Behind the Christmas Carol: The Coventry Carol

The Coventry Carol is an English Christmas Carol that dates back to the 16th century.

The carol was traditionally performed in Coventry as part of the mystery play The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors in England.  The play depicts the Christmas story found in the

Herod was jealous and sent his soldiers out

Gospel of Matthew.

“The carol is the second of three songs included in the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a nativity play that was one of the Coventry Mystery Plays, originally performed by the city’s guilds.”

The Coventry Carol laments the loss of the infants slaughtered in Herod’s massacre of the innocents.  “Within the pageant, the carol is sung by three women of Bethlehem, who enter on stage with their children immediately after Joseph is warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.”

The Coventry guilded pageants are first referenced from 1392 and on.

The oldest known text of the song was written down by Robert Croo in 1534.  “Croo seems to have worked by adapting and editing older material, while adding his own rather ponderous and undistinguished verse.”

An angel told Joseph to take his family and flee

The oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591.

The play was suppressed during the late 16th Century due to religious changes, as the throne changed between the children of King Henry VIII and the nation dealt with the birth of the Church of England and breaking away from the Catholic Church.  “Croo’s prompt-book, including the songs, survived and a transcription was eventually published by the Coventry antiquarian Thomas Sharp in 1817 as part of his detailed study of the city’s mystery plays.”

“Sharp published a second edition in 1825 which included the songs’ music. Both printings

Mothers mourned the massacre of their sons

were intended to be a facsimile of Croo’s manuscript, copying both the orthography and layout; this proved fortunate as Croo’s original manuscript, which had passed into the collection of the Birmingham Free Library, was destroyed in a fire there in 1879. Sharp’s transcriptions are therefore the only source; Sharp had a reputation as a careful scholar, and his copying of the text of the women’s carol appears to be accurate.”

The Coventry Carol is just a small portion of the Mystery Plays that have lasted through centuries of turmoil and upheaval and change.


The Coventry Carol began as part of the 16th Century Mystery Plays #hymnstory #Christmascarol Click To Tweet


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