“The Coventry Carol”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1591 (colophon of original lost manuscript)
Keywords: death children Bible carol royalty religious
Found in: Britain(England)


A lullaby and a lament: the singer asks how to preserve her baby, for "Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day His men of might in his own sight All children young to slay."

Supplemental text

Coventry Carol, The
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

Derived from a medieval Mystery (Miracle) play. This song comes
from the Coventry cycle, and specifically from the Coventry Pageant
of the Shearmen and Tailors. This cycle is first mentioned in 1392.
The cycle, possibly of ten plays (a typical Mystery cycle would
contain about 24, but with the average play much shorter than the
Coventry plays), was copied by Robert Croo in 1534, but the songs
were added in the late sixteenth century (1581 according to the
Penguin edition; 1591 in the Oxford Book of Carols). There are
actually three such songs; this is the second (though the third
in fact appears to be a second stanza of the first).

Of the ten Coventry plays, only this and the Pageant of the Weavers
survived into modern times. The manuscript, however, was burned
in the Birmingham Free Library Fire of 1879, and had not been
properly transcribed. All that is known of it is derived from the
editions published by Thomas Sharp in 1817 and 1828; neither is
very good, and it is not unreasonable to emend the text.

The version below is as printed in the Penguin Classics volume
_English Mystery Plays_ (p. 379), with the spelling of the
original retained. Glosses (usually consisting simply of
modernized spelling) occur in the right margin.

Textual variants involving more than spelling are listed at the
bottom of the text.

Lully lulla, thow littell tine child,          Thou little tiny child
By, by, lully lullay, thow littell tyne child,*
  By, by, lully lullay!

  O sisters too,
  How may we do
    For to preserve this day
  This pore yongling,                          This poor youngling
  For whom we do singe                         For whom we do sing
    By, by, lully, lullay?

  Herod, the king,
  In his raging,
    Chargid he hath this day                   Charged he has this day
  His men of might
  In his owne sight                            In his own sight
    All yonge children to slay --              All young children to slay

  That wo is me,                               That woe is me
  Pore child, for thee,                        Poor child, for thee,
    And ever morne and [may]*                  And ever morn/mourn and [may]
  For thi parting                              For thy parting
  Neither say nor singe,                       Neither say nor sing
    By, by, lully, lullay.

Variant readings:

Chorus, line 2: Entire line omitted in modern settings, but in the
    original melody
Verse 3, line 3: OBC emends "may" (meaning perhaps "season") to
  "day." The square brackets indicate an uncertain reading in the Penguin
  text. Some emend the line to read "And ever mourne and pray."


Not, properly speaking, a folk song, unless its modern popularity makes it so.

The Coventry Carol was originally found in the Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a mystery (miracle) play of the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

At the time the miracle plays were written, translation of the Bible into English was discouraged by the Catholic Church (the English version of Wycliffe was available for much of this period, but was officially heretical). The miracle plays, crude and biblically inaccurate (many of the cycles included the fall of Satan, the Harrowing of Hell, and other non-Biblical details) were nonetheless one of the chief sources of Biblical knowledge for many common people.

Many towns had cycles of miracle plays (up to 48, though not all would be performed in a particular year), generally of a few hundred lines, usually performed on or around the festival of Corpus Christi. The craft guilds of each city would each take and perform a play.

On the evidence, most major towns had a unique cycle of miracle plays. The majority of these, however, are lost; we have only a handful (e.g. from York, Chester, and "N Town") remaining. The Coventry cycle did not survive; we have only two plays (that of the Shearmen and Tailors and that of the Weavers), from a manuscript dated 1591 -- and even this was burned in 1879, leaving us dependent on bad transcriptions from 1817 and 1825.

In a further irony, even though the Coventry Carol is the only part of the Mysteries to be known to the general public (unless they encountered the Second Shepherd's Play of the Wakefield cycle in a literature class), the Coventry Pageant itself is rarely published.

The Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod the Great slaughtered all the children of Bethlehem in hopes of killing the Christ child, is described in Matthew 2:16. There is little evidence that it is historical; the other gospels do not hint at it. It may be based on other instances of Herod's behavior, however; Josephus tells us that Herod ordered the killing of vast numbers of people at his death, so that the entire nation would have to mourn him (Josephus, _Antiquities_ XVII.174-179), though his relatives prevented his wishes from being carried out. Whether true or not, it is a matter of historical fact that he killed his three oldest sons.

The "lully lullay" lullaby (note the similarity betweey "lullay" and "lullabye," though ironically the dictionaries do not see a connection) is quite common starting in the fourteenth century. I know of at least three poems beginning with this phrase:

British Museum Harleian MS. 913, from the early fourteenth century, has a piece beginning

Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi whepistou [weepest thou] so sore?

In the 1372 Commonplace Book of John Grimestone (National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21) we find two pieces, one beginning

Lullay, lullay, litel child, why wepest thu so sore?

and the other

Lullay, lullay, litel cjild, child reste thee a throwe.

In each case, the "lully, lullay, little child" phrase serves as a partial refrain.

The exceptionally feeble state of the tradition of this piece, incidentally, results in some variants, as does the problem of early spelling. There is no doubt, for instance, that the first line is to be pronounced "Oh sisters too," but we cannot be sure if this is to be interpreted as "Oh sisters, too," or as "Oh sisters two."

The third verse gives an even greater problem. Is the third word of the third line "mourn" or "morn"? If the former, then the line should be read "and ever mourn and say" (perhaps to be emended to "mourn and pray"); if the latter, then "and ever morn and day." The former question certainly cannot be resolved; the latter can only be resolved if,by extremely unlikely chance, another manuscript turns up.




  1. OBC 22, "Coventry Carol" (1 text, 2 tunes)
  3. ADDITIONAL: Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #49, "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 text)
  4. ST OBC022 (Full)
  5. BI, OBC022