The 16th century song, Westron wynde, is an expression of longing to be with one’s love. It is just one verse and melody in a manuscript from the court of King Henry VIII. Much ink has been fancifully spilled over the meaning of its four lines. This article traces the history of its treatment through renaissance masses, folk music and 20th century pop music; attempts to elucidate its meaning without fancy; and presents an arrangement to renaissance musical principles on bray harp.
Westron wynde is a fragment surviving in a single source, folio 5 of the British Library manuscript, Royal Appendix 58 (RA58). The manuscript is a commonplace book, a handwritten compilation of knowledge for an individual or household, in this case a collection of songs, instrumental pieces, church music and keyboard music, with contributions made by several professional musicians associated with the court of Henry VIII, and a much later insertion of folios of lute tablature. It was written collectively in various stages after 1507, with most of the pieces written between c. 1515 and 1540. Besides Westron wynde, the most well-known music in RA58 is the anonymous keyboard piece, My Lady Carey’s Dompe, and William Cornysh’s song, Blow thi hornne hunter.
Since in the source there is only one monophonic line, to perform it one clearly has to play more than what is on the page. I chose to accompany it with the bray harp, the standard European harp of the 15th, 16th and much of the 17th century, with variations in the renaissance style.
The meaning of the words
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne down can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
and I yn my bed Agayne
You may have read a different version of these words. Alterations to the text were commonplace in the 19th century and until the 1950s, with changed words (“doth” instead of “can”, “Oh” instead of “Cryst”), additional words (a fabricated “that” beginning the second line) and added punctuation.
There have been many fanciful explanations of its meaning: that the author is inviting “the smalle rayne” to water the parched landscape of the soul, or to revive the potency of love; or that the seasonal imagery refers to Christ as a symbol of resurrection; or that it’s a lament for a dead love, her resurrection symbolised by the rain fertilising the soil. None of this is in the text, nor implied by it. There have also been suggestions that the song is medieval, dating back to Middle English, even though the spelling and wording is that of Henry VIII’s era, is thus in early modern English, and since there is only one source there is no evidence to suggest the song is earlier.
The fragment is clearly a song of longing, but what of the finer details?
“Westron wynde when wyll thow blow” looks forward longingly to spring, when the west wind will blow. The very idea of the renaissance was the supposed rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek culture and its symbolism. The personification of the “Westron wynde” in Greek mythology was Zephyrus, bringer of gentle breezes. There are many examples of this western wind of spring imagery in literature. One example is in William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (1609-10), Act 4, Scene 2, spoken by Belarius:
O thou goddess,
Thou divine Nature, how thyself thou blazon’st
In these two princely boys! They are as gentle
As zephyrs blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head
Zephyrus the western wind was also referred to by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Prologue of his Canterbury Tales, written c. 1388–1400 (first in Chaucer’s English then modernised):
Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in switch licour,
Of whech vertu engendred is the floure.
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breth
Inspired hath in every holt and heth,
The tendre croppes
When April with his showers sweet,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such liquid,
Of which power engendered is the flower.
When Zephyrus also with his sweet breath
Inspired has in every wood and field
The tender shoots and leaves
The Westron wynde writer, then, is looking forward to milder times in spring, and is therefore probably writing in the previous season, winter.
“the smalle rayne down can Rayne” is usually interpreted in combination with the first line, as inviting or looking forward to the “smalle” or gentle rain of spring. The May 1963 edition of The Explicator, University of South Carolina, argued that “can” is here backward-looking, a northern and north midland variant of gan, from ginne, meaning did in Middle English, i.e. the small rain down did rain. This text, however, is not in Middle English, the language from c. 1150 to c. 1475, but in early modern English, written c. 1520–30. It makes much more sense, in terms of historicity and poetic meaning, that the writer associates the western wind with spring to come, with the “smalle” or gentle rain he doesn’t mind, compared to the icy blasts of the harsh and lonely winter months, since in spring he will be with his love and the comforts of home he longs for.
“Cryst yf my love were in my Armys and I yn my bed Agayne” The verse is set in winter and the writer is missing the gentler spring weather, the embrace of his love, and his own bed, these three associated as a unified whole, since in spring he will be home again. The reason for the writer’s absence from home is not given. Perhaps the missing verses would have told us, or perhaps other verses were always yet to be written.
Since Westron wynde was first written or written down in c. 1520–30 (as far as the available evidence suggests), this fragment of a song has undergone some transformations.
Three renaissance composers wrote masses using Westron wynde as the foundation: John Taverner (c. 1490–1545), Christopher Tye (c. 1505–before 1573) and John Sheppard (c. 1515–1558). There were previous continental masses based on secular melodies in the 15th century, such as the Franco-Flemish L’homme armé – The armed man, but Westron wynde was the first to be used by English composers. From the 15th century onwards, a mass was a polyphonic setting of a cantus firmus or fixed tune, around which other voices were arranged. It is intriguing that the cantus firmus in the Westron wynde mass of John Taverner (click blue text to listen, melody shown above right) is not the same as RA58, but it is clearly related. This suggests two possibilities. Let’s assume that, like L’homme armé, Westron wynde was carried in the oral tradition and that this familiarity and popularity was the reason for its inclusion in masses. In melodies carried by the oral tradition, multiple variants are the norm, so it may be that different variants are preserved in the masses and in RA58 respectively. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, it may be that the mass composers elongated and changed the melody to suit their compositions, the tune in the oral tradition more faithfully preserved in RA58.
In the modern day it is the RA58 version of the melody that persists in popular culture. In 1961, pop group The Limeliters used the existing text and melody as the chorus, adding their own music and words for the verses, performed as Western Wind. In 1970, folk guitar great John Renbourn released his album, The Lady and the Unicorn, consisting almost entirely of early music played on folk instruments (guitars, sitar, concertina, fiddle, etc.), including his variations on Westron wynde. Folk duo Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, who were an integral part of Steeleye Span, included the song in two-part harmony on their 1971 duo album, Summer Solstice. In 1994, Saint Etienne included Western Wind on their album, Tiger Bay, with a slightly changed tune and one of the altered texts mentioned above.
A surviving descendant?
Early 20th century folk song collector Henry Edward Denison Hammond collected a song from Robert Barratt of Piddletown, Dorset, in 1905, The Pretty Cock (sung here by Annie Winter).
The first and penultimate verses are:
As I stood under my love’s window one night,
I cried so shrill, as shrill, as shrill, as shrill indeed.
My love she arose and put on her clothes
And come down and let me in.
The wind it did blow and the cocks they did crow
As I tripped over the plain, plain so very plain, so very plain.
So I wished myself back in my true love’s arms
And she in her bed again.
The penultimate verse is very similar indeed to Westron wynde: “The wind it did blow” / “Westron wynde when wyll thow blow” … “So I wished myself back in my true love’s arms” / “Cryst yf my love were in my Armys” … “And she in her bed again” / “and I yn my bed Agayne”.
Could The Pretty Cock be an early 20th century survival of the whole song of which Westron wynde is a 16th century fragment? Folk singer and traditional music commentator A. L. Lloyd thought it a possibility. In his book of 1967, Folk Song in England, he wrote, “[Westron wynde] is always printed as a stray verse from a lost poem. But among H. E. D. Hammond’s manuscripts is a night-visit song, which may represent the complete form of the piece. It is a version of the familiar ballad of the cock that crew too soon and made the lover turn out of his sweetheart’s warm bed into the cold windy night.”
A song being carried in the oral tradition from the 16th to the 20th century is not impossible – it has happened, for example, with Go from my window and Greensleeves – and the similarity between the 16th century Westron wynde verse and the penultimate 20th century Pretty Cock verse is striking. It is all too tempting to think that Pretty Cock is a descendent of the complete original song, but we need to be cautious, as there are two other possible explanations.
The first alternative explanation is that Westron wynde is not a fragment of The Pretty Cock, but that the words of Westron wynde became a floating verse. Traditional song has many floating lines or verses which migrate freely from song to song. Examples include lines or verses about being jilted and going to a lonesome valley to mourn; of being so full of sorrow that you want someone to dig you a grave (an idea that goes all the way back to the earliest surviving secular love song in English, Bird on a briar, c. 1290–1320); and of wishing to be a bird to fly to a distant true love, among many other examples. The Westron wynde lyric is not a typical floating verse, but occasionally one song would borrow any verse from another, so migration is not impossible. One striking factor in this case is that The Pretty Cock shares the broad content and many actual lines with another traditional song, The Lover’s Ghost, also known as The Grey Cock. The only key difference between the two sets of words is that The Grey Cock has supernatural elements, the lover being a ghost who has to flee before the cock crows at the break of day, whereas the role of the crowing bird in The Pretty Cock is to warn the living flesh and blood lover to hasten away before being discovered. The penultimate verse in The Pretty Cock that is so similar to Westron wynde does not, however, appear in The Lover’s Ghost (The Grey Cock). This is the only part of The Pretty Cock not to be replicated in The Lover’s Ghost, a fact that requires explanation.
The second alternative explanation for the resemblance between Westron wynde and the penultimate verse of The Pretty Cock is the most prosaic and the most credible. The Pretty Cock was collected in 1905 and, for several decades before, versions of the 16th century Westron wynde text had been available in print. It may just be that a singer read Westron wynde, liked the sentiment, and added his or her own version of the words into the existing version of The Pretty Cock, which was then passed on to other singers of the song. This is the most obvious and most likely explanation, which also accounts for the verse’s absence from The Lover’s Ghost (The Grey Cock). The transmission of Westron wynde in oral tradition from the 16th to the 20th century can be dismissed, since evidence for this is entirely lacking.
A beautiful miniature
Though we have only one verse, in my view and that of many others this is too beautiful to be left unsung. What is certain for me is that in four short lines Westron wynde manages to convey more heartfelt meaning than many a long song. Tenuous and fanciful interpretations about the soul and resurrection are not only unnecessary to understand the words, they detract from the simplicity of this beautiful fragment of longing. Originally, there may well have been more verses but, like an exquisite painted miniature, its brevity can be savoured and is sufficient in itself.