The Coventry Carol by Author Unknown…Song #2: The Stories Behind Our Classic Christmas Carols

During the sixteenth century in England, traveling minstrel fairs were quite common. At these fairs, playwrights would debut new works with the help of a company of actors, singers and musicians who would perform; food and drink would be made available, too. These traveling fairs were an important means by which common folk could learn about the politics of the moment, be introduced to new inventions and ideas, celebrate historical achievements, and most importantly for many, come together to give Praise to God and to hear the latest news from the Pope or whoever the religious leader for them happened to be.

King Richard III in Coventry watching the performances at the Coventry Mystery Plays.

One such traveling fair regularly stopped in the English town of Coventry and came to be known as the Coventry Mystery Plays. As the title suggests, the Coventry Mystery Plays became an event in which many different plays would be performed over the course of a week or two. These plays could be all stitched together on one thematic premise, or else they could be a hodge-podge of various themes, lengths and presentation styles. While this date is not given with 100% certainty, it is believed that in 1534, a three-act play called The Pageant of the Shearsman and the Tailors made its debut in Coventry. This play was a direct re-enactment of the biblical story of the Nativity. If you know your Bible stories at all, you will know that the story of the Nativity (or the birth of Jesus) did not begin with a stable and a manger of hay. This story is an epic tale of political intrigue, death, conquest, salvation and love. For those in need of a primer, here goes…

According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, the land that has become known as The Holy Land was conquered by the Roman Army and fell within the sphere of influence of the Holy Roman Empire. During this time, the Roman Senate voted to appoint a puppet-like ruler to oversee the region and to carry out their orders from afar. The man appointed to rule over the Holy Land was a Jewish man named Herod. Once installed on the seat of power, he adopted the title of King Herod the Great. Herod’s time in power was marked by a surge in great architectural projects such as the renovation of the Temple Mount and the construction of the fortress of Masada. But, needless to say, he was also viewed by many citizens as a collaborator with those who had invaded their homeland, and, as such, he was viewed as a traitor. In the Gospel of Matthew, it states that one day Herod received word of a prophecy. In this prophecy it was revealed that the Son of God was soon to be born to parents of common origins. Furthermore, this new baby would eventually grow into a man who would cause the downfall of the enemies of the Jews. Needless to say, Herod vowed to protect the political status quo and set out to discover where this new baby could be found so that it could be killed immediately and the prophecy destroyed. In his quest to discover the identity of the newborn child, Herod enacted new laws that compelled citizens to return to the place of their birth to be taxed (so their identities could be recorded and family status observed). He also met with traveling Magi who had come from afar, following a bright shining star, after having heard word of this prophecy, too. The Magi wanted to protect Jesus, so they gave Herod false information. After discovering that he had been tricked, Herod reportedly flew into a rage and enacted a new law that decreed that all children in the Holy Land under the age of two years must be rounded up and killed. In this way, Herod reasoned that he didn’t actually have to know which baby Jesus was because if he killed all of them, then it stood to reason that Jesus would be among them and that would be the end of his prophecy problems. This new law spawned an event that became known in the Bible as the Massacre of the Innocents. The Massacre of the Innocents has, in its own way, become viewed as almost being as important as the birth of the baby Jesus, Himself. These children who were killed are now viewed as being the original Christian martyrs. Their deaths are venerated and celebrated each year on December 28 in an event that is now known as the Celebration of the Innocents. In any case, there appear to be many political reasons for Mary and Joseph to have been traveling where they were at the time of the birth, as well as why they were given a safe, sheltered place to rest by an innkeeper who saw Mary’s pregnant condition and tried to protect her from the prying eyes of government officials by hiding her in a stable. The story of the Nativity has been passed down through the generations and is now told in a way that makes it seem as though this birth was a calm and peaceful affair. In reality, the birth of the baby Jesus, as told in the Bible, was fraught with danger the whole way.

A painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio that depicts the horrific Massacre of the Innocents.

The Coventry Mystery Plays performance of 1534 saw the debut of a new carol that has become known simply as The Coventry Carol. In the three-act play, The Pageant of the Shearsmen and the Tailors, the Coventry Carol appeared in Act II and addressed the topic of the Massacre of the Innocents. It does this from the perspective of those other mothers whose children were swept up in Herod’s mad quest to reveal the identity of the Son of God. We tend to think of the Nativity story being just about Mary. However, the Coventry Carol speaks of the human toll accrued when the politics of greed and paranoia are such that the bonds between a mother and her baby are purposely broken. It is a gut wrenchingly sad story of helplessness and loss and of love. The actual song revolves around the act of singing a lullaby one last time to your newborn babe, knowing full well that in the morning the government will send soldiers to kill them. I can not even begin to imagine the depth and ache of sadness that must have been felt by those mothers.

The Coventry Carol has been performed by choirs for over half a century now. It is one of those carols that tends to get pushed aside during those times when those in charge wish us to only have happy thoughts at this time of year. The Coventry Carol speaks to the power of love and to the ties that bind families together forever, but it is not a light and happy song at all. I am sorry, but there is no mention in this carol of a jolly fat man, flying reindeer or presents under a tree. Nor is there mention that the Nativity is solely about the birth of Jesus. The Coventry Carol has, in fact, come to serve as a quasi-historical record of what was going on all around the time that the Nativity took place and, as such, its importance as a cultural artifact cannot be understated. The author who created this song is unknown, but whoever it was, they deserve a lot of credit for reminding us all that the truest meaning of Christmas centers on family and love and that even those times can be bittersweet.

The link to the video for the carol, “The Coventry Carol” can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Coventry Mystery Plays can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Bethlehem can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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