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The Boar’s Head Carol

The Young Tradition: The Boar’s Head Carol (Argo AFW 115)

The Boar’s Head Carol / The Shepherd’s Hymn
The Young Tradition

Argo AFW 115 (single, UK, 1974)

The Boar’s Head Carol / Gaudete / Some Rival
Steeleye Span

Chrysalis CHS 2192 (single, p/s, UK, 1977)

Steeleye Span: The Boar’s Head Carol (Chrysalis CHS 2192)

[ Roud 22229 ; Ballad Index OBC172A ; trad.]

The ancient ceremony of the Boar’s Head Carol (for its history see Wikipedia) was performed for many years on Christmas Eve at Queen’s College, Oxford, but now on a Saturday shortly before Christmas, when old members are entertained at a ‘gaudy’. The College Choir processes into the Hall during the refrains, stopping each time when a verse is sung. When the boar’s head is set down on the high table, the Provost distributes the herbs among the choir and presents the solo singer with the orange from the boar’s mouth.

In 1969, The Young Tradition split up while recording their album of Christmas songs with Shirley and Dolly Collins, The Holly Bears the Crown; and it was only in 1995 that the album was finally released. But two songs from it, The Boar’s Head Carol and Shepherds Arise (here called The Shepherd’s Hymn) were published by Argo on a single in 1974.

The Druids sang The Boar’s Head Carol in 1971 on their Argo album Burnt Offering. They noted:

This version differs in several ways from the Oxford University version which appears in the Oxford Book of Carols. It comes from the feast of Jantaculum: once the traditional Christmas festival of the Reading Guilds and now the traditional Christmas binge of Reading University.

Translation of the latin chorus :–

The boar’s head I bring
Singing praises to the Lord

The Boar’s Head Carol was Steeleye Span’s 1977 British Christmas single, recorded in Holland, with the B-side containing the two tracks Gaudete and Some Rival. They reissued The Boar’s Head Carol in 1981 on the Australian-only LP Recollections and in 1999 on the CD A Rare Collection 1972-1996. Two other versions with Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band appeared on their albums Carols and Capers and Carols At Christmas. A live recording from the Maddy Prior, Family & Friends Christmas tour of 1999 was released on the CD Ballads and Candles.

Magpie Lane sang The Boar’s Head Carol in 1993 on their Beautiful Jo album The Oxford Ramble. A live version recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, on 8 December 2012 was part of the 14 December 2012 entry of Andy Turner’s blog A Folk Song a Week.

John Kirkpatrick sang The Boar’s Head Carol in 2006 on his Fledg’ling CD Carolling and Crumpets. He noted:

Sung every year at the Christmas Boar’s Head feast at Queen’s College, Oxford, and one or two other noble institutions—clearly in an attempt to combine brain and brawn! This manner of singing to one’s Christmas dinner has been around in one form or another for six hundred years at the very least.

During my brief spell in Steeleye Span, I contributed this arrangement for a Christmas single in 1977. It-s a well-known song, and everyone’s done it, but I have to keep it in because the chord progression going up to the new key is such fun to play, even without the band and the brass section blasting away.

Interesting fact: Songs like this which combine workaday English and scholarly Latin are called “macaronic”. Blessed are the pasta makers!

Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews sang The Boar’s Head Carol on their 2007 CD On Shining Wings and on their 2019 CD Chimes. They noted on the first album:

This proud and ancient carol is traditionally sung at Queen’s College, Oxford, at Christmas time in thanks for food and praising God. It features in the Oxford Book of Carols and is sung regularly in the Derby areas. For Sid Long.

A chorus of Jon Boden, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Gavin Davenport, Fay Hield and Sam Sweeney sang The Boar’s Head Carol at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth as the 9 December 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Voice Squad sang The Boar’s Head Carol on their 2014 CD Concerning of Three Young Men. They noted:

19630-SR Folk Mag no.4
Wynkyn de Worde, 1534
Christmasse Carolles, 1521
Printer and publisher London
And from the Oxford Book of Carols 1928.

This is a Carol I first heard sung by the Press Gang lead by the singing of Tom Crean. Other members of the group included Dave Smith, Niall Fennell and Seán Corcoran.


Steeleye Span sing The Boar’s Head Carol

The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary;
So I pray you my masters be merry,
Quot estis in convivio [as many as are at the feast].

Chorus (twice after each verse):
Caput apri defero [I bring in the boar’s head]
Reddens laudes Domino [giving thanks to the lord]

The boar’s head as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all the land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland,
Let us servire cantico [serve it with a song].

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of bliss,
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio [in Queen’s Hall].