“The Wren (The King)”


A tale of the hunting of the wren on Saint Stephen's Day. Boys go out, hunt the wren, and bring it home for a reward: "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds / St. Stephen's Day was caught in the forest / Although he be little, his honor is great..."


The English legend that the wren is the king of birds has a parallel in German. A tale from the Brothers Grimm explains that, when the birds decided they needed a king, they decided to hold a contest to find the king. First they said that the bird that could fly highest would be king. The eagle would have flown highest, but the wren rode on its back and so managed to climb higher still. Then the birds decided to try a digging contest. The wren slipped down a convenient mouse hole, and won that round also. So the wren became the king.

There is a similar Danish legend.

The German name of the wren, in fact, is zaunkonig, fence-king.

It's possible that the custom goes back to the Greeks; the Greek word BASILISKOS, "little king," is listed in Liddell & Scott as meaning, among other things, the golden-crested wren -- but they cite only one instance; the usual meaning of the word is "royal" or "official" (so, e.g., in the New Testament).

The identical equation seems to occur in Latin: "regulus" means "petty king" (compare rex, king), but the word is also used of the wren.

In many parts of the British Isles, it became the custom to capture a wren on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) and parade it about (perhaps while asking for alms).

Explanations of this custom vary. Kennedy quotes an account in which a wren's song aroused a sleeping sentry and saved English and Manx soldiers from an attack in Ireland. Garnett and Gosse, in _English Literature: An Illustrated Record_, i., p. 298, claim that the "report of Brian Boru's great victory over the Danes on St. Stephen's Day survives in Ireland in a carol about a wren." (Uh-huh.)

Vallancey claims that the wren was used in augury by the Druids, and so Christian missionaries hunted it to prevent this use. Flanders and Olney also date it back to druidism.

Another story says that it will precede a future hero (e.g. King Arthur). Frazer compares the whole business to various coronation quests and hunts for sacred animals. Greenway offers perhaps the greatest stretch of all, considering the wren to represent the "indomitable peasant." - RBW

Cross references


  1. Flanders/Olney, pp. 58-59, "The Wran" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #4683
  4. BI, FO059


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1940 (Flanders/Olney)
Keywords: carol hunting wren
Found in: US(NE)