What connects the popular Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and the popular hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’? They both share an origin – but the origins of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ are not as famous as the words. And the words themselves deserve closer analysis…
Once in Royal David’s City
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
First, the history behind the carol: the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ were written by the same woman, Mrs Cecil Alexander, who wrote the words to the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Alexander was born Miss Cecil Humphreys in Dublin in 1818, and married the Anglican clergyman William Alexander in 1850, two years after the publication of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ in 1848 in a hymnbook named Hymns for Little Children.
‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was set to music in 1849, by the composer Henry John Gauntlett, who read the poem and liked it. The carol has traditionally been the first carol sung in the annual ‘Carol’s from King’s’ service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Indeed, for the last 95 years it has opened the service.
Like many traditional Christmas carols, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ takes the nativity (the ‘lowly cattle-shed’ where the infant Jesus was born) as its subject. ‘Royal David’s City’ is, of course, Bethlehem, where according to the New Testament Jesus was born. Like other celebrated Christmas carols from the Victorian era – notably Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ – Mrs Alexander’s carol focuses on the humble and ‘lowly’ origins of Jesus Christ: born in a ‘cattle shed’ or stable, but destined to become the Saviour of all mankind. Mrs Alexander draws a link between Jesus’ human incarnation and humans everywhere: ‘He was little, weak and helpless, / Tears and smiles like us He knew’. The Jesus of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is someone to identify with because he is like us, and he understands human suffering and human struggles.