While shepherds watched their flocks by night

Hymn #13
Text: Nahum Tate (1652-1715)
Music: Christopher Tye (c. 1505-c. 1573)
Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900)


The text first appeared in the supplement to the New Version of the Psalms by Dr. Brady and Mr. Tate (1708 edition). Nicholas Brady was an Anglican priest and poet, Nahum Tate an Irish poet from a family of Puritan clerics who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. Their collaboration on metrical paraphrases of the psalms had a huge influence on English-language hymnody. Like their Psalm paraphrases, “While shepherds watched,” is a straightforward metrical paraphrase of the Gospel account of the angels appearance to the shepherds (St. Luke 2:8-20).


According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, “no other hymn has been sung to so many tunes and settings.” One reason for this proliferation of hundreds of melodies is the fact that for most of the eighteenth century, this was the only Christmas hymn approved for singing in the Church of England (a story which you can read more about here).

WINCHESTER OLD first appeared in 1592, in Thomas East’s Whole Book of Psalmes, where it was appointed for a metrical setting of Psalm 84, “How pleasant is thy dwelling place.” The tune may have originated with the English composer Christopher Tye (c. 1505-c. 1573). Here is the hymn sung by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

Here is the other tune option our Hymnal presents — CAROL — played by Andrew Remillard on the piano.

Another tune still in many hymnals is called simply CHRISTMAS. It is adapted from an aria in the opera Siroe by George Frideric Handel. This tune appears in our Hymnal (#577) with the text “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve.”

And here, for comparison, is the aria on which CHRISTMAS is based. Non vi piacque ingiusti Dei, sung by Julianne Baird.

Yorkshireman John Foster (1752-1822) was a coroner by trade as well as an amateur musician. The tune called OLD FOSTER includes an instrumental introduction to the energetic singing of the text. It is presented here — more elegantly than it was typically experienced — by the Taverner Choir & Players, directed by Andrew Parrott. (This is from their recording The Christmas Album: Festive Music from Europe and America, one of our family’s favorites.)

Another significant tune to which this hymn is sung is CRANBROOK, which was the work of a Canterbury cobbler named Thomas Clark (1775-1859). It is sometimes called simply “the Yorkshire tune,” since the melody is best known as the informal national anthem of Yorkshire, the folk song “On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at.” Here is the CRANBROOK tune sung by some students after a lecture about the history of caroling given at Gresham College by conductor Jeremy Summerly.

On their album, An American Christmas, the Boston Camerata presented two settings of this carol back-to-back. The first of these relies on a melody to which “God rest you merry, gentlemen” was frequently sung, known variously as the “London” or the “Chestnut” tune. The second uses the tune SHERBURNE, written in 1793 by Connecticut musician Daniel Read. It is apparently still a favorite at shapenote sings.

One final tune, out of the hundreds in the catalogue. LYNGHAM is the work of another amateur musician. Thomas Jarman (1776-1861) was a Baptist lay preacher and tailor from the County of Northampton. LYNGHAM is most commonly used in hymnals for singing “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” but is also sometime used to sing “While shepherds watched,” as can be heard in this recording of the Fisherman’s Friends, a group from Cornwall best known for singing sea shanties.