The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Green Sleeves

Source: William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 227-233.

Green Sleeves, or Which nobody can deny, has been a favorite tune, from the time of Elizabeth to the present day; and is still frequently to be heard in the streets of London to songs with the old burden, “Which nobody can deny.” It Will also be recognised as the air of Christmas comes but once a year, and many mother merry ditty.

“And set our credits to the tune of Greene Sleeves.”—The Loyal Subject, by Beaumont and Fletcher.

Falstaff.— "Let the sky rain potatoes! let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves, hail kissing comfits, and snow eringoes, let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.” (Embracing her.) — Merry Wives of Windsor, act v., sc. 5.

Mrs. Ford.— "I shall think the worse of fat men, as long as I have an eye to make difference of men’s liking. And yet he would not swear; praised women’s modesty; and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness, that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words: but they do no more adhere and keep pace together, than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Green Sleeves.”— Merry Wives of Windsor, act ii., sc. 1.

The earliest mention of the ballad of Green Sleeves in the Registers of the Stationers’ Company is in September, 1580, when Richard Jones had licensed to him, “A new Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves.” The date of the entry, however, is not always the date of the ballad; and this had evidently attained some popularity before that time, because on the same day Edward White had a license to print, “A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves Answere to Donkyn his frende.” Also Edward Guilpin in his Skialethia, or a Shadow of Truth, 1598, says:

“Yet like th’ olde ballad of the Lord of Lorne,
Whose last line1 in King Harries days was borne.”

As the ballad of The Lord of Lorne and the False Steward, which was entered on the 6th October, 1580, was sung to the tune of Green Sleeves, it would appear that Green Sleeves must be a tune of Henry’s reign. Copies of The Lord of Lorne are in the Pepys Collection (i. 494), and the Roxburghe (i. 222).

Within twelve days of the first entry of Green Sleeves it was converted to a pious use, and we have, “Greene Sleves moralised to the Scripture, declaring the manifold benefites and blessings of God bestowed on sinful man;” and on the fifteenth day Edward White had “tollerated unto him by Mr. Watkins, a ballad intituled Greene Sleeves and Countenance, in Countenance is Greene Sleeves.” By the expression “tolerated” instead of “licensed,” we may infer it to have been of questionable propriety.

Great, therefore, was the popularity of the ballad immediately after its publication, and this may be attributed rather to the merry swing of the tune, than to the words, which are neither remarkable for novelty of subject, nor for its treatment.

An attempt was speedily made to improve upon them, or to supply others of more attractive character, for in December of the same year, Jones, the original publisher, had “tolerated to him A merry newe Northern Songe of Greene Sleeves,” beginning, The bonniest lass in all the land. This was probably the ballad that excited William Elderton to write his “Reprehension against Greene Sleeves” in the following February, for there appears nothing in the original song to have caused it. The seventh entry within the year was on the 24th of August, 1581, when Edward White had licensed “a ballad intituled—

“Greene Sleeves is worne awaie,
Yellow Sleeves come to decaie.
Blacke Sleeves I holde in despite,
But White Sleeves is my delight.”

Nashe, speaking of Barnes’ Divine Centurie of Sonets, says they are “such another device as the goodly ballet of John Careless, or the song of Green Sleeves Moralized.” Fletcher says, “And, by my Lady Greensleeves, am I grown so tame after all my triumphs?” and Dr. Rainoldes, in his Overthrow of Stage Plays, 1599, says, “Now if this were lawfully done because he did it, then William, Bishop of Ely, who, to save his honour and wealth, became a Green Sleeves, going in women’s raiment from Dover Castle to the sea-side, did therein like a man ; — although the women of Dover, when they found it out, by plucking down his muffler and seeing his new shaven beard, called him a monster for it.”

In Mr. Payne Collier’s Collection, and in that of the Society of Antiquaries, are copies of “A Warning to false Traitors, by example of fourteen; whereof six were executed in divers places neere about London, and two near Braintford, the 28th day of August, 1588; also at Tyborne were executed the 30th day six; viz., five men and one woman: to the tune of Green Sleeves,” beginning—

“You traitors all that do devise
To hurt our Queen in treacherous wise,
And in your hearts do still surmise
    Which way to hurt our England;
Consider what the end will be
Of traitors all in their degree:
Hanging is still their destiny
    That trouble the peace of England.”

The conspirators were treated with very little consideration by the ballad-monger in having their exit chaunted to a merry tune, instead of the usual lamentation, to the hanging-tune of Fortune my foe.

Elderton’s ballad, The King of Scots and Andrew Brown, was to be sung to the tune of Mill-field, or else to Green Sleeves (see p. 185), but the measure suits the former and not the latter. However, his “New Yorkshire Song, intituled—

“Yorke, Yorke, for my monie,
Of all the cities that ever I see,
For merry pastime and companie,
    Except the cittie of London;”

which is dated “from Yorke, by W. E., and imprinted at London by Richard Jones,” in 1584, goes so trippingly to Green Sleeves, that, although no tune is mentioned on the title, I feel but little doubt of its having been intended for that air. It was written during the height of its popularity, and not long after his own “Reprehension.”

The song of York for my money is on a match at archery between the Yorkshire and the Cumberland men, backed by the Earls of Essex and Cumberland, which Elderton went to see, and was delighted with the city and with his reception; especially by the hospitality of Alderman Maitby of York.

Copies will be found in the Roxburghe Collection, i. 1, and Evans’ Old Ballads, i. 20,. It begins, “As I come thorow the North countrey,” and is refered to in Heywood’s King Edward IV., 1600.

In Mr. Payne Collier’s Old Ballads, printed for the Percy Society, there is one Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury Fort (written shortly anterior to the destruction of the Spanish Armada) to the tune of Triumph and Joy. The name of the air is probably derived from a ballad which was entered on the Stationers’ books in 1581, of “ The Triumpe shewed before the Queene and the French Embassadors,” who preceded the arrival of the Duke of Anjon, and for whose entertainment jousts and triumphs were held. The tune for this ballad is not named in the entry at Stationers’ Hall, but if a copy should be found, I imagine it will prove also to have been written to Green Sleeves, from the metre, and the date coinciding with the period of its great popularity.

Richard Jones, to whom Green Sleeves was first licensed, was also the printer of A Handefull of Pleasant Delites, 1584, in which a copy of the ballad will be found. Also in Ellis’ Specimens, ii. 394, (1803). A few verses are subjoined, as affording an insight into the dress and manners of an age with which we cannot be too well acquainted.

The tune is contained in several of Dowland’s lute manuscripts; in William Ballet’s Lute Book; in Sir John Hawkins’ transcripts of virginal music; in The Dancing Master; The Beggar’s Opera; and in many other books.

As the second part differs in the oldest copies, from others of later date, both versions are subjoined.

The first is from William Ballet’s Lute Book compared with another in Sir John Hawkins’ transcripts of virginal music; both having the older second part.

I have been ready at your hand
    To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both waged life and land,
    Your love and good-will for to have.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

I bought thee kerchers to thy head,
    That were wrought fine and gallantly,
I kept thee booth at board and bed,
    Which cost my purse well favoredly.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

I bought thee petticoats of the best,
    The cloth so fine as might be;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
    And all this cost I spent on thee.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

Thy smock of silk, both fair and white,
    With gold embroidered gargeously;
Thy petticoat of sendal right, [thin silk]
    And these I bought thee gladly.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

He then describes her girdle of gold, her purse, the crimson stockings all of silk, pumps as white as milk, the gown of grassy green, the satin sleeves, the gold-fringed garters; all of which he gave her, together with his gayest gelding, and his men decked all in green to wait upon her:

They set thee up, they took thee down,
    They serv’d thee with humility;
Thy foot might not once touch the ground,
    And yet thou wouldst not love me.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

She could desire no earthly thing without being gratified:

Well I will pray to God on high,
    That thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die
    Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

Greensleeves, now farewell! adieu!
    God I pray to prosper thee!
For I am still thy lover true,
    Come once again and love me.
        Greensleeves was all my joy, &c.

At the Revolution Green Sleeves became one of the party tunes of the Cavaliers; and in the “Collection of Loyal Songs written against the Rump Parliament,” there are no less than fourteen to be sung to it. It is sometimes referred to under name of The Blacksmith, from a song (in the Roxburghe Collection, i. 250) to the tune of Green Sleeves, beginning—

“ Of all the trades that ever I see
There is none with the blacksmith’s compared may be,
For with so many several tools works he,
Which nobody can deny.”

Pepys, in his diary, 22nd April, 1660, says that, after playing at nine-pins, "my lord fell to singing a song upon the Rump, to the tune of The Blacksmith.”

It was also called The Brewer, or Old Noll, the Brewer of Huntingdon, from a satirical song about Oliver Cromwell, which is to be found in The Antidote to Melancholy, 1661, entitled “The Brewer, a ballad made in the year 1657, to the tune of The Blacksmith;” also in Wit and Drollery, Jovial Poems, 1661.

In The Dancing Master, 1686, the tune first appears under the name of Green Sleeves and Pudding Pies; and in some of the latest editions it is called Green Sleeves and Yellow Lace. Percy says, “It is a received tradition in Scotland that Green Sleeves and Pudding Pies was designed to ridicule the Popish clergy,” but the tradition most probably refers to a song of James the Second’s time called At Rome there is a terrible rout, [Footnote 2] which was sung to the tune, and attained some popularity, since in the ballad-opera of Silvia, or The Country Burial, 1731, it appears under that name. Boswell, in his Journal, 8vo., 785, p. 319, prints following Jacobite song:—

“Green Sleeves and Pudding Pies,
Tell me where my mistress lies,
And I’ll be with her before she rise, 
    Fiddle and aw together.

May our affairs abroad succeed,
And may our King come home with speed
And all Pretenders shake for speed,
    And let his health go round.

To all our injured friends in need,
This side and beyond the Tweed,
Let all Pretenders shake for dread,
    And let his health go round.”

There is no apparent connection between the subject of the first and that of the remaining stanzas; and although the first may have been the burden of an older song, it bears no indication of having refered to the clergy of any denomination.

There is scarcely a collection of old English songs in which at least one may not be found to the tune of Green Sleeves. In the West of England it is still sung at harvest-homes to a song beginning, “A pie sat on a pear-tree top;” and at the Maypole still remaining at Ansty, near Blandford, the villagers still dance annually round it to this tune.

The following “Carol for New Year’s Day, to the tune of Green Sleeves,” is from a black-letter collection printed in 1642, of which the only copy I have seen is in the Ashmolean Library, Oxford.

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered;
Then let us now our sins down tread,
    And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this holiday,
And let us run with sport and play,
Hang sorrow, let’s cast care away—
    God send you a happy new year.

And now with new year’s gifts each friend
Unto each other they do send;
God grant we may our lives amend,
    And that the truth may appear.
Now like the snake east off your skin
Of evil thoughts and wicked sin
And to amend this new year begin—
    God send us a merry new year.

And now let all the company
In friendly manner all agree,
For we are here welcome all may see
    Unto this jolly good cheer.
I thank my master and my dame,
The which are founders of the same,
To eat to drink now is no shame—
    God send us a merry new year.

Come lads and lasses every one,
Jack, Tom, Dick, Bess, Mary, and Joan,
Let’s cut the meat unto the bone,
    For welcome you need not fear.
And here for good liquor we shall not lack,
It will whet my brains and strengthen my back,
This jolly good cheer it must go to wrack—
    God send us a merry new year.

Come, give us more liquor when I do call,
I’ll drink to each one in this hall,
I hope that so loud I must not-bawl,
    But unto me lend an ear.
Good fortune to my master send,
And to my dame which is our friend,
God bless us all, and so I end—
    And God send us a happy new year.

The following version of the tune, from The Beggars’ Opera, 1728, is that now best known. I have not found any lute or virginal copy which had this second part. The earliest authority for it is The Dancing Master, 1686, and it may have been altered to suit the violin, as the older second part is rather low, and less effective, for the instrument.

I have selected a few lines from a political song called The Trimmer, to print with this copy, because it has the burden," Which nobody can deny." It is one of the many songs to the tune in Pills to purge Melancholy.

Notes from Chappell:

1. The last line of the Lord of Lorne are—

“Let Rebels therefore warned be,
How mischief once they do pretend;
For God may suffer for a time.
But will disclose it at the end.”

Perhaps Gullpin may mean that ibis formed part of an older balled.  Return

2. This is entitled “Father Peters’ Policy discovered or the Prince of Wales proved a Popish Perkin.” London: printed for R. M., ten stanzas, of which the following is the first :—

“In Rome there is a most fearful rout
And what do you think it is about ?
Because the birth of the babe’s come out,
    Sing Lullaby Baby, by, by, by,” Return

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.