The Gloucestershie Wssail

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WWassail! wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.


Here's to our horse, and to his right ear,

God send our master a happy new year:

A happy new year as e'er he did see,

With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.


The Gloucestershire Wassail has become an established Christmas classic with choirs across the world ever since it first appeared in the Oxford Book of Carols.   It has also been recorded by a wide range of different types of musicians including international artists like Blur and Loreena Mackennitt.   It has been a sort of musical ambassador for Gloucestershire around the world.

But how “Gloucestershire” is it really?

The Written Record

It is said that Ralph Vaughan Williams collected the tune of the Gloucestershire wassail, and some words, from a singer in the Inn at Pembridge, Herefordshire, in July or August 1909.   Apparently, the singer introduced it to Vaughan Williams as the “Gloucestershire Wasssail”

Vaughan Williams chose, when he published the song, to also use words from Wassail songs collected by Sharp from William Bayliss of Buckland and Isaac Bennett of Little Sodbury.

But it seems that the song has been known about for a long time before that.   Songs of Nativity a publication from 1868 said:

This carol was seventy years since communicated by Sameul Lysons to Brand, with the information that it was then still sung in Gloucestershire, and that the wassailers brought with them a great bowl dressed up with garlands and ribbon. The names of the horse, mare, and cow in this copy — Dobbin, Smiler, and Fillpail — are left blank in Brand's copy, to be supplied by the singers as circumstances required. Persons still living remember the Wassailers singing this carol from house to house in some of the villages by the Severn side below Gloucester, nearly fifty years since, and the custom has been uninterruptedly maintained and still subsists in the western parts of the county.

John Brand published our oldest known text for the “Gloucestershire Wassail” in 1813 in his Observations of Popular Antiquities.  He was the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1784 to 1806.  He was sent the text by a Fellow of the society called Samuel Lysons who had been born in 1763 the son of the incumbent of the parishes of Rodmarton and Cherrington (he is buried in Hempstead).

How Old is the Gloucestershire Wassail?

So our earliest known record talks about the Gloucestershire Wassail being sung at the turn of the 18th century.  

Was it first composed about that time?  We have no evidence to suggest that.   It may simply be that, at this time, interest in primitivism had undergone a resurgence amongst antiquarians.   They therefore started, for the very first time, to pay attention to the lives of the working classes, including their customs and songs.

For example, we know that Morris dancing, in some form or other, has been going on since the 14th century or earlier.   We know this because of entries in Church accounts which record money being allotted to provide refreshment for dancers at certain celebrations.   There are, however, no detailed descriptions of actual dances until William Kemp, the Shakespearian actor dances from London to Norwich in 1600. 

So we might speculate, that the origins of wassailing, and of our song, could be much earlier.   It was simply not written about until the 19th century.

The Wassail Tradition

Originally “Waes Hael” was simply a greeting.   It comes from two Anglo Saxon words and means, simply, “be whole” or “be healthy”.   The response is usually to say “Drinc Hael” or “drink healthily”.  So, sometimes, the words are used as a toast.  It may be where we get the toast “to your health” from.  Over time, the words have become conjoined to different forms such as “Wassail”, “Waysail”, “Wassel” or “Wassle”.  

The use of the word in this context is first noted down as being used by Vortigern when being introduced to the Danish Princess Rowena.   Since then the word crops up in several places with the more general meaning of “having a good time”.   Shakespeare has King Henry making “wassel” for example

During winter, there was little work for the agricultural poor to do.  Money and food were in short supply and it was more than just a little boring.  So, we believe, people would go “wassailing”.  This meant visiting wealthier neighbours and wishing them “Waes Hael”.  It meant offering them entertainment such as a song or a play.  In exchange, they expected money, food or drink.

This was, effectively, a form of begging.   So, to avoid being recognised by neighbours, wassailers would often go in disguise.   In fact, in some parts of the country, wassailing is called “guising”.   The disguise could involve costumes and masks.    In the most basic form of disguise, wassailers would turn their coats inside out and blacken their faces with soot.  Today you will often see wassailers and Morris dancers with black faces and outlandish costumes echoing this tradition.

There are many different forms of wassail to be found in British folklore tradition, and indeed in those of other countries such as Greece and Albania.   Perhaps the best known today is the “apple wassail” which involves a ceremony in orchards to encourage the trees to produce a good crop.

Wassail Songs in Gloucestershire

Many different Wassail songs have been noted down from traditions in various towns and villages across the county.   Most include “toasts” to different parts of the anatomy of either the “Master” or an animal of some sort… most commonly the Ox or “Broad”.   For example here is a verse from the Shurdington Wassail:  

Here’s to the ox and to his right ear,

God send my master a barrel of beer

A barrel of beer that we may all taste

To my waysailing bowl, don’t drink it in haste

Richard Chidlaw, a well-known expert on the Gloucestershire Wassail tradition, suggests that the earliest wassail songs may have been those sung by groups of agricultural workers within one farm or small village.   By keeping the song about one animal, or the “Master”, it would have been easier for the workers to remember the words and to sing together.   The rather more complex wassail song forms, featuring multiple animals with individual names, or short “dramas” featuring the maid and the butler, may have been put together to be suitable for performance in the parlour at the manor house rather than out in the byre.

The process by which “traditional” songs have reached us today is a multi-faceted one.   Songs have been transmitted orally and through written media.   And each time they are picked up by new singers they may be changed to fit their own tastes.   They may also be changed because some words have been misheard.

The fact that there is such a great variation in songs across the county, whilst at the same time there are many recurring similar features, suggests that they have been around for quite a long time.   It also suggests that there has been a very great degree of cross fertilisation.

Is the Gloucestershire Wassail Truly a “Gloucestershire Song”

It is fair to say that the song is probably a product of many people over a long period of time.    There are no doubt influences from throughout these islands and probably beyond.

So is it a Gloucestershire song?

That depends on your point of view   The Gloucestershire Wassail, and the other wassail songs from around the county, certainly show us that we have a very rich wassail heritage.

To identify exactly the origins of this song, and other songs, is not as important as to keep singing them.  To sing them and to enjoy them is what they are for.

So, for me, as long as the song is sung in by the people of Gloucestershire, then it is a Gloucestershire song.

With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Waes Hael!


Stone-Eater Added Feb 1, 2019 - 9:46am
Keep on Robin ! I'd have come long ago for a visit but I simply didn't have the cash for it....Senegal swallows all I have LOL
Neil Lock Added Feb 1, 2019 - 10:41am
Nice article, Robin. I particularly liked the verse about the barrel of beer! Very necessary refreshment after so much singing...
And I learn something new every day. Could wassailing be where the "black and white minstrel" tradition (so politically incorrect these days) came from?
Robin the red breasted songster Added Feb 1, 2019 - 11:02am
Not sure about that Neil.   There are some who say that it did.   However I suspect that the "minstrel" tradition was more of an urban thing.  Wassailing was mainly a rural activity.  
Farm labourers, in the winter months, would be short of work and I think that wassailing was a way of supplementing their income and getting a bit of beer to drink.   Wassailing also often involved minor threats of vandalism.  For example, in the Plough Monday tradition, the ploughboys would take a plough with them when they were wassailing.   If you did not give them beer etc, then they might casually drag their plough across your front garden.   This is probably where the modern idea of "trick or treat" came from.
So I think that the costume of tatters and blackened faces was primarily there as one of disguise... so your victims could not easily pick you out the next day.
A US site says the following:
Minstrelsy evolved from several different American entertainment traditions; the traveling circus, medicine shows, shivaree, Irish dance and music with African syncopated rhythms, musical halls and traveling theatre. 
The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-60), who in 1828, in a New York City theatre, performed a song-and-dance routine in blackface and tattered clothes. Rice's character was based on a folk trickster persona named Jim Crow that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called Jump Jim Crow.   His act was an immediate sensation and while continuing to prefect the routine, Rice gained fame and fortune by performing it throughout the U.S. and in England.
Of course in the UK we used to have the "Black and White Minstrel Show".    This eventually was closed down in the face of criticism's of racism.
Today, as Chair of Stroud Wassail, I get complaints from politically correct individuals about the habit of Border Morris sides to "black up".   I reply that this has nothing to do with mimicking black people.  I also say that, in a multicultural society, we should support the rights of all minority groups to pursue their own culture... including Border Morris Dancers.
I might say that, to be a Morris dancer in the first place, you need to be pretty immune to public opinion.   So I don't see them taking off the paint any time soon.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 1, 2019 - 11:05am
Robin, it's been far too long since you graced these pages. Welcome back.
I always learn something from your posts. Thanks.
Robin the red breasted songster Added Feb 1, 2019 - 11:22am
Why thank you Broken.   I have been rather busy over the last few months.   Wassailing has taken up a lot of time.  As well as chairing Stroud Wassail, I am also Butler for the Welsh side of the river at the Chepstow Wassail.    I have also traveled  far and wide promoting the Stroud Wassail with a series of talks.  We are also busy getting a set together for our band, the Swing Rioters.  We have our first gigs coming up and badly need the practice...and to polish some of the new material that we have written.
Joanne Corey Added Feb 1, 2019 - 3:12pm
Thanks for the interesting ethnomusicologist post! Whenever I hear the Gloucestershire Wassail I think of a local production of "A Christmas Carol" that used it during Fezziwig's party. Probably not an historically correct use, but still a lot of fun!
Robin the red breasted songster Added Feb 1, 2019 - 3:24pm
Hi Joanne, I don't think it matters whether a song is used "correctly".  The most important thing is that it is sung.
Having looked into it, we think that the original Gloucestershire based wassails (we have found 17 so far), were sung during door to door visiting.   However some believe that the ones featuring oxen may have actually been sung to cattle.   The wassailers may have gone into the stall and actually serenaded the animals.
These songs belong to all of us.   Enjoy them.  That's what they are for.
Robin the red breasted songster Added Feb 1, 2019 - 3:44pm
You might find this video we made interesting:
Robin the red breasted songster Added Feb 4, 2019 - 3:11am
So very kind of you to point that out Mogg.  I think I realise that now.  So sorry to have irritated your nether regions
Unrepentant Added Feb 4, 2019 - 3:08pm
You allegedly musical lime-suckers all sound like a seal that just got a harpoon up its ass.