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, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior 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 who seemed so helpless
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 round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.
Scripture references: Luke 2:7, Phil 2:7, I John 3:2.
Cecil Frances Humphries (1818-1895) wrote this hymn and published it in 1848 in Hymns for Little Children. A year later, H. J. Gauntlett discovered Miss Humphries' poem and set it to music.
Cecil Frances was the daughter of well-to-do Dublin landowner, Major John Humphries. This was a household where children knew their place, so she would hide her poems, written since the age of nine, under the carpet. Her father discovered her secret and provided a box for their reception, the contents of which she was allowed to read to the family on Saturday evenings. Her godsons complained that they could not understand the Creed, so she promptly set about writing verses to help them. From this small beginning she became the prolific author of over 400 hymns. The best known apart from “Once in Royal David’s city” are “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult”, “There is a green hill far away” and “All things bright and beautiful”.
Just as she was resigning herself to being ‘left on the shelf’ she married the outstanding clergyman, the Rev William Alexander, who was later to become Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland. Readers should understand that these were positions in the Anglican Church – a minority sect in Ireland which is divided between Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. The couple lived most of their married life in the north in Strabane and Londonderry.
Although a very shy person, possibly because of myopia, she was nevertheless a great worker for women and children. Her hymns went into a hundred editions for the deaf mutes of Londonderry and she was a strong supporter of the Home for Fallen Women (as unmarried mothers were known in those days).
Once in Royal David’s City is written from a woman’s point of view. She clearly sympathized with the “lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay”. In a world dominated by men she has been called subversive by modern feminists. Did she see Mary as a model for her fallen women?
The world over, the carol is sung to the tune “Irby” by Henry John Gauntlet who became the organist at his father's church at Olney, Buckinghamshire at the age of 9. He was intended for a career in law and remained a lawyer until he was almost forty years of age, when he abandoned that profession and devoted himself to music. He was organist at a number of leading London churches and eventually the degree of Mus. Doc. was conferred on him by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he being the first to receive such a degree from that quarter for over 200 years. He did much to raise the standard of church music both mechanically and musically. In 1852 he patented an "electrical-action apparatus" for organs. He wrote much music and over 1000 hymn tunes, and edited a large number of hymn books.
Since 1919, the King's College Chapel has begun their Christmas Eve service, Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, with "Once in Royal David's City" as the processional. The first verse is sung by a member of the Choir of King's Chapel as a solo. The second verse is sung by the choir, and in the third verse the congregation joins. Excluding the first verse, the hymn is accompanied by the organ. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide who tune in to this service.