This is part 13 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to hear from someone saying, “We need to sing more of the old hymns. At times it makes me tempted to go through the hymnal and find the oldest hymns in the book. Along with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we discussed several days ago, today’s selection could easily make the list. The song’s history goes back at least as far as King Henry VIII or England who lived from 1491-1547. This is the same King Henry who broke from the Roman Catholic Church when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an anulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1527.
According to legend, King Henry wrote the original lyrics of “Greensleeves” when he courted his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The song became permanently tied to King Henry through the work of William Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The song was originally registerd to a man named Richard Jones in 1580. In truth, music scholars believe the tune is much older. It is an ancient English folk song and people have written as many as 20 different sets of lyrics for use with the song. For much of it’s life, “Greensleeves” was a song living in the pubs of England. It was a popular drinking song almost as beloved by Englanders as “God Save the Queen.”
It is doubtful that when William Chatterton Dix began writing the words to his poem “The Manger Throne” he had “Greensleeves” in mind at all. Dix was a poet, not a lyricst. It is said that for Dix it was all about poetry though he made his living in the insurance industry in Glasgow Scottland. For him, his business, insurance, was just a means to an end, writing poetry.
Tragedy struck Dix with a near fatal illness that left him confined to bed for months. During this time he reflected on his faith and read his Bible. When he did regain his strength he was inspired to write his greatest work, including “What Child is This?”
In an era where Christmas was not a commercial enterprise and the Church worked hard to keep it as a day of worship, few writers wrote about the birth of Christ. Dix bucked the trend. There is no record as to why Dix choose to write on the first Christmas but it is known that he was inspired. He wrote “The Manger Throne” in a single sitting.
Dix published the poem just as the Civil War in the United States was coming to an end. The poem not only spoke to those in Great Britian but also to Christians in both the North and the South in the United States.
As inspred as the words of Dix might be, they would probably be forgoten by most, only a few serious readers of poetry remembering them had it not been for the efforts of an unknown Englishman who paired Dix’s lyrics with the “Greensleeves” melody under the name, “What Child is This?”
Unlike many others, Dix actually did live to see his words become famous. And, as we all know, today it is a Christmas classic.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.