Coventry Carol

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The Coventry Carol, performed by the U.S. Army Band Chorus.

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The Massacre of the Innocents, by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, 1591

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 is notable for containing 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] The carol is traditionally sung a cappella. There is an alternative, modern setting of the carol by Kenneth Leighton, and another by Philip Stopford.

History and text[edit]

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, luckily 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]

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
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 2, when the broadcast concluded with the singing of the carol in the bombed-out ruins of the Cathedral.[7]


A modern four-part setting of the tune is shown below:

Coventry Carol.png

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.[8] 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.[8]

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.[9] The surviving pageants were revived in the Cathedral from 1951 onwards.


Many performers have recorded the song, including Sting, Charlotte Church (Dream a Dream, 2000), Mark Lanegan, Elisabeth Schumann, Anthony Newley, Annie Lennox, Christine McVie, Suzanne Vega, Mediæval Bæbes, Tori Amos, Elaine Paige, Joan Baez, Alison Moyet, John Denver, Anúna, Loreena McKennitt, The King's Singers, Eileen Farrell, Hayley Westenra, the Kingston Trio, Kate Miller-Heidke, Bobby Breen, Chanticleer, Dinah Shore, Sufjan Stevens, Alex Kingston, Milocraft, Jessye Norman, Deas Vail, Kristina Caruana, Ceilidh Friends, Jill Tracy and Heather Dale among others.


About this sound MIDI-file with a choral arrangement of the song 


  1. ^ Studwell, W. E. (1995). The Christmas Carol Reader. Haworth Press. pp. 15 ISBN 978-1-56023-872-0
  2. ^ a b c Rastall, Minstrels playing: Music in Early English Religious Drama, Boydell and Brewer, 2001, p.179
  3. ^ King and Davidson, The Coventry Corpus Christi plays, Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2000, p.53
  4. ^ a b King, 'Faith, Reason and the Prophets Dialogue in The Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors' in Redmond (ed.) Drama and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.38
  5. ^ Cutts, 'The Second Coventry Carol', Renaissance News, 10 (1957), 4.
  6. ^ Glover (ed.) The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Volume 1, 1990, p.488
  7. ^ Wiebe, Britten's Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, CUP, p.192
  8. ^ a b Duffin, A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music, Indiana UP, 259
  9. ^ Rastall, p.180

External links[edit]