Tidings of comfort and joy

A Christmassy entry today, I think. On Thursday I was privileged to attend the ‘Classic Carols’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall, given by the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir and featuring a number of solo turns by the wonderful Mary Plazas.

Now, I’m one of the least holy people in the world. It’s an interesting fact that when I step into a church, I’m instantly repelled back over the threshold some seven yards. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the traditional carols. Not so hot on the likes of ‘Jingle Bells’ (particularly if the choir feel the need to follow “laughing all the way” with a shotgun blast of “HA! HA! HA!”). I like my carols to be a little bit medieval, a little bit pagan, maybe even a bit gloomy. You know the sort of thing.

A perennial favourite is ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.’ Not “ye,” by the way, that’s grammatically incorrect. Like many of the traditional carols, it’s so old that its precise origins are lost in time. However, one version of its history places the origin in 1580 and – as you might imagine if you keep an eye on this blog – there’s a London connection.

Westminster Abbey, which ended up looking Westminster Shabby har har.

It all goes back to the Dover Straits earthquake of 1580. The epicentre of this is believed to have been somewhere in Northern France, and it was severe enough to wake King James in Scotland. It caused widespread damage in England and France, even destroying part of the White Cliffs of Dover. Of course, what really got media attention (such as it was in those days) was the damage in London. Actually, the damage in London wasn’t all that severe, relatively speaking. Six chimneys and one of the pinnacles on Westminster Abbey – nothing as compared to the several collapsed buildings in Dover and Lille.

The Moral Guardians of the Nation in those days were particularly puritanical, what with them being Puritans and all. They were quick to blame the emerging theatre scene. Apparently the earthquake was God’s wrath, which makes modern-day theatre critics seem quite tame by comparison. If this was the case, Elizabethan playwrights couldn’t take a hint. Shakespeare, who is practically a recurring character in this blog, has Angelica in Romeo and Juliet note that “‘Tis since the earthquake eleven years.”

This was far from the only creative response to the earthquake, and in the absence of LiveJournal there was a wave of unnecessary poetry published on the subject. Somebody out in the wilds of Hertfordshire was inspired by events in London to bring out a ballad, setting their lyrics to an obscure but catchy European tune.

The ballad caught on and that obscure-but-catchy European tune became widely known. Alas, I’ve been unable to find the original lyrics, but the tune survives to this day. At some point, new lyrics were attached to the old tune and so we found ourselves with ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. It was first published in 1823. AND THE REST IS HISTORY.


It’s ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,’ not ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.’ The literal meaning is “May God allow you to rest in a state of merriment,” i.e. “Chill out and be happy.” It accompanies “Let nothing you dismay,” i.e. “I hope God ensures nothing happens that might upset you.”

While ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ sounds pleasantly olde-worlde, it would sound entirely wrong to medieval ears. “Rest you” is grammatically correct by the standards of the time, and indeed, it shows up in King Lear in the line, “Sit you down, father, rest you.” Talking like a historical person is harder than it looks.

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Filed under Buildings and architecture, Churches, History, Literature, London, Music, Only loosely about London, Theatre, Tudor London, Westminster

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