by his age (he must have been born in 1711, since he was 75 in 1786, at the time of his death) he may have begun between 1735 and 1740, when he would be 24 or 29 respectively, if not earlier. Now at that same period there was another music copyist and teacher, who won for himself world wide fame : J. J. Rousseau. Besides copying music for a bare pittance, Rousseau composed music of his own, and, in 1739, wrote the Essay which won him a much coveted prize and boundless notoriety! I have no wish to carry the parallel to extremes, but it does not seem extrávàgant to suppose that a teacher of Latin in a Catholic school could not have written such simple verses as make up the ADESTE FIDELES, and, being a music teacher over the bargain, supplied a simple, forcible tune, inspired, maybe, by the stately Handelian style of the period, which won local attention at first (at Douay), and later spread like wild fire when brought before a wider public. Wasn’t the Tipperary song to share a like fate in our own times? Let us try and see how far we can check the date and authorship of our hymn; At present the earliest known Mss. sources are : 1. the Conglowes copy, of 1746 (or 1749, according to Dr. Grattan Flood); 2. the Stonyhurst copy, of 1750; 3. the Henry Watson Music Library copy, of 1751; 4 and 5. the two copies preserved at St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, date 1760; 6. the JACOBITE Ms. copy, now the possession of the Rev. Maurice Frost, Vicar of Deddington, Oxon, discovered in 1946, which is the special subject of this Study, whose dating presents some difficulties through the absence of the title-page and author’s signature. (See Introduction).

Now it is certain that the Adeste melody must have been composed before 1744, since it was used in a disguised form in Paris as an ‘Air Anglois’ in March of that year. An English Air it would be, if composed by an Englishman resident at Douay, which latter circumstance would have made it more accessible to the writer of Acajou, than if he had had to import it from England, which was at war with France at that time.

There is another and rather important reason for a date previous to 1745, which we find suggested by its insertion in the Jacobite Ms. Here another historical disquisition will not be out of place.

The loyalty of Douay College to the Old Pretender is easily explained by more than sentimental reasons. “The Holy See had never repudiated the recognition of the Stuarts or recognised the Hanoverian succession. There were occasions, as on the appointment of bishops and in matters concerning the English Colleges abroad, when the Stuart claimant to the English throne still had to be notified of what was done, and the formal letters which such occasions required had to contain expressions of loyalty. . . But such formalities had become almost without meaning until France in 1744 (or 1743) deliberately instigated a revival of Jacobite activities when her armies had incurred defeat in the War of the Austrian Succession. English and Hanoverian troops had won a striking victory over the French at Dettingen in June 1743, which compelled the French to withdraw beyond the Rhine; and in order to prevent the dispatch of English reinforcements the French Minister decided to organise a direct invasion of England. At the same time he promised active support to a Jacobite expedition which was to be led by the Young Pretender; Prince Charles Edward. Preparations for the rising were soon being discussed by committees of Jacobites which were formed wherever they still commanded any influence ... 15,000 men were assembled at Dunkirk under the command of General de Saxe, and the Young Pretender was at Calais awaiting an opportunity to lead a rising at home. . . Nearly all the trained English troops were engaged in the Netherlands. But a violent storm played havoc with the French transport ships in February 1745 and the expedition was forced to disembark . . . Charles Edward resolved to carry on without French help . ..3 The rest of the story is well known.

The attitude of the Douay masters and pupils during that critical period can easily be judged by a letter from Dr. Thornburgh, President of the College, to the Roman agent Mayes, which is preserved in the Westminster archives, dated end of October 1745 : “Our news from Scotland has hitherto been very good and we are in great hopes, and pray daily that Heaven may prosper the army of our glorious Prince, whose praises are in everybody’s mouth. Besides our daily prayers for his success, we sing a solemn High Mass at least once a week for the same intention.” 4

Dr. Burton gives ample proofs to show that Bishop Challoner was not in sympathy with all that Jacobite activity on the Continent, not were the leading Catholic gentlemen. They knew what to expect in the event of failure. But it is understandable that their brethren; living on the Continent, and bound by outward ties of loyalty to the Pretender, should have been carried away by expectations never destined to be realised. One of the ways in which they manifested their Jacobite loyalty was by inserting the name of the Pretender in their official Prayer for the King. This we see clearly expressed in our Jacobite Mss., which has the solemn form of this Prayer: DOMINE SALVUM FAC REGEM NOSTRUM JACOBUM.. . in the pages just preceding the ‘Adeste fideles’ hymn. This seems to be a pointer that Wade wrote this particular copy of his many Mss. about the time — or anyhow before the time — of the unsuccessful rising of 1745.

There is no trace of it in the subsequent copies, at least with the name of JAMES. The Stonyhurst copy (of 1750) i.e. only a few years later, has the name altered to JOSEPHUM, which can be explained by the likely supposition that this particular copy, though written by Wade at Douay, was written for the benefit of the English College at Lisbon, where King John V had died in that year and was succeeded by his son Joseph. The loyalty of the English students abroad was now transferred to the King of the country where they resided, since there was no longer any hope of the Pretender’s return to England. If all this is correct our new Ms. is proved to be several years older than any of the others known up to the present, and may be older than the Acajou song of 1744, and thereby has a claim to present us with the ‘Air Anglois’ we are searching for. None of the other books written by Wade could pass that test.

But there is another reason, and a telling one, which indicates the priority of the Jacobite Ms. over all the others, and even points to its supplying us with the ORIGINAL words and musical setting of the Adeste. Here we shall be guided by the traditional language — we might even call it the idiomatic language of the Liturgy. The author of this early version betrays his lack of familiarity with liturgical formulae, for which he must have been called to task by somebody better qualified than he was. It seems a trifling point to make, but it is in reality an eloquent landmark in our quest. There is no doubt that the Ms. is the work of John Francis Wade. The present writer’s conviction is that it is his first, or one of his first attempts at producing such works. We can almost see him at work on his first edition of the Adeste. In the Chorus he writes invariably (i.e. 12 times) Venite adorate, instead of Venite adoremus, which is the formula that would instinctively suggest itself to the trained liturgist, or to any cleric who recites his daily Breviary. The Invitatory Response at Mattins ends almost daily with ‘Venite adoremus‘5 But if we imagine a young teacher of grammar, bent only on logical Latin composition, we shall probably hear : Venite adorate — come ye, adore ye . . . It is only the practised liturgist who will say: Venite, adoremus — as he will instinctively include himself in the act of adoration. This formula, therefore, seems to brand the writer of the first Adeste as an inexperienced layman teaching Latin to boys, and anxious to co-ordinate his grammatical rules, but not quite familiar with the deeper requirements of a public prayer. This oversight must have been pointed out to him by a more competent person, perhaps one of the priest-professors at Douay College, as we see him altering the imperfect passage and adopting the correct form in his latter copies of the Adeste. There is nothing fanciful in this reconstruction of a scene frequently enacted — experto crede Roberto! — not only in the 18th century, but in every period of history. Morever, the whole construction of the stanzas of the hymn suggests the work of a fervent tyro, several of the words fitting laboriously — after a good deal of stretching — to the melody. This technical defect explains the re-writing of verses 2, 3 and 4 by the classically-minded Abbe de Borderies at the beginning of the 19th century and producing the text in use on the Continent ever since. Piety, rather than mastery of the laws of prosody, distinguished Wade’s work, and far from condemning him for that we would even praise him for his naive appealing lines. We see in it what might be called his ‘finger-prints,’ the proof of his authorship of the hymn. This applies to the music as well as the text. In the Jacobite Ms. we are considering Wade wrote the hymn in 3/4 time, instead of the natural 4/4 or common time suggested by the march of the tune, and subsequently adopted. The power of creative verse and song need not be coupled with advanced technical knowledge, so that, even though Wade was not a MASTER in the stricter sense of the word, he may very well have had inspiring thoughts and have captured an entrancing melody, leaving to others better qualified to give them their finished form.

For all these reasons the present writer is convinced hat in this Ms. we have the FIRST and ORIGINAL version of the Adeste, and that the real composer of the words and of the music of this hymn was this modest, unassuming English teacher of ‘Latin and Church song’ of Douay College, described in the Catholic Directory of 1787. This conclusion, however startling it may appear at first sight, meets all the requirements of the case, in time, nationality and conditions of composition. That John Francis Wade should not have affixed his name to this work is the normal thing. In a liturgical book, such as he was copying, anonymity was de rigueur. We have a more striking case of the same line of conduct when, in 1782, Samuel Webbe was editing the ‘Essay or Instruction for learning the Church Plain Chant,’ to which he contributed several compositions of his own. It was only ten years later that permission was wrung from him to acknowledge his authorship of those pieces, when the Collection of Motetts and Antiphons” was published in 1792.

For the sake of completeness it is only right to add that all the signed Mss. of Wade bear the following inscription: “Ad usum Chori Anglorum—Joannes Franciscus Wade scripsit.” Now scripsit need not only connote the meaning of copied, but may also include composed, at least in part. Like many other compilers of Anthologies Wade culled from previous sources, but need not have hesitated to add some flowers of his own.

Taken together all these considerations seem to justify the conclusion that the Adeste was first heard, not at Winchester in 1680, nor at Channel Row Convent, Dublin, in 1748, but in the English College of Douay, under the direction of its author JOHN FRANCIS WADE, ‘teacher of Latin and Church song there’ between 1740 and 1743. This conclusion, strangely enough, is the one G. E. P. Arkwright seemed to foresee in the passage quoted at the end of our first chapter, when he stated that this really fine tune “may have been made by some choirmaster (probably between 1740 and 1750), for the use of a Roman Catholic choir.” All the present writer has done is to bring forward some new data and a critical interpretation of the Jacobite Ms. which was unknown to Arkwright. For a ‘choirmaster’ substitute a ‘music master’ and the name of J. F. Wade answers the description. The reader may like to see a transcription of the first stanza of the Adeste as given in our new Ms., so as to be able to judge for himself. The whole hymn is reproduced in another page by photography.

An amusing Postscript to the argument based on ‘Venite adoremus’ may be found in the 12th Series of Notes and Queries vol. V., pp. 292 and 329, in which Mr. John Murray asked what the connection might be between the chorus of the ‘Adeste fideles’ and Rabelais’ passage in Gargantua (I. xli) in which the monk is made to finish off a. conversation with: ‘Venite, apotemus‘ ? Mr. Murray thereby betrayed his ignorance of the frequency of that invitation to prayer (i.e. Venite adoremus) in the Church’s liturgy, long before the Adeste was thought of. Rabelais, being a Benedictine monk of sorts, knew what he was punning. If Wade did not realise that he had made a mistake, why did he change the word? If, on the other hand, it was not his own work, what right had he to tamper with it a few years later? It affected the whole hymn.



BOTH the chronological order and our duty to the author-composer of the ADESTE demand that we should give precedence to the text of the hymn as it was written and printed in its earliest period, i.e. till the end of the 18th century. We can then examine the development of the text, and the modifications brought into the melody. ALL the MSS. which have come down to us are in Wade’s handwriting, and, with the exception of the chorus in the Jacobite Ms., the text is invariably the same in each of them, with only slight differences in the punctuation. Our text will therefore be based on that original version. The first stanza will be given twice, to bring our the twofold wording of the Chorus, but for the three other stanzas we shall follow the punctuation of the Jacobite Ms., which we consider to be the original text.


I. (Jacobite) 6

II. (General)

ADESTE fideles laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
R. Natum vidéte Regem Angelorum:
VenIte, adorate:
Venite, adorate
Venite, adorate Dominum.

V. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine gestant Puéllae viscera.
R. Deum veruni genituin, non factum:
Venite ...

V. Cantet nuuc io chorus Angelorum, cantet nunc aula caelestiuin
R. Gloria in excelsis Deo:
Venite ...

V. Ergo qui natus die hodierna, Jesu tibi sit gloria
R. Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum:
Venite ...

ADESTE fideles laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem:
6 Natum vidéte Regern Angelorum:
Venite, adorémus:
Venite, adorémus:
Venite, adorémus Dominum.

This unvarying text of the Mss. was reproduced with exact faithfulness in the first printed editions of the “Essay or Instruction for Learning the Church Plain Chant” of 1782 and 1789 respectively. The music, however, which had not been quite consistently copied in the hand-written books, now took on a new aspect. The Rhythm was altered to strict Common time, instead of the 3/4 time suggested by the original copies, and a few notes were changed. This was done under the direction of Samuel Webbe, while Wade was still living (he died in 1786), so that we may presume with his knowledge and consent. Communications between London and Douay were then much easier. Besides, it would be but another manifestation of Wade’s willingness to be corrected, as we have seen in the case of the chorus wording. It gave the tune that stately gait which made Huysmans describe it a century later as: 'ce vieux chant rythme, tel qu’un pas de marche.’ It certainly brought it into closer resemblance to the ‘Acajou’ song, which also marched in common time. 160 years after, we still sing the Adeste in that dignified rhythm adopted by Webbe in 1782. This gifted composer also added a second part to the music, suggesting a four-part harmony for its execution in the Embassy Chapels of the period. In 1792, in his “Collection of Motetts ...‘ to which we have already referred, he actually printed the four voice parts for the guidance of his choir — a rather unusual thing for trained singers at that time. For the benefit of our readers we shall content ourselves here with reproducing the 1782 setting (in two parts) from the “Essay.” It will be noticed that here we have the 4-line stave, whereas Wade always used the 5-line stave, even for Plainsong. The practice varied a good deal in the use of these staves, and we have seen a return to the 5-line stave for plainsong in some quarters in the twentieth century.

Before proceeding further it seems right to point out the growing popularity of the Adeste the better it became known. We have already seen the enthusiasm with which the Duke of Leeds heard it at the Portuguese Chapel, and how he had it performed in his 'Antient Concerts' in 1785, under the title of the Portuguese Hymn. In the “Catholics of Scotland” a book published by the Rev. A. E. M. Dawson in London, Ontario, in 1890, we read that the Rev. Robert Menzies, a Missionary priest working in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century (he died in 1791), had it introduced there, and declares : “ It rapidly became the fashion in the city (Edinburgh); apprentice boys whistled it in every street it was even said that the blackbirds in the square joined in the chorus!” Bishop Hay deprecated it, as he objected to any music in Catholic churches as likely to attract undesirable publicity at a time when Catholics were barely tolerated. His opinion, however, was not popular among Catholics, nor was it shared by Bishop Geddes.7

Foreigners, too, were impressed. According to Dr. W. H. Cummings8 the hymn was introduced into Rome by the choir of the English College in that city, as he has it on the authority of an old Mss. in his possession, containing both music and words.” Another writer in the same Review, without suggesting plagiarism on the part of Mozart, sees a remarkable coincidence in the “Voi, che sapete” tune in the “Figaro” (1786). Again we read in N. and Q (6th Ser. vol. I, p. 160) : “A violin and harpsichord sonata by J. S. Bach has a Presto commencing with a curious resemblance to the melody, evidently accidental?” Be that as it may we know that a French Abbe, exiled to England by the Terror in 1793, heard the Adeste sung in one of the Embassy Chapels, took it back with him to Paris after the fall of Robespierre, and had it sung in his Catechism classes, which drew a wide attention at that time. Not quite satisfied with the literary style of the three last stanzas he composed fresh ones, which were universally adopted in France and are in use to this day. As this brings us to the second stage of the composition of the TEXT generally known, it will not be amiss to devote a few lines to this remarkable man’s career.

The Abbé Etienne Jean Francois Borderies, on his return to France after the 9th Thermidor (27th July, 1794) became curate at St. Thomas d’Aquin church in Paris, and acquired for himself great fame as a Catechist: “ Il fut le premier catéchiste de France,” wrote Mgr. Dupanloup. After some years he was promoted Vicar General of Paris (1819), and later (in 1829) was raised to the See of Versailles, where he died in 1832. He composed the following three verses of the Adeste, which he coupled with the first stanza of Wade.

2. En grege relicto,
Humiles ad cunas,
Vocati pastores approperant,
Et nos ovanti
Gradu festinernus,
Venite adorernus Dominum.

3. Aeterni Parentis
Splendorem æternurn,
Velatum sub carne videbimus,
Deurn infantem,
Pannis involutum,
Venite adoremus Dominum.

4. Pro nobis egenurn
Et foeno cubantern
Piis foveamus amplexibus;
Sic nos amantem
Quis non redarnaret?
Venite adoremus Dominum.

All the authorities now agree about this contribution of Mgr. de Borderies to the text of our hymn, though Julian seemed inclined to admit the claims of another French priest, the Abbé Sebastien Besnault, in his Appendix II to his revised edition reprinted in 1915. L. A. Molien in his “Priére de l’Eglise,” Paris, 1924, is quite positive about Borderies’ authorship and his opinion is accepted by the latest writers on the subject. The seven verses we have so far given were beautifully reproduced, with a free Plain Chant setting, by Ambrose Lisle Phillips in his “Little Gradual, or The Chorister’s Companion,” printed in London in 1847, an English translation being added to the Latin text.

There remains an EIGHTH verse, generally assigned to the Feast of the Epiphany. The present writer has not been able to verify the authorship of this stanza which, nevertheless, must find a place here. Julian gives it the fourth place in the complete hymn

Stella duce, Magi
Christurn adorantes,
Aurum, thus, et myrrham
Dant munera.
Jesu Infanti
Corda praebeamus
Venite adoremus Dominum.

As the purpose of this Study is to inquire into the origin or origins, of the Adeste fideles, and not to describe the treatment it has received during the last 200 years in the hands of translators in every part of the globe, we do not propose to examine these translations, either in English or any other language. Dr. Julian has given references to 27 different English versions, and this list is far from being complete. One or the other will be found in every Hymn Book in the English language, and the same remark applies to hymn books in other tongues. It is probably one of the very few hymns that has found its place in every collection of Christian hymns. What greater praise could one bestow on it? And there is no sign that its vogue is likely to die out, as long as there will be followers of Christ on this earth. Another tribute which singles it out from all other hymns is the fact that — as far as the present writer is aware — no alternative melody has been attempted to supplant the original one. For these two reasons John Francis Wade — if the thesis elaborated in this booklet is correct — must be considered as one of the greatest hymn-writers of the world, even if he has only this one composition to his credit.

Let me conclude with a rather appealing version of the first stanza

O hie, ye believers ! raise the song of triumph
O speed ye, 0 speed ye! to Bethlehem hie!
Born there, behold the Infant King of Angels
O come and let us worship
O come and let us worship
O come and let us worship the Lord our God!

                    (Rev. Francis Trappes. Richardson, 1868).


The fac-similes of J. F. Wade’s MSS. herewith represented are as follows:

Pages I and II — The Prayer for King JAMES (the Pretender?).

Pages III, IV and V—The JACOBITIE Adeste (1740?) described in this Study.

Page VI—First page of the Stonyhurst MS. (1751) of the Adeste. (MS. C. vii 7.)

Page VII—First page of St. Edmund’s College “GRADTJAI4E” version of the Adeste.

Page VIII—The same as it appears in the ANTIPHONALE.

N.B.—Shortage of space has caused the omission of the MS. version at the Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester. It will be found in fac-simile in J. T. Lightwood’s book, p. 100.


Notes from Dom Stephen:

1. Cf. The “Musical Antiquary,” Vol. I., April, 1910, p.188-189. Return

2. Cf. 'Revue du chant grégorien,’ Dec. 1898, pp. 85-89. Notker, a ninth century monk of St. Gall, in Switzerland, is celebrated for admirable Sequences. Return

3. Cf. Bishop Challoner, by Denis Gwynn, p. 127. Return

4. Life and Times Of Bishop Challoner, by Canon E. H. Burton, Vol. I., p. 236. Return

5. The following examples will show this—

In Advent: Christum venturum Dorninurn: Venite adoremus.

At Xmas: Christus natus est nobis : Venite adoremus.

Epiphany: Christus apparuit nobis : Venite adoremus.

For Ascension, Pentecost, we have the same formula. For Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins ... etc., it is always the same form. Return

6. 6 Toni. (Sixth Mode). Return

7. Quoted from J. Britten, 'Blackfriars,’ Jan., 1924. Return

8. N. & Q., 5th Ser., vol. xi., 1879. Return



If the thesis set forth in the previous pages concerning the origin of the Adeste is correct, one is led to try and apply it to some other melodies contained in the Jacobite MS, and met with again in all the other copies made by J. F. Wade, as well as in the Plain Chant edited by S. Webbe. The first and most notable would be the tune of the ‘Domine salvum fac’ — the Jacobite prayer, which has not been traced back further than the dates covered by this Study, but appears, with different King’s names in the Wade books, and with King George’s (George III) name in Webbe’s editions.

Then there is another very well known melody, sung as a ‘Tanturn ergo’ in Catholic churches, and named ‘St. Thomas, 8 7.8 7.8 7. in Anglican and other Hymnals. It has become a national heritage since the end of the 18th century.

Wade again ‘wobbled’ about its final setting. He is uncertain about the correct time, and even about the adaptation of the words to the melody, especially in the last line of the hymn. Webbe trimmed it into the shape we now use in our hymn books. There are some other pieces which would invite a closer study, but these remarks may be sufficient for the present. They seem to point to the fact that Wade was trying his hand at composing original melodies, other than the Adeste Fideles.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window