Roud 9, Child 20
The Cruel Mother is one of our more popular and celebrated ballads, widespread yet not frequently collected in Britain, with most oral versions tending to be fragmentary. It has an impressive pedigree with seemingly little help from print, whereas many of the Child Ballads collected since Child's time can be traced back to printed sources. In fact the most collected ballad of all, Barbara Allen, Roud 54, Child 84, has been constantly in print for at least two centuries, on broadsides and in sheet music form. There appears to be no broadside versions of The Cruel Mother other than the one here shown.
This late 17th century version shows signs of having been tampered with by an amateur poet yet it contains all of the elements found in traditional versions. Almost all of the thirteen versions given in Child's first volume are from Scotland, but plenty of versions have been collected since Child's time in England and America. English versions come from the southern counties and the midlands although the burlesque/children's version is more widespread. This may just be a reflection of the fact that relatively little collecting has been done in the north of England until more recently.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that any of the English versions derive from the broadside, the one major link is the lady's hailing from York, which is common to all English versions that mention a place. Of the few Scots versions in Child which mention where the lady's from, one mentions 'Lurk' and another 'New York', both obviously derived from York.
Danish versions referred to by Child follow the same events pretty closely but cast no light on where the ballad may have originated. We tend to assume that if one of our ballads existed in Scandinavia or elsewhere in Europe then it must have originated there, but it could just as easily have travelled from this country to Europe. Some Danish ballads are actually set in England, although that does not mean they originated here. Often in Danish ballads the word England is used to denote some vague country off to the west.
Child did include the broadside version in his appendix to his second volume: presumably he wasn't aware of it when his first volume was published.
By far the most common refrain for the ballad is the 'All alone and aloney-o … Down by the greenwood side'. The refrain given in the broadside version occurs in no other version, but the last line of the ballad 'Take warning by her last goodnight' is echoed in the second refrain of Child's A version, from the Herd MSS 'Ten thousand times good-night and be wi' thee', the 'last good-night' having the same meaning as another Child Ballad Johnny Armstrong's Last Goodnight, Roud 76, Child 169, i.e., impending death.
Duke's Daughter's Cruelty
Wonderful Apparition of two Infants whom she Murther'd
and Buried in a Forrest, for to hide her Shame.
|To an excellent new Tune. Licensed according to Order.
There was a Duke's Daughter lived in York|
Come bend and bear away the Bows of Yew
So secretly she loved her Father's Clerk,
Gentle Hearts be to me true.
She lov'd him long and many a day,
Till big with Child she went away.
She went into the wide Wilderness,
Poor she was to be pitied for her heaviness.
She leant her back against a Tree,
And there she endur'd much misery.
She leant her back against an Oak,
With bitter sighs these words she spoke.
She set her foot against a Thorne,
And there she had two pritty Babes born.
She took her filliting off her head,
And then she ty'd them hand and leg.
She had a Penknife long and sharp,
And there she stuck them to the heart.
She dug a Grave, it was long and deep,
And there she laid them into sleep.
The coldest Earth it was their Bed,
The green Grass was their Coverlid.
She cut her hair and changed her Name,
From Fair Elinor to Sweet William.
As she was gowing by her Father's hall,
She see three Children aplaying at ball.
One was drest in Scarlet fine,
And the other as naked as e're they was born.
O Mother, O Mother, if these Children was mine,
I would dress them Scarlet fine.
O Mother, O Mother, when we was thine,
You did not dress us in Scarlet fine.
You set your back against a Tree,
And there you endur'd great misery.
You set your foot against a Thorne,
And there you had us pritty Babes born.
You took your filliting off your head,
And there you bound us hand and leg.
You had a Penknife long and sharp,
And there you stuck us to the heart.
You dug a Grave, it was long and deep,
And there you laid us into sleep.
The coldest earth it was our Bed,
The green Grass was our Coverlid.
O Mother, O Mother, for your sin,
Heaven-gate you shall not enter in.
O Mother, O Mother, for your sin,
Hell-gates stands open to let you in.
The Lady's cheeks look'd pale and wand,
Alas! said she, what have I done?
She tore her silken locks of hair,
And dy'd away in sad despair.
Young Ladies, all of beauty bright,
Take warning by her last good-night.
This version reproduced in The Jersey Collection, The Osterley Park Ballads, p150, and The Pepys Ballads Volume 5, p4.