The Legend of the Mistletoe Bough
The story of the "Mistletoe Bough" was hugely popular in Victorian England and tells the tale of a Christmas Bride, the daughter of a nobleman, who marries a gentleman of high-standing named Lovall. During the wedding celebrations and tired from dancing, the Bride calls for a game of "Hide and Seek" and disappears to hide.
The young groom and the guests attempt to find the hidden bride and search all over the house/castle for her in vain. Frantically searching, well into the night, but alas, it appeared that the young bride had completely dissappeared. Her Groom and her Father are grief stricken.
Eventually, the weeks passed into years and one day a large Oak chest with a spring-lock was opened and inside was a skeleton in a wedding dress - the hidden bride!
The story is quite possibly based on truth, possibly dating back as far as the 15/16th Centuries. In a book published by the English Poet Samuel Rogers in 1823 titled "Tours in Italy", the story was recounted the tale relating to a 15 year old bride named Genevra from a noble family who resided in a palace near Modena and married a young man named Francesco after which the tragic tale unfolded. Afterwards the disconsolate widower joined the Venetian army and died fighting against the Turks,
The story came to wider public attention, when it was interpreted into a Poem/Song in the 1830's by Thomas Haynes Bayley as detailed in the above image. The words to the song/poem are as follows;
"The Mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;
And the Baron's retainers were blythe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Lord Lovell's bride.
While she, with her bright eyes seemed to be,
The star of the goodly company, Oh the Mistletoe Bough,
"I'm weary of the dancing now," she cried,
Here tarry a moment, I'll hide-I'll hide;
And Lovell, be sure though'rt the first to trace,
The clue to my secret lurking place,
Away she ran, and her friends began,
Each tower to search, and each nook to scan,
And young Lovell cried, "Oh, where do you hide?
I'm lonesome without you, my own dear bride" Oh the Mistletoe Bough,
They sought her that night, they sought her next day,
And they sought her in vain when a week passed away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought Wildly, but found her not.
And the years flew by, and their grief at last,
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appear'd, the children cried,
"See the old man weeps for his fairy bride." Oh the Mistletoe Bough.
At length as old chest that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle, they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there,
Oh, sad was her fate! In sporting jest,
She hid from her Lord in the old oak chest,
It closed with a spring, and dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasp'd in her living tomb, Oh the Mistletoe Bough.
The story had gripped Victorian England's imagination and despite it's likely European origins, graduated into a very English Christmas Horror story and as a result, many houses around the country became associated as the possible location for the gruesome tale. Amongst these were
Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, which had been ancestral home to the Lovell family. There is also a story that a Lord Lovell had fled the battle of Stoke during the War of the Roses in 1487 and hidden in a secret chamber, to be discovered in 1708! It could well be that Thomas Haynes Bayly had associated to two similar tales and hence the Lovell appears in the poem/song.
Bawdrip Rectory - Located in the pretty Somerset village of Bawdrip, near Bridgwater, the nearby Church of St. Michael and All Angels has references to a Lovell family, one of the parish priest's during the 1600's was named Lovell and also, I seem to recall, a reference to a young female family member dying in her teenage years. It is possibly on this basis that the story has been associated. As pretty as the rectory is, it is not of a particularly grand size as referred to in the poem (and the Lovell family would have been pretty inept to have not located her after even half an hour!)
Other residences including Marwell Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck near Penzance in Cornwall and Exton Hall in Rutland have all been linked to the story, although it is unclear as to how the association would have originated.
The popularity of the story and subsequent poem in the late 19th Century went onto inspire a popular play and further songs and also referenced in Thomas Hardy's novel "A Laodicean", published in 1881.
The "Mistletoe Bough" was once one of the most popular Christmas songs in the 19th Century and would have been familiar to nearly all residents of England at that time. Unfortunately, the song's popularity has declined in the last century but it does still live on in parts of England! Particularly in the North Yorkshire and Derbyshire areas near Sheffield, England, where wonderful tradition of "Sheffield carols" are sung by large groups in local pubs (usually with a drink in hand!) from mid November through to December, believed to have stemmed from a time when the local church's thought carols not suitable, driving the strong-willed Yorkshiremen (& Derbyshiremen) to take the tradition to the local pubs rather than be dictated to from the pulpit! The majority of the carols sung are not the carols that have become the mainstream versions, most of us are familiar with, as sung throughout the rest of country, although some have familiar tunes, but different lyrics,. These appear to be carols that would have been popular from the 18th Century and this wonderful tradition is keeping them alive.
Finally in recent years, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have recorded a version of the song and British folk collective Bellowhead have also performed a version, once again, keeping the fascinating story alive for another generation.
"The Mistletoe Bough" Carol - Performed by Will Noble, near Sheffield, Yorkshire, England
- The Mistletoe Bough - YouTube
Will Noble sings the Mistletoe Bough in the Royal hotel at Dungworth, near Sheffield, during the lunchtime carol singing.