Remembering Ulster-based woman who wrote Once in Royal David's City

On the bicentenary of her birth, historian GORDON LUCY looks back at the life of one of Christendom's best known hymnodists, the Dublin-born Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, who spent most of her life in north-west Ulster engaged in charity work for the poor and the sick

By The Newsroom
Monday, 2nd April 2018, 4:00 pm
Cecil Frances Alexander
Cecil Frances Alexander

At Christmastide, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins with ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, the first verse being sung unaccompanied by a solo chorister.

On Easter Sunday morning churchgoers all round the world sing ‘There is a green hill far away’.

Both hymns are from the pen of Cecil Frances Alexander.

Thus Mrs Alexander’s work features prominently in the two great festivals of the Christian calendar throughout the world.

Although the celebrated hymn-writer and poetess was born in Dublin in April 1818, Mrs Alexander spent the greater part of her life in north-west Ulster in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, living in Strabane between 1833 and 1850 and 1860 and 1867, in Castlederg between 1850 and 1855, in Upper Fahan between 1855 and 1860, and in Londonderry between 1867 and 1895.

Cecil Frances Humphreys was the daughter of Major John Humphreys, formerly of the Royal Marines, and his wife, Elizabeth Reed.

Major John Humphreys was land-agent to 4th Earl of Wicklow up to 1833 and to the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn thereafter.

Fanny (as she was usually known) began writing verse in her childhood and, in collaboration with Lady Harriet Howard, daughter of the Earl of Wicklow, she produced a number of religious tracts.

These were initially published separately but were published subsequently as a compilation in 1848.

Her religious work was strongly influenced by her contacts with the High Church Oxford Movement (or Tractarians) and in particular with John Keble, the English poet, Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1831 to 1841, and one of the leaders of the movement.

It was his famous Assize Sermon on ‘National Apostasy’ in Oxford in 1833, prompted by the Whig government’s suppression of ten Church of Ireland bishoprics, which gave rise to the movement.

As a young person, Fanny had been very impressed by Keble’s ‘The Christian Year’ which appeared in 1827.

She and her friend Harriet in their early teens both virtually knew all its 300 pages by heart. In her mid-twenties she decided to produce ‘Verses for Holy Seasons’, a junior version for the use of clergy and Sunday school teachers.

In her dedication she paid tribute to Keble without actually mentioning him by name: ‘To the author of “The Christian Year”, this attempt to adapt the great principles of his immortal work to the exigencies of the schoolroom, is inscribed with feelings of reverence and respect, by one of the many thousands who have profited by his labours.’

By the 1840s Fanny was well known as a hymn writer and her compositions were appearing in Church of Ireland hymnals. In 1848 ‘Hymns for Little Children’ was published. She invited Keble to write a preface and he responded by contributing a short introduction, described as ‘Notice’.

The book was intended to explain the content of ‘The Apostles’ Creed’ by answering the obvious but searching questions which children often ask. For example, ‘Where was Jesus born?’ was answered by ‘Once in royal David’s city’. The answer to ‘Why did He have to die?’ was provided by ‘There is a green hill far away’.

Her response to ‘Who made the world?’ was ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – probably the world’s favourite children’s hymn.

The book reached its sixty-ninth edition before the close of the nineteenth century.

Fanny was romantically attracted in this period to William Archer Butler.

Reputed to be ‘the cleverest man in Ireland’, Archer Butler was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and Rector of Raymochy, on the shores of Lough Swilly.

While engaged in famine relief, he caught famine fever (typhus) and died very suddenly in July 1848. Fanny, many years later, told her daughters that she had been in love with Archer Butler and that it was his death which had prevented the match.

In October 1850 she married William Alexander, an Anglican clergyman, who became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1867 and Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1896.

His family was greatly perturbed that his bride was six years older than he was. This is why Mrs Alexander’s date of birth has appeared in some works of reference as 1823.

She was an indefatigable visitor to poor and sick and heavily involved in charitable work.

Money from her first publications had helped build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which was founded in 1846 in Strabane.

The profits from ‘Hymns for Little Children’ were donated to the school.

She wrote ‘Jesus calls us o’er the tumult’ while she was at Termnamongan, near Castlederg. It first appeared in ‘Narrative Hymns for Village Schools’ (1853).

On 1 January 1871, when the Church of Ireland ceased to be the Established Church in Ireland, she penned a sombre hymn, which is not one of her better known hymns, to mark what for the membership of Church of Ireland was a traumatic occasion.

In 1889, at the request of H. H. Dickinson, Dean of the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle, she produced an English version of a Gaelic poem entitled ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’ found in the ‘Liber Hymnorum’.

The hymn is also known by its opening line: ‘I bind unto myself today’.

It is currently included in the ‘English Hymnal’, ‘The Irish Church Hymnal’ and ‘The Hymnal’ of the American Episcopal Church.

She died at the Bishop’s Palace in Londonderry on 12 October 1895 and is buried in the City Cemetery.

A posthumous collection of her poems, edited by her husband, appeared in 1896.

There are two excellent biographies of the hymn writer: E.W. Lovell, ‘A Green Hill Far Away: A Life of Mrs C.F. Alexander’ (1970) and Valerie Wallace, ‘Mrs Alexander’ (1995).