20 December 2015

‘O come, all ye faithful’:
the story of the most
popular Christmas carol

Canon Frederick Oakeley, author of ‘O come, all ye faithful’

Patrick Comerford 

One of the best-loved Christmas carols, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, is sometimes known by its Latin name (Adeste Fideles), and this probably explains why it is often described as a mediaeval hymn. But while, the original author is unknown, the writer who made it popular in English was a priest in the Church of England, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral and an Oxford don for many years before following John Henry Newman into the Roman Catholic Church and becoming a canon of Westminster Cathedral.

This popular carol may have French or German origins, but the earliest version dates only from around 1743. But Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison suggest the hymn – or at least the first four stanzas – and the tune may have been written by John Francis Wade (1711-1786), an English Roman Catholic exile living in Douay.

Six manuscript copies of this version of the hymn survive – a seventh was stolen from Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare, in the last century. As early as 1797, the Latin hymn was sung in London at the Chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, where Vincent Novello was the organist. Novello claimed it was written a century earlier by John Reading, the organist of Winchester Cathedral (1675-1681).

The carol was soon translated into English and then into many other languages. But the most popular version begins with the opening words by Canon Frederick Oakeley: ‘O come, all ye faithful, joyfully triumphant,’ or, ‘O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.’

Lichfield Cathedral … Frederick Oakeley wrote ‘O come, all ye faithful’ while he was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880) is best known for this carol. But, while he ended his days as a Roman Catholic priest, he spent his childhood in Lichfield, was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral in the 1830s and 1840s, and when he became a Roman Catholic priest he returned to Lichfield to say his first Mass.

A vicar’s grandson

The Bishop’s Palace, Lichfield ... now a school and once the childhood home of Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Frederick Oakeley was born at his grandfather’s vicarage the Abbey House in Shrewsbury, on 5 September 1802, a son of Sir Charles Oakeley (1751-1826). Sir Charles was born in Forton, Staffordshire, where his father, the Revd William Oakeley (1717-1803), was the Rector of Forton before becoming the Vicar of Holy Cross, the Abbey Church in Shrewsbury.

Sir Charles Oakeley was a colonial administrator in India. He returned to England in 1789, was made a baronet the following year, and then returned to India as the Governor of Madras (1790-1794). When he returned to England once again, he moved into at the Abbey House, his father’s vicarage, and it was there the hymn-writer Frederick was born in 1802.

A childhood accident in the Abbey House when he was three left Frederick disabled for many months, and for the rest of his life he was sickly and walked with a limp.

When Frederick was eight, the Oakeley family moved from Shrewsbury to Lichfield and into the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close, in 1810. Sir Charles was offered the Palace at a nominal rent on condition that he would restore the building, then in a sorry state. At the time, the Bishop of Lichfield was living at Eccleshall near Stafford.

The Oakeley family moved into the Palace following the death in 1809 of the Lichfield poet, Anna Seward, who had continued to live there after the death of her father, Canon Thomas Seward, in 1790.

Each day, Sir Charles attended Morning Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral. His son later remembered him as pious, devout and humble, and the standard of music in the cathedral added to his pleasure in attending daily services. Frederick also recalled how as boy of eight the cathedral organist allowed him to play the organ to accompany the psalms at the daily services.

Lichfield Grammar School … now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Poor health often prevented Frederick from leaving home for school until the age of 14, when he had a late start at Lichfield Grammar School. A year after entering Lichfield Grammar School, Oakeley was sent from Lichfield in 1817 to Canon Charles Sumner for private tuition. Sumner was then the curate at Highclere, near Newbury, Hampshire. Highclere Castle was the home of the Earl of Carnarvon, and has become known in recent years as the location for Downton Abbey.

Frederick spent three years at Highclere, but returned for holidays with his parents in Lichfield, and was often homesick for Lichfield when he returned to Highclere.

Early career in Oxford

Frederick Oakeley by an unknown artist, ca 1817 (Collection of Balliol College, Oxford)

The monument to Sir Charles Oakeley in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1820, graduated BA in 1824, and won prizes in Latin, English and theology. But while he was still at Oxford, his father, Sir Charles Oakeley, died at the Palace in Lichfield in 1826. He was buried in Forton, and a monument by Sir Francis Chantrey was erected to him in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral.

Frederick Oakeley was elected to a chaplain fellowship at Balliol College. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of London in the Chapel Royal in Whitehall in 1828 and ordained priest a week later in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, by his former tutor, Charles Sumner, then Bishop of Llandaff and Dean of Saint Paul’s. Oakeley remained a fellow of Balliol College until 1845, and was also tutor, Senior Dean, a lecturer, and one of the public examiners to Oxford University.

Canon Frederick Oakeley’s stall in Lichfield Cathedral as Prebendary of Dassett Parva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On 11 February 1832, Oakeley was installed as the Prebendary of Dassett Parva in Lichfield Cathedral on the nomination of Bishop Henry Ryder, whose kneeling statue by Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey is in the north transept in Lichfield Cathedral.

As a canon, Oakeley dutifully returned to Lichfield Cathedral each year to preach on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany and he remained a canon of Lichfield Cathedral until 1845.

While Oakeley was a fellow of Balliol College, he helped secure the election to a fellowship of his lifelong friend and former pupil Archibald Campbell Tait, later Archbishop of Canterbury. At Balliol, he also became a close friend of William George Ward, and they both joined the Tractarian party.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral seen from Fleet Street … Frederick Oakeley was ordained priest in 1828 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, appointed Oakeley Whitehall Preacher in 1837, but he remained a fellow of Balliol. In the preface to his first volume of Whitehall Sermons (1837) he declared himself a member of the Oxford Movement. In 1839, he became the incumbent of the Margaret Chapel, the predecessor of All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London. In his six years there, Oakeley introduced High Church liturgical practices, and his friends there included the future Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and Sir Alexander Beresford-Hope, who supervised William Butterfield’s building of All Saints’ Church (1850-1859).

Tractarian and hymn writer

Inside Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … Frederick Oakeley celebrated his first Roman Catholic Mass here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oakeley translated ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ for his congregation in London in 1840, while he was still a canon of Lichfield Cathedral. His original translation began: “Ye faithful, approach ye.” But in 1845 he rewrote the opening words: “O come, all ye faithful, Joyfully triumphant.” Its inclusion in Francis H Murray’s Hymnal in 1852 gave Oakeley a permanent place in the history of hymnology.

Oakeley stood by his Tractarian friend, Charles Lloyd, Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, when he was condemned in 1845. In two pamphlets published in London and Oxford, Oakeley defended Tract XC and asserted that he held, “as distinct from teaching, all Roman doctrine.” He was brought before the Court of Arches by Bishop Blomfield, and in July 1845 he was suspended until he “retracted his errors.”

He resigned as a canon of Lichfield Cathedral and from all his other appointments in the Church of England on 28 October 1845, and moved into Cardinal Newman’s community at Littlemore in Oxford. The following day, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and on 31 October he was confirmed in Birmingham by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman.

He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Cardinal Wiseman in 1847 and he returned to Lichfield to celebrate his first Mass in Holy Cross Church, Upper John Street, with the 86-year-old scholarly Dr John Kirk, who had been Parish Priest of Lichfield when Oakeley was still a child in the Cathedral Close.

Westminster Cathedral … Oakeley became a canon after he became a Roman Catholic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oakeley joined the staff of Saint George’s, Southwark, took charge of Saint John’s, Islington, and was made a canon of Westminster Cathedral. For many years, he worked among the poor in his diocese, and from the 1860s on he was a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, and eventually became its joint editor. He died in Islington on 29 January 1880, and was buried in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.

Family and legacy

Henrietta Mott, wife of John Mott (1787–1869), Mayor of Lichfield in 1850, and sister of Frederick Oakeley

Frederick Oakeley was short-sighted, small of stature and lame, and it is said he exercised a wide influence through his personality, his writings, and the charm of his conversation.

Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (1870-1891), and an early historian of the Oxford Movement, said Oakeley “was, perhaps, the first to realise the capacities of the Anglican ritual for impressive devotional use.”

Oakeley’s widowed mother, Helena, continued living in the Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield until her death in 1838. His brother, Sir Herbert Oakeley (1791-1845), who succeeded to the family title, was Archdeacon of Colchester. When the Bishopric of Gibraltar was founded in 1842, it was offered to Archdeacon Oakeley, but he declined it.

John Mott (1787–1869) ... Mayor of Lichfield in 1850 and brother-in-law of Frederick Oakeley

Their sister, Henrietta, married John Mott (1787–1869) of No 20, The Close, Lichfield, who was Deputy Diocesan Registrar of Lichfield and Mayor of Lichfield in 1850. Another sister, Amelia, married Chappel Wodehouse, only son of Chappel Wodehouse (1749-1833), who was Dean of Lichfield Cathedral when Frederick was installed a canon.

His nephew, Sir Herbert Stanley Oakeley (1830-1903), was Music Critic of the Manchester Guardian (1858-1868), Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University (1865-1891), Organist at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, and Composer of Music to Queen Victoria in Scotland. He is included among the top 15 Victorian composers of hymn tunes by Ian Bradley (Abide with Me, London: SCM Press, 1997). Two of his settings for hymns include Abends for John Keble’s ‘Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear’ and Dominica for William Watkins Reid’s ‘Help us, O Lord, to learn’.

A sign on Elgar Close, leading to Oakley Close in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sadly, Frederick Oakeley has no monument in Lichfield apart from a misspelled street name at Oakley Close. Oakley Close was named after Frederick Oakeley but was misspelled in the original order by Lichfield District Council in 1977. Other street names in the area commemorate celebrated composers and musicians, including Purcell, Elgar, Handel, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan.

It is regrettable that in the cathedral city Oakeley knew as home, there is no public monument to one of the great and most popular English hymn-writers. Perhaps correcting the spelling of Oakley Close might begin to rectify this.

Oakely Close … Lichfield’s only tribute to Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and is a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

This feature is published in ‘Koinonia’, Vol 9 No 29 (Advent/Christmas 2015), pp 24-27.

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