Wassail! 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.