Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander (1818–1895) was a famous Irish hymn writer and poet. She wrote 400 hymns, including “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the Christmas hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City.”
This year marks the 125th anniversary of her death.
Alexander was born in April 1818 in County Wicklow, Ireland, to John and Elizabeth Humphreys. As a young girl, she had a poetic gift, which her father encouraged her to pursue.
She became a prolific writer of hymns. In 1846, her first publication was “Verses for Holy Seasons.” It had six editions.
Hymns for children
Her “Hymns for Little Children,” published in 1848, reached a 69th edition in 1896. When she wrote for children, she wrote in simple language, helping them to understand concepts of baptism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer. Her proceeds went to establishing an institution for the deaf.
In the 1840s, many of Alexander’s hymns were included in Church of Ireland hymn books. She also contributed poems and translations of French poetry in the Dublin University Magazine.
In 1850 she married Anglican clergyman William Alexander. He became Bishop of Derry and then Archbishop of Armagh in Northern Ireland. He was also a poet. Married for 45 years, they had four children.
In the 1850s, she wrote several other collections of poetry and hymns including “Poems on Subjects in the Old Testament” (1854) and “Hymns Descriptive and Devotional” (1858).
She wrote the Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City” as a poem. It was first published in 1848 in her hymnbook “Hymns for Little Children.” The next year English organist Henry Gauntlett set it to music.
The first two stanzas of the hymn beautifully tell the Christmas story:
“Once in royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle shed,/ Where a mother laid her Baby/ In a manger for His bed./ Mary was that mother mild,/ Jesus Christ her little child.
“He came down to earth from heaven,/ Who is God and Lord of all,/ And His shelter was a stable,/ And His cradle was a stall./ With the poor and meek and lowly,/ Lived on earth our Savior holy.”
Alexander did charitable work for much of her life. She worked with the Derry Home for Fallen Women and developed a district nurses’ service.
She was a tireless visitor to the poor and sick, traveling many miles each day providing food, warm clothes and medical supplies to them.
Alexander died Oct. 12, 1895, at the Bishop’s Palace in Derry and was buried in the city cemetery.