The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I

Words and Music: English Traditional Carol
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF
From Husk

First published 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse Carolles

Alternate Title: The Boar's Head Carol
The Version Performed Annually At Queen's College, Oxford, England

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

Version Five of Seven From Husk
See generally Boar's Head Carols

1. The boar’s head in hand bring00 I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry01
   Quot estis in convivio02

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

2. The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest 03a dish in all this land,
Which 03b thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
   Let us servire cantico.04

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

3. Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
   In Reginensi atrio.05

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

End Notes

0. Or: Bear. Return

1. Or: And I pray you, my masters, merry be. Return

2. Translation: As you all feast so heartily. Return

3. Translation of Chorus:

Lo, behold the head I bring
Giving praise to God we sing

Another translation:

The boar’s head I bring,
Giving praises to the Lord. Return

3a. Or: bravest Return

3b. Or: When Return

4. Translation: Let us serve with a song. Return

5. Translation: In the Queen's hall. 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.

Sheet Music from William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868)
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Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Second Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), Carol #36
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Sheet Music from Edward F. Rimbault, A Little Book of Christmas Carols. London: Cramer, Beale & Co., 201, Regent Street, No Date (circa 1863).
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Sheet Music from William Wallace Fyfe, Christmas: It's Customs And Carols (London: James Blackwood, 1863), pp. 175-176.
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boars_head-fyfe-p175.jpg (76993 bytes) boars_head-fyfe-p176.jpg (77507 bytes)

Sheet Music from John Richard Magrath, The Queen's College. Vol. 1 of 2 (1341-1646) (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1921), pp. 240-241.

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Source: Christmas Carols, William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. (London: Chappell & Co., 1859), pp. 750-758.
"From Dr. Rimbault’s Little Book of Christmas Carols."
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757-Music.jpg (277476 bytes)

Nathan Boughton Warren, The Holidays: Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide; together with the May-day (Troy, NY: H. B. Nims and Company, 1876). The carol with music arranged by Rimbault is found on pp. 230 and 231.
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boars_head-warren-holidays-1876-p1.jpg (71756 bytes) boars_head-warren-holidays-1876-p2.jpg (103802 bytes)


Text Notes

Note from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Second Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1919), Carol #36

All carols are very suitable for home use. We therefore do not scruple to include a famous old carol, which is not meant to be sung in church.

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

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.

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. Ed.: 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 (or at least that is the presumption). Return

Editor's Note:

Concerning Husk's assertion that there is no good evidence that a "carved wooden substitute" has been used in the past, I submit the following:

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 l697) 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.'

Also found in Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861)

This Carol is "taken from a single leaf, all that has been preserved, of a book of Carols printed by Wynkin de Worde in 1521. It is there entitled, " A Carol, brynging in the Bore's Head." This antique ceremony was observed up to a very recent period in Queen's College, Oxford, but with this considerable improvement indeed, that the Boar's head was neatly carved in wood.

See: The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I

Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 260.

Editor's Note: Rickert gives the title as “A Carol Bringing In The Boar's Head” and cites her source as Wynkyn de Worde, Christmas Carolles.

A Carol Bringing In The Boar's Head”

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 conuiuio.

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

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

Rickert more closely follows the version given by Sandys. She cites as her source Wynkyn de Worde, Christmas Carolles.

At left: "The Boar's Head" from Harper's Monthly, January, 1873.

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