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A Christmas Carol

Borough expert Stephen King tells us about the area's link to one of our most popular carols.

Nahum Tate is hardly a household name, but he wrote one of our oldest and most popular Christmas carols.

Tate was born in Dublin in 1652, moved to London and rose to become Poet Laureate by 1692, during the reign of William and Mary. He wrote the words for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, as well as a wide range of plays and poems. He was nothing if not prolific.

Tate wrote ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ in about 1700. It was the first Christmas carol to be authorised by the Anglicans, before that you were only allowed to sing the Psalms.

He did have the habit of rewriting Shakespeare’s classics, most famously giving King Lear a happy ending. He also translated from Latin a poem on syphilis into English heroic couplets, perhaps a subject he had a special interest in?

He is often listed as having lived in Southwark, which is sort of correct. Tate ended up in the Liberty of the Mint, which was just behind Borough Tube station is now. The Mint was an infamous refuge for those escaping debt. If you hid in the Mint you could escape prosecution and being locked up in the debtors’ prison, although conditions in the Mint were frankly not much better than prison.

Tate died in 1715 and was buried by St George the Martyr, the wonderful church just at the top of Borough High Street. Sadly the Victorian remodelling of the overcrowded graveyard means we have no idea where his last resting place is, as some bones ended up in the crypt and some headed out to a new cemetery in Surrey.

The Mint is now a lovely little urban park, run by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust, and is well worth a visit. Perhaps next year we could have a carol concert there?

Dr Stephen King is a qualified Westminster Tour Guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Dr Stephen’s walking tours.

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London History Podcast:
December 18, 2020
35: A Tudor Christmas

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