King John and the Bishop
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King John and the Bishop

"King John and the Bishop" is an English folk-song dating back at least[clarification needed] to the 16th century. It is catalogued in Child Ballads as number 45 and Roud Folk Song Index 302.

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:

  • How long does it take to travel the whole world?
  • How much money am I worth?
  • What am I thinking?

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:

  • A twenty-four-hour day. If you rise in the morning and follow the sun's movement the whole day long, until you wait for the sun to come up in the same place the following morning. Then you'll have traveled the world around.
  • Judas sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver. You are worth almost as much as Christ. You are worth 29 pieces of silver.
  • You are thinking I am the bishop of Canterbury. In fact I am a shepherd in disguise.

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 refrain

The "Derry down" chorus belongs very much to the sixteenth century, and occurs in many ballads.[1] 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.

Historical background

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.[2] The historical aspects of the song are for most people a mere backdrop to the real appeal of the song, as a riddle.[]

Textual variants

Child's variant A is the poem "Kinge John and Bishopp" taken from the Percy Folio manuscript.[3] Variant B is from a broadside copy, printed for P. Brooksby between 1672-85[4] 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.[4][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,[5] and in Collection of Old Ballads (1723), with commentary.[6]

There are various broadside copies extant, with different titles. Some are illustrated with woodcuts:[e]

  • "A New Ballad of King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"
    • Golden Ball in Pye-Corner: printed for Philip Brooksby, ca. 1672-95. (=Child Ballad #45B)
  • "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"[7]
    • London: printed by Aldermary Church Yard, [1760?].[8]
    • Northampton : printed by William Dicey, [1735?][9]
  • "An excellent ballad of King John and the abbot of Canterbury"
    • Newcastle upon Tyne: printed by John White, between 1711 and 1769[10][11]

Ballads with different kings

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.[12]

King Henry and bishop

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).[13][14][15]

Old abbot and king Offa or Alfred

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".[16][17][18][19] "King Olfrey" has been theorized to be either the Anglo-Saxon king Offa,[6] or "a corruption of Alfred".[20]


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.[4][f]

Folklore motif type AT 922

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.[22]

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)."[23]

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.[24][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.[24]

Tales with same three riddles

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.[25] In some tales however, the sets of questions and answers used are extremely close to the three exchanged in the English ballad.

center of the earth

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.[26]

Presten og klokkeren

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.[27][28][29][30]

king worth 29 pence

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.[31] 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).[31][32] The three riddles in Johannes Pauli (d. after 1530) Schimpf und Ernst are very similar to the play's.[31]

Other medieval parallels

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.[31] 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.[31][33] 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.[34] 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?"[35][37]

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.[21]

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."[38]

Literary adaptations

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").[24][39]


  • Jacobs, Joseph (1894). "King John and the Abbot". More English Fairy Tales. David Nutt. pp. 146-149. - a prose tale adapted from both ballad variants.
  • James Balwin, Fifty Famous Stories Retold (1896) - retelling.


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.[40]

Published music notes

The music notes (with blank lyrics) was printed, preceding the ballad text, in Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719).[5] The melody was also printed with lyrics to an unrelated ballad printed in Watt's Musical Miscellany (1729).[41] Edward Francis Rimbault provided musical history on the tune (on this and other pieces in Percy's Reliques)[36] Chappell & Macfarren's work expands on the musicology.[40]

Percy Grainger collected a version on July 27, 1906, from Joseph Skinner.[42] 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).[43]

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.


Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
"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" .

Shaking of the Sheets

"The Old Abbot and King Olfrey", is a closely similar riddle-ballad with different a king.[4] 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.

Musical adaptations

In 1891 Charles Josph Frost wrote a cantata "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" based on the ballad.

Other songs with the same tune

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:[44]

William Shenstone's ballad The Gossiping contains the "Derry Down" refrain and was written for the tune of King John and the Abbot of Canterbury.[40][48]

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.

Modern popular culture

  • Hugh Lupton, Riddle Me This! Riddles and Stories to Challenge Your Mind (2003) - illustrated children's book that contains "The Riddle Song" and "King John and the Bishop of Canterbury".
  • Jan Mark, King John and the Abbot (2006) - illustrated children's book based on the song.

See also


  1. ^ Philips 1723, Old Ballads II, pp.49-50, in commentary to the ballad: "..when [King John] had taken a Mind to any Man's Estate, (especially a Churchman's, for those he frequently chased)" it would have been out of character for him to as allow as much as three days to his victim, or so the anthologist has heard from skeptics who felt the ballad must have originally featured some other monarch.
  2. ^ In A he then rides to Oxford and Cambridge seeking learned men to give him the right answer, only to be derided. In B he rides straight to his country home.
  3. ^ In B, the pension is four pounds per week, which calculates to a larger sum. In A, the king offers 300 pounds a year, the brother offers 50 more, and the shepherd declares he no longer will tolerate keeping sheep for his brother.
  4. ^ On the dating range: Child gives 1672-1695 as date, but the licensing issued to Roger l'Estrange gives 1685 terminus ante quem, and used so in Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., p.749, note after ballad. EBBA also assigns "1672-1685 ?" for the Roxburghe copy.
  5. ^ In various literature, the ballad may also be referred by such names as:
    • "The Bishop of Canterbury"
    • "The Bishop of Canterbury and King John"
    • "The Bishop of Old Canterbury"
    • "King and the Abbot"
    • "King John"
    • "The King's Three Questions"
    (Robert B. Waltz; David G. Engle (2013). "King John and the Bishop [Child 45]". The Ballad Index.)
  6. ^ As compared with six riddling questions asked in "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (Child ballad 46). "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child 1) has a similar character.[21]
  7. ^ As to title cf. Cf. 15th-century German play "einem Kaiser und eim Apt" and Bürger's 1784 ballad. Anderson also compiled Der Schwank von Kaiser und Abt bei den Minsker Juden from the Jews in Minsk.
  8. ^ Anderson's tally of "variants equal 571. Of these, 410 are oral and 161 are literary", but only counted 64 of the literary examples as stemming in oral transmission. Claus, Peter J.; Korom, Frank J. (1991). Folkloristics and Indian folklore. Regional Resources Centre for Folk Performing Arts, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College. p. 85.


  1. ^ "Derry down" occurs in The Huntsman's Delight; or The Forester's Pleasure, Roxburghe ballads Vol. VII, p.557- with the lines "Derry derry down/Among the leaves so green O" is referred to by the title "The Keeper" by some sources.
  2. ^ Robert B. Waltz; David G. Engle (2013). "King John and the Bishop [Child 45]". The Ballad Index.
  3. ^ Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., 746
  4. ^ a b c d Child 1884, Part II (Vol. 1, part 2), Ballad 45: King John and the Bishop, p.404
  5. ^ a b D'Urfey 1719, IV,28-31
  6. ^ a b Philips 1723, Old Ballads II, pp.49-
  7. ^ There is also a sans loc: sans name issue, catalogued ESTC: T204013. A copy is in the Bodleian Library, John Johnson collection #2613
  8. ^ ESTC T29459, with woodcuts x 2. Copies held by Bodleian Library Harding B 3(8), Lewis Walpole Library, Yale copy
  9. ^ ESTC 1958. Digitized by Eighteenth century collections online.
  10. ^ ESTC T33696, with woodcuts x 2. Copies held by Bodleian Library Douce Ballads 3(50b)
  11. ^ Another copy is Roxburghe Collection III, 494.Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., p.746
  12. ^ Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., pp.746-
  13. ^ Child 1884, p. 404. Copies held by: Pepys I, 472, No 243, Roxburghe Collection III, 170, and Douce, fol. 110
  14. ^ Text and commentary printed in: Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., pp.749-752
  15. ^ Facsimile, transcript, recording at: EBBA. "British Library Roxburghe 3.170-171". English Broadside Ballad Archive. University of California at Santa Barbara, Department of English. Retrieved 2013.
  16. ^ Child 1884, p. 404. Copies held by: Douce Collection II, fol. 169; Pepys, II, 127, No 111.
  17. ^ Text and commentary printed in: Ebsworth 1889, Roxb. Ball. VI., pp.753-754
  18. ^ Facsimile, transcript, recording at: EBBA. "Magdalene College Pepys 2.127". English Broadside Ballad Archive. University of California at Santa Barbara, Department of English. Retrieved 2013.
  19. ^ Philips 1723, Old Ballads II, pp.55-
  20. ^ Chappell & Macfarren 1850s, pp. 349
  21. ^ a b Bratcher, James T. (2001). "Gower and Child, No. 45, 'King John and the Bishop'". Notes and Queries. 246 (48): 14-15. doi:10.1093/nq/48.1.14.
  22. ^ Thompson, Stith (1977). The Folktale. University of California Press. ISBN 0520035372.
  23. ^ Marzolph, Ulrich (1984). Typologie des persischen Volksmärchens. Orientinstitut der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft. p. 170.
  24. ^ a b c Krappe, Alexander Haggerty (Jul 1923). "(Review) Kaiser und Abt". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 22 (3): 433-436. JSTOR 27702737.
  25. ^ Ben Amos, Dan; Noy, Dov (eds.). "34 (Three Questions)". Folktales of the Jews. 3 (Tales from Arab Lands). pp. 343-.
  26. ^ Child 1884, p. 404, citing Small, Andrew (1823). Interesting Roman antiquities recently discovered in Fife. Printed for the author and sold by J. Anderson. p. 289.
  27. ^ Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen; Moe, Jørgen, eds. (1871). "86. Presten og klokkeren". Norske folke-eventyr: ny samling. Dybwad i Komm. pp. 126-127. or Projekt Runeberg
  28. ^ Dasent, G. W.(tr.) (1874). Tales from the Fjeld. Chapman & Hall. pp. 158-.
  29. ^ Works related to The Priest and the Clerk at Wikisource
  30. ^ Iversen, Pat Shaw (tr.) (1990) [1960]. Asbjørnsen; Moe (eds.). Norwegian Folktales. Carl Norman (tr.). Norway: Dreyer. pp. 17-18. ISBN 82-09-10598-1.
  31. ^ a b c d e Child 1884, p. 406
  32. ^ Keller, Adelbert von, ed. (1850). Ein Spil von einem Keiser und eim Apt. Tübingen: L. F. Fues.
  33. ^ Keller 1850 also says an analogue to the play Kiaser und Apt exists in the Gesta Romanorum, in the second volume in the edition he owns.
  34. ^ Child 1884, pp. 405-6
  35. ^ Child 1884, pp. 409
  36. ^ a b c d e f Rimbault 1850, p. 25. Melody appended on p.73
  37. ^ Rimbault also observes that Till Eulenspiegel tells the story, although he calls it the adventures of Howleglas printed by Copland, an English translation of an originally Lower Saxon tale.[36]
  38. ^ Nicolaisen, W. F. H. (1973). "Folklore and Geography: Towards an Atlas of American Folk Culture". New York Folklore Quarterly. 29: 3-20. Abstract (archived from dead link)
  39. ^ Ripley, George (1842). Songs and Ballads translated from Uhland, Körner, Bürger, and other German Lyric Poets. XIV. James Munroe and Co.
  40. ^ a b c d e f Chappell & Macfarren 1850s, pp. 348-349
  41. ^ An untitled ballad by one Mr. Prior that begins "Who has e'er been at Paris.." Watts, John (1729). The Musical Miscellany. p. 94.
  42. ^ Bertrand Harris Bronson (8 December 2015). The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. Princeton University Press. p. 358. ISBN 978-1-4008-7936-6.
  43. ^ Archive of Folk Song (U.S.); United States. Work Projects Administration (Washington, D.C.) (1942). Check-list of recorded songs in the English language in the Archive of American folk song to July, 1940: Alphabetical list with geographical index. Library of Congress, Music Division.
  44. ^ Database search of details at Ballad Operas Online
  45. ^ Bullock, Love and revenge, London : printed for J. Clark; T. Worral; J. Jackson; and sold by J. Roberts, [1729]ESTC T63280
  46. ^ Repr.Rubsamen, Walter H., ed. (1974). Harlots, Rakes, and Bawds. Garland. ISBN 9780824009021., "Song XI. Abbot of Canterbury", p.14
  47. ^ Fielding, Henry (1736). Tumble-down Dick: or, Phaeton in the suds.
  48. ^ Shenstone, William (1737). Poems upon Various Occasions (ECCO/TCP). Oxford: Printed by Leon Lichfield near East-Gate. p. 27.



  • Child, James Francis (1884). "45.". The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Part II (Vol. 1, part 2).
  • Philips, Ambrose, ed. (1723). A Collection of Old Ballads. 2. London: J. Roberts and D. Leach. pp. 49-. - VIII. King John, and the Abbot of Canterbury; XI. The Old Abbot, and King Olfrey.
  • Ebsworth, Joseph Woodfall, ed. (1889). Roxburghe Ballads. Part XIX, Vol. VI. Hertfort: for the Ballad Society bu Stephen Autstin and sons. pp. 746-. - A New Ballad of King John and the Abbot of Canterbury;


Further reading

  • A Garland of Green Mountain Song (1934) by Helen Hartness Flanders
  • The Ballad Book of John John Jacob Niles (1961) by John Jacob Niles

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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