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The Coventry Carol

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

Thus the haunting opening verse of probably the oldest extant carol in the English language.

When we think of Christmas Carols probably the first to come into our heads is 'Away In A Manger', closely followed by other childhood favourites like 'Good King Wenceslas' and 'We Three Kings', or 'I Saw Three Ships'. All of these portray the comfortable cosy image of Christmas, beloved of the Victorians, with fir trees, snow, robins on logs, shepherds, stables and angels. Tiny Tim lives yet in modern England.

The Coventry Carol is not so cheery; it refers to the massacre of the innocents related in Matthew Chapter II verses 16-18. This tells the tale of how the wise men do not return to Herod with the location of the boy king. Herod therefore orders the death of all male children under the age of two1.

The carol probably dates from the 15th Century, though the earliest known written version of the words dates from 1534 and was taken down by Robert Croo. The oldest written version of the tune we sing the carol to today was written in 1591. The opening lines, Lullay, Lully, thou tiny child, Bye, by, Lully, Lullay, do not make much sense in modern English though 'Lully Lullay' is said to mean 'I saw, I saw' in Old English. However, within the context of the original performance of the song, it is more likely intended to be a settling song for a fretful infant2.

The song was originally written for the Pageant of the Guild of the Shearmen and Tailors for the Coventry Mystery Plays3, and was sung by the mothers of the infants in the play to hush the babies' crying, in the hope they would not be heard by Herod's soldiers. Alas their efforts are in vain and the soldiers burst in and slay the babes.

The Mystery Plays were the traditional Guild Plays of Coventry, and they refer not to a whodunit, but to the mystery of the birth, death and re-birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The plays are enacted in Coventry to this day, though most of the original scripts have been lost down the years, and others are meaningless to our modern eyes because we don't understand the references used, or possibly they have become corrupted in copying and re-writing.

O Sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing
Bye, By, Lully, Lullay

The plays were performed on raised wagons, with a sort of changing area underneath, and these rolled through the cobbled streets of medieval Coventry, each guild having its own wagon. Musical accompaniment was provided by a wait4.

Herod The King, in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay

This fails to kill the young Jesus because his father has been warned in a dream to flee from the country.

Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
Bye, By, lully, lullay

This may not be as cheerful as our other carols, but echoing from the doors of church, into the moonlit air of a Christmas Eve, it has a beauty and resonance that can send a shiver down your spine.

1The Feast Day of The Innocents is traditionally celebrated on December 28th.2The OED online gives it as a variant of lulla, defined as lullaby, and gives the first usage as c1450 Cov Myst.3There is also a lesser known carol 'As I Rode This Endless Night', known as the Coventry Shepherd's Carol.4Traditionally a quartet led by a trumpeter.5The only manuscript copy of the words was destroyed in a fire in 1879, and all editions are based on an engraving of 1825 by Thomas Sharp.

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