King John and the Bishop [Child 45]

DESCRIPTION: King John tells the (bishop of Canterbury) he must answer the King's questions or die. The bishop, unable to answer, turns to a shepherd (his brother?). The answers are so clever the king rewards the shepherd and pardons both (makes the shepherd bishop)
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: before 1695 (broadside)
KEYWORDS: questions help riddle royalty
1199-1216 - Reign of King John
FOUND IN: Britain(England,Scotland(Aber)) US(MW,MA,NE,NW,Ro)
REFERENCES (21 citations):
Child 45, "King John and the Bishop" (2 texts)
Bronson 45, "King John and the Bishop" (15 versions plus 1 in addenda)
BronsonSinging 45, "King John and the Bishop" (4 versions: #1, #4, #7, #15)
GlenbuchatBallads, pp. 198-200, "King John" (1 text)
GreigDuncan2 281, "The Jolly Abbot" (1 text)
Percy/Wheatley II, pp. 303-312, "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" (2 texts, one from the Percy folio and one as printed in the _Reliques_)
BarryEckstormSmyth p. 445, "King John and the Bishop" (brief notes only)
Flanders/Olney, pp. 111-112, "The King's Three Questions" (1 text)
Flanders/Brown, pp. 200-203, "The King's Three Questions" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11; note that Bronson has the wrong date in his headnotes}
Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 280-298, "King John and the Bishop" (5 texts plus 2 fragments, 3 tunes; the texts are listed A1, A2, B1, B2, B3, C, D, because A1 and A2 were both ultimately derived from the same singer through different informants and B1, B2, B3 are from the same informant at different times) {A1=Bronson's #11}
Thompson-Pioneer 1, "The Bishop of Canterbury" (1 text)
Gardner/Chickering 155, "King John and the Bishop" (1 fragment, 1 tune) {Bronson's #5}
Hubbard, #5, "King John and the Bishop" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach, pp. 154-158, "King John and the Bishop" (1 text)
OShaughnessy-Yellowbelly1 28, "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-Labrador 2, "King John and the Bishop" (1 text: Newfoundland story related by theme to the ballad)
OBB 172, "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" (1 text)
Niles 19, "King John and the Bishop" (1 text, 1 tune)
BBI, ZN1364, "I'le tell you a story, a story anon"
ADDITIONAL: Katherine Briggs, _A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language_, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2), volume A.2, pp. 423-424, "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" (1 text, a folktale close enough to this song as to strongly imply common origin)

Roud #302
Warde Ford, "The Bishop of Canterbury" (AFS 4196A, 1938; tr.; on LC57, in AMMEM/Cowell) {Bronson's #4}
The Shaking of the Sheets (Chappell/Wooldridge II, pp. 228-229; British Library Add. MS. 15225; entered in the Stationer's Register for John Awdelay 1568/9; Playford, The Dancing Master, 1651; rec. by The Baltimore Consort on The Ladye's Delight)
The King and the Bishop
NOTES: King John did not have a good relationship with the Catholic Church; he refused, e.g., to accept Stephen Langton, the Pope's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury (Warren, pp. 161-163). From 1208 to 1213 England was placed under Interdict by the Pope. John responded by removing bishops from their offices -- and taking away their mistresses (though he allowed them pensions). The historical story bears only the slightest similarity to the tale in the ballad, however, which may also have been influenced by the war of wills between John's father Henry II and Thomas Becket.
The one thing that is certain is that John (reigned 1199-1216) had a horrid relationship with the church. McLynn, p. 78, says that his early upbringing in Fontrevrault abbey "seems to have turned him violently against the Christian religion," adding that John collected works of theology so he could read them and mock them.
It is also of note that, while his father and brother promised to take part in the Third Crusade (his father Henry II did not live, but of course Richard went), John never took a crusading vow, and never went to the Orient (McLynn, p. 110). The flip side of this is, this was partly in obedience to his father -- and there had been an earlier offer to make John King of Jerusalem, and John had been forced to turn this down because his father reasoned, correctly, that the Crusader State was too internally weak to hold up to serious attack (Warren, pp. 32-33).
McLynn, p. 29, says that "John was notable for quasi-autistic tendencies, and he always seemed to have a grudge against the world." It is noteworthy that older parents are more likely to have autistic children -- and John was born when his mother was at least 41 and very likely 44 or even 45. However, I don't buy the "quasi-autistic" bit -- John had a strong streak of low humor, which indeed cost him badly in Ireland (Warren, p. 36), and this is most unusual for victims of autism, or even of autism spectrum disorders. It strikes me as much more reasonable to assume that John, as the last of many children, had a lot of grudges.
More likely is McLynn's conjecture on p. 94 that John suffered from bipolar disorder, or perhaps simply clinical depression. This would explain his occasional tendency to sit on his hands in the case of trouble (e.g. when Normandy was falling; Warren, p. 99). It would also explain his tendency to extreme anger.
And he was a typical Plantagenet in his violent rages (Warren, p. 2); this was simply the way the family worked. Markale, p. 68, brands him "almost a lunatic," but his father and brothers were equally capable of fury; it's just that they were wiser in their use of their anger. Warren, p. 47, in comparing John to his three older brothers claims that John as king "was to show a grasp of political realities that eluded the young Henry, more fierce determination than ever Geoffrey could boast of, as sure a strategic sense as Richard displayed and a knowledge of government to which the heroic crusader never even aspired." His real fault, in Warren's view, was a lack of forgiveness -- he was always kicking people while they were down, causing them to become permanent enemies. Certainly that was true of his relations with the Church!
Even McLynn, who considers John a very bad king, admits that although John "lacked his brother [Richard]'s military genius he had wider interests. He had more administrative ability, a greater sense of the art of the possible, was more cunning and devious. In time he also turned himself into an above average general. Infinitely more complex than Richard... John was in many ways a psychological oddity.... Yet one should not exaggerate John's unique qualities. Although he was well known to imitate his father by biting and gnawing his fingers in rage... this was a general, shared Angevin characteristic" (p. 94).
Bronson notes that the song has been in constant contact with broadside prints, and doubts that any of the versions arose entirely from traditional stock. Several of the broadsides list the tune as "The Shaking of the Sheets"; see the "Same Tune" reference.
Briggs, volume A.2, pp. 410-411, has a folktale, "The Independent Bishop," on much the same theme; in it, the king is George and the bishop is Bishop of Winchester. Which George is not specified. The tale originally comes from Hrefordshire; see Leather, pp. 177-178. She also has a tale, "The Story of the Miller," on volume A.2, pp. 485-487, which has some parallels but is not as close. And is very bad, from a science standpoint, but I'll spare you the analysis of that....
The Norwegian tale of "The Parson and the Sexton" (AMNorwegian, pp. 15-16) also bears strong similarities to this. A Parson is forever driving about and forcing others off the road -- until he runs across the King. The Monarch not only forces him off the road but demands that the Parson come to answer his questions. The Parson, frightened, calls on the Sexton to deal with the King. The Sexton successfully answers "How far is it from east to west," "How much do you think I'm worth," and "What am I thinking just now." The answer to the last is, "You're thinking I'm the parson, but I'm the sexton." The king proceeds to make him the Parson, which has interesting implications if you like recursive stories. - RBW
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