The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Saint Stephen Was A Clerk

Carol For St. Stephen's Day
See: Hymns to St Stephen

Words and Music: English Traditional
From the Sloane MS. 2593 in the British Museum.

Compare: Seyt steuene was a clerk (Sandys, 1833)
Seynt Stevene was a clerk (Wright, 1856)
Alternate Title: "Saint Stephen and King Herod"

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

1. Saint Stephen was a clerk
In king Herodes hall,
And served him of bread and cloth
As ever king befalle.1

2. Stephen out of kitchen came
With boar's head in hande
He saw a star was fair and bright,
Over Bethlem stonde.

3. He cast adown the boar's head,
And went into the halle;
"I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thy werkes alle.

4. "I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thine werkes alle,
There is a child in Bethlem borne,
Is better than we alle."

5. "What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befalle?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink,
In king Herod's hall?"

6. "Lacketh me neither meat nor drink
In king Herod's hall,
There is a child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all."

7. "What aileth thee, Stephen,
Art thou wode,2 or thou ginnest to brede?3
Lacketh thee either gold or fee,
Or any rich weede?"4

8. "Lacketh me neither gold nor fee,
Nor none rich weede,
There is a child in Bethlem born
Shall help us at our need."

[9. "This is all so sooth [true], Stephen,
All so sooth, I wis [assuredly],
As this capon crow shall
That lyeth here in my dish.]5

10. That word was not so soon said,
That word in the hall,
The capon crew, Christus natus est,
Among the lordes all.

11. Riseth up my tormentors,6
By two, and all by one,
And leadeth Stephen out of town,
And stoneth him with stone.

12. Token they Stephen,
And stoned him in the way,
And therefore is his even,
On Christes owen day.

Notes from Sylvester:

1. Befalle, i.e., happened; as well as ever happened to a king. Return

2. Wode, i.e., mad. Return

3. Brede, i.e., unbraid. Danish, bebreide. In Chaucer the line, --
"For veray wo out of his wit he braide," Return

4. Weede, i.e., dress. Return

5. This verse does not occur in Sylvester, but does occur in Husk and Rickert. See below. Return

6. Executioners. (Note from Husk). Return

Sylvester's Note:

"This carol is of the beginning of the fifteenth century. The legend itself dates back to a much more remote period. The story of the cock was originally applied to other saints, as St. James, St. Peter, or the Virgin. The oldest account, about 1200, is this: Two friends sat down to dinner in Bologna, and one bade the other carve the cock, which he did, so that, as he said, not St. Peter or our Lord himself could put it together again. The cock sprang up, clapped his wings and crowed, scattering the sauce over the two friends, and rendering them lepers till the day of their death. The same miracle is related as having occurred to prove the innocence of persons falsely accused, and is found in the legends of Spain, Brittany, Italy, and Sclavonian countries. How it came to be appropriated to St. Stephen does not appear. The boar's head, in which he brings in, was the established Yuletide disk of the North in old heathen times, as well as afterward.

"I am indebted for the above facts to Dr. Prior's delightful volumes of "Danish Ballads," recently published. That gentleman has given the very curious Danish version of the legend.

"In the carol entitled the 'Carnal and the Crane,' further on, this same legend appears in a more modern dress.

"Very nearly the original words of this old carol are given, as a specimen of the language of the period."

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.

William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868.:

"This carol is contained in a manuscript in the British Museum of the period of Henry VI. Dr. Prior, in his excellent collection of Ancient Danish Ballads, has given a Danish version, in which Stephen is represented not as a clerk or sewer, but a stable boy. Of the legend, which is of much older date than the carol, Dr. Prior thus speaks: "The story of the cock was originally applied to other Saints, as St. James, St. Peter or the Virgin. The oldest account of it is in Vinc. Bellovacensis, from an author who lived about 1200. Two friends sat down to dinner in Bologna, and one bade the other to carve the cock, which he did, so that, as he said, not St. Peter or our Lord Himself could put it together again. The cock sprang up, clapped his wings and crowed, scattering the sauce over the two friends, and rendering them lepers until the day of their death. The same miracle is related as having occurred to prove the innocence of persons falsely accused, and is found in the legends of Spain, Brittany, Italy, and Sclavonian countries. How it came to be appropriated to St. Stephen does not appear." The odd anachronism of making the martyrdom of Stephen occur under Herod will not escape the reader's observation."

Also found in Joseph Ritson, Ancient Songs and Ballads From The Reign of King Henry the Second To The Revolution. 1790. W. Carew Hazlitt, ed., Third Edition. London: Reeves And Turner, 1877. Repr. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968, pp. 121-23.

Ritson also notes that the source is the Sloane MS. No. 2593. In the fourth verse, Ritson gives the first line as "I forsak the, kyng 'Herowde,'" but notes that the manuscript gives "Herowdes." He provides no other notes. In general, Ritson gives older spellings than this version, more in line with the version given by Sandys. See: Seyt steuene was a clerk.

Also found in A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), p. 33, who states that this carol is from the "Sloane MS. 2593. The MS was printed in 1856 by Thomas Wright for the Warton Society." He further notes at page 253-4:

“We learn from Dr. Prior’s 'Ancient Danish Ballads' (I. 395) that the oldest account of the singular legend which is the subject of this carol is in Vinc. Bellovacensis, from an author who lived about 1200. Two friends sat down to dinner in Bologna, and one bade the other to carve the cock, which he did, so that, as he said, not St. Peter or our Lord himself could put it together again. The cock sprang up, clapped his wings and crowed, scattering the sauce over the two friends, and rendering them lepers till the day of their death. The same miracle is related as having occurred to prove the innocence of persons falsely accused, and is found in the legends of Spain Brittany, Italy, and Slavonian countries. How it came to be appropriated to St. Stephen does not appear.'”

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 123, with a date of Fifteenth Century. She adds the following note at pages 155-6:

"The central episode of this very quaint carol (cf. The Carnal and the Crane, p. 91, where the Magi bring the news) was related about 1200 by Vincent of Beauvais, who, however, tells it of two men at a dinner-table, one of whom, carving a fowl, said that he would do it so thoroughly that not Peter nor our Lord Himself could put it together again. Whereupon the cock was feathered and crowed, and both men became lepers.

"A similar idea is illustrated in a print at the head of a carol-sheet published in 1701. It shows the stable at Bethlehem, the animals being represented with Latin inscriptions coming from their mouths as follows: -- The cock: 'Christus natus est.' The raven: 'Quando?' The cow: 'Hac nocte.' The ox: 'Ubi?' The sheep: 'Bethlehem.'"

Note:

Concerning the carol sheet republished in 1701, see: Christus Natus Est – The Broadside. By the way, the broadside was apparently first published by John Stafford, London, in the 1631. The only copy I've seen was reproduced in Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640, by Tessa Watt (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 175. It is said to be held in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

This episode was depicted in a beautiful stained glass window entitled "Nativity,"  created by John Piper, fabricated by David Wasley, and installed in St. Mary's Church, Iffley, Oxfordshire, England, in 1995; see right. And see the notes and photographs in Vitreosity.

animal_wall-painting-shelbrede.jpg (55274 bytes)The scene was painted on a wall in the Prior's apartment in Shelbrede Priory, Sussex in the 1600s. For more information, see the Wikipedia article, Shelbrede Priory, and an article, Shulbrede Priory, by Chris Lea, January 7, 2013, including a number of photographs of the building in its current form. The Shulbrede Wall Painting (see left) is reproduced between pages 14 and 15 in Arthur Ponsonby, The Priory and Manor of Lynchmere and Shulbrede (Taunton: Barnicott and Pearce, the Wessex Press, 1920).

The cock crowing "Christus natus est" also appears in a 1900 masque for children by Florence Converse, a student at Wellesley College, entitled "The Holy Night." It originally appeared in 1900 in The Churchman, and was reprinted in Volume 96 of The Churchman, Nov. 30, 1907, pp. 836-839. It was also reprinted, inter alia, in Robert Haven Schauffler, Christmas: It's Origin, Celebration and Significance (1912), pp. 312-325.

Holy Night-Masque-Churchman-96-1907-836.jpg (138588 bytes) Holy Night-Masque-Churchman-96-1907-837.jpg (158413 bytes) Holy Night-Masque-Churchman-96-1907-838.jpg (165268 bytes)

It was printed in 1922 by the Atlantic Monthly Press, with illustrations and carols. It can be downloaded from the Internet Archive: The Holy Night. Also by Miss Converse is Garments of Praise; A Miracle Cycle (1921).

Also see the Latin hymn Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today!).

A similar miracle of resurrection occurs in the legends of Saint Nicholas:

Three boys were returning home from school for the holidays and had stopped at an inn overnight. The innkeeper, thinking to profit from this, took the boys, killed them, cut up their bodies, and put the parts into pickling casks. The parents of the boys were worried and appealed to Saint Nicholas who searched the road until he came to the inn. When confronted by the Bishop, the innkeeper admitted his sin. With a wave of his sceptre, Nicholas caused the boys to be reassembled and resurrected from the casks.

Regarding the Child Ballads.

See generally Ed de Moel, ed., The Child Ballads.

See:

Concerning the miracle of the Miraculous Harvest, see the notes in King Pharaoh. And see The Miraculous Harvest and The Cherry-Tree Carol - Husk.

Excerpt from Ancient Danish Ballads (1860) concerning St. Stephen and Herod:

The following text concerning St. Stephen and Herod is from R. C. Alexander Prior, Ancient Danish Ballads. Volume 1 of 3. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1860), Part II, Legendary Ballads, Ballad #XL, "St. Stephen, and Herod," pp. 395-400.

XL.

ST. STEPHEN, AND HEROD.

This rather ridiculous legend was taken down by Erik Pontoppidan from the lips of an old beggar woman at the beginning of the last century, as a specimen of the remains of papistry among the Danish people. The old woman was singing it at his door, and upon being asked by him whether she believed it, "God forbid," said she, "that I should doubt it." It had already been alluded to by Syv in 1695.

It exists in a more extended form in the Faroe islands, but without the first five verses. This version improves upon the miracle by representing the cock as having been not only roasted but cut in two.

In English we find it in Ritson's 'Ancient English Songs' page 83. as a 'Carol for St. Stephen's day.' In this English ballad Stephen is represented as a kitchen boy or waiter in the hall, but in Denmark and Sweden as a stable boy. As patron of horses he was acknowledged by all German and Scandinavian races, and in England therefore as well as elsewhere.

The story of the cock was originally applied to other saints as St. James, St. Peter, or the Virgin.

The oldest account of it is in Vinc. Bellovacensis from an author who lived about 1200. Two friends sat down to dinner in Bologna , and one bade the other to carve the cock, which he did, so that, as he said, not St. Peter or our Lord himself could put it together again. The cock sprang up, clapped his wings and crowed, scattering the sauce over the two friends, and rendering them lepers till the day of their death. The same miracle is related as having occurred to prove the innocence of persons falsely accused, and is found in the legends of Spain, Britany, Italy and Sclavonian countries. How it came to be appropriated to St. Stephen does not appear. The boar's head, which he brings in, was the established Yule-tide dish of the North in old heathen times, as well as afterwards. This English ballad is of the beginning of the 15th century, and is much older than any other on the subject.

CAROL FOR SAINT STEPHEN'S DAY.

1 Saint Stephen was a clerk in king Herodes hall,
And served him of bread and cloth, as ever king befalle.

2 Stephen out of kitchen came with boar's head on honde.
He saw a star was fair and bright, over Bethlem stonde.

3 He cast adown the boar's head, and went into the hall;
I forsake thee, king Herodes, and thine werkes all.

4 I forsake thee, king Herodes, and thine werkes all.
There is a child in Bethlem born, is better than we all.

5 What aileth thee, Stephen, what is thee befalle?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink in king Herodes hall?

6 Lacketh me neither meat nor drink in king Herodes hall,
There is a child in Bethlem born, is better than we all.

7 What aileth thee , Stephen, art thou wode? or thou ginnest to brede?
Lacketh thee either gold or fee, or any rich weede?

8 Lacketh me neither gold nor fee, ne none rich weede,
There is a child in Bethlem born, shall help us at our need.

9 That is all so sooth, Stephen, all so sooth, I wiss,
As this capon crow shall, that lyth here in my dish.

10 That word was not so soon said, that word in that hall,
The capon crew: 'Christus natus est' among the lordes all.

11 Riseth up my tormentors, by two, and all by one.
And leadeth Stephen out of town, and stoneth him with stone.

12 Token they Stephen, aud stoned him in the way.
And therefore is his even on Christes owen day.

[Footnotes:]

befalle: happen'd. viz as well as ever happened to a king.

wode: mad.

brede: upbraid. Dan. bebreide. In Chaucer the line 'For veray wo out of his wit he braide' is explained 'he went or ran out of his wits.'

weed: dress.

As to Saint Stephen's connexion with horses — this seems to have originated from the accident that his holiday fell on the day that in old heathen times was dedicated to Freya, in honour of whom horse-races were held, with other amusements, which the people upon the introduction of Christianity were unwilling to forego, and which they transferred to Stephen, when they no longer dared to worship Freya.

It is a curious instance of the tenacity with which nations preserve old customs, that so many centuries after heathen gods and goddesses had been given up and forgotten, people still unwittingly preserved the rites established in honour of them.

The following Danish ballad, as observed by Grundtvig, from whose valuable annotations most of the above has been taken, is a testimony to the old Christian legend of Stephen and Herod, and to the heathen superstition respecting horses at Yule-tide.

St. Stephen and Herod.

Grundtv. II. 525.

1 A virgin pure was risen on earth,
    The rose of womankind,
The fairest maid in all this world.
    For Queen of heaven design'd.

2 Her cheeks were like the roses red.
    Her neck as ermine fair ;
Because so sweet a maid she was.
    Our Lord was she to bear.

3 In glory th' angel Gabriel came,
    To Mary sent was he ;
"'Tis from the Lord of hosts I come,
    "Christ's mother you shall be."

4 Answer the pious Mary made,
    As God put in her mind ;
"His holy will be done: in me
    "His handmaid he shall find."

5 For two score weeks with child she went
    Without or pain or care ;
On Yule-night, by His own high will,
    Her blessed Lord she bare.

6 Saint Stephen saw the star's bright shine.
    As he his horses drave;
"Of truth is now the Prophet born,
    "Who all the world shall save."

7 "On Stephen's tale," King Herod said,
    "No faith will I bestow,
"Unless this roasted cock stand up,
    "And clap his wings and crow."

8 Straight clapp'd his wings the cock, and crow'd,
"Our Lord is born to-night."
From off his throne King Herod fell,
And swoon'd away for fright.

9 Up rose the King and mounted horse,
    To Bethlehem town to ride;
He fain that little child would kill,
    Which all his power defied.

10 But Mary took in arms her babe,
    Joseph his ass's rein ,
And so through Jewish land they rode
    To Egypt's sandy plain.

11 Full fourteen thousand babies small
    The tyrant caused to slay;
Jesus, ere sank the sun to rest,
    Was thirty miles away.

Editor's Note: "Grundtvig" is Nikolaj Frederik Severin (NFS) Grundtvig (8 September 1783 – 2 September 1872), the enormously influential Danish pastor, author, poet, philosopher, teacher, historian and politician. I don't know which of the many volumes Pastor Grundtvig wrote contains this song.

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