King John And The Abbot

A poem by Frank Sidgwick

The Text here printed is taken from Percy's Reliques (1765), vol. ii. p. 302, etc. He compiled his ballad from a broadside and another copy, Kinge John and Bishoppe, that he found in his Folio MS.; and since he made it a much more readable ballad than either of his originals, it is reproduced here.

The Story.--Riddles asked by a monarch of one of his dependants, and answered by a third person assuming the guise of the person questioned, form the subject of many ancient tales. In Sacchetti's Novelle we find both the abbot and his representative, a miller, who answers Bernabò Visconti the four questions, How far is it to heaven? How much water is there in the sea? What is going on in hell? What is the value of my person? The answers to the first two of these are given simply in large numbers and Bernabò told to measure for himself if he does not believe them. The value of Bernabò's person is estimated, as in our ballad, at one piece less than our Lord.

Another favourite question in these ballads is, Where is the centre of the earth? The answer is given by the man planting his staff and saying, 'Here: prove it wrong if you can.'

In the Percy Folio version, the shepherd is the half-brother of the abbot.


An ancient story Ile tell you anon
Of a notable prince, that was called King John;
And he ruled England with maine and with might,
For he did great wrong, and maintein'd little right.

And Ile tell you a story, a story so merrye,
Concerning the Abbot of Canterbùrye;
How for his house-keeping, and high renowne,
They rode post for him to London towne.

An hundred men, the king did heare say,
The abbot kept in his house every day;
And fifty golde chaynes, without any doubt,
In velvet coates waited the abbot about.

'How now, father abbot, I heare it of thee,
Thou keepest a far better house than mee,
And for thy house-keeping and high renowne,
I feare thou work'st treason against my crown.'

'My liege,' quo' the abbot, 'I would it were knowne,
I never spend nothing but what is my owne;
And I trust, your grace will do me no deere,
For spending of my owne true-gotten geere.'

'Yes, yes, father abbot, thy fault it is highe,
And now for the same thou needest must dye;
For except thou canst answer me questions three,
Thy head shall be smitten from thy bodìe.

'And first,' quo' the king, 'when I'm in this stead,
With my crowne of golde so faire on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe
Thou must tell me to one penny what I am worthe.

'Secondlye, tell me, without any doubt,
How soone I may ride the whole world about;
And at the third question thou must not shrink,
But tell me here truly what I do think.'

'O, these are hard questions for my shallow witt,
Nor I cannot answer your grace as yet;
But if you will give me but three weekes space,
Ile do my endeavour to answer your grace.'

'Now three weeks space to thee will I give.
And that is the longest time thou hast to live;
For if thou dost not answer my questions three,
Thy lands and thy livings are forfeit to mee.'

Away rode the abbot all sad at that word,
And he rode to Cambridge, and Oxenford;
But never a doctor there was so wise,
That could with his learning an answer devise.

Then home rode the abbot of comfort so cold,
And he mett his shepheard a going to fold:
'How now, my lord abbot, you are welcome home;
What newes do you bring us from good king John?'

'Sad newes, sad newes, shepheard, I must give;
That I have but three days more to live:
For if I do not answer him questions three,
My head will be smitten from my bodìe.

'The first is to tell him there in that stead,
With his crowne of golde so fair on his head,
Among all his liege men so noble of birth,
To within one penny of what he is worth.

'The seconde, to tell him, without any doubt,
How soone he may ride this whole world about:
And at the third question I must not shrinke,
But tell him there truly what he does thinke.'

'Now cheare up, sire abbot, did you never hear yet,
That a fool he may learn a wise man witt?
Lend me horse, and serving-men, and your apparel.
And I'll ride to London to answere your quarrel.

'Nay frowne not, if it hath been told unto mee,
I am like your lordship as ever may bee:
And if you will but lend me your gowne,
There is none shall knowe us at fair London towne.'

'Now horses, and serving-men thou shalt have,
With sumptuous array most gallant and brave;
With crozier, and miter, and rochet, and cope,
Fit to appeare 'fore our fader the pope.'

'Now welcome, sire abbot,' the king he did say,
''Tis well thou'rt come back to keepe thy day;
For an if thou canst answer my questions three,
Thy life and thy living both saved shall be.

'And first, when thou seest me here in this stead,
With my crown of golde so fair on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,
Tell me to one penny what I am worth.'

'For thirty pence our Saviour was sold
Amonge the false Jewes, as I have bin told;
And twenty nine is the worth of thee,
For I thinke, thou art one penny worser than he.'

The king he laughed, and swore by St. Bittel,
'I did not think I had been worth so littel!
--Now secondly tell me, without any doubt,
How soone I may ride this whole world about.'

'You must rise with the sun, and ride with the same,
Until the next morning he riseth againe;
And then your grace need not make any doubt,
But in twenty-four hours you'll ride it about.'

The king he laughed, and swore by St. Jone,
'I did not think it could be gone so soone!
--Now from the third question thou must not shrinke,
But tell me here truly what I do thinke.'

'Yea, that I shall do, and make your grace merry:
You thinke I'm the abbot of Canterbùrye;
But I'm his poor shepheard, as plain you may see,
That am come to beg pardon for him and for me.'

The king he laughed, and swore by the masse,
'Ile make thee lord abbot this day in his place!'
'Now naye, my liege, be not in such speede,
For alacke I can neither write, ne reade.'

'Four nobles a weeke, then I will give thee,
For this merry jest thou hast showne unto mee;
And tell the old abbot when thou comest home,
Thou hast brought him a pardon from good king John.'

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