The tune “Greensleeves” which we know today with the text “What child is this?” is far older than the words. The tune dates back at least as far as Shakespeare in the mid-to-late 1500s. The actual composer is not known, but there is a popular misconception that the tune was by King Henry VIII (1491-1547). While the tune probably was not written by Henry VIII, it is known that his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, danced to it.
Its first printed mention was in 1580 as a “new northern dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves.” It later was used as a political ballad, and even makes two appearances (by reference only) in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” in Act Two, “I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves’ “; and in Act Five, “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves.’
Traitors were hanged as hired bands of musicians played its strains in lugubrious tempo. In 1642 it was first used in a Christmas carol, “The Old Year Now Away Has Fled.” Almost three centuries later, about 1865 during the reign of Queen Victoria, William Chatterton Dix published his poem “The Manger Throne.” Three stanzas were later culled from that poem and fitted to “Greensleeves,” thus creating “What Child Is This?”, one of our loveliest carols. It is not known for certain who merged Dix’s text with the “Greensleeves” tune, but it was likely John Strainer (1840 – 1901). It is known that Strainer made a harmonization of the tune.
Here the Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø sings this lovely carol:
The Twelve Days of Christmas:
First Day of Christmas: Washington Crosses the Delaware River
Second Day of Christmas: General “Mad Dog” Mattis Gets Christmas Cookies
Third Day of Christmas: General Patton’s Christmas Card
Fourth Day of Christmas: Reagan’s 1986 Christmas Address Is More Relevant Than Ever
Fifth Day of Christmas: Two Musicians, A Broken Organ and “Silent Night”
Sixth Day of Christmas: The Back Story to “Come, O Come Emmanuel”
Seventh Day of Christmas: The Inspiring Story Behind “O Holy Night”
The Eighth Day of Christmas: The Powerful Story Behind “O Little Town of Bethlehem”