Oxford Ramble

Speed the Plough



A Taste of Ale

Six for Gold

Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell

The Robber Bird

Three Quarter Time

The 25th




The King

Wassail track 10

In various parts of Britain there have been wren-hunting customs associated with St Stephen’s Day, 26th December. For a really good overview of these traditions, and the songs which accompanied them, it is well worth reading Hunting the Wren by Phyllis Kinney, in Welsh Music History Vol. 6 (2004), from where the following quotations are taken.

In Pembrokeshire, where The King comes from, the wren, once captured, formed the centrepiece of a house-visiting custom which dates back at least as far as the late seventeenth-century. Edward Lhuyd, scholar and antiquarian, wrote

They are accustomed in Pembrokeshire etc. to carry a wren in a bier on Twelfth Night; from a young man to his sweetheart, that is two or three bear it in a bier [covered] with ribbons, and sing carols. They also go to other houses where there are no sweethearts and there will be ale etc. And a bier from the country they call Cutty Wran.

Phyllis Kinney also quotes this description by Reverend John Jenkins (‘Ifor Ceri’, 1770-1829) of a similar custom in Cardiganshire:

In the Vicinity of Cardigan the following Singular Custom prevails and which is probably of Druidical origin: On the Night of the Fifth of January a Certain Number of Young Men, generally four, take a Wren which is considered a Sacred Bird, and confine him in a cage (which they call his Bier [Elor]) decked with all the Ribbons they can procure from the Girls of the Neighbourhood. With the Wren thus gaudily housed they visit the Families of the District, singing alternate Stanzas in his praise as King of the Birds and as procuring for them many Blessings during the ensuing Year, on account of his being made a Captive and a Victim.

The King was recorded from two retired schoolteachers, Dorothy and Elizabeth Phillips, from Hook in Pembrokeshire.

They also gave first-hand reminiscences of the custom, which they remembered from the 1920s. The wren-party would go to ‘any manor houses in the neighbourhood where they would have food and drink and sometimes money’, during the period between 6 and 12 January, which they called ‘Twelfth-Tide’. The wren-house was ‘a little wooden cottage and dressed with ribbons really crêpe paper and the wren was inside and when they entered the house of course they all looked in and wanted to see the king.

The date of this recording is given as 1981, but I assume this was a return visit and that these were the same “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire” from whom Andy Nisbet collected the song in the 1960s. Martin Carthy had the song from Andy Nisbet, and has recorded the song several times. Most of us knew it from the Steeleye Span album Please to see the King.

You can hear a solo recording of this song at A Folk Song A Week Week 70 – The Boar’s Head Carol / Babes in the Wood / The King