The Holy Innocents in the Writings of St. Augustine and in the Coventry Carol

The great Doctor of the Church called the Holy Innocents “infant martyr flowers,” because they were the first martyrs for the faith.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Virgin and Child Surrounded by Holy Innocents,” 1616
Peter Paul Rubens, “Virgin and Child Surrounded by Holy Innocents,” 1616 (photo: Public Domain)

On Dec. 28, during this octave of Christmas, the Church celebrates the memory of the Holy Innocents — the male children of the village of Bethlehem who were brutally murdered by the wicked king Herod in his quest to eliminate the Christ Child.

Learning from an angel of Herod’s impending attack, Joseph led his family to safety in Egypt. The story is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-18):


The Escape to Egypt

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”


The Massacre of the Infants

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were 2 years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.

St. Augustine was touched by the story, and he shared his reflections in a homily he delivered to his congregation. He called the tiny victims “infant martyr flowers,” because they were the first martyrs for the faith. “Today, dearest brethren,” Augustine said,

... we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.
Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes, and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as ‘infant martyr flowers’ — they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.


The Coventry Carol

The sad story of the Holy Innocents has reverberated through history, as mothers have pondered how great a loss would be the murder of their children. In the 16th century, the song “Coventry Carol” expressed that sadness. Originally part of a mystery play about the Nativity titled “The Pageant of Shearmen and Tailors,” the somber “Coventry Carol” takes the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children. In the original play, three women of Bethlehem enter on stage with their children, immediately after Joseph has been warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt.

Although the song was written in the 16th century, it was popularized during World War II as a Christmas song. The BBC Empire Broadcast at Christmas 1940, shortly after the bombing of Coventry, concluded with a choir singing the sad carol in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

The lyrics, while sometimes difficult for modern readers to understand, are somber and melancholic.

Lully, lullah, thou tiny little child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou tiny little child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This pure youngling for whom we sing,
‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’ 
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’