Carrion Crow

DESCRIPTION: "A carrion crow (kangaroo) sat on an oak, To my inkum kiddy-cum kimeo, Watching a tailor mend a coat...." The tailor tries to shoot the crow, but misses and kills his old sow. The family mourns the dead animal
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1796 (Francis Grose papers)
KEYWORDS: animal bird death talltale nonsense hunting
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South)) US(Ap,MW,NE,SE,So) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (17 citations):
Bell-Combined, pp. 422-423, "The Carrion Crow" (1 text)
Williams-Thames, p. 227, "The Carrion Crow and the Tailor" (1 text) (also Wiltshire-WSRO Wt 393)
Reeves-Circle 128, "The Tailor and the Crow" (1 text)
Belden, pp. 270-271, "The Carrion Crow" (2 texts)
Owens-1ed, pp. 259-260, "Saw an Old Crow" (1 text, 1 tune)
Owens-2ed, p. 145, "Saw an Old Crow" (1 text, 1 tune)
Brewster 62, "The Tailor and the Crow" (2 texts)
Morris, #211, "The Carrion Crow" (2 texts, 1 tune, the "B" text is clearly this, although the "A" text appears to have verses from something else)
Creighton/Senior, pp. 244-246, "The Carrion Crow" (2 texts plus 1 fragment, 2 tunes)
Creighton-Maritime, p. 133, "The Carrion Crow" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mackenzie 156, "The Tailor and the Crow" (1 text); "The Carrion Crow" (2 texts)
Linscott, pp. 185-186, "The Carrion Crow" (1 text, 1 tune)
SharpAp 222, "The Carrion Crow" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Lomax-FSNA 72, "The Kangaroo" (1 text, 1 tune)
Opie-Oxford2 87, "A carrion crow sat on an oak" (2 texts)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #172, p. 127, "(A carrion crow sat on an oak)"

Roud #891
Otis High, "Captain Karo" [referred to in notes as "Carrion Crow"] (HandMeDown1)
Margaret MacArthur, "Carrion Crow" (on MMacArthur01)

Bodleian, Harding B 12(10), "Carrion Crow" ("As I went forth one May morning"), J. Pitts (London), 1802-1819 ; also 2806 c.18(55), "The Carrion Crow"
LOCSinging, as112630, "Sly Young Crow," L. Deming (Boston), 19C

NOTES: A rhyme often said to be from the time of Charles I (ascended 1625; executed 1649) reads, "Hie hoe the carryon crow for I have shot something too low I have quite missed my mark, & shot the poore sow to the harte Wyfe bring treakel in a spoone, or else the poore sowes harte wil downe."
The odds are high that this is related to "Carrion Crow." The question is, how did it originate?
It has been suggested that it is an allegory on Charles's reimposition of high church ritual (and consequent dismissal of Calvinist clergy).
This was certainly a complicated question. Religious tensions were strong from the moment James VI and I succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603. England was split between Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians/Puritans, and Catholics hoped James would be sympathetic because he had been tolerant in Scotland and was the son of a Catholic, while Presbyterians hoped he would by sympathetic because Scotland was Presbyterian.
But James was a natural Anglican who wanted to unite his two peoples under one church (Fry/Fry, p. 165), and was eventually convinced that repression was necessary (Magnusson, p. 409). The bitterly disappointed Catholics were once again forced to hope for a change of regime. The Gunpowder Plot, which was linked to Catholics, although most of course had no part in it, took place in 1604 (Davies, p. 205) -- one of two Catholic plots that year (Magnusson, p. 409).. But James faced just as much pressure from the other side -- the Puritans and Presybyterians who wanted episcopal church organization eliminated.
James was famous for his belief in episcopacy --"no bishop, no king," he declared (Davies, p. 68). He was even willing to contemplate reunion with Rome -- as long as Rome gave up its claim to be sovereign over kings (Davies, p. 203). Calvinist doctrine bothered him far more than Roman practice, despite his Presybterian background (Ashton, p. 212). In 1604, he called the famous Hampton Court conference to try to achieve some sort of peace with the radicals -- but in the end James told the Puritan delegates "that he would make them conform to existing usage or harry them out of the land" (Davies, p. 68; Magnusson, p. 412). The only constructive result of the Hampton Court Conference was that it was decided to produce an improved translation of the Bible (Ashton, p. 213) -- a translation we know as the Authorized Version or King James Bible.
In 1617, James tried to take his English church into Scotland -- visiting his native land for the first time since becoming King of England, and bringing with him an organ (horrors!) and a set of doctrines known as the Five Articles. These went over like a lead baptismal font (Magnusson, p. 414).
To the very end of James's reign (he died in 1625), the Puritans were a real nuisance. To try to keep them from political preaching, "in 1622 instructions were issued that preachers should adhere strictly to their texts, that their afternoon sermons should be confined to some part of the catechism, or a text from the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or the Lord's Prayer" (Davies, p. 72).
All this took place against the backdrop of the Thirty Years' War, which had stared in 1618 and cranked up Catholic/Protestant tensions even higher. James tried to stay out of the war, and even be a peacemaker, but it takes two to make a peace.... (Kishlansky, pp. 92-93).
The situation became even more extreme when Charles I ascended. There were two reasons: Charles I's wife, and his Archbishop of Canterbury.
It had been James I who appointed William Laud (1573-1645) Bishop of St. David's; prior to that, he had been Dean of Gloucester. But it was Charles I, the son of James VI and I, who really gave Laud's career a boost, translating him to be Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1626, then Bishop of London in 1628, then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 (OxfordCompanion, p. 562).
And Laud instituted something which approached a reign of terror for those not enamored of High Church behavior. Among his reactionary reforms were the "wearing of the surplice, bowing at the name of Jesus, and the churching of women after child-birth," plus moving the communion table "to the east side of the chancel and protect[ing]it by rails" (Wedgwood-Peace, p. 105); he prosecuted violators in ecclesiastical courts.
"It is difficult to see Laud himself through the mass of invective aimed at him. It is undoubtedly true that he was blamed for much of which Charles himself was guilty, yet it was Laud who proclaimed that resistance to the doctrine of the divine right of kings would bring damnation as its punishment. He was equally ruthless and tactless, a hard, masterful man; but he was not vindictive and he was personally upright" (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 312).
Similarly Lyon, p. 211: "the beliefs of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, and those he influenced did involve a clear movement away from the austerities of Calvinism. Laudians placed greater emphasis on the sacraments than on preaching and favoured more elaborate ritual and ceremonial. Over 350 years later, their believes and practices seem insufficiently radical to arouse the hatred than (sic.) they actually did. Rather, the hatred and the role of religion in the drift towards civil war came from the attempt of Laud and his confederates to impose their doctrines and practice on the kingdom by force, and the growing beliefe among a deeply anti-Catholic population that the country was being returned to 'Popery.'"
In 1637, Charles went so far as to impose a prayer book, similar to the English Book of Common Prayer, on Presbyterian Scotland. Folklore has it that on July 23, 1637, a woman named Jenny Geddes, offended by the prayer book, declared, "Daur ye say mass at my lug?" and started a riot (Magnusson, pp. 418-419). Lyon, p. 212, has a slightly less elaborate tale, "when the new prayer book was first ues, [it] set off... an unidentified woman who hurled a stool at the bishop, shouting, 'The mass is entered among us.'"
Whatever the trus story, the imposition of the book led to the drafting and accepting of the Solemn League and Covenant (OxfordCompanion, p. 256).
OxfordCompanion, p. 191, argues that the opposition to Laud was because he was Arminian -- that is, he did not believe in predestination to grace, or rather, arbitrary and capricious damnation by God. Laud's Arminianism does appear to have represented a theological change; the earlier Anglican archbishops seem to have been more Presbyterian, according to Ashton, p. 282. And it it certainly true that Presbyterians utterly oppose Arminianism, but it is not an inherently Catholic doctrine; Jacob Arminius [1560-1609] belonged to the Reformed church and taught at Leiden, according to Christie-Murray, pp. 165-166. And Methodists, who are about as un-Catholic in ritual as you can get, are Arminian. It was Laud's mumbo-jumbo that the Covenanters could not escape; it's just that, having gone in for rebellion, the Covenanters weren't going to stop with half measures; they brought in *all* of Calvinist doctrine, not just the parts about low-church worship.
James I had tried, to an extent, to play both ends of the religious spectrum. His daughter Elizabeth, the "Winter Queen," was married to a Protestant German prince (there is some additional background on this in the notes to "The Vicar of Bray"). Poor Elizabeth, the "Winter Queen," would see her husband cast off his throne, and all of Germany cast into the horrid many-sided conflict we call the Thirty Years War -- although among her descendants were the Hannoverian monarchs of England who reign to this day. But, at the time, her marriage mostly brought calls for Britain to intervene in the continent.
That was no part of James's plans. He hoped to balance off his daughter's Protestant marriage by marrying his oldest son to a Catholic (Kishlansky, p. 92). That failed when the boy died -- but James passed the idea on to his eldest surviving son, the future Charles I.
And Charles I agreed with the idea. Worse, he had actually snuck out of the country in one of his attempts to do so: In 1623, while he was still Prince of Wales, Charles made "a total and absolute commitment to the 'Spanish Match.' As a result, [he and the Duke of Buckingham] departed incognito for Madrid in March 1623 to conclude the natch personally" (Kenyon, p. 88). The marriage did not actually happen at that time, leaving Charles feeling betrayed (Kenyon, p. 89). But he still married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669) in 1625 (OxfordCompanion, p. 463). Some scholars blame her for certain of Charles's policies (OxfordCompanion, p. 464), although Charles was quite capable of being stupid on his own. She did not really bring Catholicism back to England -- but many feared she would.
Charles also imposed an unprecedented Act of Revocation on Scotland. Such Acts were common when monarchs came of age -- a new king revoked some egregious acts made in his minority. But Charles had never been a minor king -- the first Stuart to succeed to the Scottish throne as an adult in two centuries -- so his right to impose such revocations was dubious.
A more cautious monarch might have revoked only a few minor grants. Not Charles. Firm in his belief in Divine Right, he passed an act which covered new classes of property -- and which went all the way back to 1540! (Ashton, pp. 296-297), during the reign of James V, Charles's great-grandfather. Much of what he reclaimed was church land. There was fear -- false but understandable -- that he would give it back the the Catholics, or at least to Anglicans. The Scots Presbyterians began to watch and worry. The more so since Charles, although "Scottish," had been only three years old when James VI and I had moved the family to London (Magnusson, p. 420); Charles had never been back, and would not go to Scotland to be crowned until eight years after he ascended! (Magnusson, p. 421).
As this was going on, Buckingham, the man who had gone to Madrid with Charles, was stumbling into more trouble. For details about George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, see the notes to "A Horse Named Bill," which has also been connected to him. In this context, suffice it to say that he came to power under James VI and I, then after Charles came to the throne, led an expedition to Spain (which had become The Enemy again after the marriage alliance fell through), and was in trouble with Parliament when he conveniently was assasinated.
After his fall, the Howard family increased in power -- and many of them were Catholics. Loyalist to the core, but Catholic. It added still more to the worries (Kishlansky, pp. 94-95).
As support for a link between Buckingham and crows, there is another verse from about this period, cited under #355 in Opie-Oxford2, which runs, "There was Two Craws sat on a stane, Ane flew awa & there remain'd ane." This too is said to refer to Buckingham (and presumably Charles), but obviously that would be hard to prove, and so would be any link to "Carrion Crow."
Charles also appointed a bishop as Lord Treasurer in 1636 (Ashton, p. 298). This certainly wasn't any help to Catholics -- but after a long period of mostly secular high officials, the Scots saw it as another move away from Presbyterianism and toward episcopacy.
Charles I made his problems worse by trying to rule without parliament. It wasn't really one man rule; Charles relied heavily on Laud and on his de facto Prime Minister, Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641), whom Charles made Earl of Strafford. But eventually Charles, who had not summoned a parliament from 1628 to 1640, had to call what became the "Long Parliament"; he had been defeated by the Scots (yes, his own subjects!) and needed to raise money (OxfordCompanion, p. 594).
What he raised instead was a rebellion. Strafford was impeached on vague charges by the House of Commons (Wedgwood-Peace, p. 272). Strafford went on trial before the Lords, and because the charges were mostly trumped up, gave a very good defence of himself (OxfordCompanion, p. 894). Since acquittal seemed likely, the Commons took emergency action, passing an act of attainder against Strafford (Wedgwood-Peace, p. 413). In other words, they declared him guilty of being someone they didn't like, and executed him for it. It will tell you how pathetic Charles I was that he refused to sign the act until Strafford himself asked the king to do it, in order to avoid making Charles's position worse (Wedgwood-Peace, pp. 427-428).
But Charles's sacrifice of his most able subordinate did not help him significantly. The Long Parliament had tasted blood. Laud's case was next: "[T]he long drawn out trial of Archbishop Laud had gratified his more vindictive enemies and served, though not very adequately, to keep before the public the knowledge that Presbyterians and sectaries alike abominated the episcopal church. But once again, as with Strafford, the prosecutors found that the law strictly interpreted could not be stretched to find the Archbishop guilty" (Wedgwood-War, p. 384). The trial lasted from 1641 to 1644; in the latter year, they finally gave up and attainted him, as they had Strafford; Laud was executed in January 1645. To the end, he protested that he opposed reunion with Rome (and his papers proved he meant it; Wedgwood-War, pp. 400-401; OxfordCompanion, p. 562). But it was certainly hard to tell from his actions.
By now, parliament was growing accustomed to attainders, and was purging itself of members willing to compromise. Nor was Charles I showing any signs of backing down himself; his belief in the Divine Right of Kings to be Really Really Stupid was unshaken to the end, even though (it should be noted) there is absolutely no Biblical basis for this idea; indeed, in the books of Samuel and King we find numerous kings of Israel and Judah condemned, and a few even executed by the people. Finally Parliament attainted *him*, and he was executed in 1649 (OxfordCompanion, p. 191).
So if the original verse was about religion and church-state relations in the early seventeenth century, we have many possible dates:
* If the song is from shortly after 1604, it is probably about the Gunpowder Plot (which misfired)
* If it is from 1623-1625, it is probably about Charles's Spanish marriage (which misfired)
* If it is from 1625-1627, it is probably about Buckingham's Spanish expedition (which misfired), or perhaps about Charles's marriage to Henrietta Maria
* If it is from around 1641, it might refer to Strafford or Laud (in which case it might imply that Parliament missed the big target to focus on the small)
* If it is from around 1645, it might refer to Laud
* If it is from around 1649, it might refer to Charles I himself.
* If it is at some other time after 1618, it might refer to the Thirty Years War, which was almost always a very hot topic because it pitted Catholics against Protestants
All of these are possible -- but all of them are stretches. Several of the sources (Opie-Oxford2 and several online sites) think the song was from c. 1627, although none say why. The best guess, then, is that it is a reference to Buckingham. It is certainl true that his expedition certainly "missed his mark" -- but then the second claim, that it is about high church practices, is false. Or could it be that the versifier though Buckingham's assassin should have aimed for Charles? These are the sorts of questions that make all these attempts to find political subtexts in short songs rather difficult -- particularly when you consider that the song just possibly *might* be about a carrion crow....
There is another caution. The text of this that is said to be "from the reign of Charles I" is found in British Library MS. Sloane 1489. But this is not a dated manuscript. I've seen dates for it as early as 1600 (which clearly means it cannot be about Charles I, although it might just possibly be about his father), and dates around 1627 are common. But the only absolute date we have for the manuscript is that it is from the Sloane Collection. Hans Sloane was born in 1660 (BarkerEtAl, p. 14) and died in 1753 (BarkerEtAl, p. 17), with his large collection becoming one of the chief components of the British Library. The other contents of Sloane 1489 seem to imply an early seventeenth century date, but we cannot assume any particular date. It is for this reason that we show the "earliest date" for this song as that of the 1796 Grose papers. Although I suppose 1753 would be safe.
For some reason, this seems to have been made into a music hall song. George Leybourne (1842-1884) rewrote this as "The Tailor and the Crow"; a version of this can be found in Sing Out magazine, Volume 30, #3 (1984), pp, 45-46, which has notes linking the song with the behavior of Charles II. The comments, however, are based on a comment by Purslow, which may have been misunderstood. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 3.7
File: LoF072

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.