This blog has no connection with tailors or the Georgian period but it’s my blog and we all deserve a break, including the readers!

Having been brought up listening to the music of Benjamin Britten, I remembered yesterday his arrangements of folk songs, which were sung on record by Peter Pears.   A ballad that had always intrigued me was ‘Little Sir Willliam.’  In Britten’s version it goes:

Easter day was a holiday
Of all days in the year,
And all the little schoolfellows went out to play
But Sir William was not there.

Mama went to the School wife’s house
And knock-ed at the ring,
Saying, “Little Sir William, if you are there,
Pray let your mother in.”

The School wife open’d the door and said:
“He is not here today.
He is with the little schoolfellows out on the green
Playing some pretty play.”

Mamma went to the Boyne water
That is so wide and deep,
Saying, “Little Sir William, if you are there,
Pray pity your mother’s weep.”

“How can I pity your weep, Mama,
And I so long in pain?
For the little pen knife sticks close to my heart
And the School wife hath me slain.

“Go home, go home, my mother dear,
And prepare my winding sheet,
For tomorrow morning before eight o’clock,
You with my body shall meet.

“Lay my Prayer Book at my head, Mama
And my grammar at my feet,
So that all the little schoolfellows as they pass by
May read them for my sake.”

I have to admit that to my childish ear it was always “my Grandma at my feet”.  I always wondered why the school-wife should have murdered that rather sanctimonious little boy in a fit of pique, and why Mama went to her house when it was a holiday?   What emerges from my reseach is far more shocking than I had imagined.  Britten described this as a Somersetshire ballad, but as far as I know there is no Boyne-water in that county.  It sounds more as if it came there via Northern Ireland.  The lyrics were sanitised, perhaps by Britten, because the original ballad has the villain not as a homicidal pedagogue but a Jew-wife, i.e., a Jewess.

This older ballad, with many variations, is called ‘Sir Hugh, or The Jew’s Daughter’, and is most recently quoted in ‘English and Scottish Ballads’, selected and edited by the American historian Francis James Child (1825-1896.).  His source is given as ‘Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern’ by William Motherwell, (1797-1835).  In his introduction Motherwell says: “Two copies of this ballad appeared in Herd’s Collection, Edinburgh 1776, under the above title.  A third is printed in Dr. Percy’s Reliques, and Mr. Jamieson has given another copy of the same ballad, taken down from recitation, in Ireland.”  Maybe that explains the Boyne-water, though that does not appear in the original.

A further book in French which quotes the ballad is: ‘Hugues de Lincoln: Recueil de Ballades Anglo-Normande et Ecossoisses Relatives au Meurtre de cet Enfant Commis par les Juifs en 1260’, compiled by Francisque Michel.  This is supposedly taken from the writings of St. Hugh of Lincoln (1140-1200) but many other sources are given.  What the  connection is, apart from the name, between the saint and the dead child was is not made clear.  It is a particularly nasty work of anti-Semitism.

So now it appears that  we have a Scottish ballad which in fact comes from Lincoln.   It starts with Hugh kicking his ball though the woman’s window, and he asks for his ball back, whereupon she asks him in to dine, finally overcoming his reservations with offers of apples.  She leads him though various rooms before stabbing him with her pen-knife, watching him bleed, and even in one version catching the blood in a golden cup, until ‘There was nae mair (blood) within.  She laid him on a dressing table, She dress’d him like a swine’,  garnished with the apples.  She then puts him into a case of lead and drops him down a fifty-fathom draw-well.

So, far from the act of an envious schoolmarm, what we actually have is a case of ritual slaughter.  The significance of Easter Day is that in the middle ages stories were rife that the Jews would crucify or otherwise murder Christian children at Easter.  Mostly these stories were shown to be false, but they served to whip up hatred against the Jews.  Because of their talent as businessmen and moneylenders they were in fact regarded as necessary by the barons and noblemen, and were given protection by a succession of kings.

“Little Sir William” scans better than “Little Sir Hugh”, so that the probable reason for the change of name.  I will never quite feel the same way about the song.  Anyway, here is a very nice version of Britten’s arrangement:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JgMIhA4Nb8

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  1. I’m familiar with the SteeleyeSpan version of Little Sir Hugh and it had never occurred to me that there was any hidden antisemetic twist to it, I’d always assumed that the Lady who was dressed in green was some kind of fey entity and was using his death as part of the teind to Hell as in the legend of Tam Lin. Fascinating research.

  2. Charles Bazalgette says:

    I suppose that version was sanitized as well….. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!

  3. Rene_LePaul says:

    Do you think the School Wife connection may be due to the fact that "School Wife" rhymes with "Jew Wife"? This maybe just a softer retelling of the harsher Sir Hugh, but with the same underlying antisemitism?

  4. Pingback: Benjamin Britten, Little Sir William | robertbyron22

  5. Alison Davidson says:

    My Peter Pears Benjamin Britten recording has Jew’s Wife, not School wife

  6. chasbaz says:

    That is very interesting, Alison. The one my mother had was an old 78 and it certainly said ‘school-wife’ in that version. I wonder if they sanitized it for that recording. Thy must certainly have made more than one.
    The Youtube version I added a link to used ‘school-wife’ too.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Trudi Pope says:

    Fascinating. Clearly written for folk like me. I couldn’t help think that it reminded me a little of Lord Randall my Son.

  8. Gayle says:

    Thanks for this information. I’m learning this song and was curious about the background. Gruesome but interesting.

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