One of the most famous English carols of the past two centuries is ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’. King’s College Cambridge sing it for their televised carol service every year. Below is the video from 2008:
‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ was one of the ‘new’ carols composed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, creating a modern collection of Christmas hymns with a nod to the England before the Industrial Revolution.
The earliest publication of this particular carol was in 1760 and it was included in a compilation of these modern (at the time) Christmas songs which appeared between 1780 and 1800.
However, another source says that the lyrics are ‘traditional olde English’ and go back to the 15th century. If so, in its earliest incarnation, ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ could well have been sung by town watchmen who supplemented their income by carolling at the houses of the local gentry.
The title translates today as ‘may God keep you happy, gentlemen’ with the promise of His Son Jesus Christ. Although there are slight variations, the lyrics are largely consistent. British churches and choirs use the version which Oxford University Press (OUP) published in Carols for Choirs (1961), part of which appears below:
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
From God our heavenly Father
A blessed angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born The Son of God by name:
O tidings …
This is my favourite carol, largely because it is written in a minor key which evokes a centuries-old song tradition. Listening to it sung to a complex arrangement for organ makes the lyrics all the more meaningful and personal.
Indeed, this creation of carols which hearkened back to an older era was part of a Victorian movement known as Merry (Merrie) England. It was controversial then as it is now, derided by the Left (as it was by Friedrich Engels) and embraced by traditionalists of whatever political persuasion. It inspired the left-leaning William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Anglo-Catholics of the mid-19th century Oxford Movement were also drawn to it in their quest for greater social equality with a nod towards utopianism.
Merry England is thought to represent the nation between the years 1350 and 1700, so, from the late decades of Catholicism into the English Reformation, and, later, the restoration of the monarchy to the end of William and Mary’s reign. The focus, however, was on English life between the 14th and 16th centuries:
“Merry England” is not a wholly consistent vision but rather a revisited England which Oxford folklorist Roy Judge described as “a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings.” By contrast, Ronald Hutton‘s study of churchwardens’ accounts places the creation of “Merry England” in the years between 1350 and 1520, with the newly-elaborative annual festive round of the liturgical year, with candles and pageants, processions and games, boy bishops and decorated rood lofts. Hutton discovered that, far from being pagan survivals, many of the activities of popular piety criticised by sixteenth-century reformers were actually creations of the later Middle Ages and that “Merry England” reflects historical aspects of rural English folklore that were lost during industrialization. Favourable perceptions of Merry England reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.
‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ evokes this atmosphere. The carol became so popular that, by 1843, Charles Dickens included it in A Christmas Carol:
…at the first sound of — ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
William B Sandys (pron. ‘Sands’) was an English solicitor (lawyer) who compiled a selection of these ‘new’ yet seemingly ancient carols in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London, Richard Beckley, 1833). Emphases mine below:
Among the carols that made their first appearance here are the classics “The First Noel“, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen“, “I Saw Three Ships“, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing“. Some have the traditional forms of carols. Others are recognizably composed. In the current atmosphere of “Merry England” that included the revival of Christmas that was signalled by Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol“ (1843), they all quickly developed their present reputations for being sixteenth century or earlier.
A few decades later, Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) published their popular Victorian compilation of carols called Christmas Carols, New and Old. Both men were employed by Magdalen College, Oxford. Bramley was a Fellow and Tutor whilst Stainer was the College’s organist. Some carol books carry Stainer’s name next to ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’.
Their songbook became so widely used that the Revd Percy Dearmer — who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ Church, Oxford — referred to it and the two men in his preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, 1928, pp. xvi-xvii:
The second chapter of the revival [of the carol] in the nineteenth century opens in 1871 with the publication of forty-two Christmas Carols New and Old by the Rev. H. R. Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. John Stainer, then organist of the college. The influence of this book was enormous: it placed in the hands of the clergy…a really practicable tool, which came into general use, and is still in use after nearly sixty years. The great service done by this famous collection was that it brought thirteen traditional carols, with their proper music, into general use at once…It is…mainly to Bramley and Stainer that we owe the restoration of the carol…
Those in search of a term paper or thesis topic on the Victorian era, Merry England or Christmas carols will find a rich seam of associations with Oxford University‘s literary and musical heritage. Bramley and Stainer were influential in popularising carols which hearkened back to an older England. Dearmer endorsed them. The Anglo-Catholic movement, which also had its origins at Oxford, drew on Merry England’s kinder influences of community and charity. Both extended into the 20th century. J R R Tolkien (pron. ‘Tolkeen’), Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, also borrowed elements from Merry England:
Rather than a celebration of a narrow, anachronistic idealism, Tolkien’s works hinge upon his characters moving beyond that place of idealism into a broader, more complex interaction with the world.
Perhaps that is an idea we can transport from our Christmas experiences into our Christian walk in the year ahead.
Certainly, ‘God rest ye merry, Gentlemen’ carries joyful messages which are perfect for communicating the personal message of the Gospels, the Good News of Jesus Christ.