My mother learned to sing this carol in Latin, customary in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church when it was ‘Adeste Fideles’. In fact, she never really got to grips with the English words and at times muttered quietly about the loss of the Latin lyrics at Christmas Mass.

Little did she — or I — know about the history of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge. Also noteworthy is the organist’s mastery of David Willcocks’s arrangement — wow!

It would have surprised my mother to find that a Catholic priest wrote the English lyrics to this carol. Frederick Oakeley, received his Classics degree from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1824. After his ordination in the Church of England, he became a fellow and the chaplain to Balliol College. From 1827, Oakeley became interested in the tractarian — Oxford — movement, known as High Church Anglicanism. This caused him no end of controversy in a subsequent appointment as the minister of Margaret Chapel, where he served between 1839-1845. During that time he added various elements of High Church worship to the services and met with accusations of ‘ritualism’.  Oakeley moved so closely to the Roman Catholic Church that his clerical orders were withdrawn until such time as he would retract his beliefs.

Oakeley wasted no time in crossing the Tiber. In 1845, he joined John Henry Newman’s religious community and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.  He attended seminary and was ordained in 1848, at which point he began to serve at Catholic churches in London. Thirty years before his death in 1880, he was appointed a canon of the Diocese of Westminster, a post in which he served faithfully.

‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ has several verses, not all of which are sung together. This is partly because the carol would take too much time to sing. The other reason is that not all the verses are intended for Christmas. One verse, for instance, is to be sung only at Midnight Mass or on Christmas Day. Another verse, the eighth, is intended solely for Epiphany services. Oakeley translated the verses we use most commonly today from Latin into English. Other lyricists were responsible for writing or translating additional verses.

That much is straightforward. The authorship of the music to ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ is less clear.  Most music scholars today agree that a Catholic layman, John Francis Wade, is the author of the carol we know today. Before that, the English composer John Reading, an Anglican, was also thought to have written the melody. King John IV of Portugal’s name has also been considered. John IV was a composer in his own right and owned one of the largest libraries of music in the world at that time. John IV’s daughter Catherine of Braganza, incidentally, was the wife of England’s Charles II. The two married several years after John’s death.

Now let us look at the life of John Francis Wade (1711-1786). Although he was English, it is unclear whether he was born in England or in Douai, in northern France. In any event, he was a Jacobite, and, if he was born in France, his parents might well have been sympathetic to the cause. The Jacobite movement started when Charles II’s brother, James II of England, was deposed by Queen Mary II and King William III. (We know them today collectively as William and Mary.)

The Jacobite movement is complex and combined various alliances of British Catholics and Protestants for either religious or political reasons. Catholics, like Wade, wanted a restoration of Stuart successors because they would be more sympathetic to their religious practice.  The French allied with the Jacobites and planned to invade Britain. Bonnie Prince Charlie — James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart — was seen to be as the hope of this movement in its later years. He instigated the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden (emphasis on the second syllable, which is pronounced ‘lud’).

During the height of this struggle, however, Jacobites communicated with each other in coded language. ‘Bethlehem’ meant ‘England’. Published hymns and poems were embellished with Stuart imagery — oak leaves and white roses — to denote that they contained Jacobite messages. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was one of these. It was thought to have been Wade’s ode to the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with ‘faithful’ referring to Jacobites.