Masters in This Hall

"Masters in This Hall" (alternative title: "Nowell, Sing We Clear") is a Christmas carol with words written around 1860 by the English poet and artist William Morris to an old French dance tune. The carol is moderately popular around the world but has not entered the canon of most popular carols.

William Morris, self-portrait of 1856


The French composer Marin Marais composed the tune as a dance for his opera Alcyone of 1706, with the title Marche pour les Matelots.[1][2]

The tune was subsequently included in Raoul Auger Feuillet's 1706 Recueil de contredanse along with a longways proper dance, La Matelotte, which Feuillet had himself written to go with the tune.[3]

In 1710 John Essex (d. 1744) published an English translation of Feuillet's work called, For the Further Improvement of Dancing, in which the dance is given as The Female Saylor.[3]


The words were written around 1860 while William Morris, then 26, was working as an apprentice in the office of the architect, Edmund Street, presumably under the persuasion of his fellow students who at that time had a taste for part-song.[4]

The architect and musician Edmund Sedding had at one point also been in the office of G. E. Street and he had discovered the tune at a meeting with the organist at Chartres Cathedral.[5] It was included in Sedding's collection of Nine Antient and Goodly Carols for the Merry Tide of Christmas (1860). In 1884 the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne described this carol as "one of the co-equal three finest ... in the language." According to Swinburne, the carol was also included, at his suggestion, in the publisher Arthur Bullen's A Christmas Garland: Carols and Poems from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (1885).[6]

Derivative worksEdit

Gustav Holst incorporated the carol into his work Three Carols (1916–17) along with "Christmas Song: On this Day" and "I Saw Three Ships". Holst wrote the Three Carols for amateurs singing in his Thaxted festivals. The carols are all for unison choir with orchestral or organ accompaniment.[7]


"Masters in This Hall" is said to have a sixteenth-century feel, harking back to a simpler society, in line with Morris's own romanticism.[5] It also has elements of Morris's socialist beliefs, with the poor bringing news of Christ's birth to the "Masters in this Hall" and a warning to the proud.[8]

The image of raising up the poor and casting down the proud is also contained in the song of the Virgin Mary, often referred to as the Magnificat, sung upon the occasion of her visit to Saint Elizabeth, a relative of hers and the mother of John the Baptist, that is referenced in Luke 1:51.

In Morris's original version there are twelve verses but today only four or five are sung.[3]

The carol describes a poor man, emphasised by his rural dialect, drawing his master's attention to the birth of Christ by describing how he had met shepherds travelling to Bethlehem in solemn mood where, joining them, he had seen the Christ child in his mother's arms. The chorus repeats how the birth of Christ has raised up the poor and cast down the proud.[3]


Masters, in this hall,
    Hear ye news to-day
Brought over sea,
    And ever I you pray.
    Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
        Sing we clear!
    Holpen are all folk on earth,
        Born is God's Son so dear.[9]

— Stanza 1 & Chorus


  1. ^ Marais -Alcione Marche pour les Matelots, Air et Tambourin pour les mêmes Played by Jordi Savall 2010]
  2. ^ Diapason harmonie, Issues 362–366, Diapason S.A., 1990,&dq=Marin+Marais++opera+Alcyone+of+1706+matelot,&hl=en&ei=RhPFToWPGMfJswb1_rDqCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CEEQ6AEwAg
  3. ^ a b c d Anderson, Douglas D. Hymns and Carols for Christmas Contains long and short versions of the lyrics, Accessed December 2009
  4. ^ See The Work of William Morris: An Exhibition Arranged by the William Morris Society, (London, William Morris Society, 1962), p. 53
  5. ^ a b Studwell
  6. ^ "The William Morris Internet Archive : Chronology". 12 September 2009. p. 1860. Retrieved 12 December 2009.
  7. ^ Taylor, Kenric (1996–2007). "(1916–17) Three Carols". The Gustav Holst Website. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  8. ^ Salmon, Nicholas. The Communist Poet-Laureate: William Morris's Chants for Socialists (PDF). William Morris Society.
  9. ^ Bullen, A. H., ed. (1885). A Christmas Garland; carols and poems from the fifteenth century to the present time. London: J.C. Nimmo. pp. 80-83.



  • A Christmas Garland: Carols and Poems From The Fifteenth Century To The Present Time published by A. H. Bullen With Seven Illustrations newly designed By Henry G. Wells, London. Printed by John C. Nimmo 14, King William Street, Strand, W.C. 1885 At the Internet Archive
  • Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400–1700, Edith Rickert, London, Chatto & Windus, 1910 Reprinted 1914,1928 Hymns and Carols at Christmas

External linksEdit