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Archives Blog: Coventry Carol

The Coventry Carol: this will no doubt be familiar to many, as a large number of well-known artists have covered the song, but its’ origins are less clear, in fact they are a mystery, which is not surprising in that their source was the Mystery Plays of the middle ages.

These were performed in a number of important towns and those in Coventry were highly regarded. They had their origin in the dramatic rendering by the clergy of religious stories in Latin, but later came to be performed outdoors by the townsfolk, and in the vernacular so that they could be understood by a wider audience. Performances followed the great religious procession which started at an early hour on Corpus Christi Day, and as early as 1392 they were mainly conducted by the craft guilds.

Details of only two of the plays have survived, those of the Weavers, and the Shearmen and Tailors. The latter, founded in honour of the Nativity, included in their Pageant the subject of the Murder of the Innocents, (i.e. on the orders of Herod). There are three cues for songs in the Shearmen & Taylors’ Pageant,  two for the shepherds and one for the mothers of the innocents and it is from this that the song originated, reflecting the efforts of the mothers to hush the babies crying, in the hope that they would not be heard by Herod’s soldiers.

A comprehensive study of The Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, including the songs, are included in ‘A Dissertation on the Pageants, or Dramatic Mysteries in Coventry’ by the Coventry historian Thomas Sharp, based on a 1534 transcription by a Robart Croo, and can be accessed in the Reading Room of the Coventry Archives.

Visit the Coventry Archives website here