Week 197: Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

This great ballad, Child 81, is probably best known these days in the version belted out by Sandy Denny on the seminal folk album ‘Liege and Lief’ under the alternative title ‘Matty Groves’, but I’ve slightly reluctantly gone back to the primary Child version, confining myself to a little modernisation of the spelling (a bolder soul than I might be tempted to make a composite text from the best the numerous versions have to offer, but at least this version includes the lady’s beautiful injunction to her lover to ‘huggle me from the cold’).

One of the things I like about these ballads is the sheer feistiness of their heroines, forever seeing what they want and going for it, which acts as a useful corrective to the demure passivity of the females in so much courtly verse of the past. Let’s face it, poor Little Musgrave never had a chance…

Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard

It fell out one holy-day,
As many be in the year,
When young men and maids together did go,
Their mattins and mass to heare,

Little Musgrave came to the church-door;
The priest was at private masse;
But he had more mind of the fair women
Then he had of our lady’s grace.

The one of them was clad in green,
Another was clad in pall,
And then came in my lord Barnard’s wife,
The fairest amongst them all.

She cast an eye on Little Musgrave,
As bright as the summer sun;
And then bethought this Little Musgrave,
This lady’s heart have I won.

Quoth she, I have loved thee, Little Musgrave,
Full long and many a day;
‘So have I loved  you, fair lady,
Yet never word durst I say.’

‘I have a bower at Bucklesfordbery,
Full daintily it is dight;
If thou wilt wend thither, thou Little Musgrave,
Thou’s lig in mine arms all night.’

Quoth he, I thank yee, faire lady,
This kindness thou showest to me;
But whether it be to my weal or woe,
This night I will lig with thee.

With that he heard, a little tiny page,
By this lady’s coach as he ran:
‘All though I am my lady’s foot-page,
Yet I am Lord Barnard’s man.

‘My lord Barnard shall know of this,
Whether I sink or swim;’
And ever where the bridges were broke
He laid him down to swim.

‘Asleep or wake, thou Lord Barnard,
As thou art a man of life,
For Little Musgrave is at Bucklesfordbery,
Abed with thy own wedded wife.’

‘If this be true, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
Then all the land in Bucklesfordbery
I freely will give to thee.

‘But if it be a lie, thou little tiny page,
This thing thou tellest to me,
On the highest tree in Bucklesfordbery
Then hanged shalt thou be.’

He called up his merry men all:
‘Come saddle me my steed;
This night must I to Bucklesfordbery,
For I never had greater need.’

And some of them whistled, and some of them sung,
And some these words did say,
And ever when my lord Barnard’s horn blew,
‘Away, Musgrave, away!’

‘Methinks I hear the thresel-cock,
Methinks I hear the jay;
Methinks I hear my lord Barnard,
And I would I were away.’

‘Lie still, lie still, thou Little Musgrave,
And huggle me from the cold;
’Tis nothing but a shepherd’s boy,
A-driving his sheep to the fold.

‘Is not thy hawk upon a perch?
Thy steed eats oats and hay;
And thou a fair lady in thine arms,
And wouldst thou be away?’

With that my lord Barnard came to the door,
And lit a stone upon;
He plucked out three silver keys,
And he opened the doors each one.

He lifted up the coverlet,
He lifted up the sheet:
‘How now, how now, thou Little Musgrave,
Doest thou find my lady sweet?’

‘I find her sweet,’ quoth Little Musgrave,
‘The more ’tis to my paine;
I would gladly give three hundred pounds
That I were on yonder plain.’

‘Arise, arise, thou Little Musgrave,
And put thy clothes on;
It shall ne’er be said in my country
I have killed a naked man.

‘I have two swords in one scabbard,
Full dear they cost my purse;
And thou shalt have the best of them,
And I will have the worse.’

The first stroke that Little Musgrave struck,
He hurt Lord Barnard sore;
The next stroke that Lord Barnard struck,
Little Musgrave ne’er struck more.

With that bespake this faire lady,
In bed whereas she lay:
‘Although thou’rt dead, thou Little Musgrave,
Yet I for thee will pray.

‘And wish well to thy soul will I,
So long as I have life;
So will I not for thee, Barnard,
Although I am thy wedded wife.’

He cut her paps from off her breast;
Great pity it was to see
That some drops of this lady’s heart’s blood
Ran trickling down her knee.

‘Woe worth you, woe worth, my mery men all
You were ne’er born for my good;
Why did you not offer to stay my hand,
When you see me wax so wood?

‘For I have slain the bravest sir knight
That ever rode on steed;
So have I done the fairest lady
That ever did woman’s deed.

‘A grave, a grave,’ Lord Barnard cried,
‘To put these lovers in;
But lay my lady on the upper hand,
For she came of the better kin.’


Week 173: A Lyke-wake Dirge

I think one can respect the sombre power of this poem even if, like me, you have reservations about the belief system that inspired it and feel that the moral progress of humanity is and should be away from the notion of doing good to others in the hope of reward or for the avoidance of punishment in the next world and towards the notion of doing good to others simply because it makes a better place of this world.

Some versions amend ‘fleet’ in the third line to ‘sleet’, and in his ‘English and Scottish Ballads’ Robert Graves amends it to ‘salt’ but I am reluctant to lose the alliteration and anyway there is a perfectly good explanation that ‘fleet’ in Yorkshire dialect means floor or house-room, and so the third line is summarising the comforts of the house which the soul must then leave to go out in the dark and cold.

A Lyke-Wake Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.


Week 170: From ‘Pearl’ (author unknown)

‘Pearl’ is a long narrative poem in Middle English from the late 14th century in which a father, apparently mourning the loss of his daughter, falls asleep in a garden and has a vision of a maid in a strange landscape on the other side of a stream: she reproves him for his grief according to Christian doctrine, with a good deal of homily and the usual spiel about submitting to God’s will, and these elements of the poem are maybe not likely to appeal much to our more secular age. But there is one verse that I do find haunting, where the man’s natural humanity is allowed to cry out against the maid’s celestial complacency, while at the same time he remains, in a most pathetic way, desperate not to quarrel with the lost daughter.

I think the English is mostly intelligible to the modern reader, but I append my own attempt at a somewhat modernised rendering.

My blysse, my bale, ye han ben bothe,
But much the bygger yet watz my mone,
Fro thou watz wroken from vch a wothe,
I wyste neuer quere my perle watz gon.
Now I hit see, now lethez my lothe,
And, quen we departed, we wern at on;
God forbede we be now wrothe,
We meten so selden by stok other ston…

My joy, my grief, you have been both,
But much the more has been my moan,
Since you went free from woes of earth,
I knew not where my pearl had gone.
Now that I see, I am less loth,
And when you left, we were as one;
Now God forbid that we be wrath
Who meet no more by stick or stone.

Week 101: The Death Of Queen Jane, by Anon

I first met this ballad on one of Joan Baez’s first albums, back in the early sixties – and thank you, Joan, for opening up to me a world of music I never knew existed – and though I have heard it in many versions since, it’s Joan’s economical lyrics I give here, even though they don’t quite match any of the official Child versions. It has long been one of my favourite folksongs, though my wife, who has undergone four births and two caesareans, has at times been less enamoured of it – ‘Do you have to keep playing that awful song when I’m nine months pregnant?’

The historical details seem to be a little awry – Jane Seymour did not die giving birth to Prince Edward, but twelve days later, King Henry was not there with her, and it is doubtful that she had a caesarean section at all, probably dying of a puerperal infection.

Bob Dylan used this song to criticise Joan Baez’s choice of material, saying that ‘Queen Jane’ was not ‘where it was at’. With all respect to the great Dylan, I think he was quite wrong: for me, songs like this are always and forever where it’s at.

The Death Of Queen Jane

Queen Jane lay in labour
For six weeks or more
The women grew weary
And the midwife gave o’er.

King Henry he was sent for
On horseback and speed.
King Henry came to her
In the time of her need.

O Henry, good King Henry,
If that you do be,
Come pierce my side open
And save my baby.

O no Jane, good Queen Jane,
That never could be.
I’d lose my sweet flower
To save my baby.

Queen Jane she turned over
She fell all in a swoon.
Her side was pierced open
And the baby was found.

How bright was the morning
How yellow was the moon,
How costly the white robe
Queen Jane was wrapped in.

King Henry he weeped,
He wrung his hands till they’re sore.
The flower of England
Will never be no more.


Week 38: Dick Darval’s Song, by Anon

Dick Darval’s Song

I saw a young man come one night
An apple in his hand.
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the Mollhern land.

I saw a young man come one night
All weeping bitterly
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the gallows tree.


I came across these haunting stanzas, which are possibly only a fragment of a larger piece, in a book about Berkshire ghosts.  To quote: ‘Molly Tape was a local who entered into a passionate love affair with a farmer named Dick Darval. Eventually, Dick rejected the poor girl and, in despair, she hanged herself in the lane between Hurst and the hamlet of Hinton. An old song about Dick indicates that Molly may have unsuccessfully tried her hand at witchcraft in order to win him back. Her scantily clad spirit still haunts the lane.’

The ‘Mollhern land’ is witch-speak for the underworld or land of the dead.

If anyone knows if any more than these two verses exist I should be very pleased to hear from them. Also if anyone knows more about the word Mollhern – the OED gives it as a variant of moll-heron, a grey heron, but what a grey heron might have to do with the land of the dead I don’t know.