The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boar's Head Carols

Source: William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868)

Carols on Bringing In The Boar's Head

"The head of a wild boar formed, at a very early period in our history, the principal and choicest disk at all great feasts, and especially at Christmas. Why it should have been so highly esteemed we cannot now tell; but possibly the danger encountered in attacking so ferocious an animal as the wild boar, and the consequent importance attaching to it when slain, as a trophy of victory, may have had an influence in raising it to the position it enjoyed.

"The boar's head was brought to table with great ceremony; trumpeters preceded the bearer, sounding, and various other persons attended and formed a procession. Holinshed, in his Chronicle, acquaints us how King Henry II on the occasion of the coronation of his son Henry, as heir apparent, on the 14th June, 1170, himself brought up the boar's head, with trumpets before it. At Queen's College, Oxford, founded in 1340, the custom of bringing in a boar's head, on Christmas Day, with music and a carol (given hereinafter), has been preserved to our own times. At Henry's VI's coronation boar's heads were placed on the table in "castellys of golde and enamell." Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, and wife to James IV of Scotland, "at the furst course" of her wedding dinner, "was served of a wyld borres hed gylt, within a fayr platter."

"In the household accounts of King Henry VIII we find an entry of 24th November, 1529, of a payment to a servant of the Lord Chamberlain of 40s "in rewarde for bringing a wylde bore unto the king," and on the last day of December in the same year, a like sum of 40s was paid to one of the Lord Chamberlain's servants for a similar service.  A servant of "Maister Tresorer" received 4s 8d on 18th December, 1531, "for bringing a wylde bore's head to the king."

"The custom continued throughout the reign of Elizabeth, — during which, on Christmas Day, in the Inner Temple, "a fair and large boar's head" was served "upon a silver platter with minstrelsy;" — and into the reigns of her immediate successors, for Aubrey, in a manuscript, dated 1678, says: "Before the last civil wars, in gentlemen's houses at Christmas, the first diet that was brought to table was a boar's head with a lemon in his mouth.

"The following is a collection of the principal, if not the only, Boar's head carols now extant: —

1. The Boar His Head In Hand I Bring (Husk, 1868); Compare:

The boris hede in hond I bryng (Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols, 1841),

The Boar's Head In Hand I Bring (Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, 1861),

The Boris Hed In Hondes I Brynge - Balliol MS 354

The Bores Hede In Hondes I Bringe (Chambers and Sidgwick)

2. Tidings I Bring You For To Tell (Husk, 1868); compare Tydynges I Bryng 3ow For To Tell (Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols, 1847)

3. At The Beginning Of The Meat (Husk, 1868; compare: At The Begynnyng Of The Mete (Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols, 1847)

4. The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I (Husk, 1868; Early Version)

5. The Boar’s Head In Hand Bring I (Also: The Boar's Head In Hand I Bear I. Husk, 1868; Later Version.) This is version annually sung on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford, where the custom of bringing the boar's head to table on that day has been uninterruptedly maintained. The "Boar's Head Gaudy" is still celebrated at the College on a Saturday, four to ten days prior to Christmas for selected "Old Members" of the College. This is the only version that Husk provides music. Musical settings are also found in Shaw and Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Second Series, #36, and Rimbault, Ancient Songs and Carols.


6. The Boar's Head, That We Bring Here (Husk, 1868); compare The Borys Hede That We Bryng Here (Sandys, 1833) and The borys hede that we bryng here (Thomas Wright, Specimens of Old Christmas Carols, 1841). This is also known as The Exeter Boar's Head Carol, with music by Richard Smert (15th century). I am attempting to obtain an older copy of Ritson (it is not in the Hazlitt edition of 1877); the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols have the music (#37, pp. 106-108). Music is also found in Musica Britannica, Vol. IV, Medieval Carols, John Stevens, ed., London: Stainer & Bell, 1958 (Second Revised Edition), #79, p. 66.

7. The Boar Is Dead (Husk, 1868, with extensive notes); compare The Boare Is Dead (Sandys, 1833) and The Boare is dead (Thomas Wright, Specimens of Old Christmas Carols, 1841). Both Sandys and Wright note that this is a carol on bringing the Boar's Head, used before the Christmas Prince (a kind of Lord of Misrule) at St. John the Baptist's College, Oxford, Christmas, 1607.

Several new versions have been added as a result of recent research. They include:

Additional carols will be added soon. There are also a couple of other files of interest:

Many versions have their own note, sometimes short and sometimes long.


The seven carols from Husk, and his notes to these carols, are:

1. The Boar His Head In Hand I Bring, p. 116

This is the earliest known carol of the kind [e.g., Boar's Head Carols]. It is contained in a manuscript of the fifteenth century.


2. Tidings I Bring You For To Tell, p. 117

"This is from the manuscript of the fifteenth century which was edited, as before mentioned, in 1847, for the Percy Society by Mr. Thomas Wright." [Tydynges I Bryng 3ow For To Tell, in Wright, Songs and Carols Now First Printed From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century, #20, 1847.]


3. At The Beginning Of The Meat, p. 118

This is from the manuscript of the fifteenth century which was edited ... in 1847, for the Percy Society by Mr. Thomas Wright. [At The Begynnyng Of The Mete, in Wright, Songs and Carols Now First Printed From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century, #38, 1847.]


4. The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I (The Early Version), p. 119

This carol is contained on a single leaf, all that is known of the collection of which it formed part, which formerly belonged to Thomas Hearne, the antiquary, and is now preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Fortunately, this leaf contains the colophon, which runs thus: -- "Thus endeth the Christmasse carolles, newely inprinted at Londō, in the fletestrete, at the sygne of the sonne, by Wynkyn de Worde. The yere of our lorde M.D.xxi." The carol is entitled, "A caroll bringyng in the bores heed."


5. The Boar’s Head In Hand Bring I (The Later Version), p. 120

This is a modernized version of the preceding carol [#4, The Boars Head In Hand Bring I - Early Version], and owes its chief interest to the circumstance of its being still annually sung on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford, where the custom of bringing the boar's head to table on that day has been uninterruptedly maintained.

The new version was in all probability made and introduced into use about the commencement of the last century, as it is palpably referred to by Hearne in a note on the the older carol, which he printed amongst the "Notæ et Spicilegium," appended to his edition of William of Newbury's Chronicle of 1719 stating that "it will be perceived how much the same carol is altered as it is sung in some places even now from what it was at first."

The ceremony now attending the bringing in the boar's head at Queen's College is as follows: -- The head (the finest and largest that can be procured) is decorated with garlands, bays, and rosemary, and is borne into the Hall on the shoulders of two of the chief servants of the college, and followed by members of the college, and by the college choir. The carol is sung by a member (usually a fellow) of the college, and the chorus by the choir as the procession advances to the high table, on reaching which, the boar's head is placed before the Provost, who sends slices of it to those who are with him at the high table; and the head is then sent round to the other tables in the hall and partaken of by the occupants.1

The music to which the carol is sung (a kind of chant) may be seen in the appendix to this collection of carols. Some years since it was more than once stated in print that the boar's head had given way to a carved wooden substitute, but there is no reason whatever for believing that such an absurdity was ever permitted.

Editor's Note. I'm afraid that Mr. Husk is in error on this point. I've seen several sources that confirmed that a carved wooden replica of a boar's head was used at Queen's College. This is an excerpt from one of those sources:

In John Richard Magrath, The Queen's College. Volume II. (1646-1877) (Oxford At The Clarendon Press, 1921), p. 37, he notes: "The painter Hawkins was paid thirty shillings for adorning the boar's head on the feast of the Nativity ...." On p. 38, Magrath added that "... there is some evidence that about this time a wooden effigy of a head was served up at Christmas in lieu of the actual head of a boar."*

The footnote to this sentence is:

* Among the Rydal papers, No. 6051, is a Memorandum by Sir George Fleming (who resided at St. Edmund Hall from 1688 to 1697) as to the Boar's Head at Queen's College in which he speaks of 'an artificial Boares Head' as 'brought every Xtmas day into ye Hall as ye First Dish at Dinner '. So Thomas Baskerville in his Account of Oxford 1670-1700, printed in O. H. S. xlvii. Collectanea IV, p. 221, writes:—'In Queens Colledge on Christmas Day at ye beginning of dinner is kept an ancient Custome of singing up the Boar's head, well perhaps formerly might be a real Head, but now is a wooden head dress'd with Bayes and Rosemary, and before ye mouth is put a little burning pitch which flameth, and a little white froath to represent the foaming of the Boar.'

There was an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar's head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour 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 beat came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar's throad, crying, "Græcum est,"2 and fairly choked the savage with the sage.

This tradition, together with the customary celebration, occasioned the production of the following song, which appeared in "The Oxford Sausage," a miscellany of humorous poetry relating to Oxford, published nearly a century ago, under the care of the Rev. Thomas Warton, who himself largely contributed to it.


In Honour of the Celebration of the Boar's Head,
At Queen's College, Oxford

'Tam Marti quam Mercurio.'

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

Derry down, down, down, derry down.

"No Thracian brawls at our rites eer prevail,
We temper our mirth with plain sober mild ail
The tricks of old Circe deter us from wine;
Though we honour a bour, we won't make ourselves swine.

Derry down, down, down, derry down.

"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 valour and wit.

Derry down, down, down, derry down.

"Stout Hercules labour'd and look's mighty big,
When he slew the half-starved Erymanthian pig;
But we can relate to such a stratagem taken,
That the stoutest of boars could not save his own bacon.

Derry down, down, down, derry down.

"So dreadful this brisle-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, down, down, derry down.

"In this gallant action such fortitude shewn 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, down, down, derry down.

"Ye, squires, that fear neither hills nor rough rocks,
And think you're full wise when you outwit a fox;
Enrich your poor brains, and expose them no more,
Learn Greek, and seek glory from hunting the boar.

Derry down, down, down, derry down."

The present copy of the carol is given from Dibdin's edition of "Ames's Typographical Antiquities," ii 252.


1. For the communication of these particulars the editor [Husk] is indebted to the courtesy of the Rev. Dr. Jackson, Provost of Queen's College. Return

2. Editor: Possibly from the Latin proverb "Graecum est; non potest legi" ("It is Greek; it cannot be read"). The savage, of course, being the boar; the sage, of course, being Aristotle. Return


6. The Boar's Head, That We Bring Here, p. 124

This carol is contained in a manuscript, formerly in the possession of Ritson, the antiquary, but now preserved amongst the additional manuscripts in the British Museum, which was written in the reign of Henry VIII [1491-1547]. In addition to the words, the manuscript gives the music written for the carol, by a composer named Richard Smert, called elsewhere in the same manuscript, "Ricard Smert de Plymptre." This is in two parts (soprano and alto), with a chorus of three parts (soprano and two altos), and has been printed in John Stafford Smith's "Musica Antiqua," i. 22. The name of the author of the words is not recorded. Ritson, who printed the carol in his "Ancient Songs and Ballads," says, "Nowel, Nowel (the old French name for Christmas), and a great cry at that period, was the usual burden to these sort of things. It was likewise the name of this sort of composition, which is equally ancient and popular. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris in the thirteenth century. "Noel, Noel, à moult grant cris.'


7. The Boar Is Dead, p. 125

This carol was sung, in 1607, at the ceremony of bringing in the Boar's Head before the Christmas Prince, a kind of Lord of Misrule, or Master of Revels, formerly annually elected from amongst the juniors of St. John the Baptist's College, Oxford, to preside during the Christmas holidays. This custom had prevailed in other Oxford colleges, particularly in Merton College, before the Reformation, when it was abolished. In the Societies of the Law, particularly Gray's Inn and the Temple, it continued long afterwards. "At a Christmas celebrated in the Hall of the Middle Temple, in the year 1635, the jurisdiction, privileges, and parade of this mock monarch are thus circumstantially described. He was attended by his Lord Keeper, Lord Treasurer, with eight white slaves, a captain of his Band of Pensioners, and of his Guard; and with two chaplains, who were so seriously impressed with an idea of his regal dignity, that when they preached before him on the preceding Sunday in the Temple Church, on ascending the pulpit they saluted him with three low bows. He dined, both in the Hall and in his privy chamber, under a cloth of estate. The pole-axes for his Gentlemen Pensioners were borrowed of Lord Salisbury. Lord Holland, his temporary Justice in Eyre, supplies him with venison on demand; and the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of London with wine. On Twelfth Day, at going to church, he received many petitions, which he gave to his Master of Requests: and, like other kings, he had a favourite, whom, with others, gentlemen of high quality, he knighted as returning from church. (The satire conveyed in this last action, was, doubtless, keenly relished at the time.) His expenses, all from his own purse, amounted to two thousand pounds."

The change from the manners and tastes of the times when the former carols were written appears strikingly in the present production. Instead of references to the Blessed Virgin and the King of bliss, we have the quasi-classic allusions to Meleager (the destroyer of the famed boar of Calydon), Ceres and Bacchus, so strongly characteristic of the age. It may be remarked that in all these carols, save one or two, mustard is mentioned as an accompaniment to the boar's head, in a manner that exalts it to an almost equal consequence with the head itself. It is alluded to as an essential article even so late as the eighteenth century, in the following passage from Dr. William King's poem, "The Art of Cookery:" --

"At Christmas time. --
Then if you would send up the Brawner's head,
Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;
His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,
Or, midst these thundering spears an orange place;
Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,
The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose.
Sack and the well-spic'd Hippocras the wine,
Wassail the bowl with ancient ribbons fine,
Porridge with plums, and turkies with the chine."

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.

Edith Rickert provided a glossary in her Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700, and gives the following translations:

1. Quot estis in convivio = As many as are at this feast
2. Caput apri defero, reddens laudes Domino = I bring the boar's head, giving thanks to the Lord
3. Let us "sevire cantico," then, is Let us "serve it with song."
4. In reginensi atrio = In the royal hall

Source: Martha Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pages 303 - 310.

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.