Coventry Carol

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
Matthew 2:1-12 (KJV)

I first learned of the Coventry Carol while reading a novel by Helen MacInnes—although it was a book that had nothing to do with Christmas except for her use of this song at a critical moment in her story.  I was curious about it because the song was completely unfamiliar to me.  It’s been many years since I first read about the Coventry Carol, I have yet to hear it sung in a church or in concert here in the United States.  It is both lullaby and lament, sung by the women of Bethlehem to their children before an enraged Herod had their babies slain.  It was written in the sixteenth century for The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors in Coventry; this pageant told the story of the birth of Jesus, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the killing of the little boys of Bethlehem.1

“Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”

So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.

Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
Matthew 2:13-18

This is a lovely and poignant rendition by Valeria Mignaco and Alfonso Marin.

“Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.”

John MacArthur, in preaching on Matthew 2:16-23, said:

“…Those little babies, they didn’t know it but those precious little babies in Bethlehem at that time were the first casualties in the warfare waged between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdoms of His Christ, they were the first casualties. But ultimately the victory would be won, the babies surely, if I read my Bible right, the minute they died went instantly into the presence of God, who gathers the little ones in His arms and says, “Forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom.” And the mothers, they could stop weeping because this very One who was now exiled in Egypt would come back to offer them a salvation that could unite them with their own babies….

“Matthew paints a masterpiece of a picture.  Micah, he said the King would come to Bethlehem, and to Bethlehem He came. Hosea, the King would come through Egypt, through Egypt He came. Jeremiah, there would be weeping like Rachel in Ramah of old in the picture of Jeremiah, and there was as the mothers wept over the babies, beside the tomb of Rachel in the Ramah of Bethlehem. And the prophets of old said His name would be Nazarene, and He would be from Nazareth, and so it was. And at each point, He fulfills a prophecy that solidifies His right to reign. And so says Matthew, this is the King, by genealogy, by birth, by worship, by the jealousy of hatred, and by the fulfillment of prophecy this man was born a King, for this cause came He into the world.”2

1Coventry Carol:  The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
Video by Lutevoice: Valeria Mignaco & Alfonso Marin, soprano-lute duo.
2John MacArthur, Grace to You: The King Fulfills Prophecy, Part 2.
Craig Chester, co-founder and past president of the Monterey (California) Institute for Research in
Astronomy (MIRA), authored The Star of Bethlehem in 1996, for Imprimis, a publication
of Hillsdale College. It is fascinating reading with research and conjecture on the historical
events and astronomical phenomena.

Original content: Copyright ©2010 Iwana Carpenter

2 thoughts on “Coventry Carol

  1. It’s very appropriate to note this carol. Sadly, because it’s beautiful and vocally complex I guess you’d be more likely to hear it sung in some arty hifalutin’ liberal church than a solidly evangelical one. We love to soften the story, to visualize as calmly serene and unafraid Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus; the shepherds and angels; the bright star and the Magi with their gifts; but Jesus, in his new humanity, and Mary and Joseph, and the Magi, while under God’s care, were all deeply imperiled. Herod’s maniacal bloodthirstiness, unleashed on poor infants and doubtless on any who resisted was just the first chapter in ‘the life and times of Jesus the Messiah’. Herod was just the first of many desperately wicked, satanically inspired opponents recounted in the scripture. Thanks be to God, to whom belongs the victory, who loved us so.

  2. A dear friend wrote to me last night that Matthew 2:13-18 is faith-restoring because it shows us, “God’s plans out of pain, for ultimate good—under seeming catastrophe, yielding our answer.”

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