Tamworth and Drayton Bassett are both immortalised in the medieval ballad King Edward IV and the Tanner of Tamworth. The earliest surviving publication of this ballad dates from the sixteenth century.
The ballad, like others which survive, is important in painting a picture of our history, folklore, cultural identity and morals, as well as providing examples of how our ancestors entertained each other.
This post briefly summarises the history and form of the ballad before it focuses on and assesses the tale of King Edward IV and the Tanner of Tamworth. Two excerpts from the ballad are included to give a flavour of the work, Finally a list of references used as material for the post are cited to act as a starting point for anyone who wishes to carry out further research:
History and Form of the Ballad
Ballads are fairly short narrative poems usually in quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming abcb. The website of the Victoria and Albert Museum cites King Edward IV and a Tanner of Tamworth as one if their examples of a stanza in ballad style:
In summer time, when leaves grew green,
and birds were singing on every tree,
King Edward would a-hunting ride
some pastime for to see
The word ballad derives its name from medieval French dance songs or “ballares” (L: ballare, to dance), from which ‘ballet’ is also derived, as did the alternative rival form that became the French ballade. As a narrative song, their theme and function may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of storytelling that can be seen in poems such as Beowulf.
King Edward IV and the Tanner of Tamworth
The theme of mistaken identity
King Edward IV and the Tanner of Tamworth is an example of a medieval ballad where a man of high status (in this case a king) entertains himself at the expense of a local man whom he encounters whilst out hunting with his courtiers. The gentleman concerned is blissfully unaware of the identity of king and not only misleads him but is extremely impolite to him. Fortunately the king, who is entertained by their meeting, rewards him handsomely rather than punishes him for his insolence.
Tales of mistaken identity were a popular theme in ballads, folklore and poems of the time and chance meetings between king and commoner were a recurring theme in tales of Robin Hood.
The ballad was first found in the Child Ballad collection, number 273 and was licensed in 1564. Although surviving records indicate that it was first written down in 16th century, it is likely that it was from a much earlier oral tradition (Edward IV was the King of England from 4 March 1461 until 3 October 1470, and again from 11 April 1471 until his death in 1483). A number of different versions of the ballad also exist outside the Child collection.
A Summary of the Ballad, with Excerpts
The ballad is a lengthy one and the summary below contains two excerpts, from the beginning and the end of the work. Please note: No specific tune is listed on any of the ballads and it may have been sung to the tune, “In Summer time,” which, again, was also often set to Robin Hood ballads:
King Edward, while hunting, espies a tanner riding a mare with a cowhide for a saddle. He tells his men to stay back and goes to ask directions to the town of Drayton Bassett. The tanner offers wrong directions, but Edward knows them to be wrong;
IN summer time, when leaves grow greene,
And blossoms bedecke the tree,
King Edward wolde a hunting ryde,
Some pastime for to see.
With hawke and hounde he made him bowne,
With horne, and eke with bowe;
To Drayton Basset he tooke his waye,
With all his lordes a rowe.
And he had ridden ore dale and downe
By eight of clocke in the day,
When he was ware of a bold tannèr,
Come ryding along the waye.
A fayre russet coat the tanner had on
Fast buttoned under his chin,
And under him a good cow-hide,
And a mare of four shilling.[ 3]
“Nowe stand you still, my good lordes all,
Under the grene wood spraye;
And I will wend to yonder fellowe,
To weet what he will saye.
“God speede, God speede thee,” said our king.
“Thou art welcome,” Sir, sayd hee.
“The readyest waye to Drayton Basset
I praye thee to shewe to mee.”
“To Drayton Basset woldst thou goe,
Fro the place where thou dost stand?
The next payre of gallowes thou comest unto,
Turne in upon thy right hand.”
“That is an unreadye waye,” sayd our king,
“Thou doest but jest, I see
Nowe shewe me out the nearest waye,
And I pray thee wend with mee.”…
Edward then invites the tanner to dine with him in Drayton Bassett. The tanner responds that he has no need of charity; he has more pounds in his purse than the stranger has pence in his. Furthermore, he suspects the stranger of having stolen the lordly raiment he is wearing.
Edward asks the tanner for news. The tanner replies that he has heard nothing save that cowhides are in great demand. Edward then asks to switch horses with the tanner. The tanner replies that he’ll do the trade but only for a gold noble (80d). Edward, amused, gives him twenty groats (80d), which raises the tanner’s opinion of him a bit. The tanner hands over his mare, throws the cowhide over the king’s gilt saddle, and tries to ride home; but the cowhide spooks the king’s steed and it throws the tanner onto the ground.
The tanner indignantly demands his mare back. Edward, laughing, replies that he’ll do the trade but only for a gold noble. The tanner graciously hands Edward not only his original twenty groats but also twenty more, and invites him to share a drink.
Edward then summons his hunting party from over the hill. The tanner first takes them for a band of outlaws, and then (when he realizes Edward’s true identity) trembles in fear of royal punishment; but Edward instead thanks the tanner for his entertainment and for his hospitality, and bestows on him Plumpton Park with its three tenements, worth 300 pounds a year. The tanner, not to be outdone, tells Edward that if the king should ever visit his little shop in Tamworth, he can have his shoes re-leathered for free.
“A coller, a coller,” the tanner he sayd,
“I trowe it will breed sorrowe:
After a coller cometh a halter,
I trow I shall be hang’d to-morrowe.”
“Be not afraid, tanner,” said our king
“I tell thee, so mought I thee,
Lo here I make thee the best esquire
That is in the North countrie.[ 6]
“For Plumpton-parke I will give thee,
With tenements faire beside
‘Tis worth three hundred markes by the yeare,
To maintaine thy good cowe-hide.”
“Gramercye, my liege,” the tanner replyd,
“For the favour thou hast me showne;
If ever thou comest to merry Tamworth,
Neates leather shall clout thy shoen.”
References and Sources of Further Information
The ballad text is quoted from http://www.exclassics.com/percy/perc68.htm.
Visit the site to read the ballad in full and to learn about the source material.
To hear a reading of the ballad recorded by Tamworth’s Shoebox Theatre click here.
Images courtesy of Project Gutenberg, where you can read the ballad, and many others in A Book of Old Ballads, selected and with an introduction, by Beverley Nicholls: https://www.mirrorservice.org/sites/gutenberg.org/7/5/3/7535/7535-h/7535-h.htm#KING EDWARD IV AND THE TANNER OF TAMWORTH
Post written by Tina Williams February 2017