> Louis Killen > Songs > The Bold Princess Royal
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The Bold Princess Royal / The Fourteenth of February

[ Roud 528 ; Laws K29 ; G/D 1:47 ; Ballad Index LK29 ; Bodleian Roud 528 ; trad.]

The Bold Princess Royal is a classic sea story which vividly recounts how a mercantile sailing ship rebuffed an attack by a pirate. Frank Purslow published in his book Marrow Bones (London, 1965) a version collected by George Gardiner in 1905 from William Randall in Hursley. He commented on this song:

At daybreak on 21 June 1789, HM packet Princess Royal, nine days out from Falmouth on her way to New York (other accounts say Halifax) carrying mail, was accosted and pursued by a brig which was later identified as the French privateer Aventurier. At 7 pm the Aventurier hoisted English colours and fired a shot, which the Princess Royal returned. After a further shot, the brig continued the pursuit. It was not until 3.30 am on 22 June that the Aventurier resumed its attack, this time with a broadside and musket fire. The Princess Royal was outmanned, with a crew of thirty-two men and boys with seventeen passengers as opposed to the Aventurier's 85 men and boys; and out-gunned too, with six cannons against the brig's sixteen. Nevertheless, the English ship gave a good account of herself, holding the privateer off for two hours; at the end of which time the Aventurier moved away, sustaining further damage to her stern. The French ship was obliged to return to Bordeaux for refitting, while the Princess Royal resumed her course, eventually arriving home on 31 October.

If, as seems likely, this is the event that gave rise to our song, then it is a mystery why the broadside writer has toned down the story instead of embellishing it. Perhaps the full details were not immediately available; it is otherwise hard to see why a dramatic engagement should have become merely an account of a successful escape.

The Bold Princess Royal is also printed in William Doerflinger's Shantymen and Shantyboys (New York 1951). Both versions can be found in the Digital Tradition database. An unrelated Cotswold Morris tune from Bampton-in-the-Bush, Oxfordshire has a similar name, Princess Royal.

Harry Cox sang The Bold Princess Royal in a BBC recording supervised by E.J. Moeran in The Windmill, Sutton, Norfolk, on December 18, 1945. This was published on BBC 17232 and on the Topic anthologies We've Received Orders to Sail (The Voice of the People Series Vol. 12) and English Originals.

Jamie Taylor of Aberdeenshire sang The Bold Princess Royal in a 1952 Scottish field recording that was included on the anthology of “music from the North East”, Bothy Ballads (Scottish Tradition 1; Tangent 1971, Greentrax 1993). The album's booklet commented:

This capital song of adventure on the high seas has enjoyed wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. In England it has been recorded in sea-faring communities right down the east coast from Yorkshire to Sussex […]. The present version—sung by Jamie Taylor, of Blairfowl, Braes of Gight, Aberdeenshire—is one of comparatively few recorded in Scotland. It is included as a fine example of a folksong from the south which has travelled to Aberdeenshire via the sea route. Recorded in Sept. 1952.

Ned ‘Wintry’ Adams sang The Bold Princess Royal in the London Trader, Hastings, Sussex, on November 13, 1954 to Bob Copper (BBC recording 22742). This recording was included on the anthologies Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970) and You Never Heard So Sweet (The Voice of the People Volume 21; Topic 2012) and in Steve Roud's New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Sam Larner sang The Bold Princess Royal in a recording made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger between early 1958 and the spring of 1960, which was published in 1961 on the Folkways LP Now Is the Time for Fishing. This LP was reissued as a Topic CD in 2000. Another recording from Larner's 1974 Topic LP A Garland for Sam was also included on the anthologies Hidden English and Three Score and Ten. The Folkways liner notes comment:

Colcord [Songs of American Sailormen, New York, 1938] dates this song as belonging to the period of the American War of Independence or shortly before. The seaports mentioned in the numerous versions vary considerably, ranging from Callao and Peru to Rio and Cairo. It has been recorded in Nova Scotia and the United States but appears to be most common in the East Anglian district of England. Mr Larner's tune seems to be a fairly standard one and belongs to the Villikins and His Dinah family.

Louis Killen sang The Bold Princess Royal in 1964 on the Topic LP Farewell Nancy, which was reissued in 1993 as part of the CD Blow the Man Down. He re-recorded the song in 1997 for his CD A Seaman's Garland: Sailors, Ships & Chanteys Vol. 2. He also sang it during the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2005. This recording was included in the following year on the festival anthology For Friendship and for Harmony (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 2). He commented in the sleeve notes of his CD:

Finally, songs of heroes and battles were great favourites. The Bold Princess Royal's triumphant flight from pirates is beloved by England's east coast sailors. This version comes from herring fisherman, Sam Larner.

Bob Hart sang The Bold Princess Royal oat home in 1969 to Bill Leader. This recording was included in 1998 on his Musical Traditions anthology A Broadside. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

An extremely well-known song, at least in England—66 of Roud's 115 instances are from here. And with the single exception of a Sharp collection from Robert Hughes of Buckingham in 1922, all are from counties with a sea coast—the great majority being from Suffolk and Norfolk. It has also remained popular until recent times; Roud show 30 sound recordings.

Since the words ‘Bold Princess Royal’ occur so frequently in the song it's unsurprising that this is almost always the title used—until it crosses the sea, that is. In Ireland and North America a whole host of alternative titles have been adopted, many of which centre on the pirate, rather than the Princess and her crew.

Peter Bellamy sang this song unaccompanied as The Fourteenth of February on his first solo LP, Mainly Norfolk (1968). He commented in the album's liner notes:

The late Sam Larner was not, perhaps, such a grand or subtle singer as Harry Cox, but what he lacked in finesse he compensated for with enormous vitality and humour. From him comes this grand version of the pirate ballad Henry Martin, called by Sam The Lofty Tall Ship. The Fourteenth of February, a similar song to The Lofty Tall Ship (only with a happy ending and sounder seamanship), is one of the songs most commonly found all around the East Coast. This version I learned from the singing of Bob Bayfield, a retired fisherman of Wells-Next-The-Sea, and to which I added two verses from the Larner version.

Jumbo Brightwell sang The Bold Princess Royal on his 1975 LP Songs from the Eel's Foot.

Bob Copper learned The Bold Princess Royal from his uncle John Copper, and sang it on his 1977 Topic album of countryside songs from the South, Sweet Rose in June.

Although the song of The Bold Princess Royal has all the characteristics of a true event, several 18th century ships carried the name, thus making it difficult to isolate this specific incident. In the early part of the 19th century the song was printed by James Catnach of Seven Dials, and this version fixed its form for later singers.

Walter Pardon sang The Bold Princess Royal at home in a recording by Mike Yates on August 2, 1978. This was included on Pardon's LP A Country Life (1982) and CD A World Without Horses (2000).

Bob Roberts sang The Bold Princess Royal on his 1981 album Breeze for a Bargeman and on the 1994 Saydisc anthology Sea Songs and Shanties. The original album's sleeve notes commented:

This ship was once a fast packet between Holland and Harwich. She eventually joined the cargo-carrying merchant fleet and is reputed to be the last ship to be apprehended by a pirate in the western approaches.

Jim Eldon sang The Bold Princess Royal in 1997 on his and Lynnette Eldon's CD Jim & Lynnette Eldon.

Coope, Boyes & Simpson sang The Bold Princess Royal 1n 1998 on their No Masters CD Hindsight. They commented:

Skulduggery on the high seas has always been a favourite subject. There are however inconsistencies in this (and other traditional songs) which may worry some people—for example, why do pirate ships advertise themselves by flying black colours, why is the captain such a wimp etc.

Debra Cowan sang The Bold Princess Royal in 2001 on her CD The Long Grey Line, referring in her liner notes to the Copper Family:

In my opinion, one cannot sing traditional songs without paying tribute to The Coppers. I first heard an Irish version of this song years ago, but enjoyed the Copper version much better. It's always nice to see the good guys win.

Chris Foster sang The Bold Princess Royal in 2003 on his Tradition Bearers CD Traces. He commented in his liner notes:

A close encounter with a pirate and a narrow escape. Set to a great tune from the same family as Flash Company, a song often heard in Suffolk sessions.

Benji Kirkpatrick sang The Bold Princess Royal on his 2004 CD Half a Fruit Pie.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang The Bold Princess Royal in 2008 on their WildGoose CD Beyond the Quay. They notes:

… [Bristol shantyman] Eric [Ilott] also sang a version of The Bold Princess Royal—but not this one, which highlights the Captain’s cowardice and the Mate’s command capability. Tom got this Bristol version from Albert Lightfoot via Bob Stewart.

Brian Peters sang The Bold Princess Royal in 2010 on his CD Gritstone Serenade. He commented:

I suppose that running like hell could be seen in some quarters as boldness, but despite the Princess Royal's conspicuous refusal to play heroes, this is another broadside ballad that became popular with singers in the English countryside. For years I sang a rather bland version, until I heard the recording that Bob Copper—in his BBC-appointed role as song collector—had made from the Hastings lifeboat coxswain Ned ‘Wintry’ Adams in 1954. Bob told a fine tale of his quest to persuade the somewhat uncooperative Mr. Adams to perform his song into a huge ancient tape recorder, encouraged by a large quantity of ale. Despite his reluctance, Mr. Adams rendition was spectacular, and I've attempted to capture some of the essence of it here.

Pete Coe sang The Bold Princess Royal in 2014 on his and Alice Jones' double CD of songs from the Frank Kidson collection, The Search for Five Finger Frank. He noted:

The tune is from Charley Dickenson with lyrics adapted from various broadsides.

Andy Turner sang The Bold Princess Royal as the March 14, 2015 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Harry Cox sings The Bold Princess Royal

On the fourteenth of February we sailed from the land
In the bold Princess Royal bound for Newfoundland.
With forty brave seamen for our ship's company
And so boldly from the eastward to the westward bore we.

Now, we had not been sailing scarce days two or three,
When the man from our masthead strange sails he did see.
She came bearing down on us for to see what we were
And under her mizzen black colours she wore.

“Good Lord!” cried our captain, “What shall us do now?
Here comes a bold pirate for to rob us, I know.”
“Oh no!” cried our chief mate, “Oh, it ne'er shall be so.
We will shake out our reef, boys, and from her we'll go.”

So at last this bold pirate, she hove alongside,
With a loud-speaking trumpet, “Whence come you?” she cried,
Our captain standing up, my boys, and he answered them so:
“Oh, we come from fair London; we're bound for Cairo.”

“So come heave up your course sails and lay your ship to,
I have a long letter to send home by you.”
“I will heave up my course sail and lay my ship to,
She will lay in some harbour, not alongside of you.”

So we hove our course sail, our stay sails too,
Top gallant sail royal, boys, from her we flew.
They chased us to windward for all that long day,
They chased us to windward but could make no way.

They fired shots after us but none did prevail
And the bold Princess Royal soon show them her tail.

“So thank God!” cried our captain, “Now the firing is done.
Go you down to your grog, my boys, go you down, everyone.
Go you down to your grog, my boys, and be of good cheer,
For while we have sea-room, brave boys, never fear.”

Bob Hart sings The Bold Princess Royal

'Twas the nineteenth of February we sailed from the land
In the good ship Prince Royal, bound to Newfoundland.
We'd forty brave seamen for a ship's company,
And so boldly from the eastward to the westward bore we.

We scarce had been sailing but days two or three,
When the man on the topmast, a tall ship did see.
She came bearing down on us just to see what we were,
Whilst under her mizzen sheets, dark colours she wore.

“Oh dear,” cried our captain, “What shall we do now?
Here come an old pirate to rob us, I know.”
“Oh no,” cried our chief mate, “That will never be so;
We will shake out our rig lads and from her we'll flow.”

Meanwhile the old pirate had come alongside.
Through a loud-speaking trumpet “Who are you?” he cried.
The Captain being aft, he did answer him so;
“We're bound from old England, out into Peru.”

“Then lower your tops'l and heave your ship to,
For I have some letters to send home by you.”
“I will lower my tops'l and I'll heave my ship to,
But will be in some harbour, not alongside of you.”

They chased us all night and they chased us all day,
They chased us to windward, but ne'er could us stay.
They fired shots after us, oh but none could prevail,
And the bold Princess Royal soon shew them her tail.

“And now”, said the Captain, “that the pirate has gone,
Go you down to your grog, boys, go down every one,
Go down to your grog, me boys, and be of good cheer,
For whilst we have sea-room, brave boys, never fear.”

Louis Killen sings The Bold Princess Royal

On the fourteenth of February we sailed from the land
On the bold Princess Royal bound for Newfoundland.
𝄆 We had forty brave seamen in the ship's company
And as boldly from the eastward to the westward sailed we. 𝄇

We had not been sailing scarce days two or three,
When the man on our masthead strange sails he did see.
𝄆 She came bearing down on us for to see what we were
And under her mizzen black colours she wore. 𝄇

“Oh Lord!” cries our captain, “What shall us do now?
Here comes a bold pirate for to rob us, I know.”
𝄆 “Oh no!” cries the first mate, “That never shall be so.
We'll pull out our reef, boys, and away from them we'll go.” 𝄇

Well this so bold pirate, he hove alongside,
With a loud-speaking trumpet, “Whence come you?” he cried,
𝄆 Our captain being up, my boys, he answered him so:
“We come from fair London; we're bound for St. John.” 𝄇

“Well, threw up your foresails and draw your ship to,
For I have a long letter for to send home by you.”
𝄆 “Oh, I will not threw up my foresails and not draw my ship to,
That will be in some harbour, not alongside of you.” 𝄇

Well, he chased us to the eastward for all that long day,
And he chased us to the westward but he couldn't get no way.
𝄆 He fired shots after us but none could prevail
And the bold Princess Royal soon show him her tail. 𝄇

“Oh Lord!” cries our captain, “Now the pirate is gone,
Get yours down to your grog, my boys, Get yours down, everyone.
𝄆 Get yours down to your grog, my boys, and be of good cheer,
While the Princess has sea-room, brave boys, never fear.” 𝄇

Peter Bellamy sings The Fourteenth of February

On the fourteenth of February we sailed from the land
On the bold Princess Royal bound for Newfoundland.
We had forty brave seamen in the ship's company
And boldly from Yarmouth to the westward steered we.

Now, we had not been sailing past days two or three,
When the lookout at our foremast strange sails he did see.
That came a-bearing down on us for to see what we were
And under his mizzen black colours he wore.

“Our Lord!” cried our captain, “What shall us do now?
For here comes a bold pirate to rob us, I know.”
“Oh no!” cried our first mate, “That shall not be so.
We will let out our reef, boys, and away from him go.”

But then this bold pirate, he hove alongside,
With a loud-speaking trumpet, “Whence come you?” he cried,
Our captain being aft, me boys, he answered him so:
“We come from old Yarmouth and we're bound for Peru.”

So it's, “Let out your course sails and bring your ship to,
For I have a long letter for to send there by you.”
“I know,” cried our first mate, “That will not be so.
That will be in some old harbour, not alongside of you.”

So he chased us to the windward most of that live long day,
And he chased us to the westward but he couldn't make no way.
And he fired shots all after us but none did prevail
And the bold Princess Royal soon showed him her tail.

“Our good Lord!” cried our captain, “That old pirate he is gone
Go you down to your grog, boys, go you down, everyone.
Go you down to your grog, me boys, and be of good cheer,
While the bold Princess has sea-room, brave boys, never fear.”