“Once in Royal David’s City” is still sung today at Christmas time. It is taken from C. F. Alexander’s influential Hymns for Little Children (1848) where she has set a hymn, each, to elements of the Anglican Promises, Creed, the Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. “Once in royal David’s city” and “There is a green hill far away” are hymns to the Apostle’s Creed “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried,” respectively (the third famous hymn from the collection is “All things bright and beautiful,” to the Creed’s first line “Maker of heaven and earth”). In “Once in royal David’s city,” Jesus’ childhood is elusively established: “Once in royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle shed./ Where a mother laid her Baby/ In a manger for His bed.” Then lines 5-6 reveal the “mother” and “Baby” to be the most important “Mother” and “Baby” in Christianity. Verse 4 pursues these implications, both Jesus’ divinity and His humanity, that “He is our childhood’s Pattern” and also “Day by day like us He grew.” Emphasizing those attributes often said of children, Alexander reminds us that Christ was “little, weak and helpless” (v. 5). Further, the motif of all people as God’s children is not lost upon Alexander: “And He leads His children on” does not necessarily denote children now. Ultimately, those who are termed “little” and “children” in this world shall, like the Crowned One, be empowered in the Life beyond. This hymn’s longevity was no doubt lengthened because of H. J. Gauntlett’s haunting tune “Irby” (he wrote tunes to all of the hymns in this collection, 1849), made even more poignant when sung by a child’s own voice.
For more about this hymn, see Clapp-Itnyre, Alisa. “Writing for, yet Apart: Nineteenth-Century Women’s Contentious Status as Hymn Writers and Editors of Hymnbooks for Children.” Victorian Literature and Culture. Vol. 40. Issue 1. (March 2012): Pp. 47-81.