The Trinity Carol Roll (MS O.3.58), a parchment scroll over six feet long, is the earliest source for English polyphonic carols. Dating from the early 15th century in East Anglia, the roll contains words and musical notation on a five line stave for thirteen carols in Middle English and Latin. These include the patriotic ‘Deo gracias Anglia!‘, also known as the ‘Agincourt Carol’, celebrating Henry V’s victory over the French in 1415, and the popular ‘Ther is no rose’, which was later arranged by Benjamin Britten for his Ceremony of Carols in 1942.
Not all of the carols are intended to be sung at Christmas. A carol in the Middle Ages was a festive song sung at any time of year, often religious in theme but not a part of church worship. They were often the accompaniment to circle dances, processions or Mystery Plays. Carols in general saw a decline after the Protestant Reformation, but Christmas Carols have remained popular and some are among the oldest music still performed regularly.
Below is a verse from ‘Nowel, Nowel, Nowel’, a Christmas carol from the Trinity Carol Roll:
In bedlem this berde of lyf
Is born of marye maydyn and wyf
He is bothe god and man i-schryf
Thys prince of pees shal secynal stryf
And wone wyth us perpetuel.
[In Bethlehem this bird of life
Is born of Mary, maiden and wife
He is both God and man I shrife
This prince of peace shall cease all strife
And wone with us perpetual.]
You can listen to a recording of the Trinity College Choir singing ‘Ther is no rose’ (arr. John Stevens) as a part of their Advent Carol Service on 30 November, 2014 on the Choir webpage. The entire Carol Roll was also recorded by the early music consort Alamire. Their album, Deo Gracias Anglia!, was recorded in the Wren Library in 2011.