Sir Patrick Spens [Child 58]

DESCRIPTION: The King, needing a good sailor, calls upon Sir Patrick Spens to sail (to Norway?) in the dead of winter. Though both Captain and crew fear the trip, they undertake it, and are drowned
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1765 (Percy)
KEYWORDS: sea storm wreck death
1286 - Death of Alexander III of Scotland
1290 - Death of his granddaughter Margaret "Maid of Norway"
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber)) US(Ap,MA,SE) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (35 citations):
Child 58, "Sir Patrick Spens" (18 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #5}
Bronson 58, "Sir Patrick Spens" (12 versions+1 in addenda)
Bronson-SingingTraditionOfChildsPopularBallads 58, "Sir Patrick Spens" (3 versions: #2, #3, #5)
Percy/Wheatley-ReliquesOfAncientEnglishPoetry I, pp. 98-102, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text)
Rimbault-Musical IllustrationsOfBishopPercysReliques III, p. 47, "Sir Patrick Spense" (1 partial text, 1 tune)
Lyle/McAlpine/McLucas-SongRepertoireOfAmeliaAndJaneHarris, pp. 3-11, "Sir Patrick Spens" (2 texts, 1 tune, plus a manuscript facsimile) {Bronson's #5, with differences}
Bell-Combined-EarlyBallads-CustomsBalladsSongsPeasantryEngland, pp. 128-134, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Chambers-ScottishBallads, pp. 3-8, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Buchan/Moreira-TheGlenbuchatBallads, p. 155-158, "Patrick Spence" (1 text)
Greig/Duncan1 17, "Sir Patrick Spens" (3 texts, 2 tunes) {B=Bronson's #3}
MacColl-PersonalChoice, pp. 6-7, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11, but a different transcription and not entirely identical}
Wells-TheBalladTree, p. 279, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 partial text, 1 tune) {apparently Bronson's #3, but transposed and with different words}
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 16, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4 16, "Sir Patrick Spens' (1 excerpt, 1 tune)
Carey-MarylandFolkloreAndFolklife, pp. 51-53, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 179-184, "Sir Patrick Spens" (3 texts)
Leach-HeritageBookOfBallads, pp. 46-47, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 297, "Sir Patrick Spens (Spence)" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 75, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 66, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Niles-BalladBookOfJohnJacobNiles 25, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hirsh-MedievalLyric-MiddleEnglishLyricsBalladsCarols #41, "Sir Patrick Spens" (4 texts [3 from Child, 1 from Niles])
Gummere-OldEnglishBallads, pp. 144-1445+331-332, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Scott-TheBalladOfAmerica, pp. 25-27, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hodgart-FaberBookOfBallads, p. 121, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Buchan-ABookOfScottishBallads 50, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Creighton-FolksongsFromSouthernNewBrunswick 2, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, a recited version)
Whitelaw-BookOfScottishBallads, pp. 9-12, "Sir Patrick Spens" (2 texts)
Stone-SeaSongsAndBallads XL, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Whiting-TraditionalBritishBallads 20, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 60-63, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
Morgan-MedievalBallads-ChivalryRomanceAndEverydayLife, pp. 24-26, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
HarvardClassics-EnglishPoetryChaucerToGray, pp. 74-76, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #418, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text, with several variants in the notes)

ST C058 (Full)
Roud #41
cf. "Lord Derwentwater" [Child 208] (opening lyrics)
cf. "Young Allan" [Child 245] (lyrics)
Patrick Spenser
Sir Patrick Spence
NOTES [1491 words]: Whether this song is historical is disputed. If it *is* historical, it is based on one of the oldest incidents known to balladry: The succession of Scotland in the thirteenth century.
Alexander III of Scotland came to the throne in 1249, a boy not yet ten years old (Magnusson, pp. 96-97). Two years later, he went to England to be knighted and to marry Margaret, the daughter of the English King Henry III and the sister of the future Edward I (Magnusson, p. 97).
Alexander came of age in 1259. Within a couple of years, he was sending embassies to Norway, trying to gain control of the Western Isles and Orkney -- which for many centuries had given their allegiance, such as it was, to Norway (Magnusson, p. 97). Eventually negotiations gave way to war: Alexander wanted the Hebrides, while Norwegian king Haakon wanted to keep them and strengthen his control.
Fry/Fry, p. 74, report that one of Alexander's vassals attacked Skye in 1262. Our sources are all Norwegian, so we don't know whether Alexander was really involved, or how extensive the attack was. What is clear is that both sides sent forces to the western isles, though the ensuing Battle of Largs (1263) was more a series of meeting engagements than a full-scale battle. More damage was done to the combatants by a storm, and king Haakon, having seen his fleet badly damaged, headed for home and died soon after in the Orkneys (Mitchison, p. 33).
With Haakon dead, the Norwegians decided to negotiate once again. A treaty was concluded in 1266, by the terms of which Scotland in effect bought the Hebrides (and at a surprisingly low price; Magnusson, p. 103, thinks the Norwegians demanded the cash only so they could justify giving away land they were no longer willing to fight for).
In practice, the result didn't matter; the folk of the Isles "paid no more heed to their Scottish than they had to their Norwegian overlords" (MacLean, p. 33). But at least it ended the war. The countries became friendly enough that Alexander's daughter Margaret, by then 19 years old, was married to the 14-year-old grandson of King Haakon in 1281. Margaret's young husband was already Norway's King Eric II; he had ascended in 1280 (Mitchison, p. 37). Margaret didn't see much of his reign, though; she died in 1283, probably in childbirth; the baby girl would come to be known as "Margaret Maid of Norway" (Magnusson, p. 104).
At the time of the elder Margaret's betrothal, the Norwegian connection seemed minor; although Alexander III was a widower (his wife Margaret having died in 1275), he had two living sons. But the younger son, David, died in 1281, and then the heir, who would have been Alexander IV, died in 1284 (Magnusson, p. 105).
Alexander finally decided he had to marry again; he married Yolande (or Yolette) de Dreux in 1285. But it was too late for him. Indeed, the marriage brought his downfall, and led to the end of one of the few relatively peaceful period in Scottish history. On a dark night, on his way to visit his wife after a feast, he somehow fell from his horse and died in 1286 (Magnusson, pp. 106-107; Cook, p. 65). This, incidentally, led to one of Thomas of Ercildoune's most famous prophecies; see the notes to "Thomas Rymer" [Child 37].
When Alexander died in 1286, the only heir of his body was his granddaughter Margaret, daughter of the King of Norway by Alexander's daughter. She was four years old, but was made queen (not without some concern, since Scotland till then had never had a ruling queen; Cook, p. 65). Naturally there was a guardian council.
At first, Edward I of England left things mostly to the Scots; he and Alexander III had been cordial (Prestwich, pp. 357-360). But it should be recalled that Edward I had already conquered Wales, and claimed a degree of authority over Scotland. And Margaret was such a tempting target.... For one thing, she was a girl who could potentially be married to his son; for another, Margaret of Norway was not too distantly related to Edward himself, and a potential claimant to the English throne. And Edward, being Edward, had no respect for Scotland, or for anything else that stood in his way (Prestwich, p. 361). Edward firmly interjected himself into the process of trying to bring the girl back to Scotland (Cook, p. 69).
The negotiations were intricate (Magnusson, pp. 110-111; Prestwich, pp. 360-361), since Norway, England, and Scotland were interested in her dynasty (because she stood fairly high in the succession for each), and England, Scotland, and the Papacy were involved in negotiations for her marriage (since she and her proposed husband, the future Edward II, were within the prohibited degrees, being first cousins once removed. A dispensation was eventually obtained; Cook, p. 70).
Poor little Margaret! So much rested on her fate that the histories give us no idea of what she was like; on paper a queen, she was in fact a pawn. Oram says, p. 107, "There is surely no more poignant passage in Scottish history than the tragically short 'reign' of this child monarch." One can only feel sorry for her. She lost her mother, who was only 23, at birth (Oram, p. 107); heir to the throne of Scotland before her first birthday, she became queen of Scotland at three (Oram, p. 108). Her marriage was decided upon by the time she was six (Oram, p. 108), she left her childhood home at seven, and died at sea without even viewing the land of which she was titular queen! (Oram, p. 109). It was the forceful Edward I, not the Scots, who conducted most of the negotiations with the Norwegians. And one can't help but wonder if Edward's bluster didn't cause the Norwegians to drag things out. Eric II delayed Margaret's return for years.
Edward had theoretically agreed to leave Scotland an independent state after the marriage, and it was agreed that, if Margaret's marriage produced no heirs, Scotland would remain independent (Magnusson, p. 111). But it was quite clear that Edward had every expectation of running things (MacLean, p. 34); he was already acting as if he were regent of Scotland, even though there was a guardian council and the wedding between Margaret and Edward hadn't taken place anyway (Prestwich, p. 363).
Finally Edward fitted out a well-provisioned ship to carry the Queen, and perhaps her father (Cook, p. 71). Eric didn't like that; he preferred to use one of his own ships. It didn't help the poor girl; she died on the trip -- surrounded by the usual rumours of poisoning and murder. And then Scotland *really* had a succession problem. But that is an issue for another song.
Thus the texts of the ballad match some of the facts (fetching home "the king's daughter of Norrowa'"), but ignore the fact that the old king of Scotland was long dead when the Scottish ship sailed to bring home the princess. (Unless the "king" is Edward I, but in that case, he wouldn't have been in Dunfermline!)
Some have proposed emending the text to describe sending Alexander's daughter *to* Norway, noting that a ship containing several Scottish lords sank on the way home. This is ingenious, but does not seem to fit the rest of the ballad; I would regard this emendation as highly suspect. (Of course, I don't like emendation.)
The song was probably well known in the late eighteenth century. Coleridge's 1798 poem "Dejection: An Ode" opens by citing the ballad (the "Late late yestreen I saw the new Moon" verse) and opens "Well! If the bard was weather-wise, who made The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence...." And Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus" borrows plot elements, and even a whole stanza, from this song.
The folklore of the new moon is still known today, in Newfoundland at least, where a rhyme maintains, "The old moon in the arms of the new Bodes no good for me nor you" (Young, p. 292).
The geography of the song is at least logical: Dunfermline is on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, and Aberdour is also on the shore of the Forth, a modest distance east (and hence closer to the North Sea).
Aytoun claimed that there was a grave reported to be that of Sir Patrick on the tiny island of Papa Stronsay in the Orkneys -- in one sense, a logical location, since Papa Stronsay is in the eastern part of the archipelago, and so would be near the path of a ship from Norway to Scotland. And there isn't much on the island (which is just 74 hectares=about 180 acres and which was eventually abandoned by its small population) except a small monastery. But I've found no reference since Aytoun to this place, and remember, the song says Sir Patrick's body lies at the bottom of the sea!
Just about every recording I've heard of this song seems to use the highly majestic tune sung by Ewan MacColl, which MacColl attributed to his father William Miller, but Bronson admits only one other traditional version with a tune akin to MacColl's; nine of his twelve versions are of a different type, and the twelfth (from Johnson) he believes inauthentic. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 6.2
File: C058

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 2022 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.