Thoughts on “The Sussex Carol”

By | December 30, 2014

Sussex Carol 2So, here is the story behind the delightful Christmas song called The Sussex Carol. Research now shows that it was first published in 1684 by Bishop Luke Waddinge in a collection entitled A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, Composed by a devout Man, For the Solace of his Friends and neighbors in their afflictions (Ghent, Belgium, 1684). This was his first year serving as the Bishop of Ferns, a small town in the southwestern corner of Ireland. The book was well-received and, since it contained eleven carols, helped established the tradition of carol singing in that part of the country that continues to this day. One of the carols was “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.”

Jumping to the twentieth century, there was a great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) who had a keen interest in English folk songs. On May 24, 1904 he was wandering through the southern part of England near a small settlement called Monk’s Gate asking people to sing songs for him and someone, who he identifies in his notes as Mrs. Verrall, sang this carol for him. Quickly he jotted it down (see image above). Since then it has become quite popular and is now known as The Sussex Carol, since it was rediscovered in Sussex County, England (even though it was first published in Belgium and first sung in County Wexford, Ireland). And that’s it in a nutshell. For more detailed information, click here.

For a wonderful setting by Sir Philip Ledger and sung by King’s College Choir of Cambridge, England, click here. For information on my own modest setting composed for my high school choir many years ago and published by Walton Music, click here.

You may enjoy reading Waddinge’s original text (see below). Spellings have been updated and punctuation has been added.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
to hear what news the Angels bring:
news of great joy, cause of great mirth,
news of our merciful King, His birth!
The King of Kings of earth and heaven;
the King of Angels and of men.
Angels and men with joy may sing
to see their newborn King.

Angels with joy sing in the air
to Him who can their ruins repair
and prisoners in the limbs rejoice
to hear the echoes of their voice.
And how on earth can man be sad?
The Redeemer is come to make them glad;
from sin and hell to set them free
and buy their liberty.

Then sin, depart! Behold, here’s grace!
And death, here’s life come in thy place!
Hell now thou may’st thy terror see,
thy power great must conquer’d be.
And for thy darkness we have light
which makes the Angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men
forevermore. Amen.”

Bishop Luke Waddinge (1684)

Wishing you great joy in the New Year.