Cecil Frances Alexander

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Cecil Frances Alexander
Cecil F Alexander.PNG
Undated photograph of Alexander
Cecil Frances Humphreys

April 1818
Died12 October 1895 (aged 77)
Occupation(s)Hymnwriter, poet
Notable workHymns for Little Children

Cecil Frances Alexander (April 1818 – 12 October 1895)[1] was an Anglo-Irish hymnwriter and poet. Amongst other works, she wrote "All Things Bright and Beautiful", "There is a green hill far away" and the Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City".


Milltown House, Strabane (later Strabane Grammar School)

Alexander was born at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin, the third child and second daughter of Major John Humphreys of Norfolk (land-agent to 4th Earl of Wicklow and later to the second Marquess of Abercorn), and his wife Elizabeth (née Reed).[2] She began writing verse in her childhood, being strongly influenced by Dr Walter Hook, Dean of Chichester. Her subsequent religious work was strongly influenced by her contacts with the Oxford Movement, and in particular with John Keble, who edited Hymns for Little Children, one of her anthologies. By the 1840s she was already known as a hymn writer and her compositions were soon included in Church of Ireland hymnbooks. She also contributed lyric poems, narrative poems, and translations of French poetry to Dublin University Magazine under various pseudonyms.[3][a]

In 1833, Alexander went to live at Milltown House in Strabane.[4][5] While living there, she published a number of Christian books: Verses for Holy Seasons (1846), The Lord of the Forest and His Vassals (1847) – a children's allegory – and Hymns for Little Children (1848). By the close of the 19th century, Hymns for Little Children reached its 69th edition. Some of her hymns, such as "All Things Bright and Beautiful", "There is a green hill far away" [b] and the Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City", are known by Christians the world over, as is her rendering of "Saint Patrick's Breastplate".[6]

The former Bishop's Palace in Derry

In Strabane in October 1850 she married the Anglican clergyman William Alexander, afterwards Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh. Her husband also wrote several books of poetry, of which the best known is St. Augustine's Holiday and other Poems. She was six years older than the clergyman, causing great family concern.[3] Her daughter, Eleanor Jane Alexander, was also a poet.

Alexander was involved in charitable work for much of her life. Money from her first publications had helped build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which was founded in Strabane in 1846. The profits from Hymns for Little Children were also donated to the school. She was involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women, and worked to develop a district nurses service. She was an "indefatigable visitor to poor and sick".[3] She was criticised, however, for her endorsement of the class system, as expressed, for example, in the original third verse of "All Things Bright and Beautiful":

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Usually this verse is omitted from performances of the hymn,[7][8][9] and was omitted from The English Hymnal (1906) and the revised edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1950).

Seven hymns penned by Alexander were included in the 1873 issue of the Church of Ireland Hymnal, and eighteen of her works were contained in A Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern (1889). They continue to be well-accepted, as nine of her works were contained in both the 1960 and the 1987 editions of the Hymnal. A posthumous collection of her poems was published in 1896 by William Alexander, titled Poems of the late Mrs Alexander.

Death and legacy[edit]

Stained glass window in memory of Cecil Frances Alexander, in St Columb's Cathedral, Derry, Northern Ireland.
Blue plaque on the former Bishop's Palace in Derry

Alexander died at the Bishop's Palace in Derry and was buried in Derry City Cemetery. Her husband is buried beside her in a grave which was restored by the Friends of St Columba's Cathedral in 2006. An Ulster History Circle commemorative blue plaque was unveiled in her memory on 14 April 1995 at Bishop Street in the city.[10][11][12]

William Alexander died in 1911, and in 1913 a stained glass window by James Powell and Sons in her memory was installed in the north vestibule of St Columb's Cathedral in Derry, Northern Ireland, financed by public subscription.[13][14] The three lights of the windows refer to three of her hymns and show corresponding scenes: "Once in Royal David's City", "There Is a Green Hill Far Away", and "The Golden Gates Are Lifted Up".

The Alexanders' former Strabane home, Milltown House, later became Strabane Grammar School, and their residence there is commemorated with a plaque. The school vacated the building in 2020.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

Lukas Media LLC (FishFlix), released the full-length documentary Friends in Jesus DVD, The stories and Hymns of Cecil Frances Alexander and Joseph Scriven in 2011. The 45 minute documentary movie talks about the life of Cecil Frances Alexander and her influence on Christian hymns.[16]

Further reading[edit]

  • Ernest James Lovell: A Green Hill Far Away: the Life of Mrs C.F. Alexander (Dublin & London: Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1970); ISBN 0281026335
  • Valerie Wallace: Mrs Alexander: A Life of the Hymn-Writer Cecil Frances Alexander 1818–1895 (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1995); ISBN 1-874675-46-5


  1. ^ Her "Burial of Moses" appeared anon. in Dublin University Magazine (1856) causing Tennyson to profess it one of the few poems of a living author he wished he had written.[3]
  2. ^ With music by William Horsley


  1. ^ Cousin, John W. (John William) (21 August 2004). "A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature". Retrieved 4 June 2019 – via Project Gutenberg.
  2. ^ "Cecil Frances Alexander". Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge University Press. Archived from the original on 5 April 2020. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d "Cecil Frances Alexander". Poem Hunter. Retrieved 5 February 2012.
  4. ^ Cox, Michael (2006). Overlooking the River Mourne: Four Centuries of Family Farms in Edymore and Cavanalee in County Tyrone. Ulster Historical Foundation. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-903688-44-1. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  5. ^ Winn, Christopher (31 March 2012). I Never Knew That About Ireland. Random House. p. 286. ISBN 978-1-4481-4607-9. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  6. ^ an English rendering of the ancient Gaelic hymn...Alexander did not read Gaelic but worked from several literal and unmusical English translations sent to her by H.H. Dickinson, dean of the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle. Jones, Gloria G. (1999). "Cecil Frances Alexander". In Thesing, William B. (ed.). Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 199. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research. pp. 8–12. ISBN 0787618543.
  7. ^ "All Things Bright and Beautiful". www.hymntime.com. Archived from the original on 3 July 2011.
  8. ^ "Oremus Hymnal: All things bright and beautiful". Oremus.org. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
  9. ^ [1] Archived April 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Sweeney, Eamon. "Derry City Cemetery Series: The best hymn writer in the English language lies buried on a 'green hill' in Derry". Derry Now. Archived from the original on 4 June 2019. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  11. ^ "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". www.newulsterbiography.co.uk. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  12. ^ "Cecil Frances Alexander". Ulster History Circle. 14 April 1995. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  13. ^ "The Late Archbishop and Mrs. Alexander: Memorial Windows in Derry Cathedral". Irish Times. Dublin. 22 March 1913. p. 10. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  14. ^ Day, J. Godfrey F.; Patton, Henry E. (1932). The Cathedrals of the Church of Ireland. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. pp. 36–37.
  15. ^ "No decision made on future of former school site, councillors told". www.strabaneweekly.co.uk. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  16. ^ "Friends in Jesus - Documentary". FishFlix. 15 March 2017.

External links[edit]