> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > Fair Margaret and Sweet William
> Shirley Collins > Songs > Lady Margaret and Sweet William
> June Tabor > Songs > Fair Margaret and Sweet William

Fair Margaret and Sweet William

[ Roud 253 ; Master title: Fair Margaret and Sweet William ; Child 74 ; G/D 2:337 ; Ballad Index C074 ; LittleMarg at Old Songs ; VWML HAM/3/18/6 ; Bodleian Roud 253 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd sang Fair Margaret and Sweet William in 1956 on his and Ewan MacColl’s Riverside album of Child ballads, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume II. All of his ballads on this series were reissued in 2011 on his Fellside CD Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun.

Pete Seeger sang Fair Margaret in 1957 on his Folkways album American Ballads and in 1963 on his Columbia live album We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Recording 8 June 1963. He noted on the Folkways album:

This ballad was on of the first I ever learned, in 1935, from the country lawyer and old-time banjo picker of Ashville, North Carolina, Bascom Lunsford. My thanks to him. It is a medieval vignette, and the last verses describing the conversation between Lady Margaret’s ghost and her false lover are as close as we get to superstition in this LP.

Hedy West sang Little Margaret in 1964 on her Vanguard album Hedy West Volume 2.

Trees sang Lady Margaret in 1970 on their CBS album The Garden of Jane Delawney.

Almeda Riddle from Heber Springs, Arkansas, sang Lady Margaret in 1972 on her Rounder album Ballads and Hymns From the Ozarks.

Martin Howley of Fanore, north-west Clare, sang this ballad as The Old Armchair in July 1974 to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie. This recording was included in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology Around the Hills of Clare. The collectors noted in the accompanying booklet:

The ballad of Fair Margaret and Sweet William was first quoted in part in the Beaumont and Fletcher play The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1611, the first full text being a broadside or stall copy published in Percy’s Reliques in 1767.

While it has been found in the oral tradition in England and Scotland, it seems to have survived best among singers in the United States; all other sound recordings are American. The only other version to have turned up in Ireland was in the Percy manuscripts and had been written down by the mother of the Bishop of Derry in 1776.

Martin [Howley] learned his version “when I was very young” from a travelling woman named Sherlock some ninety years ago.

Martin Howley also sang this with the title Knight William at home in Ballyinagh, Fanore, Co Clare, on 10 August 1975 to Tom Munnelly. This recording was included in 1985 on the Folk Music Society of Ireland anthology Early Ballads in Ireland 1968-1985, reissued on CD in 2015 by An Goílín.

Shirley Collins sang this ballad as Lady Margaret and Sweet William in 1976 on her album The Power of the True Love Knot; it was also included in her anthology A Favourite Garland. She noted on the original album:

Another song from Jean Ritchie, as sung to her by Justus Begley of Hazard, Kentucky. There are more complete versions, but none I can find explain why Sweet William passed up Lady Margaret, or how she died or how he died. But with all its ambiguities, or maybe because of them, it remains the outstanding ballad of its type where the true-lover’s knot triumphs over human pride, tragedy and death.

Dave Arthur with Pete Cooper and Chris Moreton (later Rattle on the Stovepipe) sang Little Margaret in 2003 on their WildGoose album Return Journey. They noted:

During the final session of a recent storytelling residency in a primary school, I gave the children the option of requesting anything that we’d done over the ten weeks, the top choice was the supernatural ballad of Little Margaret.

One of my sources for the song, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina lawyer, had actually learnt it from a nine year old girl. So it has gone full circle. He said of Little Marget (sic):

This fine text and melody is a centuries-old tale, with supernatural overtones that make it peculiarly effective. One time when visiting the Roaring Forks section of Madison County, N.C., I heard little nine-year old Alice Payne sing this song, just as given here. She had learned it from her mother and grandmother and had never seen a written copy.

So a song sent out into the world by a little girl in North Carolina, was loved and learnt by children in a village in the south of England seventy years later, and I’m sure some of them will be singing it to their children and grandchildren in years to come.

My other inspiration was a recording by banjo player, Obray Ramsey, played to me in Philadelphia, in the 1970s, by Kenny Goldstein. One of my all time favourite pieces of traditional singing. First quoted in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1611):

When it was grown to dark midnight
And all were fast asleep
In came Margaret’s grimly ghost
And stood at William’s feet.

Fair Margaret and Sweet William probably did the rounds as a broadside ballad before being pinned between the pages of Ramsey’s Tea-Table Miscellany (1740) and later Bishop Percy’s Reliques (1765). It has been collected throughout Britain, America and Canada.

June Tabor sang Fair Margaret and Sweet William in 2003 on her Topic CD An Echo of Hooves. Her version was collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles from Jeff Stockton of Flag Pond, Tennessee in 1916. It is much older though; according to June Tabor’s notes it was first mentioned in Beaumont and Fletcher’s 1611 play The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang Fair Margaret and Sweet William in 2004 on their WildGoose album Floating Verses. Mary Humphreys noted:

Collected by H.E.D. Hammond from Mrs Crawford, West Milton Dorset in May 1906 [VWML HAM/3/18/6] . We are not given any of the background to the disruption in the relationship between the two protagonists, but one can surmise that the reasons for Sweet William choosing a ‘nut-brown bride’ is the same as in many of the other love-triangle ballads— that of houses and land. Nut-brown was a derogatory term for a plain woman, that could also describe a sallow-skinned or sunburnt woman.

The verse relating to the rose and briar makes the end of the ballad a little less bleak for the listener. It is a motif that occurs elsewhere, notably Barbara Allen and Lord Thomas and Lady Eleanor.

Pete Coe sang Fair Margaret and Sweet William in 2010 on his Backshift CD Backbone.

Jim Moray sang Fair Margaret and Sweet William in 2016 on his CD Upcetera. He noted:

Words from Jeff Stockton of Flagpole, Tennessee, collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles on 14 September 1916. The tune is my own.


Shirley Collins sings Lady Margaret and Sweet William

Sweet William arose one May morning
And dressed himself in blue;
We want you to tell of something about
The long love between Lady Margaret and you.

“I know nothing of Lady Margaret’s love,
I’m sure she don’t love me.
But tomorrow morning at eight o’clock
Lady Margaret my bride shall see.”

Lady Margaret sat in her own hall door,
A-combing down her hair,
When she saw Sweet William come a-riding by,
Bringing his new bride home.

She first threw down her ivory comb,
Tied up her long yellow hair,
And out of the door went this lady gay,
To never return any more.

Now late that night when William was in bed,
And most all men was asleep,
lady Margaret’s ghost came to Sweet William’s side
And stood at his own bed feet.

Saying, “How do you like your snow-white pillow?
How do you like your sheet?
And how do you like the new found bride
That’s a-lying in your arms asleep?”

“Very well, very well do I like my pillow,
Better do I like the sheet,
But the best one of all is that pretty little girl
That’s a-standing at my own bed feet.”

So early next morning when William awoke,
And most all men was at work,
Sweet William said he was troubled in his head
By the dreams that he dreamed last night.

“Such dreams, such dreams I do not like,
Such dreams they are no good.
I dreamed that my hall was filled with wild swine,
Lady Margaret was drowning in blood.”

So he called his comrades to his side
And numbered them one, two, three,
And the last one of them, “Go tell my bride
Lady Margaret I’ve gone to see.”

He rode till he came to Lady Margaret’s hall,
Pulled all on the ring.
There’s none so ready as Lady Margaret’s brother
For to rise and let him in.

“Now, is she in the garden?,” he said,
“Or is she in the hall?
Or is she in the upper parlour
Among them ladies all?”

“She neither is in the garden,” he said,
“Nor yet into the hall,
But yonder she lies in her cold coffin
With her pale face turned to the wall.”

Lady Margaret was buried in the old churchyard,
William lay anigh her,
And out of her grave grew a red, red rose
And out of his a briar.

They grew and they grew on the old church tower
Till they could grow not higher
They met and they twined in a true lover’s knot,
The red rose around the briar.

June Tabor sings Fair Margaret and Sweet William

Sweet William arose on a May morning
And he dressed himself in blue;
We want you to tell of that long love that’s been
Between Lady Margret and you.

“Oh, I know nothing of Lady Margret’s love,
And I know she don’t love me.
Before tomorrow morning at eight of the clock
Lady Margret a bride shall see.”

Lady Margret was a-sitting in her own bower room,
Combing back her yellow hair,
And she saw Sweet William and his new wedded bride
And the lawyers a-riding by.

It’s down she stood her ivory comb
And back she threw her hair,
And it’s you may suppose and be very well assured,
Lady Margret was heard no more.

The day being past and the night coming on,
When most all men were asleep,
Something appeared to Sweet William and his bride
And stood at their bed feet.

Saying, “How do you like your bed making
And how do you like your sheets?
And how do you like that new wedded bride
That lies in your arms and sleeps?”

“Very well do I like my bed making
Much better do I like my sheets,
But best of all is that gay lady
That stands at my bed feet.”

The night being past and the day coming on,
When most all men were awake,
Sweet William he said he was troubled in his head
By the dreams that he dreamed last night.

“Such dreams, such dreams cannot be true,
I’m afraid they’re of no good.
I dreamed that my chamber was full of wild swine
And my bride’s bed floating in blood.”

He’s called down his waiting men
One by two by three,
Saying, “Go and ask leave of my new wedded bride
If Lady Margret I mayn’t go and see.”

He’s rode up to Lady Margret’s own bower room
And tingled all on the ring,
And who was so ready as her own born brother
To rise and let him in.

“Is Lady Margret in her own bower room
Or is she in her hall?
Or is she high in her chambery
Amongst the ladies all?”

“Lady Margret’s not in her own bower room
Nor neither is she in her hall,
But she is in her long cold coffin
Lies pale against yon wall.”

“Unroll, unroll those winding sheets
Although they’re very fine,
And let me kiss them cold pale lips
Just as often as they’ve kissed mine.”

It’s first he’s kissed her ivory cheeks
And then he’s kissed her chin,
And when he kissed them cold pale lips
There was no breath within.

Three times he’s kissed her ivory cheeks,
Three times he’s kissed her chin,
And the last time he kissed them cold pale lips
It crushed his heart within.

Lady Margret died like it might be today,
Sweet William he died on tomorrow,
Lady Margret she died for pure true love,
Sweet William he died for sorrow.

Lady Margret was buried in yons churchyard,
Sweet William was buried by her,
And out of her grave sprung a red, red rose,
Out of his a green, green briar.

And they both growed up the old church wall
Till they could not grow any higher
And they met and they tied in a true love’s knot,
Red rose around green briar.