Set to the tune of "Greensleeves", a traditional English folk song.
Hymn story William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) was born in Bristol, England. His father, a surgeon, had written a biography of the poet, Thomas Chatterton, which accounts for the middle name that he gave his son. It also reveals the affection for poetry which the father passed on to his son. As a young man, William moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where he pursued a career managing a marine insurance company (a company that insured ships and related interests). However, his true passion was poetry.
Dix fell seriously ill, and was confined to his bed for an extended period of time. He underwent a true spiritual crisis during this illness, and spent much time in prayer and the reading of Christian literature. He came through the crisis as a true man of faith, and devoted much of his later poetry to Christian themes. He wrote a number of hymns, at least three of which have survived to this day—the other two being “As with Gladness, Men of Old” and “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.” “What Child Is This?” was derived from a longer poem, “The Manger Song.” It was first published in 1865 in Britain, and quickly became popular in the United States as well. (sermonwriter.com)
History of Hymns: “What Child Is This” Greensleeves, the tune for which this text was probably written, is one of the most beautiful and beloved melodies of the season. Though not exclusively a Christmas tune, its association with this season goes back to at least 1642, where it is paired with the Waits’ carol, “The old year now away is fled.” Shakespeare refers twice to Greensleeves in his play Merry Wives of Windsor, helping to date it in the 16th century. William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), an Anglican layman, was the son of a surgeon in Bristol, England. He spent most of his life as a businessman, working as a manager for the Maritime Insurance Company in Glasgow, Scotland. We know of his church affiliation only through his hymns that were published in Altar Songs, Verses on the Holy Eucharist, and A Vision of All Saints. (umcdiscipleship.org)