A Carol of the Innocents
Words and Music: Unknown
Source: William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868)
1. Mark this song, for it is true,
For it is true as clerks tell:
In old time strange things came to pass,
Great wonder and great marvel was
2. There was one Octavian,
Octavian of Rome Emperor,
As books old doth specify,
Of all the wide world truly,
He was lord and governor.
3. The Jews that time lacked a king,
They lacked a king to guide them well,
The Emperor of power and might,
Chose one Herod against all right,
4. This Herod then was King of Jews,
Was King of Jews, and he no Jew,
Forsooth he was a Paynim born,
Wherefore on faith it may be sworn
He reigned King untrue.
5. By prophecy one Isai,
One Isai at least did tell
A child should come, wondrous news,
That should be born true King of Jews
6. This Herod knew one born should be,
One born should be of true lineage,
That should be right heritor;
For he but by the Emperor
Was made by usurpage.
7. Wherefore of thought this King of Herod,
This King Herod in great fear fell,
For all the days most in his mirth,
Ever he feared Christ his birth
8. The time came it pleased God,
It pleased God so to come to pass,
For man's soul indeed
His blessed Son was b orn with speed
As his will was.
9. Tidings came to King Herod,
To King Herod, and did him tell,
That one born forsooth is he,
Which lord and king of all shall be
10. Herod then raged as he wode, 
As he were wode of this tiding,
And sent for all his scribes sure,
Yet would he not trust the Scripture,
Nor of their counseling.
11. Then this was the conclusion,
The conclusion of his counsel,
To send unto his knights anon
To slay the children every one
12. This cruel king this tyranny,
This tyranny did put in ure, 
Between a day and years two
All men-children he did slew,
Of Christ for to be sure.
13. Yet Herod missed his cruel prey,
His cruel prey as was God's will;
Joseph with Mary then did flee
With Christ to Egypt gone was she
14. All the while these tyrants,
These tyrants would not convert,
But innocents young
That lay sucking,
They thrust to the heart.
15. This Herod sought the children young,
The children young, with courage fell,
But in doing this vengeance
His own son was slain by chance
16. Alas! I think the mothers were woe,
The mothers were woe, it was great skill,
What motherly pain
To see them slain
In cradles lying still!
17. But God Himself hath them elect,
Hath them elect, in heaven to dwell,
For they were bathed in their blood,
For their Baptism forsooth it stood
18. Alas! Again what hearts had they,
What hearts had they those babes to kill,
With swords whey they them caught,
In cradles they lay and laughed,
And never thought ill.
1. Mad. Return
2. Practice. Return
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.
This Carol was printed in a volume bearing the title of “Christmas carolles newly Inprinted. [Woodcut of Our Saviour crucified between two thieves.] Imprinted at London in the Powltry, by Richard Kele, dwelling a the longe shope undere sayne Myldredes Chyrch,” which was probably published between the years 1546 and 1552, during which time Kele lived at the Long shop in the Poultry, and at the sign of the Eagle near unto Stocks Market in Lombard Street. Seven of the carols contained in Kele's publication were included by the late Dr. Bliss in a small volume of Bibliographical Miscellanies which he printed in 1813, and from this volume, (which is now very scarce, the impression having been limited to 104 copies,) the present copy is taken.
The circumstances of Herod's own child being slain in the massacre was believed for centuries. How or when the tradition arose is uncertain, but the circumstance is mentioned by Macrobius, who wrote inn the fifth century, in connection with a witticism of the Emperor Augustus Caesar, who, on hearing the report, said, it was better to be Herod's pig than his son; in allusion to Herod's position as King of the Jews. In “The trades of Chester at Whitsuntide, one of Herod's soldiers kills a child in the arms of a woman, who tells him it is the king's son, who had been placed at nurse with her. She rushes to Herod and acquaints him of the murder, on hearing of which he rages, becomes made, and dies; and a demon comes and carries him into the place of torment.
Kele's carols were also reprinted in Edward Bliss Reed's Christmas Carols Printed In The Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932).
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