WHILE Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night is one of the most enduring and popular carols, and probably one of the most parodied. I am going to get my schoolgirl version out of the way:
While shepherds washed their socks by night
All seated round the tub
A bar of Sunlight soap came down
And they began to scrub.
The bar of Sunlight soap really dates me!
The verses were written by the Irish poet Nahum Tate, who became Britain’s Poet Laureate.
Tate was born in Dublin in 1652, the son of the wonderfully named Faithful Teate, an Irish clergyman. He graduated from the city’s Trinity College and moved to London in 1676 to write for a living, changing his surname to ‘Tate’. In 1681 he saw fit to revise Shakespeare’s King Lear, omitting the Fool and introducing a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and Cordelia marries Edgar. This was the version performed until the mid-19th century, when Shakespeare’s original came back into vogue. Tate wrote the libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the first known performance of which was in 1689. In 1692 he succeeded Thomas Shadwell as Poet Laureate and held the position for 22 years.
From the beginning of the 16th century Reformation until the 18th century, hymns were practically non-existent in the Church of England. Congregational singing consisted of versified psalms. In 1696 Tate and his collaborator Nicholas Brady published a new version of the psalms, and While Shepherds Watched first appeared in a 1700 supplement to that work. Tate paraphrased the story of the nativity found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-14, sticking closely to the Biblical words. At that time it was the only Christmas hymn authorised to be sung in the Anglican Church, and so it remained until 1792.
In Britain it is usually sung to the anonymous 16th century tune Winchester Old which first appeared in Este’s Whole Book of Psalmes from 1592. The words and tune were probably first published together in an arrangement by William H Monk for the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861. Here is a performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, from 2007. I have searched YouTube in vain for the final verse descant I remember from school.
There are very many other versions, and my thanks go to reader ‘Tim Nicely-Thornogson’ who pointed me in the direction of the singers Coope, Boyes and Simpson. They give two unaccompanied arrangements of While Shepherds Watched on their 2006 album Voices at the Door, with Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes. The first is to the melody Liverpool and the second is called Hail Chime On. Sadly the trio gave their farewell performance last year.