O’ Come All Ye Faithful is one of the most popular Christmas carols ever written. No carol service is complete without it and Raunds Choir will undoubtedly be singing it this year.
But this most traditional of Christmas carols may have a subversive past.
In the 18th Century Roman Catholicism was still illegal and life wasn’t much fun for Catholics. The Puritan era had ended but many professions were still barred to them, including medicine, teaching and law. In addition extra taxes were imposed so Catholic landowners paid twice as much as their Protestant neighbours. There were few places Catholics could worship safely and because of this they were attracted to the chapels attached to the embassies of Catholic countries, because those buildings were protected under international law.
John Francis Wade was a music and liturgical scribe and publisher, who worked and worshipped in these embassy chapels in London. He produced beautifully illustrated manuscripts in an elaborate medieval style. Wade was also a Jacobite – someone who believed that the Stuart kings should reclaim the British throne. Many Catholics supported the Jacobite cause as they hoped that Charles Stuart – known as Bonnie Prince Charlie – would return and abolish the laws that made their lives so hard. Wade’s publishing activities afforded him the opportunity to provide an underground press to his faith community. Some historians claim that his books contain coded Jacobite messages.
O’ Come All Ye Faithful is generally attributed to Wade because it first appeared in written form, in the original Latin, in his manuscripts. The reality is that similar to many carols, it was probably a reinvention of an old folk tune.
Adeste Fidelis, as it was originally named, literally means ‘Draw Near Ye Faithful Ones.’ Some historians have interpreted the ‘faithful’ as those loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie. One of the original lines read, ‘Come to Bethlehem triumphant,’ and Bethlehem was common Jacobean parlance for ‘England’. ‘Regem Angelorum,’ or King of Angels can be read as a pun on ‘Regem Anglorum,’ or King of England. So the line could be read as, ‘Come and behold him, born the King of England.‘ Certain historians point out that in its earliest printed forms the hymn tended to be sited in close proximity to prayers for the exiled monarch, thus lending weight to their argument.
The coded-message theory is an interesting one and there isn’t universal agreement among historians, but whether it is true or not O’ Come All Ye Faithful is such a beautifully crafted hymn that by the mid-19th century it had migrated outside of Catholic churches, and had been enthusiastically adopted by Protestant congregations. I wonder what the Jacobean Wade would have made of that. Would he have been annoyed, or quietly amused and satisfied to hear Protestants calling for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie!