The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Virgin Unspotted

For Christmas

Words and Music: Gloucestershire, England

Collected by Cecil J. Sharp from Mr. Henry Thomas of Chipping-Sodbury, South Gloucestershire, England

Source: Cecil J. Sharp, ed., English Folk-Carols (London: Novello and Co., 1911), pp. 36-37.

See: In Bethlehem City - Notes

1. A Virgin unspotted, the Prophets foretold
Should bring forth a Saviour, which now you behold.
To be our Redeemer, from death, hell and sin,
Which Adam's transgressions involved us in.

Then let us be merry,
Cast sorrow away,
Our Savior Christ Jesus
Is born on this day.

2. At Bethlehem city, in Judah, it was
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be tax-ed 'twas there that they came,
Since Cæsar Augustus commanded the same.
        Then let us, etc., etc.

3. 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.
        Then let us, etc., etc.

4. Then presently after the shepherds did spy
Vast numbers of angels for to stand in the sky;
How happy they conversed! so sweet did they sing:
All glory and praise to our Heavenly King.
        Then let us, etc., etc.

Sheet Music From Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Carols (London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911), pp. 36-7
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Notes by Mr. Sharp, p. 66

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, 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.

Wood of Birmingham Cotton of Tamworth
Virgin_unspotted-wood-birmingham-broadsideSHA-05-226.jpg (235086 bytes) virgin_most_purely_tamworth_broadsideSHA-05-227.jpg (255794 bytes)

Editor's Note:

The Gloucestershire tune has an interesting background as it relates to Bramley and Stainer's Christmas Carols, New and Old. According to information provided to Dr. John Julian from Dr. Stainer, he and Rev. Henry Bramley, his co-editor, had "received several manuscript copies of the tune taken orally," which they used for Carol #3, "A Virgin Unspotted." The tune that they used was one that was frequently reproduced with these lyrics, which came from William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).

Dr. Julian's note continued:

... but from Gloucestershire a tune was obtained that was always sung to these words “A virgin unspotted,” but differing widely from its more usual form. It was considered so beautiful that Dr. Stainer got his co-editor [Rev. Bramley] to arrange other words for it.

As a result, the Gloucestershire tune for "A Virgin Unspotted" was used with lyrics specially written for the music, "The Great God of Heaven," which was included in the Series Second, Carol #26, under the title The Incarnation.

Dr. Julian concluded:

Thus we are indebted to the happy accident of a variation in the melody for another carol on the Nativity, ”The Great God of Heaven is Come Down to Earth,” equal to the former, "A Virgin Unspotted” in the clearness and interest of its narrative, and far surpassing it in depth of thought, and elegance of diction."

Source: John Julian, ed., Dictionary of Hymnology, Vol. 1, page 213.

This song was later incorporated into The English Hymnal (1906), although, interestingly, those editors did not include the popular West Country carol "A Virgin Most Pure," from William Sandys.

For notes and other versions of this carol on this site, see: In Bethlehem City - Notes.

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