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Coventry Carol

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Coventry Carol
Massacre of the Innocents, by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1591
GenreChristmas music
TextRobert Croo (oldest known)

The "Coventry Carol" is an English Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was traditionally performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew: the carol itself refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, and takes the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children.

The music contains a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown; the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591.[1] There are alternative, modern settings of the carol by Kenneth Leighton, Philip Stopford and Michael McGlynn.

History and text


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 exact date of the text is unknown, though there are references to the Coventry guild pageants from 1392 onwards. The single surviving text of the carol and the pageant containing it was edited by one Robert Croo, who dated his manuscript 14 March 1534.[2] Croo, or Crowe, acted for some years as the 'manager' of the city pageants. Over a twenty-year period, payments are recorded to him for playing the part of God in the Drapers' Pageant,[3] for making a hat for a "pharysye", and for mending and making other costumes and props, as well as for supplying new dialogue and for copying out the Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant in a version which Croo described as "newly correcte".[4] Croo seems to have worked by adapting and editing older material, while adding his own rather ponderous and undistinguished verse.[4]

Religious changes caused the plays' suppression during the later 16th century, but 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.[2] Sharp published a second edition in 1825 which included the songs' music. Both printings 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.[2] 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.[5]

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:[6]

Original spelling[7] Modernised spelling[8]

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child,
By by, lully, lullay
thow littell tyne child,
By by, lully, lullay!

Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by, lully, lullay?

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
"Bye bye, lully, lullay"?

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay,—

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
"Bye bye, lully, lullay."

Sharp's publication of the text stimulated some renewed interest in the pageant and songs, particularly in Coventry itself. Although the Coventry mystery play cycle was traditionally performed in summer, the lullaby has been in modern times regarded as a Christmas carol. It was brought to a wider audience after being featured in the BBC's Empire Broadcast at Christmas 1940, shortly after the Bombing of Coventry in World War II, when the broadcast concluded with the singing of the carol in the bombed-out ruins of the Cathedral.[9]



The carol's music was added to Croo's manuscript at a later date by Thomas Mawdyke, his additions being dated 13 May 1591. Mawdyke wrote out the music in three-part harmony, though whether he was responsible for its composition is debatable, and the music's style could be indicative of an earlier date.[10] The three (alto, tenor and baritone) vocal parts confirm that, as was usual with mystery plays, the parts of the "mothers" singing the carol were invariably played by men.[10] The original three-part version contains a "startling" false relation (F in treble, F in tenor) at "by, by".[11]

Mawdyke, who may be identifiable with a tailor of that name living in the St Michael's parish of Coventry in the late 16th century, is thought to have made his additions as part of an unsuccessful attempt to revive the play cycle in the summer of 1591, though in the end the city authorities chose not to support the revival.[12] The surviving pageants were revived in the Cathedral from 1951 onwards.

A four-part setting of the tune by Walford Davies is shown below:[13]

\new ChoirStaff <<
\new Staff {
  \time 3/4
  \key g \minor
  \relative c'' {
  <g d> <g d> <fis c> |
  <g d>2 <bes f>4 |
  <a f>2 <g d>4 | <fis d>2. |
  <g d>4 <a f!> <bes f> |
  <c g> <a f>2 <g d>2. ~ <g d>2 <d' f,>4 |
  <c f,>2 <bes d,>4 |
  <a d,>2 <bes bes,>4 |
  <a c,>2
  << { \voiceOne g4 }
  \new Voice { \voiceTwo bes,8 c } >>
  \oneVoice <fis d>2. |
  <g bes,>4 <fis c> <g d> |
  <c ees,> <a d,>2 | <b d,>2. \bar "|."
\new Staff {
  \time 3/4
  \key g \minor
  \clef bass
  <bes g>4 <bes g> <c' a> |
  <bes g>2 <d' d>4 |
  <c' f>2 <bes g>4 |
  <a d>2. | <bes g>4 <c' f> <d' d> |
  <ees' c> <c' f>2 | <bes g>2. ~ <bes g>2 <bes d>4 |
  <a f>2 <bes bes,>4 | <f d>2 <g g,>4 |
  <ees c>( <f d>) <g ees> | <a d>2. |
  <d' bes>4 <c' a> <bes g> | <a c>
  << { \voiceOne g( fis) }
  \new Voice { \voiceTwo d2 } >>
  \oneVoice <g g,>2. \bar "|."

"Appalachian" variant


A variant of the carol was supposedly collected by folklorist John Jacob Niles in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in June 1934 (from an "old lady with a gray hat", who according to Niles's notes insisted on remaining anonymous).[14] Niles surmised that the carol had been transplanted from England via the shape note singing tradition, although this version of the carol has not been found elsewhere and there is reason to believe that Niles, a prolific composer, actually wrote it himself.[15] Joel Cohen uncovered an early shape note choral song from the 18th century which also includes some of the lyrics to the Coventry Carol and has a tune at least marginally resembling Niles' variant. For this reason, Cohen argued that the Appalachian variant was likely to be authentic and that Crump et al. have been too quick to assume chicanery on Niles' part due to his proclivity for editing some of his collected material.

Although the tune is quite different to that of the "Coventry Carol", the text is largely similar except for the addition of an extra verse (described by Poston as "regrettable"):

And when the stars ingather do
In their far venture stay
Then smile as dreaming, little one,
By, by, lully, lullay.[16]

A number of subsequent recorded versions have incorporated the fifth verse.

See also



  1. ^ Studwell, W. E. (1995). The Christmas Carol Reader. Haworth Press. pp. 15 ISBN 978-1-56023-872-0
  2. ^ a b c Rastall, Richard (2001). Minstrels Playing: Music in Early English Religious Drama. Boydell and Brewer. p. 179.
  3. ^ King and Davidson, The Coventry Corpus Christi plays, Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2000, p. 53
  4. ^ a b King, Pamela M. (1990). "Faith, Reason and the Prophets' dialogue in the Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors". In Redmond, James (ed.). Drama and Philosophy. Themes in Drama. Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–46. ISBN 978-0-521-38381-3.
  5. ^ Cutts, John P. (Spring 1957). "The Second Coventry Carol and a Note on The Maydes Metamorphosis". Renaissance News. 10 (1): 3–8. doi:10.2307/2857697. JSTOR 2857697.
  6. ^ Glover (ed.) The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Volume 1, 1990, p. 488
  7. ^ Manly, John Matthews (1897). Specimens of the Pre-Shakesperean Drama. Vol. I. The Athenæum Press. pp. 151–152. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
  8. ^ Lawson-Jones, Mark (2011). "The Coventry Carol". Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols. pp. 44–49. ISBN 978-0-7524-7750-3.
  9. ^ Wiebe, Heather. Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, Cambridge University Press, p. 192
  10. ^ a b Duffin, A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music, Indiana University Press, 259
  11. ^ Gramophone, volume 66, issues 21988–21989, p. 968
  12. ^ Rastall 2001, p. 180.
  13. ^ Coventry Carol at the Choral Public Domain Library. Accessed 2016-09-07.
  14. ^ See notes to I Wonder as I Wander – Love Songs and Carols, John Jacob-Niles, Tradition TLP 1023 (1957).
  15. ^ Crump (ed). The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., McFarland, 2001, p. 154
  16. ^ Poston, E. The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, Penguin, 1970