Written within a book of accounts kept by Richard Rowden, receiver of the rents for the college at Hanging Langford, Wiltshire, is this carol. Known now as “A Virgin most Pure”, it is thought to have originated in Gloucestershire during the 16th century, and the earliest written version of this carol appeared in 1661 in a book called New Carolls for this Merry Time of Christmas, printed in London. The carol then disappeared from publications until the late 18th century when the words were published by a ballad printed in Tewkesbury. This time it had a new first verse – the now more familiar:
A virgin most pure [unspotted], as the prophets do tell
Hath brought forth a baby, as it hath befell
The form which appears in this book is the original version, with the first verse being:
In Bethlehem in Jewry a city there was
Where Joseph and Mary together did pass
This carol was particularly common in the west of England, especially in Gloucestershire. The book in the archives was begun 1692, and entries continue until 1756, suggesting that even if there were no printed versions of the carol in circulation at the time, it was still being performed and enjoyed in the West Country during these “lost” years.
By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist