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A Virgin Most Pure

[ Roud 1378 ; Ballad Index PBOC003 ; Bodleian Roud 1378 ; trad. (Gilbert, 1822)]

This is one of the most venerable and widely distributed of all English Christmas carols. The earliest known version of the text is in New Carolls for this Merry Time of Christmas (London, 1661). This version begins “In Bethlehem city, in Jewry it was”. The familiar first verse, “A virgin unspotted” or “A virgin most pure” had been added when the carol next surfaced in the 18th century.

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. One of the songs on this album is A Virgin Most Pure. The liner notes commented:

Words and tune traditional. This version is from Some Ancient Christmas Carols, Davis Gilbert, published in 1822, although there is an earlier printed one in 1734. Many versions existed all over the country.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band recorded A Virgin Most Pure in 1987 for their first album, A Tapestry of Carols. A live recording from the Maddy Prior, Family & Friends Christmas tour of 1999 was released on the CD Ballads and Candles.

Lyrics

Maddy Prior sings A Virgin Most Pure

A virgin most pure, as the prophets do tell,
Hath brought forth a baby, as it hath befell,
To be our Redeemer from death, hell and sin,
Which Adam's transgression hath wrapped us in.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Aye, and therefore be you merry,
Rejoice and be merry,
Set sorrows aside!
Christ Jesus, our Saviour,
Was born on this tide.

In Bethlehem in Jewry a city there was,
Where Joseph and Mary together did pass,
And there to be taxed with many a one more,
For Caesar commanded the same should be so.

But when they had entered the city so fair,
The number of people so mighty was there
That Joseph and Mary, whose substance was small,
Could find in the inn there no lodging at all.

Then were they constrained in a stable to lie,
Where horses and asses they used for to tie;
Their lodging so simple they took it no scorn
But against the next morning our Saviour was born.

The King of all kings to this world being brought,
Fine number of linen to wrap him was sought;
And when she had swaddled her young son so sweet,
Within an ox's manger she laid him to sleep.

Then God sent an angel from heaven so high,
To certain poor shepherds in fields where they lie,
And bade them no longer in sorrow to stay,
Because that our Saviour was born on this day.

Then presently after, the shepherds did spy
A number of angels that stood in the sky.
They joyfully talked, and sweetly did sing,
“To God be all Glory, Our heavenly King.”