“Music should give zest to divine worship,” declared the great Renaissance composer Palestrina. His sentiments are especially true at Christmas time when Christians of all denominations sing a common set of well-known hymns and carols that have been part of our history for centuries.
One hymn that almost every Christian is certain to know is “O, Come All Ye Faithful” also known by its original title “Adeste Fideles.” This hymn has been popular in the English-speaking world since at least the mid-1700s. A Scottish priest, Rev. Robert Menzies, writing in the late 18th century noted that
It rapidly became the fashion in the city (Edinburgh); apprentice boys whistled it in every street. It was even said that the blackbirds in the square joined in the chorus!
Despite the popularity of the song, there is (and has been) much disagreement about who originally composed the piece. There are also questions regarding the true meaning of the song’s lyrics.
Over the past few centuries the piece has been attributed to numerous authors ranging from anonymous Cistercian monks to George Frideric Handel. However, most serious publications state that the hymn was written by either John Reading or John Francis Wade.
Reading was a church organist in London from the late 1600s to the early 1700s. It was Vincent Novello, organist at Portuguese Chapel in London, who first attributed the “Adeste” to Reading. In Novello’s 1843 publication “Home Music” he printed the piece under the title “Air by Reading, 1680” and noted that the “Adeste” was composed in 1680 by John Reading
a pupil of Dr. Blow (the master of Purcell) and was first employed at Lincoln Cathedral. He afterwards became organist of St. John’s Hackney, and finally of St. Dunstan’s in the West and St. Mary’s, Woolnoth, London.
Novello’s claims, however, have been challenged by other notable writers. The Irish historian and musicologist Dr. Grattan Flood, for example, believes that the John Reading mentioned by Novello was not born until 1677. This means he was only three years old when he supposedly penned the “Adeste.” Moreover, both Dr. Flood and Rev. John Stephan, who conducted his own extensive study of the hymn, claim that there were no copies of the “Adeste” in any of Reading’s manuscripts. Additionally, Stephan notes that nothing in Reading’s known compositions resembles the “Adeste.”
According to Stephan, the most likely composer of the work was John Francis Wade. Little is known of Wade’s life. He was born in 1711 shortly after King James II, the last Catholic monarch of England, was forced from the throne. Wade, like many Catholic Englishmen, moved to the continent to avoid persecution. He found employment as a music copyist and Latin teacher at the English College (College des Grands Anglais) in Douai, France. The college was home to many English Catholic expatriates and its faculty and students had a strong allegiance to James II and his descendents.
In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), the great grandson of James II invaded Britain and unsuccessfully attempted to retake the crown.
A letter written by the president of English College, Dr. William Thornburg, during the early weeks of the invasion shows how devoted the school was to the Jacobite cause:
Our news from Scotland has hitherto been very good and we are in great hopes, and pray daily that Heaven may prosper the army of our glorious Prince, whose praises are in everybody’s mouth. Besides our daily prayers for his success, we sing a solemn High Mass at least once a week for the same intention.
It was in this atmosphere that Wade wrote the “Adeste.” The oldest publication of the work is believed to date back to sometime between 1740 and 1743. The exact date is unknown because the manuscript’s title page is missing. This publication was in the hands of Rev. Stephan in 1947 when he wrote an article entitled “Adeste Fideles: a Study on Its Origins and Development.” In the article Stephan discusses the “Jacobite tendency” of the work. The music for “Adeste” is immediately preceded by a prayer for King James II and the manuscript is embellished with floral patterns associated with the ousted monarch.
Stephan’s observations are taken even further by Professor Bennett Zon of Durham University who believes the “Adeste” is in fact a cryptic ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie. According to Zon’s interpretation of the lyrics, the word “faithful” (in Latin Fideles) refers to the faithful Jacobites and “Bethlehem” is a cipher for England. Finally, “Regem Angelorum” (in English “King of Angels”) is to be construed as “Regem Anglorum”, i.e., King of the English.
Zon told the BBC,
the meaning of the Christmas carol is clear: “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of Angels” really means, “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English”—Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The “Adeste” was translated into English in 1841 by a Catholic priest in England named Frederick Oakeley. Below is a performance of the “Adeste” as part of the Christmas Eve Service of Eucharist at Westminster Abbey: