The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Ancient English Christmas Carols

Edith Rickert
Chatto & Windus
Table of Contents
Illustrations From Rickert
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I pray you, sirs, both more and less,
Sing these carols in Christemas.

So wrote John Awdlay, the blind and deaf chaplain of Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire, about the year 1426, showing that by this time the custom was well established in England. But indeed praise of “Dan Noël” can be traced back at least two centuries earlier. There is an Anglo-Norman carol, which was perhaps sung in the days of King John, in which Noël, after enjoining upon every man to keep open house and to furnish his neighbour drink “until he nods his head and sleeps by day,” concludes with the old Saxon exchange of healths  "Wesseyl” and “ Drinc-heyl.”1

This carol then suggests the probability that there were Yule songs, at least of the wassail type, among the Anglo-Saxons; and it is almost certain that customs originally pagan, such as the procession of the boar’s head and the holly and ivy contests, would have been accompanied by some kind of song-dance.


The word carol, whatever its origin,2 is clearly associated at first with the idea of choric song. In French it is used regularly, as early as the beginning of the twelfth century, to describe the song—dance of spring and love that was in itself still almost a rite at that time.3 In England the French word carole had been taken over before the beginning of the fourteenth century, and at first was used commonly in the secular sense ; but by some freak in philology it came later to be applied almost entirely to Christmas songs, alike to those of a sacred character, such as in French have always been called noëls,4 and to songs of revelry. Even as late as the seventeenth century, however, we find traces of its primitive significance, as in the title: Clod’s Carol, or a Proper New Jig. But at the same period another title, A Mournful Carol, or an Elegy, &c., shows how loosely the term was used.


The history of carol singing is one phase of the struggle of the Church with the pagan instincts in man. Undoubtedly the feast of Yule5 — the turn of the year at the winter solstice6 is of immemorial antiquity; and it was celebrated with a blending of riot and sacrifice to tribal divinities, such as is still found among barbaric races. Very early the Church issued a series of repressive decrees which indicate somewhat the character of the revels. In 408, stage plays were forbidden on the Lord’s Day and other solemn festivals; in 425, on the Nativity and other Church feasts; in 578, disguisings were condemned on these occasions; in 614 “filthy plays“ were prohibited on the Kalends [first day of the month] of January.

With the era of St Augustine in England, came the policy of substitution in place of prohibition, and so gradually the theory was evolved: if the people must have plays for Christmas, let them be plays of divine mystery and miracle; if they must have songs, let them sing music of the Church.

How far this theory became explicit I do not know; it Was certainly acted upon. The drama grew up within the Church, outgrew its bounds, and by a curious sort of com-promise1 when it reached the streets and market-places, took on much of the sect character that centuries before had led to decrees against it Similarly, the carols that developed out of the Latin festival hymns, after they had grown somewhat away from their models, were presently found in the same manuscripts with songs of purely pagan origin.

The relationship of the early carols to the Latin hymns is unmistakable. They are at first macaronic, like the thirteenth century Main Salutaris,7 the Latin element being gradually reduced to a refrain and at last disappearing. The Latin phrases, which recur frequently, are all common in medieval hymnology. The verse is very often at first modeled upon the form of the hymns, in lines of four and three beats alternately. The sentiments of the early carols differ scarcely at all from those of the hymns. In all probability both were written by clerics, the carols representing an attempt, whether formulated or not, to bring the meaning of Christmas nearer home to the people.

It is to be noted that most of the great carol manuscripts belong to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; indeed, they may almost be said to be included between the reigns of Henry VI. and Henry VIII. There are, however, grounds for believing that some of the poems themselves go back to the days of Henry IV, and Richard IL, possibly even of Edward III. This date would seem to show that carol writing was a part of the great fourteenth-century movement of the middle classes in England, of the stir towards, democracy, of the conquest of the people’s English over the Latin of the clergy, over the French of the court.

In this connection it is interesting to point out certain coincidences in theme and treatment which suggest that the carols and the mystery plays are but two phases of the same tendency towards the popularisation of religion. Not only were carols sung on the stage, as in the Second Shepherds’ Play (Towneley Plays) and the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors (Coventry Plays), but the carols as a class are strongly dramatic, especially the Annunciation and Shepherd Carols and the lullabies; the last two groups indeed, in their realistic details and homely treatment, are strongly suggestive of scenes in the religious drama, to which they may owe their inspiration.

Left: Frontispiece from the 1914 Edition.


These are found almost entirely as collections, in less than a dozen great manuscripts which represent alike the taste of the Court, the clergy, and the citizens. While the practice of carol-making undoubtedly arose among clerics, it soon spread widely among all classes of people, as is shown by the range of themes and treatment. Even the kings of this period fostered music Henry VI, had a court musician famous over Europe, John Dunstable, who wrote carols;8 Edward IV, was a great lover of pageantry; Henry Vii. was a patron of musicians, and Henry VIII. himself was versed in song-making9 and had a chapel full of composers, sonic of whom at least were probably their own poets.

Some day we may he able to identify to a much larger extent than at present the work of these court singers. Although names are often attached to the songs, we cannot be certain whether the attribution is for the words as well as for the music. When in 1504 William Cornish was paid for "setting of" a carol at Christmas, it would seem that he furnished the music only, although he is known to have been something of a writer. When two names are attached to one short lyric, as often happens in the case of Richard Smart (Smert) and John Truelove (Trouluffe), we know that they collaborated but cannot tell the share of each. And again, while we have a long list of names of composers 10 during the early part of the reign of Henry VIII, we can never be sure, in an age when authorship was rarely looked upon as a private right, how often the work is original and how often merely the setting, or possibly the adaptation of an old song, to music. For example, John Gwynneth, who is given credit for the Easter carol beginning, “ And I mankind,” was evidently adapting an old love-song, the refrain of which, “My love that mourneth for me,” he retained. On the other hand, the composer Pygott, whose name is signed to the highly original song, “Quid petis, O Fili?“11 in all probability wrote the words as well. The author of so unusual a poem, even in those days, would scarcely have been overlooked.

Aside from the court carols there are many of a more strictly ecclesiastical stamp, showing all degrees of poetic ability. They agree in a general tendency to interpret the great event in its relation to the soul of man; hence they often include a brief outline of the life of Christ and the Crucifixion. Some few are strongly mystical in character. The best are rather elaborate in structure and artificial in treatment, even extravagant, as, for example, “A blessed bird, as I you say.” 12 The worst carols of this class are scarcely distinguishable from those of popular origin.

The usual mark of the carol made among the people and sung by them is its recurrence in several slightly different versions. Sometimes stanzas are added or omitted or displaced ; sometimes the sense is confused by forgetfulness or misunderstanding or mishearing ; sometimes whole lines groups of lines are lost except their rhyme-schemes, are then filled out, either to the same general art, or with quite a different meaning.

All these changes are due to oral transmission extending over a considerable period of time. It is probable that some of the carols were gradually altered out of all resemblance to their original form; for instance, “Joseph was an Old Man,” which in its present state cannot be older than the seventeenth century, is based upon a legend that was familiar in the fourteenth, and in the fifteenth was sung in a carol very similar in substance but totally different in structure and warding from the later version.13 Again, the story of the eighteenth-century “Cherry-Tree Carol,”14 is to be found in a fifteenth-century mystery play; while the fifteenth-century “The Falcon hath Borne my Make Away” has survived until to-day in a form singularly altered but quite recognisable.15

In content these popular carols are for the most part religious; but they are more concerned with the story of the Nativity than with any subtleties of interpretation. Comparatively few of a secular type were written or have survived. These have to do with the immemorial customs of the revels in the hall, and include further a few wassail and drinking songs. Sometimes even in these the religious element was dragged in in a curious fashion, as when the boar was used as a symbol for Christ, or “Bring us in Good Ale,” was sung to the tune of an Annunciation carol.


The Reformation removed several of the chief sources of inspiration of the older carol-writers. It was no longer possible to sing “Regina celi, letare,” or to turn rapturous love-songs, such as “ Who shall have my Fair Lady?“ or “True Love, you do me Right,” to worship of the Virgin; or to glorify the Divine Motherhood with lullabies, unless these were understood to be spiritual Balulalows. There could be no more carols for saints’ days, and even the Nativity itself had to be viewed less from a dramatic standpoint and more as a scheme of salvation. The religious elements were, so to speak, strained out from the popular accretions with which they had been mingled, consequently reduced as well as purified.

On the other hand, more stress than ever was laid on the old customs of Christmas mirth, and carols on this theme become increasingly numerous during the seventeenth century. Ben Jonson in “Christmas, His Masque,” presented at court in 1616, introduces a thoroughly secular “ Carol, in a long tawny coat, with a red cap and a flute at his girdle, his torch-bearer carrying a song-book open; and Wassail, like a neat sempster and songster, her page bearing a brown bowl dressed with ribands and rosemary before her.” Again, Nicholas Breton in his Fantasticks in 1626 gives a picture of Christmas revels in which the Christian element has become pretty well an appendix : “It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol ; the beasts, fowl and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry; cards Ld dice purge many a purse, and the youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare; now good cheer and welcome, and God be with you—and against the New Year provide for the presents—the Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no wine; the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy, stolen venison is sweet, and a fat coney is worth money, pitfalls are now set for small birds, and a woodcock hangs himself in a gin, a good fire heats all the house, and a full alms-basket makes the beggar’s prayers: the maskers and the mummers make the merry sport, but if they lose their money their drum goes dead; swearers and swaggerers are sent away to the alehouse, and unruly wenches go in danger of judgment; musicians now make their instruments speak out, and a good song is worth the hearing. In sum, it is holy time, a duty in Christians in remembrance of Christ and customs among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship. In brief, I thus conclude it: I hold it a memory of the Heaven’s love and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly. Farewell.”

This is the aspect of Christmas voiced chiefly in the popular carols of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it finds expression also in the work of the poets Herrick and Wither, and continues until the gradual spread of Puritanism left Christmas stripped and shorn of its old customs, consequently of the songs in which these were perpetuated.

As the stream of religion by the Reformation was turned into half-a-dozen channels, so Christmas lyrics came to be a personal matter in which each writer expressed his own attitude and experience. The earlier Calvinists were represented by Coverdale and the Wedderburns; the Roman Catholics by Southwell and Crashaw; the orthodox Churchmen by Bishop Hall, Giles Fletcher, Herbert, and Jeremy Taylor, and from the lay point of view, by Ben Jonson, Drummond of Hawthornden, Francis Quarles, and others.

It is interesting to note that the story of the shepherds, doubtless because of the fashion for pastorals at that time, was the aspect of the Nativity most often treated.

These compositions of Elizabethan and early Stuart days include very few real carols. Sometimes they keep so rigidly within the bounds of ecclesiastical matter that they are hymns. More often they are so elaborate in form and metaphysical in tone that they could never have been in-tended to be sung.

There is no doubt that Puritanism is to blame for the extinction of the practice of carol—singing, both in that it discouraged the excesses of Christmas revelry and in that it
but scant use of music as a means of religious experience. I doubt whether any good carols, either religious or secular, originated between the end of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth.

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is true, were the great days of broadsheet publication, in which much old traditional matter was preserved, but the new carols produced during this period are scarcely worth preservation.

Within the last fifty years various attempts have been to write carols in the medieval manner; and as crate imitations of old forms from which the living inspiration has nearly vanished, some of these are very good.


The oldest known printed carols consist of two leaves of a collection issued by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. The title New Christmas Carols suggests that earlier editions had preceded this. A unique little black song-book in the British Museum, dated 1530,16 contains several carols; while another set of Christmas Carols, Newly Imprinted, issued by Richard Kele, between 1546 and 1552, now known only by extracts in Bliss’s Bibliographical Miscellanies in 1813, is the source of several others. During the second half of the sixteenth century many other collections were made, since lost and known only by name. The Wedderburns’ Compendious Book of Godly Songs and Ballads, in several editions, of which the first is as old as 1567, perhaps older, and several books by the musician, William Byrd, contain a few carols.

From the seventeenth century (1642, 1661, 1682 and undated) there are several collections of popular carols; and others were printed from time to time in Poor Robin’s Almanac.

But the oldest carols continued to exist in manuscript until Ritson,17 Wright,18 and Sandys19 did pioneer work in printing and collecting them, the process being continued by Fehr,20 Flugel,21 Bullen,22 Chambers and Sidgwick,23 and Dyboski24; and from a musical standpoint first by J. Stafford Smith,25 afterwards by Nicholson and Stainer,26 and Fuller-Maitland [English Carols of the Fifteenth] and Rockstro.27 I have mentioned only the most important works, fuller bibliographies being given in the volume of Chambers and Sidgwick, and in the Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. ii. Information in regard to the manuscripts, published and unpublished, is to be found in Hughes Hughes' Catalogue of Early English Music (Sacred).


In the present edition I have attempted to classify the carols according to their subject-matter; and within the various groups to arrange them, as far as may be, chronologically, except where it seemed advisable to show some special relationship. To the left of each carol I have put the date of its first appearance in manuscript or in print, or, failing that, the nearest approximation possible to the date of the oldest manuscript, or the time when the author flourished.

While the collection is far from complete, owing to limitations of space, I have endeavoured to include (1) all the best, and (2) all the most characteristic and representative specimens of this form of writing. The second group necessarily contains some of inferior poetic quality.

My original plan was to allow equal space to sacred carols and to secular; but the former so greatly outnumber the latter as to run into nearly half of the second part. Accordingly I have divided the sacred carols into two groups

I. Carols of the Nativity.

II. Carols of the Divine Mystery.

The distinction, which is perhaps not very well expressed titles, is between the carols which emphasize the Nativity as an historical and dramatic event, and those that dwell upon the meaning of the Incarnation. The two groups approach each other so that there might be difference of opinion as to how a few carols should be classified; but as it was necessary to make some sort of division, and a great many carols show a strong theological element, this arrangement seemed to be the most satisfactory.

The Nativity Carols are subdivided into seven groups

I. Carols of the Virgin : Virgo Rosa Virginum.

II. Carols of the Annunciation: Ecce Ancilla Domini.

III. Carols of the Nativity: In Die Nativitatis.

IV. Carols of the Childhood of Jesus: O Jesu Parvule.

V. Carols of the Shepherds: Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

VI. Carols of the Three Kings: Reges de Saba Venient.

VII. Carols of the Christmas Saints: Nunc Gaudet Ecclesia.

I have added also in Appendix I a few examples of Latin Christmas hymns and of Anglo-Norman and French carols; and in Appendix II., specimens of carols not related in subject-matter to Christmas.

In dealing with the individual texts, I have tried to preserve as far as possible the effect of the original; and to this end have allowed quaint, obsolete, and even ungrammatical expressions to stand, when they did not obscure the meaning, or could easily be explained in a footnote. With the metre I have tampered as little as possible, wishing to show the range of skill in different authors from barbaric roughness to exquisite melody.

In the case of French and Latin phrases I have retained the old forms, correcting obvious errors. They afford no difficulty to readers of these languages, and heighten the quaintness of the effect. A glossary, however, of these phrases is given at the end of Part III. My original plan of translating these in the footnotes was abandoned because of the numerous repetitions of familiar Church phrases.

A special difficulty arose in the case of carols that exist in several versions. As exact texts were out of the question here, both because of the exigencies of translation, and because their establishment would have required constant return from the printed editions to the manuscripts, and frequent repetitions of parallel versions, the best plan seemed to be to use the different forms of one poem to elucidate a corrupt or an obscure passage, and otherwise to choose what seemed the most interesting text and give only important variants in the footnotes. Sometimes choice was almost impossible among several versions identical in thought and differing only in a multitude of details.

Carols of the Divine Mystery are subdivided into the very large group in which the event of the Nativity is subordinated to the meaning of the Incarnation, Mirabile Misterium, and into a small group, In Dulci lubilo, in which the spiritual joy of Christmas is sung, as over against the riotous mirth handed down as customary from the days of pagan Yule.

In Part III. I have included Carols of Yuletide Festivity, subdividing them into four groups that represent four acts of Christmas celebrations

I. Carols of Welcome and Christmas Cheer: Proface.

II. Carols of Health-drinking: Wassail.

III. Carols of the Boar’s Head: Caput Apri Defero.

IV. Carols of Holly and Ivy: Veni Coronaberis.

Appendix I contains Christmas poems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which can scarcely be called carols and Appendix II., a few modern carols in imitation of the medieval manner.


In literary value the carols range from gems of religious inspiration to jogging tavern ditties. In some subjects they are over-bound to the Biblical material; in others they show vivid imagination and tender feeling. As a class the lullabies are the most beautiful, being as exquisite in form as in essence; and next to these, perhaps, come the carols of Mary. Out of something like two hundred anonymous carols there are very few that lack some beauty or quaintness or charm ; and there are perhaps twenty or more that may be counted among those best songs that spring perfect out of the hearts of men.


1. The carol is printed on p. 132. [Seignors Ore Entendez À Nus] Return

2. French carole, according to Diez from Romance corolar or coreiar = choreas ducere; Jeanroy, from Greek choraulein = to accompany with a flute; Faidit, Latin corolla = little ring. Return

3. Aucassin and Nicolete (§ 33, I, 7), for example. Return

4. From Latin nātālem = birthday. Return

5. The origin of the word Yule is uncertain. It has been derived from various roots, including the Germanic jehwela= Latin ioculus= mirth; or the Germanic jeula = snow-storm. Return

6. In the Saxon Chronicle, as late as 1154, Christmas is called “mid-wintermas.”  Return

7. P.3. [Saint Mary, Mother Mild] Return

8. A fine manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge (O.3. 58) is believed to contain thirteen carols of his composition. It was published by Fuller-Maitland and Rockstro, under the title English Carols of the Fifteenth Century, 1891. Return

9. MS. 31,922 in the British Museum, which contains various compositions by Henry VIII, has his name on the flyleaf, and is believed to have belonged to him. Return

10. William and John Cornish, Banister, Sturges, Newark, Davy, Sheringham, Fairfax, Mower, Peter, Hawte, Pakke, and others. Return

11. P. 63. ["Quid Petis, O Fili?"; So Laughing In Lap Laid] Return

12. P. 186. It is perhaps better classified as an Easter carol. [A blessed bird, as I you say] Return

13. Cf. pp. 24—25, below. [Marvel Not, Joseph, On Mary Mild and Joseph Being An Aged Man] Return

14. Cf. p. 88, and note on p. 153. [The Cherry Tree Carol - Rickert] Return

15. Cf. pp. 193, 194. [Over Yonder's A Park and Remember, O Thou Man] Return

16. Catalogued as Bassus, K. i.e. I. Return

17. Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1790; ed. Hazlitt, 5877. Return

18. Percy Society publications, vols. iv. and lxxiii. [Specimens of Old Christmas Carols, 1841; Songs and Carols, 1847]; Warton Club, vol. iv. Return

19. Percy Society publications, vol. iv.; Christmas Carols, 1833; Christmas-tide, 1852. Return

20. Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen and Literaturen, cvi., cvii., cix. Return

21. Anglia, xii., xxvi.; Neuenglishes Lesebuch, 1895. Return

22. A Christmas Garland, 1885. Return

23. Early English Lyrics, 1907. Return

24.  Early English Text Society, Extra Series, CI. Return

25. Old English Songs, 1780. Return

26. Early Bodleian Music. [See also Christmas Carols, Old and New] Return

27. English Carols of the Fifteenth Century, 1895. Return

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