The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Boar's Head, That We Bring Here

For Christmas

Words: English Traditional, Temp. Henry VII or VIII, from The "Ritson Manuscript," British Library MS. Addit 5665, fol. 5, v0.
Alternate Titles: The Boar's Head, The Boris Hed, The Boris Hede, The Bores Heed

Music: Attributed to Richard Smert, Devonshire, circa 15th Century.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

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

Version Six of Seven From Husk
See generally Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

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

1. A boar's head, that we bring here,
Betokeneth a prince without peer
Is born this day1 to buy us dear,

2. A boar is a sovereign beast,
And acceptable in every feast;
So might this Lord be to most2 and least,

3. The boar's head we bring with song,
In worship of Him that thus sprung
Of3 a Virgin to redress all wrong;


1. Or to-day. Return

2. Greatest. Return

3. Or From. Return

Sheet Music from John Stafford Smith, Musica Antiqua. Vol. 1. (London: Printed & Sold by Preston, 1812), #22.

Borys_heed-Smith-Musica_Antiqua-Vol_1-p22.jpg (128797 bytes)
This music is also found in John Stevens, ed., Medieval Carols, Vol. IV of the series Musica Britannica, London: Stainer & Bell, 1958 (Second Revised Edition), #79, p. 66.

Sheet music from Edmonstoune Duncan, The Story of the Carol (London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1911), pp. 188-189 ("with thanks to Dr. John Speller")
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

In this version, the first line of the first verse reads:
"The boar's head that I bring here."

Editor's Note:

This carol was later reprinted by Ritson, with notes, in the 1790 edition of his Ancient Songs and Ballads From Henry II to the Revolution (London: J. Johnson), Carol XVIII, p. 127-8.

There is an interesting back story to the first printing of this carol. For the somewhat sordid details, see Observations on Warton's History of English Poetry (1782).

Richard Smart (or Smert or Smerte) was Rector (1435-1477) of Plymtree, Devon, and vicar-choral at Exeter Cathedral (1428-ca. 1466). He is also believed to be the author of several other carols in the Ritson manuscript, including one of the Boar's Head Carols, The Borys Hede That We Bryng Here.

Although Ritson omitted the music, it was later retrieved from the original manuscript and published in several publications, including:

It is also reprinted, with music and notes, in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and The New Oxford Book of Carols (1992), both of which are recommended reading.

After mentioning several other boar's head carols, including one where the boar is dispatched with a sword rather than a volume of Aristotle (i.e., Tydynges I Bryng 3ow For To Tell), A. M. Wakefield gives us this unique observation:

From the Additional MSS. in the British Museum comes another quaint specimen, of which we give the last verse, to show the curious mixture of sacred and profane, by no means intended as irreverence, in fifteenth-century style.
"The boar's head we bring with song
In worship of Him that sprung
Of a Virgin to redress all wrong - Noel!"
Modern worship, and ancient sacrifice, had not then quite separated one from another, in reality at any rate, though possibly in theory! The music of this carol is printed in Stafford Smith's "Musica Antiqua " for soprano and alto solo voices, with a chorus in three parts, soprani and two alti, which suggests, that it might have been the property of the "wenches" (possibly as one of their repertoire), who in bygone days possessed the monopoly of carrying round the wassail bowl. According to Wither, Christmas-time was not complete unless
"The wenches with their wassail bowls
About the streets are singing."
Source: A. M. Wakefield, “Secular Or Festive Carols,” Part Two of a series “Carols: Serious and Secular,” in Murray's Magazine, Volume 4, pp. 828-829.

Ritson's Note:

This, and the following ancient Christmas Carols [I Am Here, Syre Crystes Mass], are given, merely as curiosities. from the editors folio MS., where each is accompanied with a musical composition for three voices; but which, neither in point of merit nor antiquity, seems to deserve a place in this work.

Nowel, Nowel (the old French name for Christmas), and a great cry at that period, was the usual burden to this sort of things. Many instances of which may be found in No. 2593. Bib. Sloan.

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, a moult grant cris."

Also found in William Sandys Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833) , who noted:

This [is] from Addit. MSS. 5665. (formerly in Ritson's possession,) being a collection of church services, hymns, carols and songs in score, made (as it supposed) in the time of Henry VIII [1491-1547, reign 1509-1547].
This [is] also printed in Ritson's Ancient Songs. The music of them, with some others, is published in Mr. Stafford Smith's "Music Antiqua."

Mr. Sandys also reproduced this carol in his later work, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852). p. 223.

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

This Carol was first printed by Ritson from an ancient MS. in his possession, now deposited in the British Museum. The composition in all probability is of the reign of Henry VIII. As before stated, Nowel, or Noel, is the old French name for Christmas, and was the usual burden for Carols of this kind.

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

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.'"

Also found in Arthur Henry Bullen, ed., A Christmas Garland, Cards and Poems from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), p. 267.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 258-9. Rickert gives the title as "In Die Natavitatis," followed by “Temp. Henry VII or VIII.” Rickert gives “Nowell” for “Noel.”

Also found in Richard Leighton Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962, #33, pp. 91-2.

Note: By an act of Parliament in 1972, the collection of manuscripts and printed books in the British Museum were separated and transferred to the newly-established British Library. The British Library is now located in the St. Pancras area (96 Euston Road, bounded by Ossulston Street and Midland Road, and near the St Pancras International Station and the King's Cross Station). Ritson donated the manuscript to the British Museum on August 7, 1795. It is now designated as "Additional Manuscript 5665." For a description, including a table of contents, see this description of Add 5665 at the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. See also a listing of carols in The Digital Index of Middle English Verse.

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