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From time to time, a Child ballad gets stuck in my head. Lately it’s been “Willie of Winsbury,” Child 100, aka “Willie o’ Winsbury.” Here’s a beautiful version of the song by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.

Great ballads always have surprises, and this one is full of them. It opens like this:

The king has been a prisoner, and a prisoner long in Spain,

And Willie of the Winsbury has lain long with his daughter Jane.

Talk about narrative economy! Openings don’t get much faster than that. As is always the case in old ballads, the sexual misbehavior has led to its inevitable result. Although Jane denies it, her father resorts to an extraordinarily cruel method of getting to the truth:

Take off, take off, your robe and gown, stand naked on the stone,

That I might see you by your shape if you be a maiden or none.

He forces the identity of her lover from her and calls to his serving men, for Willie of the Winsbury is no duke, gentleman, or man of wealth. So hanged he must be.

But when Willie is brought before the king, surprise number one. He’s gorgeous! The king is ravished by his beauty, and declares that if he were a woman, he would have taken Willie to bed too. In an over-the-top fit of forgiveness, he asks Willie to marry Jane and promises that he will be the heir to his lands.

Surprise number two: Willie agrees to marry Jane, but says,

But I’ll not be the lord of any man, I’ll not be the heir to your lands.

And in a surprise ending to the song,

He’s lifted her up on a milk-white steed, and himself on a dappled gray,

He has made her the lady of as much land as she can ride in a long summer’s day.

Who is this Willie of Winsbury, this mystery man who barely escapes hanging but then rejects the king’s offer because he’s apparently even greater? Some scholars think the song is a fictionalized version of the courtship of James V of Scotland and Madeline of Valois, the daughter of the king of France. James had traveled to France in 1536 in order to marry the king’s other daughter, Mary, but ended up taking Madeline home instead. As for myself, though, I’m perfectly happy with Willie being a mysterious figure who captivates everyone he meets, and who never does what one expects him to do.

For those who like their traditional ballads sung in a more traditional dialect, here’s the version of “Willie O’ Winsbury” sung by the wonderful Irish balladeer Andy Irvine when he was with the group Sweeney’s Men.