Haven't visited Mudcat for quite a while. I'd forgotten what a treat it is.
Came this time to refresh my aging memory for the words to the "Coventry Carol" - found them, of course (thanks Mudcat). But I also see a lot of references to this as a Christmas Carol. It's not. It's a lament, wailing about the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod.
The Slaughter of the Innocents was the nineteenth play in the mediaeval cycle of Corpus Christi Mystery Plays performed in York and Coventry in the 15th century. In a play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, the women of Bethlehem sing this song just before Herod's soldiers come to slaughter their children. It tells the story of the murder of the Holy Innocents, and is sung on December 28, the feast of those tiny martyrs. Although the composer is unknown, the text was written in 1534 by Robert Croo.
"Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they were no more."
Here's the Collect (daily prayer) from the Church of England Book of Common Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28.
"O God, whose praise the martyred innocents did this day proclaim, not by speaking, but by dying: Destroy in us all the malice of sinfulness, that our lives may also proclaim thy faith, which our tongues profess. Through our Lord. Amen."
So when you and those around you sing this absolutely lovely tune on Christmas, remember that it's really a tragedy, and think about the children all over the world killed through all the centuries of human existence in various acts of brutality by rulers afraid for their power.
Cheers all, and Merry Christmas.