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The Mistletoe Bough

[ Roud 2336 ; Ballad Index R802 ; Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839)]

Bob Copper sang The Mistletoe Bough on his Topic album Sweet Rose in June. He and Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:

The Mistletoe Bough, on the other hand, is very much a composed song—in this case by Sir Henry Bishop (composer of Home Sweet Home) and T.H. Bayly. Although based on the story of the Lovell's missing bride, it should be noted that several other old halls also carry the same legend; notably Marwell Hall near Owslebury in Hampshire. One reason for the Oxfordshire setting may be the fact that in 1487 Francis 1st Viscount Lovell—the occupant of Minster Lovell Hall—disappeared following a dispute with the then Royal Family. Two centuries later, in 1708, some workmen encountered a secret room at the Hall and discovered “the entire skeleton of a man, as having been at a table which was before him with a book, paler, pen… all much mouldered and decay.” Francis perhaps? The workmen were never to find out though, for the entire contents of the room turned to dust as they watched.

George Townshend sang The Mistletoe Bough in a recording made by Brian Matthews in 1960. This was publishd in 2000 on his Musical Traditions anthology Come Hand to Me the Glass.

Walter Pardon of Knapton, Norfolk, sang The Mistletoe Bough on June 25, 1978 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 1993 on Pardon's Musical Traditions anthology Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father. Mike Yates commented in the accompanying booklet:

Written in the early 1830s by Thomas Haynes Bayly (who also wrote the words of Home Sweet Home), with music by Sir Henry Bishop, this ballad has been extremely popular throughout southern England and the USA and appears in a number of popular song books and ballad sheets. It relates well to the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the general Gothic Novel movement. Roud has 70 versions, almost all from broadsides, with only eight recorded examples […]. It is still very popular in Yorkshire carolling pubs.

One must assume that the element of pastiche in the song (trying hard to seem an older song than it actually is) meant that the earlier English collectors ignored it (for they surely must have encountered it), since it appears only in Henry Burstow's listing of his songs in Reminiscences of Horsham.

In Everyman's Book of British Ballads, Roy Palmer says: “There is a tradition that this ballad was inspired by an, event at Exton Hall, Rutland, in the early eighteenth century. The owner's daughter, Catherine Noel, aged eighteen, got into a large chest during a game of hide and seek, or, as another story has it, a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She was unable to re-open the lid, and was suffocated before she could be released.”

Gordon Syrett sang The Mistletoe Bough in Mendlesham Green in 1985. This recording was included in 1993 on the Veteran cassette of traditional music making from Mid-Suffolk recorded 1958-1993, Many a Good Horseman and in 2009 on the album's CD reissue. John Howson commented in the liner notes:

Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote this ballad […] and it is said to be based on a true story, with the location being either Brockdish Hall, near Diss in Norfolk or Bramwell House near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Both of these have locations have legends about a bride being locked in an oak chest during a game of ‘hide and seek’ and being found dead years later. The song became popular in Victorian drawing rooms, but was also printed on street ballad sheets and taken up by traditional singers in both England and North America.

Andy Turner learned The Mistletoe Bough from Bob Copper's album. He recorded it in 1995 for The Mellstock Band's Saydisc CD Songs of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, and sang it as the December 28, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Jackie Oates sang The Mistletoe Bough in 2006 on her first CD, Jackie Oates.

Jon Boden sang Mistletoe Bough as the December 7, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This YouTube video shows him at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth in December 2012:

Ken Nicol's song Mistletoe Bough on Steeleye Span's 2004 CD Winter is a different song with just the same title.

Lyrics

George Townshend sings The Mistletoe Bough Gordon Syrett sings The Mistletoe Bough

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch hung on the old oak wall
And the baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride,
His beautiful child, young Lovell's bride…
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch hung on the old oak wall.
The Baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping their Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride,
His beautiful daughter, young Lovel's bride.
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be,
The star of the goodly company.
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

“I am weary of dancing now,” she cried,
“Pray tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide
And Lovell, be sure the first to trace
The clue to my secret flirting place.”
Away she ran, and her friends began
Each bower to search and each nook to scan
And young Lovell cried, “Oh where dost thou hide?
I'm lonesome without thee, own dear bride.”
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

“I'm tired of dancing now,” she cried,
“Here, tarry one moment, I'll hide, I'll hide,
And Lovel be sure thou art first to trace
A clue to my secret hiding place.”
Away she ran and her friends all began,
Each nook to search and each nook to scan,
And young Lovel cried, “Oh where dost thou hide?
For I am lonely without thee, my own dear bride.”
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

They sought her that night, they sought her next day
They sought her in vain when a week passed away
In the highest, the lowest, the lowliest spot
Young Lovell sought widely and found her not
And years flew by and the grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
“See the old man weeps for his fairy bride.”
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

They sought her that night and they sought her next day,
They sought her in vain till the weeks passed away,
And years flew by, and the tale at last,
Was told as a sorrowing tale of the past,
And when Lovel appeared the children cried,
“See the old man weeps for his own dear bride.”
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

At length an old chest that had long lain hid
Was found in the castle, they raised the lid
And the skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of the lady fair.
Oh sad was her fate, and the sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring and the bridal bloom
Lay withering there in a living tomb.
Oh! the mistletoe bough!
Oh! the mistletoe bough!

At length an oak chest that had long lain hid
Was found in the castle, they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there,
In the bridled wreath of a lady fair.
Oh! sad was her fate, for in sportive jest.
She hid from her Lord, in an old oak chest,
It had closed with a spring, and a dreadful doom,
For the bride she laid clasped in a living tomb.