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Seven Virgins, or The Leaves of Life

[ Roud 127 ; Ballad Index OBB111 ; DT SVNVIRG , SVNVIRG2 ; Mudcat 11105 ; trad.]

Seven Virgins, or The Leaves of Life is an English Passion carol, based on the gospel of John (John 19:26-27), that was not included in the Child ballads. The first mention of this song dates back to 1847. It was also collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923 and later by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was recorded to a different tune by Ewan MacColl on the Riverside anthology Great British Ballads Not Included in the Child Collection. Kenneth F. Goldstein noted:

In the ballad-carol of The Seven Virgins, we have another story based on the Apocryphal Gospels. The ballad tells of the trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary and of her attendance by seven virgins. Various versions of the Pseudo-Gospels make references to three, or five, virgins attending Christ’s mother, and it is possible that the reference to “seven virgins” is an oral corruption of the Seven Virgins frequently referred to in post-medieval manuscripts (see JFSS, VII, pp. 283-286).

The earliest known text is from a small Manx manuscript carol-book with watermarks of 1826 and 1829, and was written down about 1830. It first appeared in print in a Staffordshire chapbook, A Good Christmas Box, published in 1847, and it is probable that most versions of The Seven Virgins that have been recorded from tradition were learned from this chapbook collection. Various 19th century broadsides of the ballad may also have played a part in standardising the text in circulation.

The version sung by MacColl is primarily the chapbook version mentioned above, with a few emendations from Enoch Pickering, of Teague’s Bridge, Salop. The tune was collected in 1923 by Cecil Sharp from Samson Price, of Salop.

Norma Waterson sang Seven Virgins on the Watersons’ 1965 and first LP, Frost and Fire, reissued on CD in 1990. A.L. Lloyd noted:

This spring-time ballad-carol tells a story based on the Apocryphal Gospels, concerning a trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary, in the company of seven virgins. The opening recalls the handsome illuminations in the Arundel Psalter, showing the sombre tree of death with its dismal birds, and the dazzling tree of life with iridescent leaves. The parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ and the ritual slaying and renewal of the divine kings of pagan belief (echoed in the mumming plays) needs no stressing. Norma Waterson sings it.

Martin Carthy sang The Leaves of Life in 1966 on the eponymous music magazine compilation LP Folk Scene as one of his very first solo recordings. This track was also included in 2001 on his 4CD anthology The Carthy Chronicles.

Sandy Denny recorded The Seven Virgins ca. 1966-67 as a home demo. This recording was included in 2010 on the Sandy Denny Box Set. Another recording in Alex Campbell’s house at 19 Rupert St, Glasgow on 5 August 1967 was published in 2011 on the CD 19 Rupert St.

One of the versions which Vaughan Williams collected came from the gypsy singer Mrs Esther Smith. She was the mother of May Bradley from whom Fred Hamer recorded the song in the private room of a pub in Ludlow, Shropshire, on 12 April 1966. This recording was included as Under the Leaves in 1967 in Hamer’s book Garners Gay, in 1998 on the VWML album of Hamer’s field recordings, The Leaves of Life, and in the same year on the Topic anthology My Father’s the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Series Volume 11), and, as The Leaves of Life, in 2010 on May Bradley’s Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea.

The Druids sang The Leaves of Life in 1972 on their Argo album Pastime With Good Company.

John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff sang The Leaves of Life in 1980 on their album To Welcome In the Spring.

Martin Simpson played of Leaves of Life in 1989 as the title track of his Shanachie album Leaves of Live. He also sang it in 2001 on his Topic CD The Bramble Briar where he noted:

Leaves of Life I learned from Norma Waterson. It is a gypsy Easter carol which has been inside me since I first heard it as a teenager. I recorded an instrumental version of it in 1989 and then found myself singing it at every opportunity. Great singers have been so important to my development as a player, perhaps the major influence, beyond guitar.

Mick Ryan and Pete Harris sang Leaves of Life in 1999 on their WildGoose album Hard Season.

Craig Morgan Robson sang The Leaves of Life in 2005 on their CD Peppers & Tomatoes. They noted:

Versions of this Easter ballad-carol have been collected in a number of places. A fine version collected in Herefordshire by Vaughan Williams can be found in The Oxford Book of Carols. The stark beauty of the song has taken it far beyond the folk scene and led to its inclusion in the Oxford Book of English Verse and other anthologies, as well as its rebirth in a number of choral settings, which is where Moira [Craig] first came across it. Sarah [Morgan] learned it from the singing of Norma Waterson, on the Watersons’ definitive album of seasonal songs, Frost and Fire.

Charlotte Greig sang Under the Leaves on her 2005 album Quite Silent.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Leaves of Life in 2006 on their first album, Under the Leaves.

The Devil’s Interval (Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley) sang The Leaves of Life in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Blood and Honey. They noted:

This Biblical story contains elements of apocryphal imagery. The rose and the fern create a landscape far removed from the Bible lands, showing how such storied became localised and thus relevant to the singers’ familiar surroundings.

Our version comes from the wonderfully haunting singing of May Bradley, a Shropshire Traveller.

This video shows them at Loughborough Folk Festival in 2008:

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang The Leaves of Life on a bonus track of the 2011 reissue of their album of regional and historical carols, Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.

June Tabor and the Oysterband sang The Leaves of Life in 2011 on their Topic CD Ragged Kingdom.

Andy Turner learned The Leaves of Life from the singing of the Watersons and sang it as the 6 April 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

John Kirkpatrick sang Under the Leaves of Life in 2012 on his Fledg’ling CD Every Mortal Place. The album title is from a phrase in this song.

Nick Hart sang Under the Leaves of Life on his 2022 album Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs. He noted:

From the singing of May Bradley, this haunting little carol relates an encounter with the Virgin Mary on the way to Calvary. Lots of people have mentioned the apocryphal gospels as a source for the narrative of this song, but no one seems to be able to point to a particular one.

Sam Lee sang Leaves of Life on his 2024 album Songdreaming. He noted:

The singer May Bradley was a Herefordshire Gypsy, a county I spent much of my life growing up in. She is the source of many songs I’ve loved, learned and even recorded but her Leaves of Life is one I had long kept a respectful distance from. This apocryphal tale of the Seven Virgins attending Mary’s visit to see her son Jesus crucified in Calvary is set under the ‘leaves of life’, this mystical Tree of Life. This English-folk-hymnal-cum-ballad-carol had long fascinated me but what drove me to approach this traumatic tale was how its featuring of the number ‘seven’ chimed as a seed for a new story. The original’s Seven Virgins is echoed in the Native American Iroquois Nation’s supposed ‘seven generation’ prophecy decreeing that all decisions need to take into account the impact on the seven generations to come (and as some also say, generations past). And there appeared to me May Bradley’s theme reborn as a new apocryphal story, telling of the visitation of the seven generations of children yet unborn to meet the Tree of Life. To their dismay they discover their weeping ‘mother tree’ is withered, lifeless, leafless, unshading, and unprotecting. This ‘weeping tree’ has been sacrificed to prosperity by power- hungry entities who, throughout the centuries, have wielded religion and market forces upon our children’s futures. This is a song of their rage, a rage as yet unborn, directed at those who knew and their endorsement of that corruption.


Norma Waterson sings Seven Virgins

All under the leaves and the leaves of life
I met with virgins seven.
And one of them was Mary mild,
Our Lord’s best mother in Heaven.

“Oh what are you seeking you seven pretty maids
All under the leaves of life?”
“We are seeking for no leaves, Thomas,
But for a friend of thine.”

“Go down, go down into yonder town
And sit in the gallery,
And there you’ll see sweet Jesus Christ,
Nailed to a big yew tree.”

So down they went into yonder town
As fast as foot could fall.
And many a bitter and grievous tear
From them virgins’ eyes did fall.

“Oh peace mother oh peace mother
Your weeping does me grieve.
But I will suffer this,” he said,
For Adam and for Eve.”

“Oh how can I my weeping leave
My sorrows undergo?
While I do see my own son die
And sons I have no more.”

He’s laid his head on his right shoulder
And death has struck him nigh.
“The Holy Ghost be with your soul
Sweet mother now I die.”

Oh the rose the gentle rose
The fennel it grows so strong.
Amen, good Lord, your charity
Is the ending of my song.

May Bradley sing Under the Leaves

It’s all under the leaves and the leaves of life
Where I saw maidens from heaven,
And it’s one of those were Mary mild
Was our king’s mother from heaven.

Then she asked me what was I looking for
All under the leaves of life?
“I am looking for sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree.”

“Dear mother, dear mother, don’t you weep for me
For weeping does me some harm.
For it’s I may suffer for you dear mother
When you are dead and gone.

“Dear mother, dear mother for you must love John
For John’s been an angel so bright.
But it’s now I shall suffer for death, dear mother,
When you are dead and gone.”

“Go you down, go you down to yonder little town
As far as you can see,
And it’s there you will find sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree.”

There’s a rose, and a rose, and a gentile rose
The rose that grows so green,
God will give us grace in every mortal place
For to pray to our heavenly guide.


Transcribed from the singing of the Norma Waterson by Garry Gillard.