While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around.
“Fear not,” said he – for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind –
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind:
“To you in David’s town this day
Is born of David’s line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be the sign:
“The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spoke the seraph, and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from highest heaven
Begin and never cease!”
For many of us, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night is a favourite – probably in the Top 5 of any Christmas Carols Hit Parade; it is also the oldest carol that can be attributed to a specific writer so its heritage is more straightforward than many of the early hymns.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night was written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715), an Irish poet and lyricist living in London. Tate was from a family of puritan clerics in Dublin and practised in south-east London for a few years, but he gave up his ministry to become a full-time writer. He published a collection of poetry in 1677, worked in the theatre adapting older plays for contemporary audiences, and also with Henry Purcell, writing the libretto for Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (1688). In 1692 he was appointed as the third Poet Laureate.
In 1698 Tate co-authored a book of psalms with music for the Church of England, A New Version of the Psalms of David, and then in 1700 complemented it with a supplement of sixteen additional hymns. This was a key moment in the history of English church music because until then only sacred texts, such as the psalms, could be sung in church. Other forms of song and music were deemed “common” and unworthy of inclusion in a church service. This was, in part, a legacy of Cromwell’s puritan regime (1653-1658), coupled with the objective of keeping services as close to the scriptures as possible and without unnecessary distractions and “popish” ceremony. One of these sixteen new hymns was While Shepherds Watched, the only one to be a Christmas hymn and the only one still sung today. The feature of the carol which made it acceptable to the church authorities is that its verses are a fairly faithful account of the nativity as told by the Gospel of St Luke (2:8-14), with the text rearranged and paraphrased to fit a regular musical structure; it became a modern form of psalm, or sung biblical text.
Thus, While Shepherds Watched was the first Christmas carol to be sung in churches in Britain and has a heritage that goes back to the beginning of church music, predating even celebrated oratorios like JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion (1727), and Handel’s The Messiah (1741). The carol was included in the first anthologies of hymns and carols compiled in 1822 and 1833, which ensured it’s place in the pantheon of great carols.
Several tunes have been associated with While Shepherds Watched since 1700 but, in Britain, it’s a tune called Old Winchester, that most people recognise. This melody was only formally associated with the words in 1861, but it is much older than Tate’s carol. Old Winchester was first published in 1592, but that source indicates that the tune was an arrangement of an earlier one dating from 1553. Lady Jane Grey became the unfortunate nine-day queen in 1553, which isn’t relevant to the story of the carol but it indicates just how long that tune has been echoing around the English countryside.
Header image: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1656) by Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery