The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Boar's Head Carols

Source: Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).

See, generally, Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

"The season of the Boar is from the Nativity
Till the Purification of our Lady so free,1
For at the nativity of our Lady sweet,
He may find where he goeth under his feet,
Both in woods and fields, corn and other fruit,
When he after food maketh any suit:
Crabs and oak corns and nuts there they grow,
Haws and hips and other things enow,
That till the Purification lasteth as ye see,
And maketh the boar in season to be;
For while that fruit may last,
His time is never past."

There is no more interesting, and, by the way, no more hacknied, feature connected with the celebration of Christmas in the olden time, than the custom of bringing in the Boat's Head with minstrelsy. The Carol for this purpose, discovered on the solitary leaf remaining of a volume of Christmas Carols, printed by Wynkin de Worde, has, since first brought to light, been printed and reprinted in every account of Christmas with which we are familiar. And certainly there is something very picturesque in the incident itself, as well as honour, we may presume, attaching to those who took part in it, for we find that Henry II., at the coronation of his eldest son, "served him at the table as sewer,2 bringing up the boar's head with trumpets before it, according to the manner."3

The five subsequent Carols have in their day played their part, times without number, in this ceremony; and on the very occasion above referred to, there is no doubt but that one or the other of them as chanted forth between the flourishes of the heralds' trumpets, when the proud Plantagenet did duty as sewer to his rebellious son. It is not merely at regal banquets, however, that these Carols have been in request. The boar's head was the first dish served up at table in every baronial hall throughout the country at the Christmas feast; and on such occasions we may be certain there was no lack of amateur or professional minstrels to do becoming honour to a ceremony of so much importance. In all of the following Carols, the old spelling has been modernised, and other trifling liberties have been taken, to render the text intelligible.


(From Mr. T. Wright's Manuscript)

Tidings I bring you for to tell
What in wild forest me befell,
When I in with a wild beast fell,
With a boar so bryme.4

A boar so bryme that me pursued,
Me for to kill so sharply moved,
That brymly beast so cruel and rude;
    There tamed I him
And reft from him both life and limb.

Truly, to show you this is true,
His head I with my sword did hew,
To make this day new mirth for you --
    Now eat thereof anon.

Eat, and much good do it you;
Take you bread and mustard thereto.
Joy with me that this I have done,
I pray you be glad everyone,
    And all rejoice as one.


(From a Manuscript in the British Museum5)

Nowel, Nowel, Nowel, Nowel.
Tidings good I think to tell.

The boar's head, that we bring here,
Betokeneth a prince without peer
Is born to-day to buy us dear.

The boar he is a sovereign beast,
And acceptable at every feast;
So might this lord be to greatest and least;

This boar's head we bring with song,
In worship of Him that this sprung
From a virgin to redress all wrong;


(From Mr. Wright's Manuscript)

At the beginning of the meat
Of a boar's head ye shall eat,
And in the mustard ye shall whet;
    And ye shall sing before ye go.

Welcome be ye that are here,
Ye shall all have right good cheer,
And also a right good fare;
    And ye shall sing before ye go.

Welcome be ye every one,
For ye shall sing all right anon;
Hey! you sure that ye have done?
    And ye shall sing before ye go.

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The following is perhaps the most ancient of all the Boar's Head Carols. It is preserved in a manuscript of the fifteenth century, and was first printed in the "Reliquiæ Antiquæ," to which publication it was communicated by Sir Frederic Madden. The second part of this old Carol furnishes us with a minute description of the viands that formed the second course at a Christmas feast. They certainly make some amends for the poverty of the first portion of the banquet; and we may presume that when these dishes were served up, the dinner commenced in good earnest. In spite of the invitations contained in these Carols to partake of the "first mess," the Boar's Head, we anticipate, was little else but a show dish; for, in all of the allusions to it, mention is only made of one head being served at each feast, though, even were the number greater, it could hardly have been sufficient to have yielded a mouthful a-piece to the numerous guests who were generally present at these entertainments. Between the courses the minstrels played and sang — the jesters cracked their smartest jokes, and practices their most extravagant antics; and, we dare say, the famous Dance of Fools was not unfrequently performed at this particular juncture, before the attention of the guests came to be directed to the more exciting business which was so soon to follow.


Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!
The Boar's head is armed gay.

The boar's head in hand I bring,
With garlands gay encircling,6
I pray you all with me to sing,
                            With Hey!

Lords, knights, and squires,
Parsons, priests, and vicars,
The boar's head is the first mess,7
                            With Hey!

The boar's head, as I now say,
Takes its leave and goes away,
Goeth after the twelfth day,
                            With Hey!

Then comes the second course with pride,
The cranes, the herons, the bitterns, by their side.
The partridges, the plovers, the woodcocks, and the snipe,
Larks in hot show, for the ladies to pick,
Good drink also, luscious and fine,
Blood of Allemaine, romnay, and wine,
                            With Hey!

Good brewed ale and wine, I dare well say,
The boar's head with mustard armed so gay,
Furmity for pottage, and venison fine,
And the umbles of the doe and all that ever comes in.
Capons well baked, with knuckles of the roe,
Raisons and currants, and other spices, too,
                            With Hey!

The following is the Carol previously referred to as having been preserved on a single leaf of a book of Carols, printed by Wynkin de Worde. It is there entitled, "A Carol, brynging in the Bore's Head." The first verse is evidently a mere variation of that in the preceding song.


Caput Apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The boar's head in hand bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary;
I pray you all sing merrily,
    Qui estis in convivio.

The boar's head, I understand,
Is the chief service in this land;
Look wherever it be found
    Servite cum cantico.

Be glad, lords, both more or less,
    For this hath ordained our steward
To cheer you all this Christmas,
    The boar's head with mustard.

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.

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On the other side of the leaf of Wynkin de Worde's volume is the following Carol, which, although apparently unconnected with our subject, we introduce as one of a class of songs usually sung during the Christmas season. That, in its own day, it was regarded as an undoubted Christmas Carol, is evident from the circumstance of its finding a place amongst Wynkin de Worde's collection, as the leave which has been preserved, and which is the last of the book, bears the following imprint: — "Thus endeth the Christmasse Carroles, newely enprinted at Londo, in fletestrete at the sygne of the sonne by Wynkin de Worde. The yere of our lorde, M.D. XXI."


As I came by a green forest side,
I met with a forester that bade me abide,
Whey go get, hey go get, hey go how,
We shall have sport and game enow.

Underneath a tree I did me set,
And with a great hart anon I met,
I bade let slip, and said hey go bet,
With hey go bet, hey go bet how,
We shall have sport and game enow.

I had not stated there but awhile,
Not the mountenaunce8 of a mile,
There came a great hart without guile.
There he goeth, there he goeth,
With hey go bet, hey go bet how,
We shall have sport and game enow.

Talbut my hound, with a merry taste,
All about the green wood he 'gan cast,
I took my horn and blew him a blast
With tro, ro, ro, ro: tro, ro, ro, ro:
With hey go bet, hey go bet how.
We shall have sport and game enow.
There he goeth, there he goeth.
With hey go bet, hey go bet how,
We shall have sport and game enow.

Notes from Mr. Vizetelly (excepting #1, which is the Editor's):

1. The Purification of Our Lady is celebrated on February 2. Return

2. The officer who placed and removed the various dishes. Return

3. Holinshed's Chron. [See: The Boar's Head Feast for Young Henry, 1170Return

4. Fierce. Return

5. MS Addit., No. 5665, fol. 5, ro. Return

6. "Porttoryng" in the original -- a word not explained in any glossary. Return

7. That is, "the first dish." Return

8. The meaning of this phrase, as used in the presence instance, appears to be, "not the time it would occupy to travel a mile." Return


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