The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boars Head in Hand Bear I

For Christmas

As Sung at Queen's College, Oxford, 1921

Words: English Traditional, circa 15th Century

Source of the text and sheet music is John Richard Magrath, The Queen's College. Volume II (1646-1877) (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1921), pp. 241-242.

See: Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

Christmas Day

Before dinner on Christmas Day the Boar's Head is brought in procession into the College Hall.

At the hour appointed the Provost and Fellows in residence, with any guests who may have been invited, enter the hall and arrange themselves on the east side of the high table facing the door. Grace before meat is said and the trumpet sounded in each quadrangle as a summons to dinner.

The procession then enters the hall. The head, borne on the silver basin, presented by Sir Joseph Williamson in 1668, is carried by four servants, conducted by the chief singer, generally a member of the College, and followed by the choristers under the direction of the College organist. As the procession begins to move from the cloister into the hall the choir sings the refrain —

Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes Domino.

Thrice the procession halts in its progress up the hall while the chief singer delivers one of the verses of the carol

The Boar's head in hand bear I
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.

The Boar's head, as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all the land,
When thus bedeck'd with a gay garland.
Let us
servire cantico.

Our steward hath provided this,
In honour of the King of Bliss,
Which on this day to be served is,
In reginensi Atrio.


This version is also printed by Richard Leighton Greene, ed., The Early English Carols (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1935), Carol #132. C(a), p. 92.

Note by Greene concerning Number 132, A Carol Bringing in the Boar's Head, p. 379.

C. Printed. With music, Magrath, J. R., The Queen's College (Oxford, 1921), vol. ii, pp. 249-1; &c. On this, the Queen's College, Oxford, version, see Introduction, pp. lviii, cvi.

It is more likely that the college adopted a well-known carol from popular circulation, then, that a carol originating in the college gained currency of the kind indicated by No. 135 and [Richard] Hill's and Wynkyn de Wood's recordings.

◊ ◊ ◊

Note by Greene concerning the Boar's Head carols in his Introduction, Chapter II, "The Carol as Dance-Song," pp. lvii-lviii.

Context. Section 3, "The Carol surviving the Dance." Greene is discussing to what extent many of these carols were still dance-songs, with the conclusion that most after the middle of 1500 were songs with an overtone of dance. Many of these songs were written in either two or three parts.

In the British Museum MS. Addit. 5665 [The Ritson Manuscript], of about the next [16th]century, the music is often signed with a composer's name, and is not that of simple dance-song, but studied harmony. The music of this manuscript has not been published in full, but a few selections are given in J. Stafford Smith's Musica Antiqua.1 A quotation from one piece2 will show the same sort of division into two and three parts:


Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
tydynges gode Y thyng[ke] to telle.

2 Parts

Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
Tydyngs gode Y thyngke to telle.

3 Parts

The borys hede that we bryng here
Betokeneth a Prince withowte pere
Ys born this day to bye vs dere;


2 Parts


3 Parts

The carols as written in these manuscripts are plainly songs to be sung in company, but not to be danced to.

Greene discusses some types of carols that might be danced to, and then continues:

Other carols, especially the boar's head group3, imply a processional use, the classic survival of such customs being the yearly bringing-in of the boar's head at Queene's College, Oxford. The manner in which this ceremony is carried out to the present day preserves the mark of the carole. The stanzas of the carol are sung by a soloist, and the burden, which is sung first, by a group of choristers. During the singing of each stanza the procession halts, moving forward again as the chorus sings the burden.4

… The probability is that most of the pieces here collected were meant to be sung, at the time they were written down, much as they would be to-day, not in a dancing ring, but in a company gathered for conviviality or for religious praise. They preserve, however, and it is the secret of much of their charm, the atmosphere of general participation which the round dance engenders:

Therefore euery mon that ys here
Synge a caroll on hys manere;
Yf he con non we schall hym lere.

The companionship of the dance remained associated with the form of verse which had the dance-song for its pattern, even when the singers no longer stepped 'hand by hand'.


Note 1. London, 1812.

Note 2. No. 133, burden and stanza 1. Ibid., p. 22.

Note 3. Nos. 132-135.

Note 4. Magrath, J. R., The Queen's College (Oxford, 1921), vol. ii, p. 240. [below]

◊ ◊ ◊

Note by Greene concerning the Boar's Head carols in his Introduction, Chapter IV, "The Carol as Popular Song," p. cvi

Context: Greene is discussing the lack of variation in some versions of carols due to the fact that their source is a written text “with no dependence on oral transmission and the consequent lapses of memory and perversions of meaning” (especially of the Latin portions of originally macronic carols), citing the carol Amice Christi Johannes..

The variations in the others give evidence in general of conscious activity on the part of individuals through whose hands they passed, rather than of uncontrolled oral tradition. That they were at times passed orally from one singers to another is certainly to be admitted, but only oral transmission within a limited group, intelligent and fully aware of the significance of the material, could have preseved such good texts. Almost unique external evidence for such a process is presented by the tradition of the Boar's Heade Carol at Queen's College, Oxford [Note: No. 132] Texts B and C b of this carol are given below: B as printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521, and C b as recorded in a letter written by a tutor of Queen's College in 1811 [written to T.F. Dibdin, ed., Ames Typographical Antiquities (London: 1810-1819), vol. “ii”, p. 352.]

132.B-Wynkyn de Worde

Capus apri differo,
Reddens laudes Domino.

The bores heed in hande bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary;
I pray you all, synge merely,
Qui estis in conuiuio.

The bores heede, I vnunderstande,
Is the chefe seruyce in this lande;
Loke, whereeuer it be fande,
Seruite cum cantico.

Be gladde, lordes, bothe more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.

132.C b – 1811 Queen's College Version

Caput Apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino.

The Boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.

The Boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire Cantico.

Our Steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is,
In reginensi Atrio.

Editor's Note. The “B” and “C b” carols are found in the main text of the book. They are Carol #132.B and Carol #132.C.b., pp. 91-92.

The third stanza in the early version probably represents a corruption of a text which was originally in tail-rime like the other stanzas and after which the traditional Queen's College version is patterned.

A circumscribed tradition such as this, from which the irresponsibility of folk-singers is entirely absent, is what seems to lie behind most of the carol-variants. The generally excellent state of the Latin in different copies of macronic carols shows that they had not been loosed into truly popular oral tradition, which would have lost no time in reducing passages in the unknown tongue to gibberish, or in replacing them by vernacular lines, probably irrelevant.

Editor's Note.

More than just a song, this is a carol about a young scholar whose cool and courage have inspired generations of students at Queen's College, Oxford.

It appears that at some time in the 15th century, a man of learning was walking from the direction of Oxford towards Horspath village, where he proposed to attend Mass on Christmas morning. The old road from Oxford to London, from which you diverge a little to the south to reach Horspath, runs over Shotover Common, which is still an open space on (relatively) high ground. The scholar, whose name has come down to us as Copcot, was reading Aristotle while he was walking, and looked up to see a wild boar approaching him.

He overcame the beast by stuffing his Aristotle down its throat – a triumphant victory of the academic over the brutish. With superb nonchalance he severed the head, carried it on his staff to church, left it in the church porch during the service, and took it back to College for dinner. Boars were a natural hazard in those parts that time, as we remember from the name of Boar's Hill, which stands over against Shotover on the other side of the Isis River. The episode is commemorated in a window in the parish church of Horspath. Source: Eric Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 39-40.

From John Magrath, we learn that in the common-room gallery of the College is an oil-painting commemorating the victory of the brave young scholar, with a boar's head transfixed on a spear, and the mystic inscription beneath:—" COPCOT." Additionally, in the 1870s it was recorded by Karl Blind that a bust of Aristotle adorned the large fireplace in the College Hall.

And so the scholar slays the savage with the sage.

See: John Richard Magrath, The Queen's College. Volume II (1646-1877) (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1921), pp. 241-242, and Karl Blind, "Boars Head Dinner at Oxford, and a Germanic Sun-God, " in John Nichols, ed. The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 242. (R. Newton, 1877), pp. 96-108.

However unlikely it might seem, there is a version of this legend that features a sword, rather than the sage, as the instrument that slayed the savage. See Tidings I Bring You For To Tell (Husk, 1868).

And just as success breds success, so do successful songs bred their own progency, in this case, an unknown author who has penned the following exhortation to glory:



“Tam Marti quam Mercurio.”

I sing not of Roman or Grecian mad games,
The Pythian, Olympic, and such like hard names;
Your patience awhile, with submission I beg;
I strive but to honor the feast of Coll. Reg.
    Derry down, down, down, derry down.

No Thracian brawls at our rites ere prevail,
We temper our mirth with plain sober mild ale;
The tricks of old Circe deter us from wine
Though we honor a boar, we wont make ourselves swine.
    Derry down, &c.

Great Milo was famous for slaying his ox,
Yet he prov’d but an ass in cleaving of blocks;
But we had a hero for all things was fit,
Our motto displays both his valor and wit.
    Derry down, &c.

Stout Hercules labor’d, and look’d mighty big,
When he slew the half-starved Erymanthian pig;
But we can relate such a stratagem taken,
That the stoutest of boars could not save his own bacon.
    Derry down, &c.

So dreadful this bristle-back’d foe did appear,
You’d have sworn he had got the wrong pig by the ear,
But instead of avoiding the mouth of the beast,
He ramm’d in a volume, and cried — Græcum est.
    Derry down, &c.

In this gallant action such fortitude shown is,
As proves him no coward, nor tender Adonis
No armour but logic, by which we may find
That logic’s the bulwark of body and mind.
    Derry down, &c.

Ye ‘squires, that fear neither hills nor rough rocks,
And think you’re full wise when you out-wit a fox;
Enrich your poor brains and expose them no more,
Learn Greek, and seek glory from hunting the boar.
    Derry down, &c.

Source: William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, 1825, December 25). This carol is found on his page for December 25 - The Nativity of Christ: The Boar's Head.


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