Noble Duke of York, The
DESCRIPTION: "Oh, the Noble Duke of York, He had (ten) thousand men, He marched them up to the top of the hill And he marched them down again. And when they were up, they were up, And when they were down they were down...."
EARLIEST DATE: 1892 (Northall)
KEYWORDS: army nonballad
FOUND IN: US(SE) Britain(England(West),Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (10 citations):
GreigDuncan8 1592, "The Grand Old Duke of York" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
BrownIII 99, "The Duke of York" (1 text)
BrownSchinhanV 99, "The Duke of York" (1 tune plus a text excerpt)
Opie-Oxford2 549, "Oh, the brave old Duke of York" (1 text)
Opie-Game 45, "The Grand Old Duke of York" (1 text, 1 tune)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #201, p. 138, "(Oh, the brave old Duke of York)"
Silber-FSWB, p. 390, "The Noble Duke of York" (1 text)
Jack, p. 52, "The Grand Old Duke of York" (1 text)
Dolby, p. 58, "The Grand Old Duke of York" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: G.F. Northall, English Folk-Rhymes (London, 1892 ("Digitized by Google")), pp. 98-99 (4 texts) (see Notes)
ST FSWB390B (Full)
cf. "A-Hunting We Will Go" (tune of some versions)
cf. "The Famous Duke of York" (probable subject)
NOTES: Since the Dukedom of York is usually bestowed upon the Prince of Wales's oldest brother (that is, the second son of the reigning monarch), or other fairly senior prince, there have been a lot of them in history, and many of them important. This makes it hard to be certain which Duke of York (if any) might be the subject of this little satire. I've seen suggestions over the years, but not one was convincing enough for me to remember it until I had to write this entry.
The standard suggestion seems to be that it was Frederick Augustus (1763-1827), second son of George III, who was made a soldier in spite of what was regarded at the time as a clear lack of ability in this department. The Baring-Goulds go so far as to specify the hill as Mount Cassel in Belgium. But even they admit the rhyme does not resemble actual events -- and the Opies quote Burne's account of York's campaigns, which points out that Frederick of York's army never came within ten miles of Mount Cassel.
In any case, I can imagine candidates going back all the way to Richard, Duke of York from 1415. Or maybe even his uncle, who was killed at Agincourt and who was treated as something of a buffoon by later historians -- a Tudor account has it that he fell and was smothered because he was so fat, although contemporary sources do not support this (Barker, p. p. 303)
(We should note that the Shakespeare characterization of Richard of York, in the Henry VI plays, is all wrong. He *was* rightful King of England, but he never sought the throne until Margaret of Anjou forced him to do so. Hence a sufficiently anti-Lancastrian partisan could have mocked him for his hesitation. On the other hand, Shakespeare in Henry V is at least as close to the truth about Edward Earl of York as were the Tudor historians.)
If we assume that the Noble Duke is indeed Frederick Augustus, as is widely assumed, we should note that his description of him is a little unfair. Perhaps it was just his general appearance. Sinclair-Stevenson, p. 119, who notes that he was groomed from an early age to be an officer, quotes Lord Cornwallis's description of him: "The Royal Person whom I saw does not give much hope, further than a great deal of good nature and a very good heart. His military ideas are those of a wild boy of the Guards."
As a field commander, he was genuinely poor. Frederick fought in Flanders from 1793 to 1794, when he was defeated at Turcoing and recalled. He also had a bad experience in the Low Countries in 1799.
Being a prince, however, he eventually was made a field marshal (Chandler/Beckett, p. 146). And, having achieved that rank, he proved himself a good manager, enacting needed reforms in the army when commander-in-chief (Chandler/Beckett, pp. 147-148). Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 337, say that "As commander-in-chief... from 1798 until his death, he proved an efficient administrator and... apparently not a corrupt one. He was called 'the soldier's friend,' though probably not by the soldiers themselves."
Similarly Brumwell/Speck, p. 432, "Long ridiculed as the hapless 'Grand Old Duke of York'... [he] has more recently received recognition for his role in reforming the British army that was to emerge victorious during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars."
Haddick-Flynn, p. 211, gives a mixed description, saying "The Duke of York was intelligent, outgoing and boisterous.... He was a big, coarse man with a high-coloured face and an intimidating growl. In a throwback to an earlier age, he had been consecrated bishop of onasbruck when six months od, not because of an infantile religious disposition but because of the vast revenues attached to the office. In 1793 he commanded an expedition against the French in Flanders and, after a courageous cavalry charge at Beaumont in April 1794, went on to an astonishing defeat the following month at Turgoing."
In quoting the song, Haddick-Flynn, pp. 211-212, says that "[D]espite his reputation for rudeness, boozing and whoring, the Duke had his admirers, and some regretted that he was caricatured in the nursery rhyme.... He was responsible for a number of useful military reforms, and founded teh Duke of York's Royal Military School (later Sandhurst Military Academy)."
Chandler/Beckett, p. 141, credits him with helping impose the manual of maneuver used during the Napoleonic Wars (before that, local commanders drilled their men pretty much as they liked) and on pp. 142-143, with working to somewhat limit commission by purchase (although he couldn't eliminate it -- given the massive expense of the Napoleonic Wars, the government needed the money!).
But the public doesn't remember administrative accomplishments. What it would remember about the Duke of York was his failures in the field and, perhaps, a scandal involving his mistress and the purchasing of commissions (Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 337; Brumwell/Speck, p. 432). Which might well be enough to make him the target of this song.
There is a biography by A. H. Burne, which I have not seen, entitled The Noble Duke of York.
Gomme describes this as the music for a game, "Find the Ring."
There is a nursery rhyme, "The King of France went up the hill" (Opie-Oxford2, #173; Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #209, p. 144) which looks as if it might be a parody of this -- although the Opies date it to the reign of Charles I. (Apparently it is from one of the Sloane manuscripts, which would certainly make it sixteenth or seventeenth century -- but they do not quote the Sloane form.) If the Sloane form is indeed the inspiration for the York version, then the parody is presumably the other way.
No matter which Duke of York it was, his hill also has its folklore. According to Kellett, pp. 52-54, ""The hill up and down which old Duke Frederick marched his 'ten thousand men' in the old song is said to have been the mound in Allerton Park (near the A1, north of Wetherby), on which stands the eighteenth century folly known as the Temple of Victory. Other traditions say the hill was at Crayke, N Yorks or Cassal, near Dunkerque." - RBW
Northall has the following texts:
"The King of France with twenty thousand men, Went up the hill and then came down again; The King of Spain with twenty thousand more, Climb'd up the same hill the French had climbed before."
"The King of France went up the hill with twenty thousand men, The King of France came down, etc., And ne'er went up again."
"The King of France and four thousand men, They drew their swords and put 'em up again."
"O, the mighty King of France/Duke of York, With his twenty thousand men .... (continues with the usual text). - BS
Last updated in version 4.1
- Barker: Juliet Barker, Agincourt, 2005 (I use the 2007 Back Bay paperback edition)
- Brumwell/Speck: Stephen Brumwell and W. A. Speck, Cassell's Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cassell & Co., 2001
- Chandler/Beckett: David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition)
- Haddick-Flynn: Kevin Haddick-Flynn, Orangeisn: The Making of a Tradition, Wolfhound Press, 1999
- Keegan/Wheatcroft: John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History from 1453, 1976, 1987 (I use the 1991 LPR reprint)
- Kellett: Arnold Kellett, The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition, and Folklore, revised edition, Smith Settle, 2002
- Sinclair-Stevenson: Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, Blood Royal: The Illustrious House of Hannover, Doubleday, 1979, 1980
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.