The English Christmas carol titled The Coventry Carol dates from the 16th century. The name of the carol came from the fact that it was traditionally performed in Coventry, England as part of a 15th Century mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. According to the website,   the original cathedral was dedicated to Saint Mary in 1043. While the church stood for centuries, it, along with the city of Coventry, was devastated during World War II.

According to the website noted above:

The Ruins of the ‘old Cathedral’ are the remains of a medieval parish church, consecrated to be the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Coventry in 1918. In a little over 20 years, this building would be destroyed by enemy air attack in the Second World War. Rather than sweeping away the ruins or rebuilding a replica of the former church, inspired by the message of Christ for reconciliation, the then leaders of the Cathedral Community took the courageous step to build a new Cathedral and preserve the remains of the old Cathedral as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war.

The “old Cathedral” with its beautiful windows and spires is seen next to the new Cathedral in the picture obtained from the website.

The Coventry Carol presents a melody that is somber, creating a helpless feeling within the hearer.  This is purposeful because the carol used in the pageant depicted the grief the people experienced when Herod slaughtered their children as described in Matthew 2:16-18.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.

Matthew 2:16-18

Within the pageant, the carol is sung by three women of Bethlehem, who enter on stage with their children immediately after Joseph is warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.  The carol takes the form of a lullaby that was sung by mothers of their doomed children.

Technically, The Coventry Carol is not a Christmas carol since the words refer to Jesus as an infant rather than describing the birth scene.  However, through the centuries it has been sung at Christmas time.

The exact date of the carol’s creation is unknown because songs were transmitted orally through the generations and there was no written music to document the words or tune. For example, there are references to the Coventry guild pageants from 1392 so it is likely that this carol was sung even before the words or music had been put to paper.

The oldest text of the words was written down by Robert Croo (or Crow), the ‘manager’ of the pageants, on March 14, 1534. The carol’s music was added to Croo’s manuscript almost sixty years later by Thomas Mawdyke.  His additions were dated May 13, 1591.

For the most part, both the medieval rich and poor were very concerned with religious issues.  Some carols exist about drinking and fighting, but the majority are associated with the leading religious feasts of the year, and most of those refer to Christmas.  Of course, The Coventry Carol falls into that category.  Further, it fits the usual pattern for carols of that day, specifically they all contain a refrain that was repeated after each verse.

Sometimes the Coventry Carol is called The Lullay Song since the song uses the word “Lullay” which means “I saw”.  In the 1400’s and 1500’s, the words lullay and lulla were commonly used to indicate something that the singer had seen.

Hear now “The Coventry Carol” as presented by the Covenant Presbyterian Church Choir and Orchestra in the album The Glorious Sounds of Christmas.

Father, even when Jesus was just a baby Satan attempted to thwart Your plan of salvation by trying to kill the Christ Child.  How we praise You for Your sovereignty, providence, and sure protection of that Babe.  We know that Your plans will never fail to be accomplished; Your Word is sure, and we thank You for that confidence and security.


In History of Hymns: Hymn expresses longing for arrival of our Savior, Dr. C. Michael Hawn discusses the background and writing of the carol “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”.  Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

The carol was written by Charles Wesley.  It was initially published in 1744 in a small collection of hymns entitled Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord.  Albeit small, its reception by the public was significant, and it was reprinted 20 times during his lifetime.  While the title of the collection relates to the nativity of Christ, the carol is now generally sung during the Advent season.

USED Nativity scene in American church

Interestingly enough, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” appeared in an American Methodist hymnal in 1847, nearly 30 years before it was included in a British Methodist hymnal. Now there is only the rare North American hymnal that omits this hymn.  Rather, it has become integral to the celebration of our preparation for Lord’s Advent.

According to Dr. Hawn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” has the quality of a petition—a prayer that implores Christ to be among us. Imperative verbs are used six times in the two stanzas found in the hymnal: “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”; “From our fears and sins release us”; “Let us find our rest in thee”; “Now thy gracious kingdom bring”; “Rule in all our hearts alone”; “Raise us to thy glorious throne.” The cumulative effect of these petitions is a tone of supplication. Wesley succeeds in recalling the deep longing of ancient Israel for the Messiah – the Promised One.

According to Dr. Hawn, British hymnologist J.R. Watson noted that this hymn’s “uniqueness comes from its skillful conjunction of several elements into one simple-sounding discourse. Those elements include the Old Testament promise of the Messiah, ‘Israel’s strength and consolation’ who has been long expected and who will set his people free; the New Testament story of the birth of the child who is also a king (Matthew 2:6); and the idea of the Christ-child not only as the strength and consolation of Israel, but also the hope of all the earth, a Christ who is born for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.”

Rather than trying to retell the Christmas story narrative from the scripture, Charles Wesley provides a poetic theological discourse that allows us to apply the story of Christmas to our lives.

Although we live in a different time than Charles Wesley, the longings of people’s hearts are just as deep. And where will our longing, our hopeful waiting lead us? Wesley tells us the answer to this question in the final phrase of the carol:

 “Raise us to thy glorious throne.”

For countless Christians around the world, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” signals the beginning of Advent.

Listen to the carol sung here from the album “The Way” in a Manger.

Father, we come to You as we consider the Advent season and the coming of our Savior, and we praise You for the gift of Your Son.  We  do pray that Your kingdom would come and that we would be raised to live with You forever through the merit of His work on Calvary.