Lyrics are here.
In this ballad a Scottish prisoner convinces the teenage daughter of the English lord who is jailing him to help him escape by promising to marry her. Once they are across the Scottish border he tells her that he is already married with several children and calls her a whore for running off with him. She eventually goes home and is forgiven by her family because they know that the Scots are just too darn crafty.
It was a knight in Scotland borne
Follow, my love, come over the strand
Was taken prisoner, and left forlorne,
Even by the good Earle of Northumberland.
And as in sorrow thus he lay,
The Earle’s sweete daughter walkt that way,
And she the fair flower of Northumberland
I find it interesting that version A seems to be setting this up as a more typical romantic ballad. The other versions focus on how foolish it is of the heroine to believe him, but here the audience is taken for the emotional ride with her.
‘Faire Sir, how should I take pity on thee,
Thou being a foe to our countrey,
And I the faire flower of Northumberland’
‘Faire lady, I am no foe,’ he said,
‘Through thy sweet love here I was stay’d,
For thee, the faire flower of Northumberland.’
‘Why shouldst thou come here for love of me,
Having wife and children in thy countrie?
And I the fair flower of Northumberland.’
In other versions she goes into specifics about how many children he has, implying that she already knows something about who he is. However, in all versions he convinces her that this is not true and that he will marry her.
She steals gold and horses from her father and uses her father’s stolen ring to bribe the jailor to set the knight free. I can’t help but wonder how the jailor expects to profit by having his boss’s stolen ring. That’s probably the most identifiable thing she could have given him.
There are a few verses about how she doesn’t think she can ford the river:
‘Feare not the foord, faire lady,’ quoth he,
‘For long I cannot stay for thee,
And thou the faire flower of Northumberland.’
I believe in modern English that translates to, “Stop whining and do it already or I’m leaving!”
So she fords the river, gets wet and exclaims, “This I have done for love of thee.”
When they get to Edenborow (yes, that is how it is spelled in the text) he finally tells her that he is married with five children. He gives her the choice of going back home or becoming his mistress. He also says he is taking her horse and leaving her to go on foot. She begs him to kill her, but he refuses. Finally she meets two English knights who take her home. In this version there is nothing said of her parents reaction, but the ballad ends with a verse about how the Scots can’t be trusted.
In version B the Scottish knight hires someone to take her home instead of leaving her to her own devices.
But laith was he the lassie to tyne,
A may’s love whiles is easy won
He’s hired an old horse and feed an old man
To carry her back to Northumberland.
I like the idea that he feels partly responsible for her safety. I can just see him thinking, “Well, I can’t let this dumb kid get herself killed going back home.”
Her dad is pissed off, but her mom forgives her:
‘O daughter, O daughter, why was ye so bold,
Or why was your love so easy won,
To be a Scottish whore in your fifteen year old?
And you the fair flower of Northumberland!’
Her mother on her gently did smile,
O that her love was so easy won!
‘She is not the first that the Scots have beguilld,
But she’s still the fair flower of Northumberland.’
And they reassure her that she will have a good dowry so that she won’t have any trouble getting married.
‘She shanna want gold, she shanna want fee,
Altho that her love was so easy won,
She shanna want gold to gain a man wi,
And she’s still the fair flower of Northumberland.’
In the notes, Child says of version E that it is:
“… a traditional version from the English border, has unfortunately been improved by some literary pen.”
Yeah, I think I can see the difference:
To think of the prisoner her heart was sore,
Her love it was much, but her pity was more.
Child compares the ballad to a Danish story where a girl rides off with a knight who promises to marry and says that he is rich. When they get to their destination, he tests her by telling her that he is actually poor, banished, and married. She offers him gold and to be his servant, at which point he tells her he was just kidding and that he is rich and single after all. In some versions he is also the king of England.
Child also describes a Polish ballad in which a man convinces a rich girl to run away with him (and take some gold with her). After a while he tells her to either go home or kill herself, and she chooses to kill herself. Then there is a German version of the story where a king’s daughter runs off with a man who tells her that in his country there are seven mills that grind sugar, cinnamon, mace and cloves. When they get to his country he tells her that all he has is a green heath and she responds to this by instantly killing herself. There is no mention of him rejecting her, she would just rather die than be poor, apparently.
By comparison, the characters in “The Fair Flower of Northumberland” all act refreshingly reasonable. The knight does what he has to do to get home to his family, and sometimes he even takes steps to make sure the heroine gets home safely, the heroine’s motives are understandable, if not smart, and her parents are angry but ultimately forgive her. It’s nice to see characters in old ballads acting reasonably once in a while.
The next ballad is about jealousy, murder, and instruments made from dead bodies!