As we take down our Christmas trees and put away our recordings of “Santa Baby,” perhaps some of the readers of the Murrey and Blue are preparing to stroll forth on Twelfth Night to sing the charming “Gloucestershire Wassail” song for friends and neighbors this January 5th of the new year 2017. This is the traditional day in which folks raise the wassail bowl and wish good health and happiness to all of mankind. And it is followed the next day by the Epiphany when the son of God, Jesus Christ, is proclaimed to all the world.
I had never heard this particular carol until I purchased a cd several years ago called “An English Country Christmas” which included choral groups from The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford to The Choir of Queens College Cambridge to The Oxford Girls’ Choir. It also featured two soloists: the folk singer Ian Giles and the sweet-voiced English soprano, Sara Stowe. Her lilting rendition of the “Gloucestershire Wassail” – a carol of medieval origin but taken up by the Victorians – is sung acapella while punctuated by bells and Mathew Spring’s zitherlike hurdy-gurdy. It is so strikingly ethereal that I soon floated away on a magic carpet of music to the medieval court of Richard the Third on that last Christmas of 1484 before tragic circumstances brutally ended his reign and swept in the harsh, modern age of wolfish Tudors. Surely, it was such a splendid Christmas of costume and dancing and thrilling music that scandalized the pious priests who either witnessed it or cattily reported upon it.
From what little research on the carol that I could find, the composition is a traditional one that was collected by the great composer Vaughan Williams in 1912. Its lyrics were a delightful mystery to me but this stanza provided a clue:
And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
And a good Christmas pie that we may all see
with the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
Even a urbanite like me could surmise that Dobbin refers to a working horse and that perhaps all the other living creatures named are horses as well. But then I came across the beautiful illumination above which clearly shows that the carol mixes horses with cattle. Each of the animals’ body parts are wittily toasted – Colly and her long tail, Fillpail and her left ear and Broad May and her horns – which shows, even in medieval times, the English love and reverence towards all the beasts of the field. And the song also pays tribute to the lord of the castle who receives gifts of beef, pie, corn and beer from his devoted people.
Returning once more to our favorite King, I’d like to think of him during a very different time – at home on a snowy evening in Middleham during the Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends like Francis Lovell, when he was still the beloved Duke of Gloucester and before the death of an errant brother would send his life into a tailspin. A muffled knock comes to the door and he turns from his pretty wife and calls to his young servant to answer it:
Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in
For those who would like to hear Miss Stowe’s version, I include a You Tube link. I hope it works but sometimes copyright laws intrude on our enjoyment. If it doesn’t work, I encourage everyone to go to You Tube and simply type in “Gloucestershire Wassail”. It should come up like this: