Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Candlemas and The Carol of King Cnut

This post features a combination of two favourite themes of this blog: Christmas carols, and King Cnut. But it also celebrates Candlemas. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I posted about a story of Cnut's visit to Ely Abbey, where the king had to follow a peasant across the ice in a cart when the fens proved impassable by boat. According to the twelfth-century history of the abbey, Cnut was in the habit of visiting Ely to celebrate the Feast of the Purification, aka Candlemas, aka today. If you will go visiting Fenland abbeys in February, you get weather problems - but sometimes Cnut actually made it to Ely. And on one occasion he wrote a song about it! Well, not really. I mean, he probably didn't write it. But there is a song, and it's one of the earliest songs in Middle English, and there's a lovely story about it.

Here's the story:

"King Cnut was making his way to Ely by boat, accompanied by Emma, his queen, and the nobles of the kingdom, desiring to celebrate solemnly there, in accordance with custom, the Purification of St Mary, starting from which date the abbots of Ely are accustomed to hold, in their turn, their position of service in the royal court. When they were approaching the land, the king rose up in the middle of his men and directed the boatmen to make for the little port at full speed, and then ordered them to pull the boat forward more slowly as it came in. As he turned his eyes towards the church which stood out at a distance, situated as it was at the top of a rocky eminence, he heard the sound of sweet music echoing on all sides, and, with ears alert, began to drink in the melody more fully the closer he approached. For he realised that it was the monks singing psalms in the monastery and chanting clearly the Divine Hours. He urged the others who were present in the boats to come round about him and sing, joining him in jubilation. Expressing with his own mouth his joyfulness of heart, he composed aloud a song in English the beginning of which runs as follows:

Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely
ða Cnut ching reu ðer by.
Roweþ cnites noer the lant
and here we þes muneches sæng.

[Merry sang the monks in Ely
When Cnut the king rowed by;
'Row, men, near the land
And let us hear these monks sing.']

This and the remaining parts that follow are up to this day sung publicly by choirs and remembered in proverbs. The king, while tossing this around [in his mind], did not rest from singing piously and decorously in concert with the venerable confraternity, until he reached land."

Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, trans. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005) pp.181-2.

I love this story. Scandinavian kings are always composing verses in the Icelandic sagas - so if Harald Hardrada could compose skaldic verse just before the battle of Stamford Bridge (Harold Godwineson, too), why couldn't the multi-talented Cnut compose a little song in honour of his favourite monks, overflowing with joy at the beauty of their chanting? I wish he had, but sadly, he didn't. It probably dates closer to the time the Liber Eliensis was written (the late twelfth century) than to Cnut's lifetime (this visit would have taken place in the 1020s) but it's still:

a) a very early Middle English poem
b) a sweet little song in its own right
c) associated with Cnut

And since that happened at Candlemas I choose to think of 2 February additionally as 'Cnut Day' or 'The Anniversary of the First Middle English Carol' or whatever you like.

I can't remember where I got this picture so I apologise for not knowing the source - but it makes me laugh every time I look at it...

As you can see, it isn't a Christmas carol (or really a religious song at all), but a 19th-century Dean of Ely, Charles William Stubbs, decided to turn it into one. Thus he wrote 'The Carol of King Cnut', which was set to music first by T. Tertius Noble (see below) and again by Benjamin Britten as part of his 'Christ's Nativity' carol series. In honour of the last day of the Christmas season, then, enjoy a last carol, courtesy of Ely, Dean Stubbs, and King Cnut:

O merry rang the hymn
Across the fenlands dim;
O joy the day!
When Cnut the king sailed by,
O row my men, more nigh
And hear that holy cry,
Sing Gloria!

From Ely Minster then
Rang out across the fen
O Gloria!
The good monks' merry song
That rolled its aisles among,
And echoed far and long :
Sing joy the day!

It was the Christmas morn
Whereon the child was born
(O joy the day!)
On lily banks among
Where fragrant flowers do throng
For maiden posies sprung?
Ah nay! ah nay!

It was the winter cold
Whereon the tale was told
(O joy the day!)
What hap did then befall
To men and women all
From that poor cattle stall,
O Gloria!

The shepherds in a row
Knelt by the cradle low,
O joy the day!
And told the angel song
They heard, their sheep among,
When all the heavenly throng
Sang gloria!

Glory to God on high,
Who bringeth men anigh,
O Gloria!
And war's black death did ban,
And peace on earth began
And Christ the Word made man!
Sing joy the day!

Sing joy, my masters, sing,
And let the welkin ring,
O Gloria!
And Nowell! Nowell! cry
The Child is King most High
O sovran victory!
Sing joy the day!

You can listen to Benjamin Britten's lively setting of 'The Carol of King Cnut' here.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This was delightful! Thank you for cross-linking it to Candlemas 2015!

Is there any historical source for the crucifix on the stern of the boat in the Victorian illustration?!

An Old Mertonian

Clerk of Oxford said...

None whatsoever, I should think!