Once In Royal David’s City

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

Christmas is coming and I’m running out of time. The intention was to create an Advent Calendar of carols, with a new one every day. I’ve been a bit remiss and missed three days so now I have to double-up to get your 24 carols over 24 days that you will have been expecting (and have deserved for staying with me.)

Once In Royal David’s City is a double classic in some respects: a conventional classic in that it dates from the mid 19th century “peak carol” period, first appearing in 1848, and a modern classic in that it’s the first carol sung in King’s College, Cambridge’s annual service of nine lessons and carols. That service has been performed each year since 1918, and has been broadcast by the BBC since 1928 even during war-time. The carol is characterised by the first verse being sung by a solo boy chorister, before the rest of the choir come in to sing the rest of the carol; traditionally the soloist is chosen by the choirmaster just before the actual performance to minimise the onset of stage-fright or first-night nerves.

Once in Royal David’s City was written initially as a poem for children and intended as a Sunday School story, by Cecil (not Cecily) Frances Humphreys (1818-1895), a young woman from Dublin who wrote hymns and poetry. She married an Anglican clergyman in 1850 and is more generally known by her married name of Cecil Frances Alexander; her husband, William, went on to become Bishop of Londonderry and the Archbishop of Armagh.

Cecil was a prolific writer and had already published two books of hymns and religious verses before her book for children in 1848, and the quality of her writing was such that her children’s book also included All Things Bright And Beautiful and There Is A Green Hill Far Away as well as Once In Royal David’s City. The hymnbook for children was so popular that it was continually republished throughout the 19th century and by 1899, 19 of her hymns had been included in Hymns Ancient and Modern; almost 100 years later, the 1987 edition still included nine of her hymns. The music for the carols was added by Henry John Gauntlett, a church organist in London, and the tunes associated with the hymns and carols today are the original ones composed at that time. The quality of her poetry was highly respected too, with Tennyson among her admirers.

Cecil and her sister Anne were both engaged with in charitable works and she used the proceeds from her first two publications to arrange help and support for poor deaf children in Derry. At the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s there was a great deal of hardship among across the country and the sisters saw the greater disadvantage experienced by those children who were deaf too. The publication of her hymnbook for children provided a sufficient boost in earnings to enable them to establish and construct a boarding school for deaf children with teaching through sign language, and the foundation stone was laid a couple of weeks before she married in 1850. The school was a great success and soon expanded to take up to 18 boys and girls, but a tragedy occurred in 1856 when the school caught fire and six children died in the dormitories.

The incident hit Cecil hard and she became a more sombre character afterwards, but she retained her commitment to the poorest people of Derry; as well as continuing her work with the deaf community she went on to assist the “fallen women” of Derry, and to campaign for the establishment of community health services and district nurses. She died in 1871 but, as her husband was the Archbishop of Armagh and lived until 1911, it wasn’t until 1913 that her charitable work was formally recognised by St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry with the dedication to her memory of a huge triple panel stained glass window that featured the most well known hymns.

Merry Christmas

Header: RembrandtSketch and Study: Nativity, 1654. Ulster Museum, Belfast, 

Footer: Cecil Frances Alexander memorial in St Columb Cathedral, Derry by Gloine – Stained Glass in the Church of Ireland