“While shepherds watched their flocks” is a traditional Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds, with words attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist and England’s Poet Laureate Nahum Tate. Nahum Tate was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1672. He lacked great talent but wrote much for the stage, adapting other men’s work. Poverty stricken throughout much of his life, he died in the Mint at Southwark, where he had taken refuge from his creditors, on 12th August 1715.
“While Shepherds Watched” was the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in the 18th century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer. First published in 1662 it remains the authorised liturgical book (Service Book) of the Church of England and other Anglican bodies around the world. The reason why “While Shepherds Watched” was the only Christmas Carol approved by the church was that most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular (that is not specifically religious) and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century. As a result of its approved status, many tunes have been associated with this carol (it has been said that there are more than 300 in the UK alone).
One such variation is that of “Eythorne”, to a tune written by Thomas Clark of Canterbury. The carol is found in the manuscripts of 1856 of the Hope Chapel Methodist Church, Thorpe Hesley, as “Eyethorne”. This music for this version is shown in the following link: –
The carol is now traditionally sung to the tune known as “Winchester Old” (initially simply “Winchester”), originally published in Este’s psalter The Whole Book of Psalms from 1592.
The Eythorne version of the carol can be heard on YouTube here: –
Eythorne – YouTube
or just the tune here: –
EYTHORNE – Jubilate
Another Thomas Clark composition is the tune Cranbrook, written in 1805 also used as a tune for “While Shepherds Watched” It is now better known as the tune to “Ilkely Moor Baht’at”.
Thomas Clark (1775–1859) was a Canterbury shoemaker (cordwainer) and a prolific composer of West Gallery Music especially for the Nonconformist churches of the South East of England. West Gallery Music, also known as Georgian psalmody, refers to the sacred music (metrical psalms, with a few hymns and anthems) sung and played in parish churches, as well as nonconformist chapels, from 1700 to around 1850.
Thomas Clark’s obituary, published on p448 of The Christian Reformer or Unitarian Magazine and Review in 1859 (vol. 15) reads:
May 30, at Canterbury, aged 84, Mr. THOMAS CLARK, well known throughout the Nonconformist body, and beyond it, as a composer of sacred music. He was by trade a shoemaker, and worked at his business till about twenty years since. He had received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader, especially in history and theology. Both his taste and his passion for music were extraordinary. While hammering at the lapstone or lying awake in the night, melodies were suggested to him which, casting aside the implements of his trade or leaping directly out of bed, he at once committed to paper, and added the harmonies when he had greater leisure. It would almost seem as if this love for one of the most delightful of all arts, and capability of excelling in it, were literally born with him; for he never received a lesson on the theory of music in his life. He published at various times nearly twenty volumes of anthems and hymns, besides editing various collections; and has left behind him a great store of MS music, among which it is not unlikely that some of his best compositions may be found. In private as in public life, Mr. Clark bore a blameless character; and died with the respect, not only of his co-religionists, but of all his fellow-citizens. He was a member of the Unitarian congregation assembling in the Blackfriars’ Chapel, Canterbury, where he had conducted the music for more than half a century.