History, True and Fabulous

by William Gahan (2007)

The commercial and unpretentious production of broadside ballads has fueled a common prejudice against them as trivial, tasteless, and “low.”1 But the history ballads, generally viewed as flighty wisps never destined to settle with weighty impressions onto a grand narrative of national history, have been gathered together by Samuel Pepys and saved from destruction, preserving a view of a past otherwise lost. About eighty ballads are categorized as “History, True and Fabulous” in the first and second volumes of Samuel Pepys’s collection.2 They convey a sense of history that contemporaries took for granted and therefore found unremarkable. In this view, the term “history” could mean any fable or legend, which explains the inclusion of both “true” and “fabulous” events as equally relevant.

Both of these Pepys volumes include historical events seen as divine interventions, some fables, a few classical or legendary stories, and patriotic ballads. Virtually all of the history ballads describe events purported to have happened prior to the English Civil War (1642-1651). Similar songs narrating post-Civil War events fall mostly in “State and Times,” corroborating historian Daniel Woolf’s claim that the rise of published news had begun to change what was perceived as ongoing and what counted as “history.”3 Modern readers, not having the luxury of the earlier, received understanding of what constituted history, should thus pay the history ballads studious attention. Not only do they introduce surprisingly unorthodox protagonists, who are all but absent in the period’s more commonly studied sources, but they also increase our understanding of the period’s popular approaches toward history. In this popular view, formulaic and orthodox moral lessons about such protagonists were considered most entertaining.

The history ballads do not always introduce unorthodox protagonists in the same manner. They are to be pitied, admired, or even ridiculed, and it is possible to find reasons to receive the same protagonist with all of these reactions. The first history ballad in Volume 1, “The Miserable End of Banister” (1.64-65, EBBA 20265), awards the oft-vilified Jane Shore, mistress to Edward IV, a place of importance for deserving pity. However, the narrator complains that he and not Shore should be the focus of the people’s interest and sympathy because he, “Banister,” feels so badly about betraying his master Buckingham for blood money.4 He argues that Shore could at least command some respect: “Thy good deeds done doth spread thy fame / my cursed fact claimes endless shame.” Although it is important to value this inclusiveness and to note the compliment it pays Shore, it would be a mistake to miss the considerable irony and farce in Banister’s plea for more sympathy based on his greater shame. It seems that even preachy appeals to the public to feel pity were extraordinarily enjoyable, and ballad-mongers exploited this, even while soliciting empathy for the lowly and unfortunate. This “entertainment value” is demonstrated by the chilling fact that ballad mongers sold and distributed fake “confession” songs that were then sung by the gawking crowds during public executions (see Gniady, “Tragedy”).

Another unorthodox historical protagonist that is nevertheless central to an important view of “Englishness” is the legendary scoff-law, Robin Hood, who appears in most of the history ballads in Volume 2. These ballads depict a man who lives primarily off his cunning, skill, and strength, as is evident in “Robin Hood his Rescuing Will Stutly from the Sheriff and his Men” (2.106, EBBA 20728). But he also shows concern for the poor, which is made obvious by his “building of Alms-Houses” in “The Noble Fisher-Man” (2.108, EBBA 20730). Robin Hood often humiliates rich sheriffs and Catholic bishops, establishing himself as an important proto-Protestant Englishman for his prowess and character, despite his apparent low station. He rarely brings down a nobleman, however, suggesting that his “nobility of action” elevates him without necessarily disparaging the high born. And Robin Hood himself is often gentrified, as in “A Proper New Ballad of Robin Hood. Shewing his Birth, his Breeding, his Valour, and Marriage” (2.116-117, EBBA 20738), a catalogue that illustrates some limits to how “low born” a hero can be for the early modern audience. Given this general elevation of the hero, it is remarkable how often he is depicted as the weaker in battles against merchants, lowly tanners, shepherds, and even beggars. By exalting the lowly over Robin Hood, the ballads make everyone in the realm potentially relevant agents of English history, especially since Robin Hood fights successfully against injustice in some ballads and is highly favored alongside monarchs in others (cf., 2.120 and 2.103). And, of course, the antics of Robin Hood, peasants, shepherds, and bumpkins are funnier than the exalted actions of “serious” heroes.

However, entertainment is not always delivered through laughter. Ballad sellers also profited from the fact that serious moral instruction and even sensational prophecies of impending doom have always proven popular. The following three ballads exhibit many of the orthodox pedagogical elements typically found in the category—that is, they serve to show how the celestial, the natural, and the political commingle as equally relevant educational exempla: “A battell of Birds” (1.70-71, EBBA 20269) sees a natural phenomenon as a divine warning to repent or face a future calamity; “The lamentable Burning of the Citty of Corke” (1.68-69r, EBBA 20267) claims that a fire and the in-fighting it causes fulfills this prophecy; and “News from Argeir” (1.94-95v, EBBA 20281) illustrates how natural and human events can be interpreted as supernatural signs of political import.

“A battell of Birds” interprets a starling fight as a sign from God that people will turn against each other unless they atone for their sins. Such creative interpretive connections are often more important than the veracity of dates or other considerations in establishing evocative prophecies and messages. For example, the 1622 ballad about the burning of Corke mentions a battle of starlings in May of 1621 as having “prognosticated” this horrific event, but the earlier ballad about the bird fight says the fight took place in September of 1621. Perhaps the Corke birds scrap regularly, but sorting out which brawl predicts which evils could conceivably become quite tricky. No matter—the ballad writer of the 1622 burning of Corke wanted to include an omen, and the details about an apparently well-known bird fight were not as important as the timely exploitation of current public interest.

If the “Battell of Birds” serves as an omen for the “Burning of the Citty,” then the patriotic “News from Argeir” ties celestial signs to particular human dealings and political events all at once. It describes the voyage of an English fleet to Algiers, where the eclipse of a blood-red moon, allusive of the Muslim crescent moon, denotes God’s disapproval of the “Turks.”5 To appease God’s wrath, the “Turks” lavish the English with exotic gifts and even release Christian galley slaves of the “meaner sort.” The English, seeing that the eclipse is interpreted in their favor by the enemy, stay put to secure the release of Christian prisoners “of greater port” held captive in Algerian caves.6 Other “Turks” later turn hostile, suggesting not only the suppleness of popular moralistic formulas that allowed for continual opportunistic revision of the lessons to be learned from history, but also their limitations in necessitating this revision.

These formulaic lessons are often achieved through sensationalistic renderings of events, frequently championing victims and underdogs, as discussed earlier in the essay. Predictably, “The wandring Prince of Troy” teaches all to lead upright lives or suffer damnation; far less predictably, this message is delivered by Dido’s ghost, who chastises Aeneas for her mistreatment and sentences him to hell (1.84-85, EBBA 20276).

Lest the more somberly enacted patriotic or pedagogical formulae conceal the ballads’ more general commercial purpose, consider the last history ballad in Volume 1, “News from Holland’s Leager” (1.98-99, EBBA 20283). It looks just like another patriotic ballad, with woodcuts of soldiers and cannons, as Leba Goldstein notices in “The Pepys Ballads” (292).7 However, it mischievously recounts a military siege by city authorities on Bess Holland’s high-end brothel, which was constructed like a fortress. It is a clever song full of double-entendres mixing military and other matters with sexual ones, including the aural pun “fames Trumpets” (that is, “Fame’s Strumpets”). In like fashion, the narrator sings, “Buy it and try it,” and makes his purpose doubly clear in closing, saying he has written the ballad “for your recreation in love.” In addition, “The King and Northern Man” (2.124-125, EBBA 20745) has a potentially serious message of justice for the poor, but its peasant protagonist is obviously ridiculed, and it is sung to the tune of “Slut.” Serious lessons sold, but only if they were entertaining.

Apart from ascertaining general patterns, it can be difficult to know why particular ballads are relegated to history rather than to other categories. The history sections are similar to the “State and Times” sections in their focus on English national events, but, as mentioned above, “History” is distinguished by its almost exclusive depiction of events from before the English Civil War. Only three of its ballads include events from after the Civil War. Let us consider, as the first instance of this anomaly, “The Christians New Victory Over the Turks” (2.138, EBBA 20758). Here, at least two battles are conflated as one: the 1683 Siege of Vienna and the 1687 Second Battle of Mohács, in which Christian forces defeat the “Turks.”8 This patriotic drinking song extols English volunteers who may or may not have existed.

Judging by the general separation between pre- and post-Civil War ballads, it is fair to say that what Pepys and his assistants judged “historical” was influenced by the obvious criteria that the events had to have occurred a certain distance away in time. But the anomalies may suggest another general criterion: unlike “news,” which, as Daniel Woolf points out, “solicits possible resolutions,” the events in the above ballad had already attained some sense of social, societal, or political resolution, a fact that makes them more “historical” (96).9 The above battles were generally seen as the Christians’ answer to the First Battle of Mohács in 1526, when the Turks decisively squashed the Hungarians near the Drava River, or the “Drave,” as it says in the ballad’s title. Perhaps this well-known historical context, plus the sense that the long Turkish occupations in Europe were then clearly on the wane, seemed decisive enough to relegate the ballad as more relevant to another era. Conversely, “The Wandring Jews Chronicle” (1.482-483, EBBA 20226), which rehearses the reigns of English monarchs before and after the Restoration, may have been placed outside of the history sections because royal succession was viewed as ongoing.

The other two history ballads that relate post-English Civil War occurrences are “[T]he Strange and Wonderful Storm of Hail” (2.137, EBBA 20757) and “The Sad and Lamentable Account of a Fearful Storm” (2.136, EBBA 20756). Each ballad predictably assigns these calamities to divine displeasure. Maybe they slipped into the history sections for no good reason at all, or perhaps they are there because the events, having run their full course, were therefore “historical.” In any case, that only three ballads with events from the recent past found their way into the history sections strongly attests to the fact that published “news,” a novel cultural phenomenon almost entirely relegated to the “State and Times” sections, was by the seventeenth century already imagined as generally distinct from distant “history.” A modern sense of a prolonged present had begun to form, as had a more general consciousness that present events were the future events of history.

1 As quoted in the epigraph to Pepys’s collection, John Selden cleverly defends ballads from this charge. He calls them “straws in the wind,” not too weighty so that they might serve as weathervanes for past, present, and future events.

2Publication dates Vol. 1 are 1613-35; ballads in Vol. 2 were published after the Restoration in 1660.

3Daniel Woolf, “News, History and the Construction of the Present in Early Modern England.” Politics of Information in Early Modern Europe, eds. Brendan Dooley and Sabrina Baron (London: Routledge, 2001), 80-118.

4Henry Stafford, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, helped Richard III to power, but later defied him unsuccessfully. “Banister,” his servant, helped him hide, but later betrayed him for one thousand pounds. Richard III refused to pay.

5The English often indiscriminately called Muslims “Turks.”

6The fourth definition of “port” in the OED indicates “demeanor,” especially “dignified or stately bearing.”

7Leba Goldstein, “The Pepys Ballads,” The Library 5.21 (1966): 282-293.

8The ballad cites James II, placing the action in 1687, but references to the Polish king John III Sobienski and the Austrian Starhemberg point to the 1683 Battle of Vienna. “Caesar,” referring to Charles IV of Lorraine, was present in both battles, each of which was part of a sixteen-year war between the Holy League and the Ottomans.

9Woolf, “News, History and the Construction of the Present in Early Modern England,” 80-118.


Works Cited

Goldstein, Leba. “The Pepys Ballads,” The Library 5.21 (1966): 282-293.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “port,” http://dictionary.oed.com (Accessed July 15, 2007).

Woolf, Daniel. “News, History and the Construction of the Present in Early Modern England.” Politics of Information in Early Modern Europe. eds. Brendan Dooley and Sabrina Baron. London: Routledge, 2001, 80-118.