Words and Music: Traditional English
Source: Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca 1871), Carol #3
1. A Virgin unspotted, the prophet foretold,
Should bring forth a Savior, which now we behold.
To be our Redeemer from death, hell and sin,
Which Adam's transgression had wrapped us in.
Aye and therefore be merry, set sorrow aside,
Christ Jesus, our Savior, was born on this tide.
2. At Bethlehem city in Jewry, it was
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be taxed with many one more,
Great Cesar commanded the same should be so. Chorus
3. But when they had entered the city so fair,
A number of people so mighty was there,
That Joseph and Mary, whose substance was small,
Could find in the inn there no lodging at all. Chorus
4. Then were they constrained in a stable to lie,
Where horses and asses they used for to tie:
Their lodging so simple they took it no scorn,
But against the next morning our Saviour was born. Chorus
5. The King of all Kings to this world being brought,
Small store of fine linen to wrap Him was sought,
But when she had swaddled her young Son so sweet,
Within an ox manger she laid Him to sleep. Chorus
6. Then God sent an angel from Heaven so high,
To certain poor shepherds in fields where they lie,
And bade them no Longer in sorrow to stay,
Because that our Saviour was born on this day. Chorus
7. Then presently after the shepherds did spy
Vast numbers of Angels to stand in the sky;
They joyfully talk and sweetly did sing,
To God be all glory, our heavenly King. Chorus
8. To teach us humility all this was done,
And learn we from thence haughty pride for to shun:
A manger His cradle who came from above,
The great God of mercy, of peace, and of love. Chorus
Sheet Music From Cecil J. Sharp, Folk-Song Carols (London: Novello and Company, Ltd., 1913), No. 1181, pp. 16-17. Novello's School Songs, Book #245, edited by W. G. McNaught. Sharp identifies this version as being from Gloucestershire.
Sheet Music from Edgar Pettman, ed., Modern Christmas Carols (London: Weekes & Co., 1892), #35:
Note from Pettman: No. XXXV.—A more simple version of this old carol, which is an excellent specimen of carol music, may be found in Carols New and Old referred to above.
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Bramley & Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series
Broadwood and Fuller Maitland, English Country Songs
Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Carols
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Joshua Sylvestre, in Christmas Carols - Ancient and Modern (circa 1861, reprinted A. Wessels Company, New York, 1901), noted that he had collected this carol from an old broadside printed at Birmingham. See: A Virgin Most Pure.
William Henry Husk, in Songs of the Nativity, gave the following information in his introduction to A Virgin Most Pure:
The first of the versions commencing "A Virgin unspotted," was printed by the Rev. Arthur Bedford (the author of several curious works on music and the stage) about the year 1734. Mr. Bedford, in the title of the carol, has given us a singular etymological derivation of the word carol from Carolus; viz. "A Christmas carol, so called because such were in use in K. Charles I. Reign."! The reader of the present volume will not, it is feared, entertain a very high opinion of Mr. Bedford's antiquarian learning, at least on the subject of Christmas carols.
Also found in Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland, English Country Songs. London: The Leadenhall Press, 1893, with verses 1 and 2 above, and the following chorus:
Then Let us be merry, cast sorrow away,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus, was born on this day.
The tune "Admiral Benbow" from Chappell, Popular Music, etc., p. 642, who says that it was sung at Marden, near Hereford, to the words "A Virgin Unspotted." The rest of the words are the same as the Northamptonshire carol, "In Bethlehem City" p. 56.
The tune of Admiral Benbow is the vehicle of several country songs at the present time, and used for Christmas carols. In the month of January last, Mr. Samuel Smith noted it down from the singing of some carollers at Marden, near Hereford, to the words commencing,—
"A virgin unspotted the prophets foretold."
Also found in Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Carols (London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911), pp. 36-7, under the title "The Virgin Unspotted." Sharp gives four verses, including one, two and seven, above (and which are substantially the same). He adds the following as the third verse:
Now Mary's full time being come, as we find,
She brought forth Her First-born to save all mankind;
The Inn being so full for this heavenly guest,
No place could be found for to lay Him to rest. Chorus
Sung by the late Mr. Henry Thomas of Chipping Sodbury.
The first and second stanzas are exactly as Mr. Thomas sang them to me. The third lines of the second and fourth stanzas, being obviously corrupt, have been amended; while the last word of the concluding stanza, “Son,” has been altered to “King.”
The words in the text are almost identical with those printed on broadsides by Wood of Birmingham and Cotton of Tamworth. In making the above mentioned alterations I have been guided by these broadsides, from one of which, in all probability, Mr. Thomas originally learned his words.
Traditional versions of this carol, with tunes, are printed in Davies Gilbert’s and Sandys’s collections .
Also found in Roy Ringwald's Book Of American Carols (2004) with slightly different lyrics and arrangement.
Concerning the issue of the oxen and the asses, see the note by R. Martin Pope following Hymn For Christmas Day - Prudentius.