> Jon Boden > Songs > Mistletoe Bough
The Mistletoe Bough
[ Roud 2336 ; Ballad Index ; Bodleian Roud 2336 ; Wiltshire Roud 2336 ; Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839)]
Bob Copper sang The Mistletoe Bough on his Topic album Sweet Rose in June. He and Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:
The Mistletoe Bough, on the other hand, is very much a composed song—in this case by Sir Henry Bishop (composer of Home Sweet Home) and T.H. Bayly. Although based on the story of the Lovell's missing bride, it should be noted that several other old halls also carry the same legend; notably Marwell Hall near Owslebury in Hampshire. One reason for the Oxfordshire setting may be the fact that in 1487 Francis 1st Viscount Lovell—the occupant of Minster Lovell Hall—disappeared following a dispute with the then Royal Family. Two centuries later, in 1708, some workmen encountered a secret room at the Hall and discovered “the entire skeleton of a man, as having been at a table which was before him with a book, paler, pen… all much mouldered and decay.” Francis perhaps? The workmen were never to find out though, for the entire contents of the room turned to dust as they watched.
George Townshend sang The Mistletoe Bough in a recording made by Brian Matthews in 1960. This was publishd in 2000 on his Musical Traditions anthology Come Hand to Me the Glass.
Walter Pardon of Knapton, Norfolk, sang The Mistletoe Bough on June 25, 1978 to Mike Yates. This recording was included in 1993 on Pardon's Musical Traditions anthology Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father. Mike Yates commented in the accompanying booklet:
Written in the early 1830s by Thomas Haynes Bayly (who also wrote the words of Home Sweet Home), with music by Sir Henry Bishop, this ballad has been extremely popular throughout southern England and the USA and appears in a number of popular song books and ballad sheets. It relates well to the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the general Gothic Novel movement. Roud has 70 versions, almost all from broadsides, with only eight recorded examples […]. It is still very popular in Yorkshire carolling pubs.
One must assume that the element of pastiche in the song (trying hard to seem an older song than it actually is) meant that the earlier English collectors ignored it (for they surely must have encountered it), since it appears only in Henry Burstow's listing of his songs in Reminiscences of Horsham.
In Everyman's Book of British Ballads, Roy Palmer says: “There is a tradition that this ballad was inspired by an, event at Exton Hall, Rutland, in the early eighteenth century. The owner's daughter, Catherine Noel, aged eighteen, got into a large chest during a game of hide and seek, or, as another story has it, a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She was unable to re-open the lid, and was suffocated before she could be released.”
Gordon Syrett sang The Mistletoe Bough in Mendlesham Green in 1985. This recording was included in 1993 on the Veteran cassette of traditional music making from Mid-Suffolk recorded 1958-1993, Many a Good Horseman and in 2009 on the album's CD reissue. John Howson commented in the liner notes:
Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote this ballad […] and it is said to be based on a true story, with the location being either Brockdish Hall, near Diss in Norfolk or Bramwell House near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Both of these have locations have legends about a bride being locked in an oak chest during a game of ‘hide and seek’ and being found dead years later. The song became popular in Victorian drawing rooms, but was also printed on street ballad sheets and taken up by traditional singers in both England and North America.
Andy Turner learned The Mistletoe Bough from Bob Copper's album. He recorded it in 1995 for The Mellstock Band's Saydisc CD Songs of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, and sang it as the December 28, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.
Jackie Oates sang The Mistletoe Bough in 2006 on her first CD, Jackie Oates.
Jon Boden sang Mistletoe Bough as the December 7, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This YouTube video shows him at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth in December 2012:
Ken Nicol's song Mistletoe Bough on Steeleye Span's 2004 CD Winter is a different song with just the same title.
|George Townshend sings The Mistletoe Bough||Gordon Syrett sings The Mistletoe Bough|
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
“I am weary of dancing now,” she cried,
“I'm tired of dancing now,” she cried,
They sought her that night, they sought her next day
They sought her that night and they sought her next day,
At length an old chest that had long lain hid
At length an oak chest that had long lain hid
The Legend of the Mistletoe Bough is a horror story which has been associated with many mansions and stately homes in England.
A new bride, playing a game of hide-and-seek during her wedding breakfast, hides in a chest in an attic and is unable to escape. She is not discovered by her family and friends, and suffocates or dies of thirst. The body is found many years later in the locked chest as a skeleton in a wedding dress.
Notable claimants for the story's location, some still displaying the chest, include Bramshill House and Marwell Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Basildon Grotto in Berkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset.
A variant of the children's song "On Top of Spaghetti" parodies the legend of the missing bride by describing how the narrator found his lost meatball under similar circumstances: "Then 40 years later, inside of a trunk, I found my lost meatball. Peee-eeew how it stunk!"
The tale first appeared in print in the form of a poem by Samuel Rogers entitled Ginevra, in his book 'Italy' published in 1822. In notes on this work, Rogers states ‘The story is, I believe, founded on fact; though the time and the place are uncertain. Many old houses lay claim to it.’ See also The Bride of Modena by John Heneage Jesse, in: Tales of the Dead, and Other Poems, London 1830, pp. 35-59 books.google.
The popularity of the tale was greatly increased when it appeared as a song in the 1830s entitled 'The Mistletoe Bough' written by T.H. Bayley and Sir Henry Bishop. The song proved very popular. In 1859, its 'solemn chanting' was referred to as a 'national occurrence at Christmas' in English households, and by 1862 the song was referred to as 'one of the most popular songs ever written', 'which must be known by heart by many readers'.
Further works inspired by the song include a play of the same name by Charles A Somerset first produced in 1835. A short story, 'Ginevra or The Old Oak Chest: A Christmas Story' by Susan E Wallace published in 1887 and another short story "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" by Henry James published in 1868. The song is also played in Thomas Hardy's A Laodicean, after the scene involving the capture of George Somerset's handkerchief from the tower.
Film versions of the story include a 1904 production by the Clarendon Film Company, directed by Percy Stow; a 1923 version made by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, directed by Edward J. Collins; and a 1926 production by Cosmopolitan Films, directed by C.C. Calvert.
The Percy Stow film version of the story can be seen on the BFI player with a new specially commissioned score by Pete Wiggs from the band Saint Etienne
The story of the Mistletoe Bough is recounted in the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, where it is described as being the favourite tale of the main character, Brandon Shaw. Unbeknownst to the story teller, the body of his murdered son had been hidden by Shaw in the chest in front of which they are standing.