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Percy's Reliques - King John and the Abbot of Canterbury.

King John and the Abbot of Canterbury.

††††††††††† The common popular ballad of King John and the Abbot seems to have been abridged and modernized about the time of James I. from one much older, intitled, King John and the Bishop of Canterbury. The Editor's folio manuscript contains a copy of this last, but in too corrupt a state to be reprinted: it however afforded many lines worth reviving, which will be found inserted in the ensuing stanzas.

††††††††††† The archness of the following questions and answers hath been much admired by our old ballad-makers; for besides the two copies above-mentioned, there is extant another ballad on the same subject, but of no great antiquity or merit, intitled, King Olfrey and the Abbot.[ 1] Lastly, about the time of the Civil Wars, when the cry ran against the Bishops, some Puritan worked up the same story into a very doleful ditty, to a solemn tune concerning "King Henry and a Bishop;" with this stinging moral:

"Unlearned men hard matters out can find,
When learned bishops princes eyes do blind."

††††††††††† The following is chiefly printed from an ancient black-letter copy to the tune of "Derry down."

AN ancient story Ile tell you anon
Of a notable prince, that was called King John;
And he ruled England with maine and with might,
For he did great wrong, and maintein'd little right.

And Ile tell you a story, a story so merrye,
Concerning the Abbot of Canterbýrye;
How for his house-keeping, and high renowne,
They rode poste for him to fair London towne.

An hundred men, the king did heare say,
The abbot kept in his house every day;
And fifty golde chaynes, without any doubt,
In velvet coates waited the abbot about

"How now, father abbot, I heare it of thee,
Thou keepest a farre better house than mee,
And for thy house-keeping and high renowne,
I feare thou work'st treason against my crown."

"My liege," quo' the abbot, "would it were knowne,
I never spend nothing, but what is my owne;
And I trust, your grace will doe me no deere,
For spending of my owne true-gotten geere."

"Yes, yes, father abbot, thy fault it is highe,
And now for the same thou needest must dye;
For except thou canst answer me questions three,
Thy head shall be smitten from thy bodže.

"And first," quo' the king, "when I'm in this stead,
With my crowne of golde so faire on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,
Thou must tell me to one penny what I am worthe.

"Secondlye, tell me, without any doubt,
How soone I may ride the whole world about.
And at the third question thou must not shrink,
But tell me here truly what I do think."

"O, these are hard questions for my shallow witt,
Nor I cannot answer your grace as yet:
But if you will give me but three weekes space,
Ile do my endeavour to answer your grace."

"Now three weeks space to thee will I give,
And that is the longest time thou hast to live;
For if thou dost not answer my questions three,
Thy lands and thy livings are forfeit to mee."

Away rode the abbot all sad at that word,
And he rode to Cambridge, and Oxenford;
But never a doctor there was so wise,
That could with his learning an answer devise.

Then home rode the abbot of comfort so cold,
And he mett his shepheard a going to fold:
"How now, my lord abbot, you are welcome home;
What newes do you bring us from good King John?"

"Sad newes, sad newes, shepheard, I must give;
That I have but three days more to live:
For if I do not answer him questions three,
My head will be smitten from my bodže.

"The first is to tell him there in that stead,
With his crowne of golde so fair on his head,
Among all his liege men so noble of birth,
To within one penny of all what he is worth.

"The seconde, to tell him, without any doubt,
How soon he may ride this whole world about
And at the third question I must not shrinke,
But tell him there truly what he does thinke."

"Now cheare up, sire abbot, did you never hear yet,
That a fool he may learn a wise man witt?
Lend me horse, and serving men, and your apparel,
And I'll ride to London to answere your quarrel."

"Nay frowne not, if it hath bin told unto mee,
I am like your lordship, as ever may bee:
And if you will but lend me your gowne,
There is none shall knowe us at fair London towne."

"Now horses, and serving-men thou shalt have,
With sumptuous array most gallant and brave;
With crozier, and miter, and rochet, and cope,
Fit to appeare 'fore our fader the pope."

"Now welcome, sire abbott," the king he did say,
"'Tis well thou'rt come back to keep thy day;
For and if thou canst answer my questions three,
Thy life and thy living both saved shall bee.

"And first, when thou seest me here in this stead,
With my crowne of gold so fair on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,
Tell me to one penny what I am worth."

"For thirty pence our Saviour was sold
Amonge the false Jewes, as I have bin told;
And twenty nine is the worth of thee,
For I thinke, thou art one penny worser than hee."

The king he laughed, and swore by St. Bittel,[ 2]
"I did not thinke I had been worth so littel --
Now secondly tell me, without any doubt,
How soon I may ride this whole world about.

"You must rise with the sun, and ride with the same,
Until the next morning he riseth againe;
And then your grace need not make any doubt,
But in twenty-four hours you'll ride it about."

The king he laughed, and swore by St. Jone,
"I did not think, it could be gone so soone!--
Now from the third question thou must not shrinke,
But tell me here truly what I do thinke.

"Yea, that shall I do, and make your grace merry:
You thinke I'm the Abbot of Canterbury;
But I'm his poor shepheard, as plain you may see,
That am come to beg pardon for him and for mee."

The king he laughed, and swore by the masse,
"Ile make thee lord abbot this day in his place!"
"Now naye, my liege, be not in such speede,
For alacke I can neither write ne reade."

"Four nobles a weeke, then I will give thee,
For this merry jest thou hast showne unto mee;
And tell the old abbot, when thou comest home,
Thou hast brought him a pardon from good King John."



1. See the Collection of Historical Ballads, 3 vols. 1727. Mr. Wise supposes Olfrey to be a corruption of Alfred, in his pamphlet concerning the WHITE HORSE in Berkshire, p. 15.

2. Meaning probably St. Botolph.


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