It tells how King John, covetous of the bishop of Canterbury's wealth, compels him on pain of death to answer three impossible questions. The bishop's shepherd appears in disguise to substitute in his place, and answers the questions cleverly in riddle fashion, after which the appeased king rewards the shepherd and spares the bishop. Like the ballad, historical King John had a reputation of confiscating property from the clergy.[a]
The ballad is classified as Aarne-Thompson folktale type "AT 922" of the shepherd substituting for the priest to answer the king's questions (For analogues, see Parallels below). Analogues are widespread, some of them being literary works dating to medieval times.
King John in the opening lines is described as a man who did much wrong and did little to uphold what was right. Enraged that the bishop (variant B, the abbot) of Canterbury maintained a household with many servants and riches paid by comfortable income, the king summons him to court, accuses him of treason, threatening him with beheading and the confiscation of income afterwards, unless the cleric can correctly answer three questions:
The king sends the bishop off, allowing a thinking period of twenty days (B, three days).[b] The distressed bishop returns to his shepherd (who in A is his own half-brother), and confides his dilemma. The shepherd says, "Lend me your clothes, I will deliver the correct answers for you". The disguised shepherd then meets King John. His answers are:
Impressed by the clever response, the king offers the appointment of the shepherd as bishop. This the shepherd diffidently declines, at which the king awards him a monetary pension, and pardons the bishop as well.[c]
On the one hand the song is an oblique reference to the poor relationship between King John and the archbishop of Canterbury. On the other hand, it can be enjoyed as a clever riddle-song.
The "Derry down" chorus belongs very much to the sixteenth century, and occurs in many ballads. William Chappell ventured to guess that the ballad entitled "A defence for Mylkemaydes against the terme of Mawken" (before 1563-4), with the refrain "Down, a-downe, &c." might have been set to the same tune.
King John's father, Henry II, indirectly made a martyr of Thomas a Beckett. Like his father, John had a conflict with the Catholic Church, and refused to ratify the Pope's choice for the post of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. The Pope responded with bureaucratic constraints, and in retaliation John removed from office several bishops.
The idea that a shepherd, or the lesser brother of a bishop, could out-wit a king, is quite subversive. Most of the Robin Hood ballads have the same characteristics, except that the sheriff is in place of the king. King John is closely associated with Robin Hood, so perhaps this is not a coincidence.
There is also the suggestion that the educated bishop (or abbot) is not as wise as the uneducated brother (or shepherd) - implying there is a "native wit" that is more valuable than school-book wisdom.
The song has been found in England, Scotland, and the United States. The historical aspects of the song are for most people a mere backdrop to the real appeal of the song, as a riddle.
Child's variant A is the poem "Kinge John and Bishopp" taken from the Percy Folio manuscript. Variant B is from a broadside copy, printed for P. Brooksby between 1672-85 in which at the end of each verse, the burden (chorus) "Derry down" is sung. On the broadside that Child used, an inscription appears below the title indicates the ballad is to be sung to the tune of "The King and the Lord Abbot": this Child thinks was an older ballad which has not survived.[d]
Before Child, broadside copies of the ballad were printed in D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-1720) with music, and in Collection of Old Ballads (1723), with commentary.
There are various broadside copies extant, with different titles. Some are illustrated with woodcuts:[e]
Child mentions that "there are at least two other broadsides extant upon the same subject," noted earlier by Bishop Percy. These feature different monarchs, and popularly they were sung to different tunes. Child did not print these texts, but the texts were printed in consecutive fashion by the Ballad Society in 1889.
King and the Bishop This ballad begins "In Popish time, when Bishops proud..", and was performed to the melody of The Ballad of Chevy Chase. The king here is either an unknown or as "some say 'twas Henry" according to the ballad. The three riddles are substantially the same. There are minute discrepancies in detail, such as the king allowing three week grace period, demanding that his worth be guessed to within a half crown (rather than a penny).
The Old Abbot and King Olfrey This is a piece that begins ""In old times past there was a King,"" and was set to the tune of "The Shaking of the Sheets". "King Olfrey" has been theorized to be either the Anglo-Saxon king Offa, or "a corruption of Alfred".
As Child has pointed out, King John and the Bishop (Child ballad #45) might easily be seen as a part of an "extensive" group of ballads, if the common factor used as the criterion is that of containing a riddle-match frame story, with a major stake if the riddles could not be solved.[f]
The Ballad of King John and the Bishop exhibits the folklore motif Type "AT 922: The Shepherd Substituting for the Priest Answers the King's Questions (The King and the Abbot)" under the Aarne-Thompson classification system, and is the primary example through which this motif class is "known.. to the English speaking world," according to Stith Thompson.
To encompass some of the oriental examples it seems, the précis of this motif index is more loosely stated; thus according to Marzolph AT 922 constitutes "Schwierige Fragen klug beantwortet (Difficult question answered wisely)."
A large group of works that can be classed as being of AT 922 type has been examined by German folklorist Walter Anderson, in his monograph Kaiser und Abt ("Emperor and the Abbot", 1923), whose title is named after the German counterpart of the ballad story.[g] In it, he compiled some 474 variants across to the Asian continent and spanning from German, Scandinavian to Turkic and Finno-Ugric languages; of these, 410 were oral, all dating to the 19th and 20th century.[h] Among the group Anderson analyzed, 85% featured a surrogate who gives the correct answers to the puzzles. And in 81.4% the interrogator was a monarch: John Lackland, Charles Quint or even Pharaoh Sheshonk in some variants.
The actual riddles posed in the large motif group do show discrepancies. In Anderson's analysis, the selection came off a list of sixteen questions. In some tales however, the sets of questions and answers used are extremely close to the three exchanged in the English ballad.
Child noted three identical riddles (preceded by an extra one: "Where is the center of the earth?") were asked in local lore around James V; in it, the king aka "Gudeman of Ballengeigh" ask these questions to a priest of Markinch.
The Norwegian folktale Presten og klokkeren (Asbjornsen and Moe's Norske Folkeeventyr Ny Samling No. 26) is classed AT 922 also matches closely in riddle content. The tale appears in English under the title "The Priest and the Clerk" (Dasent tr.) or "The Parson and The Sexton" (Patrick Shaw Iversen tr.). In the folktale, a priest who is in the habit of shouting everyone else to swerve when he is travelling the road gets in trouble by behaving the same way before the king, who threatens to defrock him if he is not competent to answer them. The priest condescendingly says a fool can stump ten wise men with questions, and refuses to the king, so his clerk makes the appearance. When asked "How far the east is from west?" the clerk replies "A day's journey," for that is the course the sun takes between rising and setting. The king's worth? -- No more than 29 silver pieces (Sølvpenge) since Christ was worth thirty pieces of silver. The king's thought? -- that the priest stands before him, but he must stand corrected for he is the clerk. By the king's decree, the clerk was appointed priest and the priest demoted to clerk.
The short stories (novelle) of Franco Sachetti (died c. 1400) include a tale, in two forms, in which one of the questions concurs with the ballads: the Bernabò Visconti asks what is his worth, and the miller appraises him as no more than 29 deniers. In "Ein Spil von einem Kaiser und eim Apt," a 15th-century Fastnachtsspiel (shrovetide miracle play) about "An Emperor and an Abbot," the miller masquerading as abbot assesses the kaiser's worth at 28 pennies (or 4 groschen, after ascertaining the going rate was 1 Gr. = 7 pfennig). The three riddles in Johannes Pauli (d. after 1530) Schimpf und Ernst are very similar to the play's.
Der Stricker's tale Pfaffe Âmis (13th century) is about the English Priest Amis whose well-to-do lifestyle earns the Bishop's displeasure, but fends off five questions of examination posed to him; this tale is an imperfect analogue since not substitution is made and the priest answers himself. In the Gesta Romanorum (late 13th to early 14th century) is a tale of a knight compelled to answer difficult questions before a king: in the English version of the Gesta, the number of questions is seven. The Speculum Morale (14th century) a later addition to Vincent of Beauvais's works records a story of a king who tried to relieve a wealthy wise man of some of his riches by stumping him with questions, only to be foiled. Another parallel he noted was Till Eulenspiegel, who was summoned to university to answer such questions as "how much water is there in the sea?"
By a more recent scholar, the ballad has been suggested as a possible source to "The Tale of the Three Questions" in John Gower (d. 1408)'s Confessio Amantis. Here the King is guilty of envy, asks three difficult questions, and a distant relative of inferior standing comes to the rescue. The king sets a similar time limit as in the ballad. The riddles differ, but has been suggested that the ballad was re-written in the sixteenth or seventeenth century with fresh new riddles, and so generate extra sales.
Thus kindred riddle-tales certainly existed since the Middle Ages, and according to some, "originated before 850 A.D. in a Jewish parish in the Near East."
The English ballad was available through its printing in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Gottfried August Bürger composed a German adaption of it entitled Der Kaiser und der Abt (prob. 1784; translated "Emperor and the Abbot").
Though a much older tune to King John and the Bishop of Canterbury seems to have existed, it had been "abridged and modernized about the time of King James I," and became known as "The Abbot of Canterbury," in the estimation of Bishop Percy.
The music notes (with blank lyrics) was printed, preceding the ballad text, in Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719). The melody was also printed with lyrics to an unrelated ballad printed in Watt's Musical Miscellany (1729). Edward Francis Rimbault provided musical history on the tune (on this and other pieces in Percy's Reliques) Chappell & Macfarren's work expands on the musicology.
Percy Grainger collected a version on July 27, 1906, from Joseph Skinner. Helen Hartness Flanders made a field recording on wax cylinder some time between 1930 and 1958. She and Alan Lomax collected several versions of the song in 1939, in particular, one from Elmer George and one from Mrs. M. P. Daniels (East Calais, Vermont).
The song has disseminated from England to the United States and Canada. The historical aspects of the song are for most people a mere backdrop to the real appeal of the song, as a riddle. The versions from the USA, and versions collected in the twentieth century are less likely to depict King John as a villain in the opening verse.
|"Burly Banks of Barbry O: Eight Traditional British-American Ballads"||Elmer George||1953||"King John and Bishop"||.|
|"Child Ballads Traditional in the United States, Vol. 1"||Warde H Ford||1960 (recorded 1938)||"The Bishop of Canterbury"||.|
|"All Things in Common"||Chris Foster||1979||"King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"||.|
|"Contentment Or, the Compleat Nutmeg-state songster"||Jim Douglas||1986||"King John and the Bishop"||.|
|"D-Major Singers Vol 3"||D-Major singers||1994||"Bishop of Canterbury"||.|
|"Ballads Thrice Twisted"||Margaret MacArthur||1999||"King John and the Bishop"||.|
"The Old Abbot and King Olfrey", is a closely similar riddle-ballad with different a king. The tune which this is set is different, and known as "Shaking of the Sheets". It was printed with this title in 1776 in Hawkins' History of Music. It also appears as "Shakinge of the Sheetes" in William Ballet's lute manuscript. A tune of this title appears in the Stationers' Register of 1568/9. The title is also mentioned in a play of 1560. The words that accompany this tune are a witty comparison between the bedsheets (a dance of life) and the winding sheets (the dance of death). "Shaking of the sheets" is sung by Steeleye Span on the album Tempted and Tried and by The City Waites on Ghosts, Witches and Demons (1995).
John Playford's 1650 manual The Dancing Master gives the tune as "The Night Peece". Only with difficulty can the words of the Percy manuscript text, be made to fit this version of the tune. The tune also goes by the name "Derry Down". "The Night Peece" is the name of a dance in Playford's books.
In 1891 Charles Josph Frost wrote a cantata "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" based on the ballad.
Thomas Baker's 1703 play Tunbridge Walks contains the ballad, but only the opening verses. This was followed by instances of the tune being used on stage several times over the next 50 years, with different words. Below is a list of such ballad opera:
In 1750 The Gentleman's Magazine published a song called "A Ballad of New Scotland", to be sung to the tune "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury". "New Scotland" is a reference to Halifax in Canada, founded 1749. A collection of songs called The Button Hole Gallery (c 1720 - 1750) contains a riddling song called "The Button Hole". It was sung to the air "The Abbot of Canterbury". It reappeared as part of a collection of songs called Merry Songs (1897), edited by John S. Farmer.