Over the last few months I have been privileged to give some lectures for Sovereign EducatioMary_Stuart_Queenn, who provide study days for A-level students.

The two most recent lectures were on the subject of ‘the King’s Great Matter’.  Sadly, there were no ballads involved, but at least I got to talk about Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and the break with Rome while they were still a hot topic, what with the BBC2 adaptation of Wolf Hall.

The first, though, was on Mary, Queen of Scots.  It was delivered last November to a large group of A-level students in Manchester.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself, especially as it gave me the chance to sing a few verses of a ballad about the Babington Plot!  As an undergraduate, I was taught that there was much to be learned from the portraiture of the Renaissance, so I decided to introduce the students to a painting or two while I was at it.

What struck me, though, while I was preparing the lecture, was the difference in tone of the Scottish and English broadside ballads.  As my doctoral research was based on English ballads, I had paid much less attention to those printed north of the border.  Comparing ballads about the various queens in the one island was quite an eye-opener.

The most vitriolic English ballads that I came across were written by Protestants during the reign of King Philip and Queen Mary.  They were xenophobic, certainly, but they were careful who they criticised.  Take, for example, T.E.’s A tragicall blast of the papisticall trompette for the maintenaunce of the Popes kingdome in Englande which was printed at the back of a letter from the serving man, John Bradford (The Copye of a letter, Wesel, 1556).   Mary I is only mentioned briefly, and then she is  only described as their ‘foe’.  T.E. lays the blame for the persecution on Philip, but there is little direct criticism of the Queen or her husband, the king.  We might remember, here, that the English tradition was to criticise not the monarch, but their advisors.

Contrast that with a Scottish ballad, Robert Sempill’s Ane deeclaratioun of the Lordis iust quarrell [A declaration of the Lords’ (or maybe Lord’s) just quarrel] which was published in Edinburgh in 1567 as a protest against Mary Queen of Scots’ marriage to Bothwell.  The marriage was a blow to Mary’s reputation, coming as it did hard on the heels of accusations that she had indulged in an adulterous relationship with the ill-fated David Rizzio and that she was complicit in the assassination of her late husband, lord Darnley.   It is tempting to envisage Sempill’s ballad being sung to a rollicking, probably minor, tune:

Than sen that bowdin bludy beist Bothwell,
Hes trayterously in myrk put downe our King:
His wyfe the Quene syne rauyssit to him sell,
In fylthie lust throw cullour of wedding.
Thocht sho be witcheit wald in ruttery ring,
The Nobillis sould nether of thir enduire,
That lowne to leif, nor hir to be his huire.

In modern English translation, it might go something rather like this:

Then afterwards that puffed up bloody beast Bothwell,
He traitorously in darkness put down our King :
His wife the Queen next ravished to himself,
In filthy lust through colour of wedding.
That she bewitched ruled in lusty reign,
The nobles should neither of them endure,
That rogue to trust, nor her to be his whore.

Banish any romantic notions about being ‘ravished’: Sempill’s ballad accused Bothwell, Mary’s husband, of murder and rape!  It is difficult to imagine a ballad quite like that being printed about Elizabeth I in England at the time, and it’s something I hope to look into more in the future.