The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Once In Royal David's City

Words: Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, Hymns for Little Children, 1848.
Link opens in a new window at an external site, the excellent Cyberhymnal

Music: "Irby," Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876), 1849
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Meter: 87 87 77

1. Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

2. He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

3. And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

4. For he is our childhood's pattern;1
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

5. And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

6. Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned2
All in white shall wait around.

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1. Or: Jesus is our childhood's pattern; Return

2. Or: When like stars His children crown'd, Return

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Sheet music from A. B. Goodrich, ed., A New Service And Tune Book For Sunday Schools (New York: Gen. Prot. Episc. S. S. Union and Church Book Society, 1863, New Edition, Enlarged, 1866), #70, p. 75.

Sheet Music By Katie Smith From Two Christmas Carols, Words By Samuel C. Upham, Music By Adam Geibel and Katie Smith, 1876
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Source: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.
(American Memory, Performing Arts-Music)

Sheet Music "Irby" by H. J. Gauntlett from Mary Palmer and John Farmer, eds., Church Sunday School Hymn-Book (London: Church of England Sunday-School Institute, 1892), #47.

Sheet Music from Rev. Richard R. Chope, Carols For Use In Church (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1894), Carol #58
Melody Line: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

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Sheet Music from Henry Sloane Coffin and Ambrose White Vernon, eds., Hymns of the Kingdom of God. New York: The A. S. Barnes Company, 1910, #470.

Sheet Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #576
SATB: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

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

Cecil Frances Alexander took her position as an Anglican bishop’s wife very seriously. She accompanied her husband throughout his Ireland travels, scolding the wicked and praising the good, and most of all working with the youngsters, for whom she wrote a number of little poems and hymns. Her most famous collection was published in 1848 – Hymns for Little Children – and it was here that "Once in Royal David’s City" first appeared. A year later, H. J. Gauntlett discovered Mrs. Alexander’s poem and set it to music. The city, of course, is Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and of His ancestor King David.

Editor's Note:

As we all know, Mary and Joseph were there to be counted in the census, which, as in our day, determined the tax distribution and burden of many communities, and was a real hardship for the poor who had to travel across Israel.

William C. Egan, The History of Carols

Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander published this in a collection of her hymns in 1848. The wife of the primate of Ireland, she wrote many hymns to help explain the Gospel messages. Composer Henry Gauntlett, who wrote more than ten thousand hymns, provided the melody. Best recording: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Editor's Note:

Since 1918, this carol has had the distinction of being played as the processional hymn during the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge, and is one of only two carols or hymns which had the distinction of being played annually (the other is Hark The Herald Angels Sing). Erik Routley writes that the remarkable harmonization of the version played at King's was by their organist in 1919, Dr. Arthur Henry Mann, "with subtle art that arrangement turns the homely children's hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness." See: Erik Routley, The English Carol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 231. See generally: Carol Services and Carols and Hymns from the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols.

According to Julian, this hymn is based on the words of the Creed, "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary." See: John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892, 1907, p. 869.

Mrs. Alexander was the author of numerous other hymns — the Cyberhymnal indicates more than 400! — including "All Things Bright and Beautiful" (Hymns for Little Children,1848). For more information about Mrs. Alexander, see: Cecil Frances Alexander (,CF/life.htm; accessed March 25, 2007.

A 250-year-old Irish Christmas carol tradition continues in parts of rural Ireland. In County Wexford, there is a long tradition of singing the carols of Christmas Carols of Bishop Luke Waddinge and Rev. William Devereux in the town church during the twelve days of Christmas.

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