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Nine Lessons and Carols: It all began in Truro

18 December 2020

Howard Tomlinson looks at the origins of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols


St Mary’s, Truro, in 1880: the ceremony at the start of the building programme for the new cathedral

St Mary’s, Truro, in 1880: the ceremony at the start of the building programme for the new cathedral

ALMOST 140 years ago, on 24 December 1880, the first Nine Lessons with Carols service took place, not in the magnificent surroundings of King’s College Chapel, but in a temporary wooden “pro-cathedral”, situated in the north-east of the precinct adjacent to a masons’ yard in Truro.

It was set there because St Mary’s, Truro, the parish church that had been designated the cathedral in the 1876 Bishopric of Truro Act, which established the independent Cornish diocese, was being dismantled — its early-16th-century south aisle apart. This was to make way for the building of John Loughborough Pearson’s design for a new cathedral for the new see. A wooden shed, like the wooden manager, was the humble setting for a service that has now become a mainstay of Christmas observance in the Anglican Church.

It is evident from local newspaper reports that St Mary’s had been the scene of successive carol services on Christmas Eve in 1878 and 1879. These took the place of the choir’s former practice of perambulating around the parishioners’ houses, singing carols on their doorsteps — and, no doubt, receiving hospitality (and collections) at many of them. The new services were popular. In 1879, it was reported that “the cathedral was crowded, many nonconformists as well as church-goers being present.”

There is good reason to believe that their originator was Somerset Walpole — one of a group of able young men who served in the new diocese — who had both conducted the carols and intoned the prayers in the two services. It is suggestive that the first of these, which filled a gap in worship at St Mary’s Church on that Christmas Eve, was held only a few months after his appointment as curate.

Walpole may also have felt that it provided a proper prelude to worship at the three Christmas Day services and was a necessary counter to the attractions offered by the licensed inns that guarded the cathedral approaches. All this is conjecture. What is certain is that Walpole did not devise the famous Nine Lessons service of 1880. This was put together in a burst of creative energy by Edward White Benson, the formidable first bishop of the new diocese.

When Benson undertook this labour of love amid his frenetic endeavours to build up the Cornish Church is again conjectural. It is likely, however, that it was compiled in the days after the last service in St Mary’s on the evening of Monday 11 October 1880, when the Rector celebrated in the old cathedral for the final time.

We know more definitely that Benson’s service was not an entirely original composition: the nine-lesson sequence, after all, had been the custom at the greatest feasts of the Church in the Middle Ages. Moreover, Arthur Benson, the eldest surviving son, remembered that his father’s festal service had been arranged from ancient sources, and Walpole later suggested that it had been largely compiled from medieval service books. One such source was Grandisson’s Legenda. Although the evidence relating to Benson’s composition of his Nine Lessons is slight, its nature can be reconstructed with greater certainty.

We are fortunate in being able to examine both the content and structure of the service through the survival of Benson’s draft and two printed orders of service in the Cornish archives at Kresen Kernow. From these sources, the differences between the 1880 service and ours today are immediately apparent, not least in the balance between Old and New Testament readings.

The first five lessons are all from the Old Testament, only two of which are now included: the first from Genesis 3 (Adam and Eve), and the fourth from Isaiah 9 (Unto us a Child is born). Of the four New Testament readings, there is only one Gospel narrative: from Luke 2, about the shepherds. The magi are ignored in the Word, although not, with the inclusion of “The First Nowell”, in the music. The great Johannine Prologue (“the Word became flesh”) forms the seventh lesson rather than the ninth, and the final two readings are from Galatians and 1 John. The latter epistle — preceded by Benson’s benediction: “Unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all” — forms a fitting climax to the service.

The royal institution of cornwallSt Mary’s, Truro, c.1870

It could well be that the draft of lessons and readers, which was marked “private”, was intended as a template for Walpole to insert the music. Benson, however, would have had the final word, no doubt insisting on a different translation — perhaps his own — of the original fourth-century Latin text of a hymn from the one printed in Hymns Ancient and Modern. So “Earth has many a noble city” became “Bethlehem! Of noblest cities” to fit in with the preceding Lesson from Micah. The rest of the music — four carols, three “anthems” from Messiah, two “hymns”, and the concluding Magnificat — was probably planned by George Walpole.

We have a good idea of the sources for most of this music, although no choir scores survive. All four carols, with some editing for “Once again, O blessed time”, were taken from the 42 published in Christmas Carols New and Old, edited by Bramley and Stainer. The three anthems were all chosen from Handel’s Messiah. The two hymns, “O come, all ye faithful” (the only piece with extensive dynamic markings) and the different translation of “Bethlehem! Of noblest cities” were from Hymns Ancient and Modern. For the Magnificat, marked as a canticle, it is not possible to trace the source, although it would probably have been sung in 1880 to a single Anglican chant.

As for the actual service, the West Briton gave it better coverage than it did the Christmas Eve carol services of the previous two years. On 23 December 1880, mention is made of “the usual festal service” that was to be held the next day, and for which “a small pamphlet” would be issued. The following week, there was a fuller and more accurate report of proceedings, suggesting that “the service was very hearty and impressive throughout, the singing being particularly good.”

We can also be sure of the state of the wooden “pro-cathedral” in December 1880. The same journalist reported that “the church was tastefully decorated with flowers and evergreens and presented a very neat appearance, the chancel having had special attention paid to it.”

But it was likely to have been cold (a stove heater was not installed until 1886), poorly lit, and badly ventilated. To our eyes, used as we are to the splendour of the celebration, it seems an incongruous setting for the first Nine Lessons service, but the church had a distinctive spirituality. As Bishop Wilkinson remarked some years later: “The services in the wooden cathedral seemed … like a scene out of Primitive times — like the Acts of the Apostles; the surroundings so plain, the ceremonial so simple, the religious feeling so spontaneous.”

We can only guess the size and nature of the congregation. Perhaps the wooden church was as crowded and the worshippers were as mixed as for the 1879 carol service in old St Mary’s, and the numbers as large as the 380 people who crammed into the church in 1883 for Bishop Wilkinson’s enthronement. As for its timing, Bishop Benson marked on his own copy of the printed Order that the service took 70 minutes: “from 10.5 to 11.15pm”, and a West Briton journalist reported that “the service [was] terminated at 11.20 by the bishop pronouncing the blessing.”

These and other uncertainties abide, but of Bishop Benson’s purpose we can be absolutely sure. As he had earlier observed, his professed mission was “to preach Christianity without contention, and to advance . . . [the] Church without party or faction, without animosity, without disputation”. And here, in his Nine Lessons service, he was intent on teaching the true Christmas narrative to a mixed gathering of Anglicans and Nonconformists: “the tale of the loving purpose of God from the first day of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by His Holy Child”, as Dean Milner-White was to put it many years later in his famous Bidding Prayer.

Just as Benson himself had used ancient sources for his festal service for Christmas Eve, I am sure that he would have approved of Milner-White’s re-working some of his benedictions, the short blessings that preceded each of the original Nine Lessons. As he confided to his diary after his attendance at an Easter Eve service at the Duomo in 1894: “Must not the English Church try some way to seize on the possibilities of edification which these holy services of the Holy Week present? . . . Why should we not add the Prophetiae to our services, like my Nine Lessons?” Benson well understood the importance of appropriate liturgical adaptation for a declining Anglican Church.


The Church Times first took notice of the service on 31 December 1909:

A Carol Service, held at St John the Divine, Kennington, on the Thursday before Christmas, calls for some notice, alike on account of its charm and simplicity, as also for its associations and origin. There are other instances of its use — for example, at Southwark Cathedral during Epiphany; but it might well be generally adopted, at all events, in parish churches, for in addition to its suitability to varying circumstances, it is informed by the true liturgical spirit.

The emphasis is all on the side of an act of worship. We are not compelled to keep reminding ourselves that we are engaged in offering praise, and not merely come to listen to the performance of bright and cheerful music.

That will be quite obvious, when one knows that the late Archbishop Benson is responsible for the form of the service. It will be found in his Prayers Public and Private (p. 143), edited by his son and published after his death. In a footnote we are told that the service is after ancient precedent. It was drawn up by the Archbishop when he was at Truro, but whether it was ever used there is not stated.

It consists of nine lessons and carols, with the Lord’s Prayer, Responses, and Benedictions, ending with the Magnificat and the Blessing. The lessons are arranged so as to form a series of links from the Fall up to the Redemption. The Benedictions are taken from the Sarum Breviary.

As used at St John’s, the officiant was vested in cope, as at a Solemn Evensong, and said the Benedictions. One of these precedes each lesson, and the lesson precedes the carol. The first two lessons are read by two choir-boys, cantoris and decani respectively; the next two by two choirmen similarly; the next by the sacristan, and so on by the choirmaster, a deacon, a priest, and finally by the officiant, who would be the Bishop, were he present. In each case the reader remains in his place in choir or sanctuary. Then follow the Magnificat and the Blessing. The congregation stand during the Benediction, and join in the singing of the Carols and Magnificat; sitting during the reading of the Scriptures.

Thus a sense of corporate worship is preserved throughout — an important consideration at all times, but more especially at services which are likely to attract persons whose attendance at church is, to say the least, irregular. If some equally impressive form could be devised for use at what are known as Watch-Night Services, our churches might be preserved from some painful scenes.

It might be well, although it ought not to be necessary, to drop a hint to any priest who is inclined to use the service next year, as to giving his boys and men a little preliminary practice in reading the lessons. It was admirably done at St John’s, but the service would lose half its impressiveness, and its thread would be lost, if the reading resolved itself into a mere inaudible mumbling, or on the other hand, a strained shouting.

A good deal of criticism is directed at the clergy in regard to the public reading of the Scriptures, but when the laymen ascend the lectern it is some times a much more trying experience for the congregation.

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