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Once in Royal David's City – Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital
From its composer and lyrics to why it can send fear into the hearts of the hardiest boy sopranos, here’s everything you need to know about the timeless Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.
‘Once in Royal David’s City’ originated as a poem, written by the Irish poet Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848. She published it in her hymnbook, Hymns for little Children.
Alexander, who is credited by many as the greatest hymn-writer in the English language, is also remembered for writing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.
A year later, an English organist by the name of Henry John Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music, creating the beloved Christmas carol we know today.
Traditionally, the first verse of the carol is sung a cappella by a boy soprano – now more often a female soprano soloist – before the full choir and organ join in for the second verse.
Since 1919, the Choir of King’s College Cambridge has used ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ as its opening carol for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
The service takes place in the historic King’s College Chapel Cambridge on Christmas Eve at 3pm each year and is broadcast live on UK radio.
Every year one boy is chosen on the day, seconds before they’re supposed to sing, as the soloist. As is legend, the choirmaster points at his chosen singer as the broadcast starts. Talk about the nightmare before Christmas...
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, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honour 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 so dear and gentle
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 by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.