Six Dukes Went a-Fishing

DESCRIPTION: (Six dukes) go fishing and find the body of the (some Duke). His body is brought (home/to London); the embalming is described in rather gory detail. His burial is described in language reminiscent of "The Death of Queen Jane"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1690 (broadside)
KEYWORDS: death burial nobility corpse funeral
FOUND IN: Britain(England(Lond,South)) US(NE)
REFERENCES (10 citations):
Bronson (170), 2 versions in Appendix B to "The Death of Queen Jane," though these are not all the versions of the song known to Bronson
Flanders/Brown, p. 219, "Two Dukes" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #12}
Flanders/Olney, pp. 78-79, "Two Dukes" (1 text, 1 tune)
Flanders-Ancient3, pp. 159-160, "The Duke of Bedford" (2 texts, 2 tunes) {A=Bronson's #12}
PBB 48, "The Duke of Grafton" (1 text)
Sharp-100E 21, "The Duke of Bedford" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11}
Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, p. 97, "Six Dukes Went a-Fishing" (1 text, 1 tune)
OShaughnessy-Grainger 20, "Six Dukes Went a-Fishing" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hodgart, p. 150, "Six Dukes went a-fishing" (1 text)
BBI, ZN316, "As two men were a walking, down by the sea side"

ST FO078 (Partial)
Roud #78
cf. "The Death of Queen Jane" [Child 170] (lyrics)
NOTES: The person referred to in this ballad is hard to determine. One text refers to the Duke as the "Duke of Grantham." There were three barons of Grantham (died 1770, 1786, and 1859; the third Baron was made earl in 1833), but their circumstances do not seem to fit the ballad. In any case, they were not dukes. - AS, RBW
In another text, the Duke is lord of Grafton. Grafton was a very late and temporary dukedom; Henry Fitzroy (the illegitimate son of Charles II) briefly held the title. Grafton is notable only for leading a Guards regiment during the Glorious Revolution, when he abandoned James II to support William and Mary. (There is, however, a broadside, BBI ZN2703, "Unwelcome Tydings over spreads the Land," entitled "Englands Tribute of Tears.. Death..Duke of Grafton.. 9th. of October, 1690.") A later Duke, Henry Fitzroy, third Duke of Grafton (1735-1811), was Prime Minister 1767-1770, and partly responsible for the colonial problems leading to the American revolution (Brumwell/Speck, p. 166), but this is obviously too late. So are his successors.
If we ignore the names and look at the internal evidence of the song, perhaps the least implausible candidate is William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450). Suffolk had been the losing commander at the siege of Orleans, the turning point in the Hundred Years' War. Back in England, he was largely responsible for the increasing factionalism of the government; he also greatly enriched himself to the detriment of is government (Hicks, p. 273).
Worse, he was widely regarded in England as having sold Normandy back to the French (Wolffe, pp. pp. 221-224, observes that the charge was false, since it was really King Henry VI's idea -- but Suffolk was still impeached for it. Storey, p. 59, observes that parliament knew he wasn't guilty of actual treason -- but he was guilty of perverting justice, but could not be convicted unless they forced the king to stop backing him. So parliament perverted justice by accusing him of treason because it was the only way they could nail him).
Henry ordered Suffolk's exile in 1450 (to spare his life), but the ship he was sailing on was intercepted and Suffolk taken off. Suffolk was beheaded by the ship's crew, incompetently, and his body thrown on the shore on May 2, 1450 (Gillingham, pp. 62-63). Supposedly the body lay on the shore for several days before finally being taken away by the sheriff of Kent (Royle, p. 125).
Rumor (probably false) had Suffolk linked romantically with Queen Margaret of Anjou, which would partly explain the line "royal Queen Mary went weeping away" in the "Grafton" text. Although the relationship probably wasn't sexual, it is said that Margaret took to her bed for some days after the shock (Royle, p. 125). And we know that there were mocking songs about his death; Royle quotes one (in modernized language).
Hicks, p. 274, however declares that Suffolk's execution "solved nothing, for King Henry transferred his confidence to other members of the faction, and allowed tensions to develop into the Wars of the Roses.
(It's interesting to note, incidentally, that de la Pole was married to Chaucer's granddaughter Alice Chaucer, according to Kerr, p. 111. One might speculate that a member of the family might have originated this poem -- but there is no evidence that Chaucer's skills were passed on to his offspring -- although Alice Chaucer, according to Castor, p. 148, etc., proved excellent at managing her dead husband's estate and her children's prospects; her son in fact married into the royal family and her grandson was declared heir to the throne by Richard III.)
Another possibility, which as far as I know is original to me, is that the reference is actually to Richard Woodville, first Earl Rivers (c. 1410-1469). Rivers was never a Duke -- indeed, he was only briefly an earl, and not a landed one. But he was the father of Queen Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV), which made him a sort of vague member of the royal family, which might cause him to be called a duke. Plus, he lived in Grafton Regis (Reid, p. 425; Hicks, p. 328). Rivers was executed in 1469 by members of the Neville (anti-Edward) faction in the second major phase of the Wars of the Roses (Ross, p. 80; OxfordCompanion, p. 809). And, because he was the king's father-in-law, his death was of unusual interest to the various royal dukes.
The period of the Wars of the Roses also suggests the case of Thomas Lord Scales. A veteran of the Hundred Years' War, in 1460 he defended the Tower of London for the government of the Lancastrian king Henry VI (Reid, p. 392). But London supported the Yorkists, and the Tower was besieged. An agreement was made with the Yorkists for Scales and his officers to leave the tower in safety. But Scales had bombarded London as part of his defense, and the Londoners caught up with him, killed him, and tossed his body on the banks of the Thames at Southwark (Castor, p. 137; Wagner, p. 244). So his fate fits the song, but he wasn't a duke and his body wasn't discovered by dukes.
It is interesting to note that the daughter of Scales married Anthony Woodville, the son of Rivers, who thus in turn became Lord Scales and eventually Earl Rivers. But he was executed by Richard III far from the ocean.
Since we're talking the Wars of the Roses anyway, let's throw in the case of Bishop Adam Moleyns of Chichester (c. 1400-1450), who starting in 1444 was King Henry VI's Keeper of the Privy Seal (Hicks, p. 277). Moleyns had been one of Henry VI's envoys to France, and was considered to have helped surrender away the County of Maine, a key to the defense of Normandy. Although he may have tried to extricate himself from Henry's government in 1450 (Hicks, p. 277), he was murdered by soldiers at Portsmouth on January 9, 1450, supposedly after confessing to his role in the French debacle (Wolffe, p. 221), perhaps blaming Suffolk (Tuck, p. 296). Again, he was not a Duke, but he was a high lord of the church who was close to the King -- so close that, it seems, the signature of Moleyns was sufficient to move the great seal or authorize an exchequer writ; the King himself did not have to sign. And his murder was shortly followed by the arrest of Suffolk.
Similarly, William Ayscough, Bishop of Salisbury, ally of Suffolk, and confessor to Henry VI, was murdered by a mob while conducting a mass in Wiltshire (Tuck, p. 298). He wasn't thrown out on the seashore, but he was beheaded (Storey, p. 66), but it shows the tenor of the times. And, like Suffolk, he seems to have enriched himself, since he was reported to have been plundered of 3,000 pounds.
Also coming at about this time was the case of Sir Humphrey Stafford of Grafton, who was killed in a scuffle with Jack Cade's rebels in 1450 (Royle, p. 129). He wasn't thrown on a beach, and he wasn't a duke -- but he was a kinsman of the Duke of Buckingham, and the name might have caused confusion.
All these early possible identifications suffer from the fact that, until relatively recently, England almost never had more than nine active Dukedoms (Buckingham, Clarence, Exeter, Gloucester, Lancaster, Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, York), and usually fewer (e.g. the only Dukes of Lancaster who were not also King were Henry of Derby and his son-in-law John of Gaunt, and the Dukes of Somerset tended to be very short-lived). England, until the eighteenth century, had a limited peerage; it was James VI and I who first started selling earldoms in exchange for ready cash (Lyon, p. 203). And even he had some restraint; by comparison, the first three Georges nearly doubled the number of peers, creating the first significant class of landless Lords; the purposes, of course, were political.
The case of Suffolk, murdered in large part because he was a favorite, has been compared to that of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the favorite of James VI and I and friend of Charles I, who was murdered in 1628 (Storey, p. 61; for background on this, see the notes to "A Horse Named Bill"). That case, however, came much later, and the details don't fit this song.
I guess it's safe to conclude that this story is badly garbled. I find myself wondering if this might not be a sort of a conflation of all those nobles murdered in the period 1450-1470: The Duke of Suffolk and Moleyns of Chichester combined perhaps with Rivers of Grafton to produce a Duke of Grafton murdered by the sea. - RBW
To these possibilities, Sharp's 100 English Folksongs adds the son of the fourth Duke of Bedford, killed by a fall from his horse in 1767. - PJS
And, in an interesting twist, the fourth duke of Bedford was part of the Grafton government of 1770, according to OxfordCompanion, p. 92. But this, of course, appears to be later than the earliest broadside texts. At least Bedford was a real dukedom, attested to in some versions of the text, so the song might have been adjusted. - RBW
See also Mary Rowland, 'Which Noble Duke?', FMJ 1965 - RBW, following WBO
Bibliography Last updated in version 3.0
File: FO078

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.