In 1848 a book was published entitled Hymns for Little Children. It contained a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) called ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Mrs C.F. Alexander (as she has often been called) was born in Dublin and during her lifetime was known as a hymn writer, translator, poet, and philanthropist. Along with ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, her two other well known hymns are ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’ and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, although she wrote many more hymns and religious poems. As a philanthropist she was an active campaigner and fundraiser for causes which promoted education and healthcare for the disadvantaged and needy in society.
A year after ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was published H.J. Gauntlett (1805-1876), a well-known British organist, wrote a tune called IRBY which has been associated with the words ever since. ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is associated most closely with Christmas and is a popular choice as the opening hymn for carol services. Most famously, it is the opening hymn for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, when the first verse is sung by a solo boy treble.