The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Coventry Carol

For the Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28

Version 1
Compare Version 2
The Coventry Carol (Terry) and
Lulle Lullay, Collected by John Jacob Niles

Words Attributed to Robert Croo, 1534
Bramley and Stainer give attribution for the words to "Coventry Mysteries"

English Melody, 1591

It is named after the city of Coventry, England, where the 16th Century Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors depicted Herod's slaughter of the innocents, told in the lyrics.

1. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

2. O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

3. Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

4. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Editor's Note:

In some versions, the following lines are substituted for the first verse, and are repeated at the ending of the carol:

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

Sheet Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, Third Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca 1878), Carol #61.

coventry_carol_61.gif (391331 bytes)

Sheet Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #540
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Coventry_Carol_540.gif (196708 bytes)

Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Second Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), Carol #38

Public Domain Recording:

The Coventry Carol:
Koventria Karolo
in Esperanto! by Gene Keyes

An Additional 6 Christmas Carols by Gene at Jula Karolaro

Plus 148 Christmas Carols in Esperanto at Kristnaskaj Kantoj


This is one of many songs which relate to the Holy Innocents, whose feast day is December 28. For more, please see The Hymns Of The Holy Innocents.

See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2).

The Gospel According to Matthew

Chapter 2, verses 16 - 18

"Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more."

The Fair Child Lullaby
(“ ffayr chylde, lullay ”)

In The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, this gentle lullaby was sung by the women of Bethlehem to their babies, urging them to "Be still, be still, my little child," just before the unwilling soldiers of King Herod came to slaughter their infants in Herod's attempt to eliminate a competitor, the newborn King of the Jews. In the liturgical calendar, those children are commemorated on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

The beloved “Coventry Carol” has one of the most unusual of histories. It was a song from the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, one of only two plays to have survived from the cycle of late medieval mystery plays of which Coventry played a part (the other was the Weavers' Pageant). The Pageant has roots to perhaps the 14th century, to morality plays that tradesmen mounted far the entertainment of their monarchs and town officials, making this one of the oldest of carols.

The Pageant covered the Nativity story from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents.

The original copy of the play was always kept in the possession of the town council for safe keeping. When a copy was needed, the copyist went to the town council, but was charged a hefty fee for the privilege. The town council copy of the Coventry plays has been lost.

The oldest copy of the play that we have knowledge of was the one that was re-edited by Robert Croo, then the mayor Master Palmer, on March 14, 1534. That manuscript was destroyed in the fire at the Birmingham Free Reference Library in 1879. Fortunately, however, the Coventry antiquarian Thomas Sharp had preserved copies in two volumes. The first was the printing in 1817 of only 12 copies “for the purpose of bringing it more immediately to the knowledge of his antiquarian friends.”1 The second edition was the publication by Merridew and Son of Sharp's Dissertation of 1825; the full title was Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry, by the Trading Companies of that City.

Until the Google Books initiative, it was quite difficult to see or purchase the 1825 volume (I saw a copy for sale at a cost of US$600 in August, 2008), but was reprinted as recently as 2004 by Kessinger Publishing (with used copies much more affordably priced). In addition, there have been a number of reproductions of the play over the years including:

However, because of the Google Books initiative, I was able to download a copy of the 1825 edition by Sharp. The lyrics of the carol were printed:

Lully lulla þw littell tiné child
By by lully lullay
þw littell tyné child
By by lully lullay

O sisters too how may we do
For to preserve
þis day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by lully lullay

Herod the king in his raging
Charid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay

That wo is me pore child for thee
And ever morne and say
For thi parting nether say nor singe
By by lully lullay

Source: Thomas Sharp, A Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry. (Coventry: Merridew and Son, 1825), pp. 113-114. Note that the þ ("thorne") character is usually rendered as "th" (as in "thy," "this" and "thou").

The Retrospective Review, and Historical and Antiquarian Magazine published a review of Sharp's Dissertation the next year. The review also reprinted the carol:

An earlier reprinting of just the Coventry Carol occurs in Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807), pp. 114-115. He writes:

To add to the stock of our old lullaby songs, two are here subjoined. The first is from a pageant of The slaughter of the innocents, acted at Coventry in the reign of Henry the Eighth, by the taylors and shearers of that city, and most obligingly communicated by Mr. Sharpe. The other is from the curious volume of songs mentioned before in vol. i. p. 426. Both exhibit the simplicity of ancient manners.

Lully, lulla, thou littell tine childe,
By by lully lullay, thou littell tyne child,
By by lully lullay!

O sisters too,
How may we do,
    For to preserve this day
This pore yongling,
For whom we do singe
    By by lully lullay.

Herod the king,
In his raging,
    Chargid he hath this day ;
His men of might,
In his owne sight,
    All yonge children to slay.

That wo is me,
Pore child for thee,
    And ever morne and say ;
For thi parting,
Nether say nor sing,
    By by lully lullay."

William Marriott's edition of 1838 also gives a copy of our Carol (on page 38). His copy is substantially the same as that given by Sharp (whom Marriott acknowledges in his text) except for a misprint in the third verse:

And ever morne and day. [should have been "say"]

Professor Manly's Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama (1897) contained a version of the carol on pp. 151-2. Again, his version is substantially the same, except for the second line in verse 3 which he gives as:

And ever morne and may

Manly's footnote indicates that Sharp gave the word “say” but that Professor Kittredge “corrected” it to “may.” Prof. Manly did not indicate why Prof. Kittredge gave this change. The intended Vol. 3 to this series that would have contained notes and a glossary was never published.

A copy of this carol is also found in Hardin Craig's Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays (1902). Craig wrote that Prof. Manley's edition was the basis of his work, “though it has been carefully compared with the editions of Thomas Sharp.” His version is identical to that of Prof. Manly, including the notes.

Lacking any explanation for the changes to the word “say” in verse 3, and finding no obvious reason for adapting them, my feeling is to reject them.

Another early version of the Carol that I've examined was that of Halliwell's in Ludus Coventriæ (1841). It was virtually the same, differing only slightly in the second verse where Halliwell wrote:

Chargith he hath this day.

This version from Halliwell contained the note on page 414 that “Sharp has printed the following....” Halliwell noted that he attempted to give the reader as faithful a copy as possible of the originals, “with all its errors and defects.”

This was one of three carols from this play. According to Elizabeth Poston, the manuscript had a later annotation by Thomas Mawdycke, 1591, directing that this song ‘the women singe’, and that the shepherds sing the other two. Concerning the song, Poston wrote:

The manuscript, no longer in existence, from which Sharp transcribed the carol, gave it in a three-part setting. The carol is well performable in these three parts, impressive and rather bare in harmony. To anyone conversant with the style of the period, the addition of a fourth or tenor part in amplification of the existing harmony is obvious and presents little choice. Sharp gives the original as barred in duple metre, which Thurston Dart in his interesting edition (Two Coventry Carols, Stainer & Bell) has been careful to preserve.

The first carol was:

As I out rode this enderes night
Of thre ioli sheppardes I saw a sight
And all a-bowte there fold a star shone bright
       They sange terli terlow
       So mereli the sheppards ther pipes can blow.

This carol was to be sung by the shepherds, as was the third carol:

Donne from heaven, from heaven so hie
Of angels ther came a great companie
With mirthe and ioy and great solemnitye
      The sange terly terlow
      So mereli the shephards ther pipes can blow.

In contemporary usage, these two verses are sometimes combined into a single carol; note that the two carols have the same burden.

These are the pages from Sharp's 1825 document that contained the lyrics to the three carols:

Songs_To_The_Pageant-113.jpg (40268 bytes) Songs_To_The_Pageant-114.jpg (28554 bytes)

None of these sources included the music that Sharp included in his 1925 Dissertation. However, now that the Dissertation has been scanned, we can see this sheet music:

Carol 1 Carol 2 Carol 3
" As I out rode this enderes night " " Lully, lulla, thou littell tine childe " " Doune from heaven, from heaven so hie "
As_I_Out_Rode-Music.jpg (162299 bytes) Lully-lulla-Music-01.jpg (111908 bytes)  Lully-lulla-Music-02.jpg (134401 bytes) Downe_From-Music.jpg (134572 bytes)

The version reprinted by Hardin Craig in Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, contained stage directions concerning the performance of these three carols.

To put these performances in context, we'll take a quick look at the structure of the play.

The play opens with the Prophet Isaiah praying to God to save mankind and to "make you parfett and stronge," and at the same time confounding "cruell Sathan." (line 14) The prophesy that "a mayde schall conseyve a childe" is given, and that as it concerns Adam, the Child's "... gloreose birth schall reydeme hym ageyn from bondage and thrall." (32)

The Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to Mary is recounted (lines 47 and following). Joseph's unbelief is recounted, but an Angel of the Lord sets Joseph straight (150). The couple then travels to Bethlehem, and the three shepherds are introduced.

At line 263, it is written that "There the angelis syng "glorea in exselsis Deo" and one of the shepherds exclaims:

Hark! the syng abowe in the clowdis clere!
Hard I neyuer of soo myrre a quere.

The shepherds decide to "goo we hence to worschipe thatt chyld of hy manyffeconce," and the shepherds sing their first song, "As I owt Rodde."

As I out rode this enderes night
Of thre ioli sheppardes I saw a sight
And all a bowte there fold a star shone bright
    They sange teri terlow
    So mereili the sheppards ther pipes can blow.

They hasten to town, greet Mary, and present gifts to the child consisting of a pipe, a hat, and a pair of mittens. After Mary promises to pray for the shepherds, and just before they depart, they sing their second song, "Donne from heave from heave so hie:"

Doune from heav from heav so hie,
Of angeles
þer came a great companie,
Wt mirthe and ioy and great solemnitye,
é sange terly terlow;
    So mereli the sheppards
þer pipes cã blow.

Three individuals participate in a lengthy dialogue (332-474) concerning these "wonderfull marvellys," including the birth of a king, the redemption of humanity, etc.

Herod then makes his appearance, and after a boastful recounting of some dubious facts about himself (that Herod made heaven and hell, defeated Magog and Madroke, etc), he leaves and the "iij kings" appear (540). The first of them says that "for yondur a feyre bryght star I do see," and recalls the prophesy. Both the second and third kings, although lost, see the star, and the three of them go to Bethlehem (602).

Herod then appears, learns of the kings and their mission, and dispatches a messenger to "invite" them to speak with him. Herod asks about the star, and then invites them to dinner. The kings then depart for Bethlehem. There they greet the child and present their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Mary blesses them, and, as they are exiting the stage, they decide to take a rest before they return to their homes. While they are sleeping, an Angel warns them not to return to Herod. The kings then depart, separately (767).

Herod discovers this, and flies into a rage. He then states that he will slay the Child, and when the soldiers protest, Herod threatens to kill the reluctant soldiers (801). An Angel then warns Joseph and Mary, and they then escape to Egypt.

At line 830, the women of Bethlehem enter with their children, singing this carol, "Lullay, Thou little tiny Child ..."

Lully lulla þw littell tiné child
By by lully lullay
þw littell tyné child
By by lully lullay

O sisters too how may we do
For to preserve
þis day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by lully lullay

Herod the king in his raging
Charid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay

That wo is me pore child for thee
And ever morne and say
For thi parting nether say nor singe
By by lully lullay

One of the mothers then speaks to the children:

Be styll, be styll, my lyttull chylde!
That Lorde of lordis saue bothe the and me!
For Erode hath sworne with wordis wyld
Thatt all yong chyldur sclayne the schalbe.

Three of the women declare that they will defend their children, and beg for pity, but after the third woman speaks, the Holy Innocents are killed (869). One of the soldiers says:

Who hard eyuer soche a cry
Of wemen thatt there chyldur haue lost,
And grettly reybukyng chewaldry
Throgh-owt this reme in eyuere cost,
Wyche many a mans lyff ys lyke to cost?

The soldiers then depart, and report to Herod. The Nuncio enters and announces that the Child has escaped to Egypt. The play ends as Herod rides after the Holy Family (900). The three songs are printed after the play.

According to William Sandys, there is an old tradition that Herod's own son was among the innocents slaughtered. For more information, see: When Herod In Jerusalem

The other play printed by Hardin was "The Pageant of the Weavers," which deals with the Purification in the Temple, and also the Disputation in the Temple.


1. William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, p. 218. The original quotation itself was in quotation marks indicating to me that it was a quote from Sharp's edition. According to Hardin Craig, the full title of the 1817 work was The Pageant of the Sheremen and Taylors, in Coventry, as performed by them on the festival of Corpus Christi; together with other pageants, exhibited on occasion of several royal visits to that city; and two specimens of ancient local poetry. Return

2. Note: there is considerable debate concerning when and where this version was actually performed. Because my interest is in the song and less so the play, I leave this argument to others. The source for the Halliwell text was the Cotton Manuscript of 1468 and would thus predate Croo's edition by at least 66 years. In referring to the Sharp edition of 1816 [sic], Mr. Halliwell notes “Mr. Sharp has also printed a Coventry play of a later date....” See: Esther L. Swenson, An Inquiry Into the Composition and Structure of Ludus Coventriae. Minneapolis: Bulletin [Number 1] of the University of Minnesota, October, 1914. Return

3. It should be noted that in Manly's edition, there occurred notes attributed to “Kittredge.” In the Preface, Professor Manly explained that “... the emendations of Professor Kittredge, whose suggestions, as being unpublished and communicated directly to me, are always distinguished by his unabbreviated surname” (as opposed to the letter “K”). “Kittredge” referred to George Lyman Kittredge, Gurney Professor of English Literature, Harvard College. The Manly edition was part of a literary series whose general editors were Kittredge and C. T. Winchester. Return


Hardin Craig, Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays. London: Published for the Early English Text Society, 1902.

Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, eds., The Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.

Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols

Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807).

James Orchard Halliwell. Ludus Coventriæ. London: Printed for the Shakespeare Society, 1841.

William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described: Especially the English Miracle Plays.1823. Hone wrote in a note on page 218 that in the summer of 1819 he was permitted to borrow a copy of the 1817 edition.

Hugh Keyte and Parrot, Andrew, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book. New York: McAfee Books, 1978.

Pamela M. King, The Coventry Plays, 2000. Site accessed August 11, 2008.

William Marriott, A Collection of English Miracle-Plays. Basel: Schweighauser & Co., 1838. This edition, oddly, is often overlooked by scholars. Marriott gives the date of Robert Croo's transcription as the “xiiijth dey of Marche” the 15th of March, rather than the 14th of March as given by Hone and others. Marriott also gives another very different play titled “Candlemas-Day or The Killing of the Children of Israel.”

John Matthews Manly, Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama. Vol. 1. Boston: The Athnaeum Press, 1897.

Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. London: Penguin, 1965.

Thomas Sharp, Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry, by the Trading Companies of that City. (Coventry: Merridew and Son, 1825). Sharp was also the publisher of The Presentation in the Temple, A Pageant, as originally represented by the Corporation of Weavers in Coventry. This edition was prepared for the Abbotsford Club in 1836.

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003.

Henry Southern, et. al., eds., The Retrospective Review, and Historical and Antiquarian Magazine. London: C. and H. Baldwyn, 1826

Matthew Lyle Spencer, Corpus Christi Pageants in England. New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1911. This was a doctoral dissertation submitted to the faculty at the University of Chicago. Spencer was a student of Professor Manly.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995

Esther L. Swenson, An Inquiry Into the Composition and Structure of Ludus Coventriae. Minneapolis: Bulletin [Number 1] of the University of Minnesota, October, 1914.

Editor's Note

Other carols which may date to the Coventry mysteries include The Holy Well and The Bitter Withy.

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