What child is this


Text. The words to this carol were penned by William Chatterton Dix (1837–1898) and first published in Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, 1868 | Fig. 1), edited by John Stainer and Henry Bramley. Little is known about the circumstances behind this popular text by Dix except that he was living in Glasgow, Scotland at the time and working as an insurance broker in a marine insurance office.


Fig. 1. Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, 1868).

An illustrated edition of Christmas Carols New and Old (1871), incorporating carols from the First Series (1868) and Second Series (1870), included an engraving for Dix’s text by W.J. Wiegand, showing Mary and Joseph with the Christ child, juxtaposed with the crucifixion elements named in stanza 2, “Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through / The Cross be borne for me, for you” (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2. Christmas Carols New and Old, Illustrated (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871).

Dix’s text looks upon the Incarnation story (Luke 2, Matthew 2) with a sense of wonder, inquiring “What child is this … whom angels greet?” And he answers the question, “This is Christ the King.” The second stanza also begins with a question, asking why this royal child is lying in such lowly (“mean”) accommodations, then reminding listeners that this child will be treated horrifically as an adult on our behalf. The reference to ox and ass is an allusion to Isaiah 1:3 (“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand”). The third stanza names the gifts of the magi and invites the listener to participate in a response of worship.

Hymnologist Carl Daw noted the skill in Dix’s craft:

Rather than being a simple with refrain, it is really rhyming as abccbddef, with the c rhymes being half lines, the b rhymes being unstressed rhymes, and the f rhyme attached to an invariable line; furthermore, the first word of the seventh line is always repeated, as is that of the fifth line in the first and last stanzas.[1]

Hymnals and carol books that eliminate the second halves of the last two stanzas and treat the first ending as a refrain lose the full scope of Dix’s masterly work.

Tune. The familiar tune GREENSLEEVES has a much longer and more complex history. This style of melody is considered Italian in influence (especially the romanesca and/or the passamezzo antico), a style that was not known to be imported prior to 1550. Nonetheless, this tune is sometimes said to date to the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) on the basis of a citation in the poem “Satyra prima” by Edward (or Everard) Guilpin in Skialetheia, or a Shadowe of Truth (1598): “Yet like th’ olde ballad of the Lord of Lorne / whose last line in King Harries dayes was borne,” referring to a ballad “The Lord of Lorne” that was sung to the tune of GREENSLEEVES. The ballad (or portions of it) may be older than the tune, or the reference to Henry VIII may be entirely fanciful.

In spite of its obscure origins, there was a sudden rush of applications at the Stationers’ Company for licenses related to this tune, starting on 3 September of 1580, with Richard Jones registering “A new Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves,” and on the same day Edward White registering “A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves Answere to Donkyn his frende.” Twelve days later, a religious version was registered as “Greene Sleves moralised to the Scripture, declaring the manifold benefites and blessings of God bestowed on sinful man.” None of these original printings seem to have survived.

The oldest surviving printing of a song or ballad intended to be sung to GREENSLEEVES is “A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young king of Scots … to the tune of Milfield, or els to Greenesleeues,” by William Elderton, registered 30 May 1581 and printed in London. The original broadside is held by the Society of Antiquaries of London (https://www.sal.org.uk | Fig. 3).


Fig. 3. W. Elderton, “A new ballad …” registered 30 May 1581. Reproduced by permission of the Society of Antiquaries of London.


Elderton’s text was reprinted in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, vol. 2 (London: J. Dodsley, 1765 | Fig. 4), which provides some context behind the meaning of the song and offers some details about Elderton.

Fig. 4. Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient Poetry, vol. 2 (London: J. Dodsley, 1765).

The tune was featured more prominently in A Handefull of Pleasant Delites (1584 | Fig. 5), published by the same Richard Jones who had registered his “new Northern Dittye” on 3 Sept. 1580 (this may be the same ditty, but the connection is impossible to prove). This version is text-only, headed “A new Courtly Sonet, of the Lady Green Sleeues. To the new tune of Greensleeues.” This same collection is important in the study of the tune DIANA, referenced here in the last image of Figure 4.

Fig. 5. A Handefull of Pleasant Delites (London: Richard Jones, 1584).

The oldest and best example of the melody is usually credited to William Ballet’s lute book, which is a manuscript dated ca. 1590, held at Trinity College Dublin (TCD MS 408 | Digital Collections | Fig. 6), p. 104, with a piece labeled “greene sleves.”


Fig. 6a. Trinity College Dublin, MS 408, p. 104.

Fig. 6b. Trinity College Dublin, MS 408, p. 104, melody only. Transcription by Hymnology Archive. The ‘2’ above the double bar in the MS (Fig. 6a) might signify a repeat.


The Ballet version is considered to be the ultimate predecessor for all modern printings of the tune, probably because of the work of William Chappell in transcribing and publishing it in 1840 and 1859 (see the bibliography below), and the work of Bramley and Stainer in popularizing it through their series of carol books, 1868-1878.

Another source, possibly older, is a Fantasia (6/g1 or II) for six instruments by William Byrd (1538–1623) in which GREENSLEEVES is musically quoted. This piece survives in the British Library (MS Add. 17786-17791) and Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS Tenbury 379-84), transcribed in K. Elliott, Consort Music, The Collected Works of William Byrd, vol. 17 (London: Stainer & Bell, 1971), no. 12 (Fig. 7). It is believed to have been written in the 1580s. In this example, the melody begins at measure 84 in the second instrument then is passed to the first instrument. Given the six-part polyphonic texture, the shift between instruments, and a potentially spritely tempo, a listener could be forgiven for not hearing the allusion.


Fig. 7. William Byrd, Fantasia à 6 (II), ed. K. Elliott, Consort Music, The Collected Works of William Byrd, vol. 17 (London: Stainer & Bell, 1971), no. 12, p. 58, mm. 84-87, excerpt.


One other sixteenth century source worth noting is a manuscript sometimes known as the Dowland lute book, or Collection of Songs and Dances for the Lute, ca. 1594-1600, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC), MS V.b.280, with GREENSLEEVES (“grien sliuis”) on folio 5r (Fig. 8). This is an arrangement for two lutes. The melody in the treble part is highly ornamented, probably for an advanced player. A facsimile of the entire collection is available online (https://luna.folger.edu), and a complete musical transcription of this page is available from MusicksHandmade (http://fandango.musickshandmade.com).


Fig. 8. Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC), MS V.b.280, fol. 5r.


GREENSLEEVES was famously cited twice in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, written ca. 1597 and first published in 1602. The quote most interesting to hymn lovers is in Act 2, Scene 1, in which the character Falstaff writes a letter to Mrs. Ford, making an analogy by noting the disparity between Psalm 100 and GREENSLEEVES:

I shall think the worse of fat men, as long as I have an eye to make difference of men’s liking. And yet he would not swear, praised women’s modesty, and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness, that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words: but they do no more adhere and keep pace together, than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Green Sleeves.

The reference is notable because it expects the audience to know that the text of Psalm 100 (“All people that on earth do dwell”) does not fit to GREENSLEEVES, meaning both of these were widely familiar by the time Shakepeare’s play was written.

GREENSLEEVES was first referenced as a carol tune in Good and True, Fresh and New Christmas Carols (London, 1642 | Fig. 9), where it was named as the recommended tune for “A Carrol for New-yeares day,” which began “The old yeare now away has fled.” For a full transcription of the text, see the New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: University Press, 1992), pp. 474-475.

Fig. 9. Good and True, Fresh and New Christmas Carols (London, 1642).

Since its pairing with “What child is this” in 1868, GREENSLEEVES is known predominantly by that text and is often associated with Christmas even when played instrumentally. Percy Dearmer, an important editor for Oxford University Press in the early twentieth century, described the enormous influence of Bramley & Stainer’s collection on the realm of Christmas carols:

The influence of this book was enormous: it placed in the hands of the clergy … a really practicable tool, which came into general use, and is still in use after sixty years. The great service done by this famous collection was that it brought thirteen traditional carols, with their proper music, into general use at once. … Many other carols and some collections were produced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, for carol singing had now become popular, but none of these attained to the standard of Bramley and Stainer.[2]

For more detailed accounts of examples and variants of GREENSLEEVES, see Chappell (1859), Simpson (1966), and Ward (1990) in the bibliography below.

for Hymnology Archive
20 December 2018


  1. Carl P. Daw Jr. “What child is this,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 152.

  2. Percy Dearmer, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: University Press, 1928), pp. xvi-xvii.

Related Resources:

William Chappell, A Collection of National English Airs (London: Chappell, 1840), p. 118: Google Books

William Chappell, “Green Sleeves,” The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, vol. 1 (London: Chappell & Co., ca. 1859), pp. 227-233: Google Books

Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series [Review], The Musical Times, vol. 13, no. 310 (Dec. 1868), p. 616: PDF

Hyder Edward Rollins, An Analytical Index to the Ballad-Entries (1557–1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1924).

Claude M. Simpson, “Greensleeves,” The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966), pp. 268-278.

Brian Jeffery, “Greensleeves,” Elizabethan Popular Music for the Lute, vol. 1 (Oxford: University Press, 1968), pp. 11,33-35 [transcription from Ballet lute book].

Oliver Neighbor, The Consort and Keyboard Music of William Byrd (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 79-84.

John M. Ward, “And who but my Ladie Greensleeues?” The Well-Enchanting Skill, ed. John Caldwell, et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 181-211.

“The old yeare now away is fled,” New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott (Oxford: University Press, 1992), pp. 474-475.

Morgan Simmons & Alan Luff, “What child is this, who, laid to rest,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 115.

“What child is this, who, laid to rest,” Companion to Church Hymnal, ed. Edward Darling and Donald Davison (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), p. 303-304.

“What child is this, who, laid to rest,” Hymnary.org: