Nolo Mortem Peccatoris

This short motet, attributed to Thomas Morley, takes its text from an intriguing macaronic poem, which dates from the 15th century or earlier. A brief history of the work is followed by the complete text of three different poems, all connected by the 'burden' or refrain: Nolo mortem peccatoris – 'I do not want the death of a sinner'.


The only musical source for this piece is a set of part books in the British Library, Additional MSS 29372–5. Written out by Thomas Myriell in 1616, they bear the title Tristitiae remedium.

The macaronic text is taken from the start of a twenty-three verse poem, found in a manuscript associated with St. Paul's Cathedral, dating from the 1540s (British Library Additional 15233). At the end of the poem is written the name of John Redford (d. 1547), Organist of St. Paul's Cathedral at that time. Morley became Organist at St. Paul's in 1590.

Although Morley is cited as the composer in the part-books, doubts have been cast over this attribution. The slightly antiquated idiom of the music has led to John Redford, the author of the text, being suggested. Any other potential candidate would, presumably, have connections with St. Paul's Cathedral between 1540 and 1590.

An edition of this work is freely available to download from Ancient Groove Music.


Although Redford was a poet and dramatist, earlier variations of the text exist, and these may all be based on an earlier, mediaeval original. The Latin phrase of the title is taken from the Rule of St Benedict, in his quotation of Ezekiel 33:11 – As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live.

However, there is perhaps some ambiguity in the burden phrase, as it could also mean "I do not wish a sinner's death [for myself]". The poems are written in the first person, seemingly spoken by Jesus himself -- "Father, I am thine only son" -- and they might be an elaboration on Jesus' fearful prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest (Mark 14:35-36). However, the continuation of the poem, which describes the burden 'Nolo mortem peccatoris' as a reason for the Passion itself, suggests the former interpretation.

The complete text of John Redford's poem from BL Add. 29372 is reproduced below, with modern orthography:

It is followed by two 15th century variants found in manuscripts at Cambridge University. The first and earliest of these, held in St. John's College, (MS S.54) is anonymous, but the second, held in the University Library (MS Ee 1. 12) is dated 1492 and attributed to one James Ryman.Up to Top

John Redford text (BL Add. 29372)

Nolo mortem peccatoris:
Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.

Father, I am thine only son,
Sent down from heaven mankind to save!
Father, all things fulfilled and done
According to thy will I have;
Father, now all my will is this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Father, behold my pains most smart,
Taken for man on every side,
E'en from my birth to death most tart;
No kind of pain I have denied,
But suffered all for love of this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold my birth, in what degree
Into this wretched world I came,
Taking man's vile nature on me,
With all the mis'ries of the same
Save only sin; and all for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold my tender infancy:
Scant eight days old, but that I was
Cut in my flesh most painfully;
To shed my blood for man's trespass
I not disdained, for love of this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Here dwelt I thirty years and three,
In hunger, thirst, in cold and heat,
In great contempt of the world at me,
For my good deeds and travels great,
Taken for man, and all for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

When thirty years and three were run,
Time drawing near of my most woe;
Oh! Father, now behold thy son,
My pains increasing mo and mo!
For which, O Father, harken to this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold my sighs, my sorrowful heart,
Behold my tears, my bloody sweat!
Behold my pains in every part
Had on the mount of Olivet,
Before my death, declaring this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold the Jews most fierce and wood
Thy son they sought with glaives and bills!
Behold thy son most meek of mood,
Given to their hands to do their wills,
To whom I bowed my will for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Then to a post fast was I tied,
Scourgèd and beaten on every side,
Till no skin left, but as one flayed,
There stood thy son in blood all dyed,
Most meekly suffering all for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold, also, then how they brought
Thy innocent lamb before their judges,
As one that had all mischief wrought,
Condemned to death upon their grudges
Grown 'gainst me for preaching this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Behold my head then, how they crowned
With thorns, yea, piercing near the brain!
My face, my neck, in blood all drowned,
My flesh all trembling in every vein,
For passing mayne, and all for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

To bear my cross then forth they drave me,
Till the great weight threw me there under,
But then hard strokes enow they gave me,
Beating me forth with shame and wonder!
All which I meekly suffered for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

My garments then to me fast cleaving,
Most violently from me they drew
The flesh, e'en from the bone then riving;
My bloody wounds they did renew
With no small pain! Oh Father! Yet this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

But then behold those cruel folk,
One at each arm, one at each foot,
Through flesh and bone great nails they stroke,
The streams of blood were set afloat,
To wash their sin that wrought all this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Then up aloft my corse they cast,
The fall whereof down in the rest
My joints and sinews all to-brast!
Which, pain of pains, was not the least
That I there meekly suffered for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Upon that cross behold I there
Hung three long hours e'er life were gone,
Having not stay my body to bear,
But those hard nails through flesh and bone;
Yet I e'en there declarèd this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

When all my blood was throughly spent,
My flesh dried up for lack of licker,
Then with a spear my heart they rent,
To try my death for man most sicker;
The which I meekly suffered for this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Who may express those pains to me dealt?
Who may bethink them to disclose,
In mine humanity sensibly felt;
Yet is there one pain more than those?
Oh Father! why should I say this?
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

This my most pain, this my most care,
Is for to see man's unkindness;
For all my death he will not spare
Me to offend, my laws transgress,
And all in hope and trust of this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

The world, the flesh, yea, and the devil,
Man will not spare to serve all three,
Taking occasion of all this evil
Of mine own words; saying to me,
Whate'er we do, yet Christ saith this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

But unto man I say again,
Death of a sinner will not I,
If he amend and sin refrain;
But when in sin still he will lie,
Then unto him I speak not this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Oh man, for thy love have I died!
I ask no more of thee therefore,
But love for love in thy deeds tried;
Forsake thy sin and keep my lore,
And then to thee I say e'en this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Now here an end of this our song;
Now to that Lord that died for man
Give thanks, and pray for grace among,
To keep his laws, that we may then
Enjoy his merciful words in this:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Finis quod Mr. RedfordUp to Top

St. John's College, MS S.54, 15th C; f 9r

Father, my will it is:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Father, I am thine own child
And born of Mary meek and mild;
Father, now my will it is:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

My heart is sore when I bethink
And see men trespass and in sin sink;
For all that is done amiss:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Thou false fiend, with all thy slent,
Y'will no more mankind be shent;
Of him thou getst no right, iwys:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Now make we both joy and mirth
In worship of Christ's own birth.
This is God's own word, iwys:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.
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Cambridge University Library, MS Ee 1. 12.
by James Ryman, c. 1492

Haec sunt verba Salvatoris:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Have mind for thee how I was born,
How with scourges my flesh was torn,
And how I was crownèd with thorn;
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Have mind also how low I light
Into a maid so pure and bright,
Taking mercy, leaving my might;
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Think how meekly I took the field,
Upon my back bearing my shield;
For pain ne death I would not yield:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.

Lift up thy heart now, man, and see
What I have done and do for thee;
If thou be lost, blame thou not me:
Nolo mortem peccatoris.
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