The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boar's Head

Source: William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, 1825, December 25).

There were anciently great doings in the halls of the inns of court at Christmas time. At the Inner-Temple early in the morning, the gentlemen of the inn went to church, and after the service they did then "presently repair into the hall to breakfast with brawn, mustard, and malmsey." At the first course at dinner, was "served in, a fair and large Bore's head upon a silver platter with minstralsye."1

The Boar's Head.

With our forefathers a soused boar's head was borne to the principal table in the hall with great state and solemnity, as the first dish on Christmas-day.

In the book of "Christmasse Carolles" printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521, are the words sung at this "chefe servyce," or on bringing in this the boar's head, with great ceremony, as the first dish: it is in the next column.

A CAROL bryngyng in the Boar's Head.

Caput Apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The bore's head in hande bring I,
With garlandes gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely,
      Qui estis in convivio.

The bore's head, I understande,
Is the chefe servyce in this lande.
Loke wherever it be fande
      Servite com Cantico.

Be gladde, lords, both more and lasse,
   For this hath ordayned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
   The bore's head with mustarde.

The Boar's Head at Christmas.

"With garlandes gay and rosemary."

Warton says, "This carol, yet with many innovations, is retained at Queen's-college, in Oxford." It is still sung in that college, somewhat altered, "to the common chant of the prose version of the psalms in cathedrals;" so, however, the rev. Mr. Dibdin says, as mentioned before.

Mr. Brand thinks it probable that Chaucer alluded to the custom of bearing the boar's head, in the following passage of the "Franklein's Tale:"—

"Janus sitteth by the fire with double berd,
And he drinketh of his bugle-horne the wine,
Before him standeth the brawne of the tusked swine."

In "The Wonderful Yeare, 1603," Dekker speaks of persons apprehensive of catching the plague, and says, "they went (most bitterly) miching and muffled up and down, with rue and wormwood stuft into their eares and nosthrils, looking like so many bores heads stuck with branches of rosemary, to be served in for brawne at Christmas."

Holinshed says, that in 1170, upon the young prince's coronation, king Henry II. "served his son at the table as sewer, bringing up the bore's head, with trumpets before it, according to the manner."2 

An engraving from a clever drawing by Rowlandson, in the possession of the editor of the Every-Day Book, may gracefully close this article.

A Boor's Head.

"Civil as an orange."


Notes from Hone:

1. Dugdale's Orig. Jurid. Return

2. Grose. Return

Translations of the Latin from Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (ca. 1860)

W. H. Davenport Adams provided these handy Latin translations for those of us who were unable to take a course of study in this ancient tongue.

1. Quot estis in convivio. = Ye who are now at the feast.
2. Caput Apri defero | Reddens laudes Domino. - I bring the boar's head, returning praise to the Lord.
3. Let us servire cantico. = Let us serve it with a song.
4. In Reginensi Atrio. = In the Queen's Hall.

Translations from W. H. Davenport Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (London: James Blackwood, no date; "1860" written in pen, and the date of the Preface), p. 163.

On his page for December 25 - The Nativity of Christ, Mr. Hone has the following:



“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.


[To Mr. Hone.]

The following is a brief extract concerning the festivities formerly observed on Christmas day at the Inner Temple. Service in the church being ended, the gentlemen presently repaired into the hall and breakfasted on brawn, mustard, and Malmsey. At the first course, at dinner, was served up a fair and large bores head upon a silver platter, with minstralsye.1 This custom is still observed at Queen’s College Oxford, and tradition represents this usage as a commemoration of an act of valor performed by a student of the college who while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, is said to have ‘rammed in the volume,’ and cried Græcum est, fairly choking the savage with the sage.2

Notes from Mr. Hone:

1. This paragraph is in the Every-Day Book, but it could hardly have been omitted here without the narration appearing incomplete. J. F. H. Return

2. Walks in Oxford, vol i. p. 128. Return

Further down the page, Mr. Hone adds:

Mr. Ritson, in his Observations on Warton’s History of English Poetry, give the following from a MS.

Ancient Boar’s head carol.

In die natiuitat.

     Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
     Tydyng’ gode y thyngke to telle.

The borys hede that we bryng here,
Betokeneth a p’nce with owte pere,
Ys born this day to bye v’ dere,
     Nowell, &c.

A bore ys a souerayn beste,
And acceptab(l)e in eu’y feste,
So mote thys lorde be to moste & leste
     Nowell, &c.

This borys hede we bryng with song,
In worchyp of hym that thus sprang
Of a virgine to redresse all wrong.
     Nowell, &c.

See also Ritson's Ancient Songs.

Pages on this web site concerning the Boar's Head Carols:

Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

Boar's Head, W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore. Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905. ("Forming A New Edition of 'The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain' By Brand and Ellis.")

The Boar's Head, William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, 1825, December 25). (this page)

The Boar's Head, Washington Irving, Old Christmas - From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), p. xx; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

The Boar's Head, William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).

Boars Head Carols, Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).

Profusion of Food at Christ-tide, John Ashton, A Righte Merrie Christmasse!!! The Story of Christ-tide (London: Leadenhall Press, Ltd., 1894), Chapter XXII. Illustrator: Arthur C. Behrend.

See: Boar's Head Carol, Wikipedia.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.