52  England New Bell-man:/ Ringing into all peoples ears Gods dreadful/ Judgements against this Land and Kingdom [Bodleian Wood 401 (159v-160r)]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: England New Bell-man

Economy - money Emotions - fear Environment - animals Environment - buildings Environment - rivers Environment - sea Environment - seasons Environment - skies/stars Environment - wonders Family - pregnancy/childbirth Morality - general Recreation - music Religion - Christ/God Religion - Devil(s) Religion - Judgement Day Religion - angels Religion - charity Religion - divine intervention Religion - faith Religion - heaven/hell Religion - prayer Religion - prophecy Religion - sin/repentance Society - criticism Violence - divine

Song History

This ballad probably began its life around 1580 (Simpson) under the title ‘A Bell-man for England’, and it was regularly reissued right through the seventeenth century (see Editions). Our featured edition shows how, during the 1650s, it was given a new title, and endowed with topical punch by the addition of a subtitle that connected the imminence of divine judgement with the ‘great Eclipse’ of 1652 and the ‘strange Effects’ that were expected to continue (the text of the song itself was little changed).

These specific references to the 1650s were retained in editions of the later seventeenth century, perhaps suggesting the on-going resonance of this turbulent decade in the minds of ballad-makers and their audiences. The fact that Judgement Day had not actually arrived appears to have had little effect on the song’s popularity.

After 1700, references to the 1650s were finally dropped from the subtitle and editions of the song seem to have become more rare. Despite this apparent decline in the song’s profile, a new version appeared towards the end of the century in A collection of carols, printed in Worcester. This reduced the text to roughly a third of its original length, and the last sixteen lines were new (these focused on the imminence of physical death and the need to prepare for judgement). Intriguingly, the concluding verse was modelled closely on lines that had appeared, two centuries earlier, in a different ballad entitled The belman's good morrow that shared its tune with England New Bell-man (Shirburn ballads and Rollins no. 183).

In the early twentieth century, folk-song collectors occasionally found examples of the ballad in Somerset and Herefordshire, by which date it was normally sung to a tune that is very similar to the one still used for the carol, ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’.  In 1911, Langton Brown wrote a letter to a fellow collector in which he transcribed a song that had previously been written down by his father during the 1840s, probably from a singer in either Gloucestershire or Herefordshire.

All of these versions display close affinities with the song in A collection of carols, though most of them reduce the length of the already shortened text still further. There are also several signs that oral transmission and the playfulness of memory had altered some of the lyrics. Langton Brown was puzzled, for example, by a version that replaced the word ‘destroy’ with the excellent alternative ‘bestrifle’. In the same example, the lines ‘And to your prayers speedily/ Do you yourselves betake’ become ‘Give ear unto our prayer/ And speed a life for take’. Another version has, ‘I’ll have you seek some prayers/ I’ll have you protect’. Perhaps the word ‘betake’ had become unfamiliar, leaving singers confused about the intent of these lines.

A curious verse about pregnant women, included in both the original seventeenth-century  ballad and in the later printed carol, was dropped by most of the folk-singers. It survived, however, in a version collected at Pembridge, Herefordshire, in the summer of 1909, and a comparison of the lines as they appear in the printed carol and the collected song is interesting:

‘Then woe be to that woman/ That big with child doth go,/ And to those silly nurses/ That do give suck also’ (printed carol).

 ‘It’s oh, unto the woman that big with child do go,/ Likewise their selling horses, as they give suck also’ (folksong).

It seems clear that, somewhere along the line, a singer had misremembered a thoroughly perplexing verse and come up with an equally mysterious alternative (see also Related texts for the origins of this particular passage).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the figure of the bell-man was a common feature of English cities (McDonald), and his appearance in the ballad certainly helps to explain the song’s success. The bell-man or town crier patrolled the streets at night, making announcements about lost property, missing persons, the time and the weather. He also watched out for fire and criminal activity while his co-parishioners slept (on the bell-man’s crime-fighting role, see Dekker). Each morning, it was his duty to wake the locals up so that they could begin their working day. The bell-man’s responsibility for their security and well-being was a significant one, reflected in the props that accompanied him in pictures of the period: a bell (to attract attention), a lantern (to light the way), a staff or halberd (for self-defence) and a dog (for companionship and confronting criminals).

The bell-man’s protective role also seems to have endowed him with a certain responsibility for the moral and spiritual guidance of local residents, despite his poverty and low status (bell-men were heavily dependent on donations). If literary representations of the bell-man are a reliable guide, he often made his announcements in homespun verses, and many of these included a pronounced religious element (see, for example, the examples given in the anonymous British bell-man and the works by S. M., Rowlands and Crouch).

In Restoration London, several bell-men composed and published annual broadsides presenting selections from their verses for distribution in the run-up to Christmas. The idea was that recipients would respond with generous donations to reward the bell-man for his year’s work. These broadsides are full of basic piety and it is clear that the authors considered themselves to be rather more than fire safety officers. Many of the verses offered prayers for particular purposes or were designed for particular dates in the religious calendar: ‘His Prayer for the Church, ‘On Christmas Day,  ‘On St. Andrew’s Day’ and so on (Ouldman).

Many of the verses in these Christmas songs urged parishioners to take seriously their moral and spiritual duties: ‘I do in love Admonish you,/ To bid your old Sins all adieu’ and ‘This blessed Day let every Nation Sing,/ Glory and Praise to our Eternal King’ (Ouldman). Just as the bell-man woke his neighbours from slumber, so he roused them from sin and urged them to worship God.  The strongly religious associations of bells large and small must have added significantly to this dimension of the bell-man’s work. Of course, the religious significance of the bell-man is probably exaggerated by the particular literary genre under discussion here –  broadsides that appealed for charity at Christmas – but it seems unlikely to have been entirely fabricated.

These traditions were probably well established by the date of our ballad’s first publication in the late sixteenth century. The authors were therefore working with an image that was already familiar, though the song may also have played some role in enhancing the connection between bell-men and religious duty. The ballad-makers drove this association home with new ferocity by concentrating exclusively on religion. Other bellman-publications noted, in addition, the importance of fire-fighting, the apprehension of criminals, and the weather but England New Bell-man sets all this to one side (the fires about which he sings are not the sort that can be put out with a bucket).

The hit ballad therefore transformed the bell-man’s familiar appeal for upright moral conduct into a national call for repentance in the face of imminent divine destruction (it was also rooted in the Bible: see Related texts). The song was, on the one hand, unprecedented and terrifying, but, on the other, perhaps curiously comforting because of the bellman’s existing associations with support and security.

This combination probably helps to explain the song’s remarkable popularity and longevity. To modern minds, it is certainly interesting that such a hard-hitting religious ballad should have sold so well. It probably originated in the intense puritanism of a minority of English people during the Elizabethan period, when to the zealous the end seemed nigh and the need for repentance was urgent. The extreme tension of the atmosphere may also be reflected in a note recorded in the Stationers’ Register when the song was first entered in 1586: ‘to be alowed leavinge out the ii staves that are crossed’. In other words, the official censor banned the publication of two particular verses, presumably because they were considered controversial (sadly, we do not know what these verses contained).

Despite these zealous origins, the ballad subsequently found a place and put down roots in wider English culture. It was one of very few ‘godly’ Elizabethan songs to negotiate this transition successfully (Watt and Green), a fact that makes its success particularly notable. Zealous Protestants of the early-modern period often felt disappointed in their efforts to engage the majority but here was a song that did just that. It appears that large numbers of ballad-consumers were eager to listen to vivid warnings of doom, provided that they were delivered by the familiar figure of the civic bell-man.

One of the folk-song versions of this ballad was recently recorded by the famous singer Shirley Collins, under the title, ‘Awake awake’. In an interview, Collins noted its Elizabethan date of composition and its re-emergence in early-twentieth-century Herefordshire. She then wondered, ‘How did that song three or four hundred years later end up there, and what path did it take, and why did it disappear for so long?’ Gaps in the record mean that these questions cannot be answered definitively but we should at least consider the possibility that the song never in fact subsided into silence. There is evidence of its existence in every century since the sixteenth.

Christopher Marsh


Anon, The British bell-man (1648).

Anon, The conceited bell-man: Or the sawcy servant... To the Tune of, the Midnight Ramble (undated).

Anon, A collection of carols. Part the second (Worcester, 1780-1800?), pp. 5-6.

Broadside ballads from the Bodleian Library: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

J. C., The merry bell-man’s out-cryes (1655).

The Shirburn ballads 1585-1616, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1907), p. 182.

Shirley Collins, Lodestar (Domino Recording Company, 2016), track 1.

Shirley Collins, interview with Stereogum (2016): https://www.stereogum.com/ (interviews).

Humphrey Crouch, The compleat bell-man. Being a pattern for all sorts of people (1650).

Thomas Dekker, The belman of London Bringing to light the most notorious villanies (1612).

Thomas Dekker, O per se O. Or a new cryer of Lanthorne and candle-light (1612).

English Broadside Ballad Archive: https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/

English Short Title Catalogue.

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), pp. 451-52 and 460-61.

S. M., The loyal garland of mirth and pastime (1685), A5v-A8v.

Devon McDonald, ‘Revising reputations: the bellmen of England and oral culture in the early modern period’ in Christa Mahalik (ed.), Merchants, barons, sellers and suits: the changing images of the businessman through literature (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 112-149.

Thomas Ouldman, A copy of verses, humbly presented to all his worthy masters and mistrisses in the town of Lambeth (1689). Ouldman issued similar broadsheets in other years, as did his fellow London bell-men Isaac Ragg, Thomas Bamber and George Fido.

Hyder E. Rollins, An analytical index to the ballad-entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967), nos. 181, 182 and 709 (see also 183).

Samuel Rowland, Heavens glory, seeke it (1628). This includes, at the end, a work entitled ‘The common cals, cryes and soundes of the bell-man’.

Claude M. Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), p. 533.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, https://www.vwml.org/ [search for Roud number 2111, V16671 and V48086. The collected songs discussed above have the following references: EML/3/21; CJS2/9/1447; and Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 4 (1910), pp. 7-10].

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 97 and 113-14.

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘O man in desperation’ (standard name)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost.

Versions and variations

This tune was written down in several variant forms and it is not always easy to determine which of these represent the melody itself and which are actually accompanying parts written for additional voices. Simpson and Ward have both attempted to find their ways through this thicket, and we defer to their discussion. To cut a long story short, our recording is based on a comparison and combination of the various relevant tunes found in two sources of the early seventeenth century: the commonplace book associated with the Shanne family in Yorkshire; and the virginals manuscript signed by William Watton. The notation found in these sources can also be studied through the helpful transcriptions provided by Simpson and Ward.

On surviving black-letter ballads, the melody is usually called ‘O man in desperation’, though we also find it under the titles, ‘The lady’s daughter [of Paris]’ and ‘Awake, awake, O England’ (from the first line of the ballad under discussion here). In the musical manuscripts discussed by Simpson and Ward, it is called ‘Wanton season’ (from the first line of a ballad that has only survived in a handwritten transcription).

The differing forms in which the melody was recorded reflect the flexible approach that must have been taken by singers of all sorts in this period. This was rarely articulated, so the instruction that Richard Shanne added to his transcription of this tune with an accompanying text is particularly valuable: ‘Yf the verses will not agree with the tune, ye may breake a semibreefe into two minnems, or otherwise, as ye think good’.

Echoes (an overview)

This tune was clearly very popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was nominated, for example, on no fewer than four of the song transcriptions preserved in the Shirburn manuscript (1585-1616). The melody was not often named on new ballads after c.1620, though further editions of England New Bell-man continued to appear. It seems that the tune was becoming strongly associated with this particular song; when the Ballad Partners block-registered many of their most successful songs in 1624, they apparently identified England New Bell-man as ‘O man in desperacion’, the title of its tune (a ballad that opened with this line had been registered in 1586 but it seems to have been out of circulation by the 1620s). More clearly, 'O man in desperation' was  considered a sober tune for serious subject matter, and all of the ballads listed below deal, in one way or another, with religion.

More specifically, the texts focus on judgement, and the tune must clearly have played its part in amplifying this resonance. There are warnings about the need to prepare for judgement day (England New Bell-man), positive visions of eternal bliss (The true description of the everlasting joys of Heaven) and godly role-models who prepare for the life hereafter (A rare Example of a vertuous Maid in Paris - issued with Ann Askew - and The confession of a paenitent Sinner). In other ballads, God intervenes in earthly affairs in order to ensure that traitors and criminals do not escape justice (A most joyfull Song and A most miraculous, strange, and trewe Ballad). Clearly, the consumer who heard this tune drifting across the market-place must have known that there was nothing frothy or frivolous about the ballad being sold.

The intertextual connections forged by the shared tune and concordant themes were stronger than the purely verbal affinities. There were, however, several links between the texts, including a number of instances in which similar or identical rhyming words are deployed at the same points in the melody. Compare, for example, these three half-verses from different songs:

‘When as the day of judgement,/ so grievous shall appear./ Repent therefore O England/ the day it draweth neere’ [England New Bell-man].

‘To whom the executed youth/ sayd Uncle, praye drawe neere./ I am not dead, although that hangd/ I, in your sight, appeare’ [A most miraculous, strange, and trewe Ballad].

‘For day and night in thee are one,/ no darkness may appear,/ O God, in Christ to us make known,/ these sights that are so clear’ [The true description].

Other ballads echo these lyrics by rhyming tear/dear, peer/fear and hear/bear, again at the same points in the tune. Several ballads also rhyme ‘day’ with various words, and the two songs that feature moralising bellmen include the following lines:

‘The works of every creature/ their thoughts and deeds I say,/ Shall follow them together,/ in that most dreadful day’ [England New Bell-man].

‘And let the greatest sorrow/ be for thy synnes, I say,/ God give yow all good morrowe,/ and send yow happy daye’ [The belman’s good morrow].

When considered alongside the thematic affinities, these echoes help to convey the impression that the songs to this tune, when considered as a series, were capable of drawing strength from one another.

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on the melody].

Songs and Summaries

England New Bell-man.  Ringing into all peoples ears God's dreadful Judgments against the Land and Kingdom... The tune is, O man in desperation (probably composed before 1580; F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63). Wood 401 (159). Religion – prophecy, sin/repentance, divine intervention, Christ/God, heaven and hell; Emotions – fear; Morality – general; Nature – wonders; Society – criticism; Violence - divine. England is urged to repent its sins in preparation for the dreadful day of vengeance.

The belman’s good morrow... To the Tune of A-wake, a-wake, O England (registered ?1586; copied by hand 1600-03). Shirburn ballads, XLIII. Religion – Christ/God, moral rules, heaven/hell, charity; Royalty – praise. Emotions – hope, excitement; Morality – general; Bodies – clothing. The bellman here sings out to warn everyone to prepare for the joyous day of Christ’s coming by forgiving enemies, supporting the poor and avoiding sinful behaviour.

A most joyfull Song, made in the behalfe of all her Majesties faithfull and loving Subjects... To the tune of: O man in desperation (Richard Jones, 1586). Society of Antiquaries, London, Broadsides 1.83; EBBA 36315. Politics – plots/rebellion, celebration, domestic, Royalist, treason; Crime – treason, prison, punishment; Death – execution; Emotions – horror, joy, relief; Religion – Catholic/Protestant, divine intervention; History – recent; Morality – political; Recreation – public festivity; Royalty – praise; Violence – punitive, political. This asks the participants in the recent Babington plot how they came to seek the death of England’s good queen, and it celebrates the fact that they have now been executed.

A rare Example of a vertuous Maid in Paris... Tune is, O man in desperation  [often issued with Ann Askew] (registered 1586; F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, and J. Clark, 1675-80). Euing 292; EBBA 31906. Religion – Catholic/Protestant, Bible, Christ/God Family – children/parents; Gender – femininity; Death – execution, godly end; Crime – heresy; Violence – punitive; Bodies – clothing, adornmnent; Places – European. A Parisian maiden, reported by her own mother for her Protestant beliefs, is executed by fire after urging others to ‘Imbrace Gods true Religion’.

The true description of the everlasting joys of Heaven. To the Tune of, O man in desperation (originally published as The zealous Querister’s songe of Yorke, before 1616; F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). 4o Rawl. 566(167). Religion – heaven/hell, Christ/God, Bible, body/soul; Environment – flowers/trees, landscape, buildings, garden; Emotions – hope, joy, wonder; Recreation – music; Places – extra-European; Royalty – praise. The singer presents a vision of the manifold joys of heaven and urges others to ‘Print well and bear this in your hearts’.

The confession of a paenitent Sinner. To the tune of, O man in desperation: or, Some men for suddaine joyes doe weepe (H. Gosson, 1601-40). Roxburghe 1.494-95; EBBA 30330. Religion – sin/repentance, heaven/hell, Christ/God, Bible; Emotions – hope; Environment – animals. A devout Christian confesses his or her sins and prays for eternal joy, trusting whole-heartedly in the mercy of God.

Take Time, while Time is: Being an Exhortation to all sorts or Sexes... To the Tune of, The Ladies Daughter of Paris (Henry Gosson, 1601-40). Roxburghe 1.398-99; EBBA 30273. Religion – Christ/God, heaven/hell; Death – general; Society – old/young, rich/poor, criticism, friendship; Emotions – anxiety, hope; Family – children/parents, inheritance; Gender – masculinity; Recreation – general; Royalty – praise. A warning that time is unpredictable, making it essential that all people live moral lives and prepare for what is to come.

A most miraculous, strange, and trewe Ballad, of a younge man of the age of 19 yeares, who was wrongfully hangd... To the Tune of O man in desperation (copied by hand, c. 1612). Shirburn ballads, XXXVIII. Religion – divine intervention, angels/devils; Crime – robbery/theft, false witness, punishment; Death – execution; Violence – punitive; Emotions – wonder; Employment – professions, alehouses/inns; Family – kin; Morality – general; News – convicts/crimes, sensational, international; Places – European, travel/transport; Society – old/young. A young man, travelling for his trade, is convicted of robbery and hanged, but God preserves his life by providing an invisible stool and, eventually, the real thief is brought to justice.

[Title missing]... For which fact, he, his wife, and the other woman, were executed at Lanceston... To the tune of the Ladies daughter (F. Coules, 1624). Pepys 1.360-61; EBBA 20169. Crime – murder, robbery/theft, punishment, arson; Death – unlawful killing, execution; Disability – physical; Economy – money, livings; Emotions – horror, wonder; Family – children/parents; Employment – begging; Religion – divine interevention, angels/devils, charity; Society – rich/poor; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Morality – general; News – convicts/crimes; Places – English; Recreation – tobacco. The family of a poor blind man are brutally murdered by thieves while he is out, and God has to intervene in order to ensure that the criminals are brought to justice.


The lost ballad that opened ‘O man in desperation’ and gave this tune its name was registered in 1586, though it had already been in existence for some time. The popularity of the melody is indicated by several references in other forms of literature during the late sixteenth century. In the first scene of George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale (1595), for example, three characters, lost in the woods, resolve to ‘sing out our ill fortune to the tune of O man in desperation’.

Similar indications that the tune might be used to express anguish are found in other sources. And Thomas Nash, busy attacking his literary enemy Gabriel Harvey in 1593, exclaimed, ‘O they would have trowld off bravely to the tune of O man in Desperation, and like Marenzos Madrigal, the mournefull note naturally have affected the miserable Dittie’ (The apologie of Pierce Pennilesse, 1592). Here is a rare and reinforcing insight regarding the contemporary reputation of the melody (and Nash also referred to it in several of his other works).

Songs that were published in collections also named the tune from time to time. See, for example, Thomas Deloney’s ‘How King Henry the first had his children drowned in the sea, as they came out of france’ in Strange Histories (1602). With different titles, England New Bell-man survived in later vernacular tradition but the tunes to which it was sung in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries do not appear to have been related to the original.

Christopher Marsh


Thomas Deloney, Strange Histories (1602), B3v-5v.

Thomas Nash, The apologie of Pierce Pennilesse (1592), B4r.

George Peele, The Old Wives Tale (1595), A3v.

Hyder E. Rollins, An Analytical Index to the Ballad-Entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967), nos. XXXX.

Shanne Family commonplace book (early seventeenth century), British Library MS Add. 38599, fos. 133v and 139v.

Claude Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 533-36.

John M. Ward, ‘Apropos The British broadside ballad and its music’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 20.1 (Spring 1967), pp. 60-63.

William Watton, virginals manuscript (early seventeenth century), British Library MS Add. 30846, fo. 22.

https://www.vwml.org/ (Vaughan Williams Memorial Library).

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Bellman with lamp

The purpose of this section is to provide evidence relating to  the career of the image under discussion, paying particular attention to the ‘reflections’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was chosen to illustrate more than one ballad. The list given below includes all ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections that feature this woodcut or a close variant (these are the two largest collections, including approximately 3300 sheets, in total). References to ballads from other collections occur only when the featured edition of the song under consideration here (or the featured edition of another song from our list) comes from such a source. Ballads from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type, and they also appear in colour where there is a link to another song in the database. Please note, however, that the editions of hit songs listed below are not necessarily those for which digital images are presented on this website. Cross-references to other examples of our featured woodcuts are also presented in bold. It is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).

Reflections (an overview)

Only a handful of ballads used this picture, but the existence of several different versions suggests either that it was more widely deployed than we can know or, more probably, that frequent editions of England[‘s] New Bell-Man motivated more than one printer to hold a woodblock in stock. The image appears on all surviving editions except for the first, and in some instances the bellman has a dog and a stick in addition to his bell and lamp.

He must have been strongly associated with this particular song, and it is therefore interesting that the ballad-makers who chose to deploy him on other sheets avoided the apocalyptic mood of England[‘s] New Bell-Man. One told the complex but ultimately optimistic tale of the poor girl who turns out to be the daughter of a nobleman (The Rarest BALLAD that ever was seen). Here, the picture of the town bell-man is to be interpreted as an image of a beggar on the streets. Other ballads moved even further from the image of the bellman as a harbinger of doom. He becomes, instead, a ‘sawcy’ public servant, a comedy foreigner or a dim-witted local officer. A Jest, Or, Master Constable, for example, features a local officer on his watch who is outwitted by a passer-by, and the picture of the bellman is included principally because his role, like that of the constable, was to walk the streets and watch over his neighbourhood.

We can only speculate about the disjuncture between the serious and frivolous incarnations of the bell-man. Were the ballad-makers simply including him on the lighter songs because he could stand in for a variety of local officers? And would consumers have accepted him in this spirit, given the potent and sober associations he brought with him? Or were the producers of the lightest ballads also making a joke by attempting to prick the bell-man’s apocalyptic bubble? We cannot be sure, though it is surely worthy of note that England[‘s] New Bell-Man became a hit while A Jest, Or, Master Constable apparently did not. Perhaps ballad-consumers preferred their fictional bellmen to terrify them than to make them laugh. Amazement trumped amusement, in this case at least.

Songs and summaries:

A Jest, Or, Master Constable (Francis Grove, 1623-62).  Roxburghe 3.208-09; EBBA 30853.  Humour – deceit/disguise, misunderstanding, mockery, verbal; Emotions – anger; Crime – prison; Employment – crafts/trades; Gender – masculinity, marriage;  Places – English; Recreation – alcohol.   An over-zealous constable on his watch challenges a passer-by to identify himself and is outwitted by a series of riddling answers (picture placement: he appears on the right, over the third column of text).

England New Bell-man.  Ringing into all peoples ears God's dreadful Judgments against the Land and Kingdom (F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63). Wood 401 (159). Religion – prophecy, sin/repentance, divine intervention, Christ/God, heaven and hell; Emotions – fear; Morality – general; Nature – wonders; Society – criticism; Violence - divine.  England is urged to repent its sins in preparation for the dreadful day of vengeance (picture placement: he appears over the third and fourth columns of text).

The Conceited Bell-man: Or, the Sawcy Servant (‘Printed for the Sawcy Bell-man’, 1670-1700?).  Pepys 4.262; EBBA 21923.  Employment – urban; Economy – livings; Society – rich/poor, urban life; Emotions – anger. This describes a disreputable bell-man who writes verses criticising his social superiors (picture placement: he turns towards a finely-dressed gallant who stands in a field with a building in the background).

THE French CRYER Newly arriv'd in ENGLAND (J. Millet, 1688-92).  Pepys 4.321; EBBA 21984.  Humour – extreme situations, satire; Employment – urban; Society – criticism, urban life; News - general.  People with a variety of bizarre problems or improbable news to tell are invited to inform the town crier (picture placement: he turns towards a well-dressed man and woman).

The Rarest BALLAD that ever was seen, Of the Blind BEGGER's DAUGHTER of Bednal-Green (A. Milbourn, 1695-1708). Roxburghe 1.10-11; EBBA 30014. Family – children/parents, inheritance; Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Disability – physical; Employment – begging, alehouses/inns; Bodies – looks/physique, clothing, injury, nourishment; Recreation – weddings, music, food, alcohol; Economy – hardship/poverty, money; Emotions – disdain, frustration, love, joy;  Places – English, travel/transport; Society – old/young, rich/poor.  A beautiful young woman is abandoned by most suitors when they realise that her father is a blind beggar, but one man remains devoted and he gets his reward when, at a sumptuous wedding, her true aristocratic ancestry is revealed (picture placement: he appears over the third column of text, and there are no other woodcuts).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

This ballad was connected indirectly with all sorts of other early-modern texts about bellmen, several of which are referred to in the Song history.  In terms of precise verbal content, however, England New Bell-man has its closest affinities with various passages in the Bible. Tessa Watt and Ian Green have both discussed the ballad but neither of them considers this point in detail. Indeed, Green is rather dismissive of the ballad’s Scriptural credentials, arguing that the author ‘did not stick closely to the text of either Daniel or Revelation’.

In fact, England New Bell-man is deeply rooted in the Bible, despite the absence of explicit citations (my references are to The Bible and Holy Scriptures, Geneva, 1561). At numerous points, the ballad’s warnings and imagery are directly related to Scriptural verses. Pithy terms such as ‘day of vengeance’ and ‘Crown of life’ appear both in the ballad and the Bible (see Luke 21:22 and Revelation 2:10, for example). Many other lines from the ballad clearly echo Scriptural verses, as the following paired quotations indicate:

‘The dead shall hear their voices’ (ballad, verse 5) and ‘all that are in the graves shall hear his voice’ (John 5.28).

‘And pray.../ That in the frozen winter/ you do not take your flight/ Nor that upon the Sabbath/ that peril do appear’ (ballad, verse 10) and  ‘pray that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath (day)’ (Mathew 24:20).

‘The worldly wise and prudent/ shall fall besides their wits,/ And wish the hills to cover them/ in these their frantick fits’ (ballad, verse 3) and  ‘The kings of the earth... said to the mountaines and rockes, Fal on us, and hide us from the presence of him that sitteth on the throne...’ (Revelation 6:15-16).

Of particular interest are the opening lines of the ballad’s ninth verse: ‘But wo unto that woman,/ which then with child shall go/ And to the silly Nurses,/ which do give suck also’. Before conducting this research, it always struck me as very peculiar that pregnant women and wet-nurses should have been picked out in the ballad for particular condemnation. The same lines seem to have been similarly confusing to certain singers of the ballad during the early twentieth century (see Song history). It is clear, however, that the verse is squarely based on lines that appear in Luke 21:23: ‘But wo (be) to them that be with childe, and to them that give sucke in these dayes’ (this warning also appears in Mark 13.17 and Matthew 24.19).

It seems that we, as listeners/readers, are expected to recognise the reference and sketch in the context for ourselves. Once upon a time, many consumers were perhaps able to do this and the ballad verse made sense as a warning to pregnant women and those with young children that it would be difficult for them to flee quickly on ‘The dreadful day of vengeance’ (of course, the implication that those who were not so encumbered could escape judgement simply by running away was unintended in Bible and ballad alike).

The ballad also included language and imagery that cannot be traced directly to the Bible, but even this was skilfully composed in a prophetic style that was obviously inspired by relevant passages in Scripture. Even when the lines were freely invented, the appeal to the Bible is unmistakable (see Cecconi). This, surely, was another reason for the song’s success, an observation that has implications for our understanding of majority religion during the early modern period. A critical mass of consumers clearly valued and cherished a ballad that sounded and read like a single-sheet summary of the Bible’s most terrifying warnings.

Christopher Marsh


Elisabetta Cecconi, ‘ “Old England of thy sins repent[...]”: Religious lexis and discourse in 17th century broadside ballads’, Rhesis: Linguistics and Philology  1.1 (2010), pp. 5-22.

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), pp. 451-52 and 460-61.

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 97 and 113-14.

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England New Bell-man:/ Ringing into all peoples ears Gods dreadful/ Judgements against this Land and Kingdom, Prognosticated/ by the great Eclipse of the Sun. March 29. 1652. the/ strange Effects to continue 1654, 1655, 1656. to the/ amazement of the whole world.

The tune is, O man in desperation.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


AWake awake O England,

sweet England now awake,

And to thy Prayers speedily

do thou thy self betake,

The Lord thy God is coming

within the Sky so clear,

Repent therefore O England

the day it draweth neere.


The dreadful day of vengeance

is shortly now at hand.

When fearful burning fire,

shall wast both Sea and Land

And all mens hearts shall fail them

to see such things appear.

Repent therefore, &c.


The worldly wise and prudent

shall fall besides their wits,

And wish the hills to cover them

in these their frantick fits

No succour help nor comfort,

for them shall then appear.

Repent therefore &c.


The Seas and rivers Running

shall roar in grievous wise,

The Beasts in Pastures feeding,

shall st[r]ain forth grievous cryes,

The Skyes shall flame with fire,

the Earth wall [‘shall’ in other editions] burn so clear,

Repent, &c.


The glorious holy Angels

shall then their trumpets sound,

The dead shall hear their voices,

as they lye in the ground.

Then all the graves shall open,

and dead men shall appear,

Before the Lord in judgement;

the day it draweth near.


The Divel will be ready then,

each creature to accuse,

And shew how in their lifetime

they did themselves abuse,

And every mans own conscience,

for witness shall appear.

Repent, &c.


The works of every creature

their thoughts and deeds I say,

Shall follow them together,

in that most dreadful day.

And no respect of persons

shall at that day appear.

Repent therefore O England,

the day it draweth neere.


But such as have done justly

shall wear the Crown of life

The wicked shall be damned,

to sorrow, pain and grief.

In boyling brands of brimstone,

with doleful heavy chear,

Repent, &c.


But wo unto that woman,

which then with child shall go

And to the silly Nurses,

which do give suck also.

When as the day of judgement,

so grievous shall appear.

Repent, &c.


And pray with tears most constant

unto the Lord of might,

That in the frozen winter,

you do not take your flight,

Nor that upon the Sabbath

that perill do appear.

Repent, &c.


Let all good Christian people,

repent therefore in time,

And from their hearts lamenting,

each former grievous crime.

Prepare themselves with gladness,

to watch when Christ shall come

The trumpet [‘trump’ in other editions] shall sound on sudden

and no man knows how soon.


For all things are fulfilled

which Christ before had told.

Small faith is now remaining,

and charity’s grown cold.

Great sights and wonders we have seen

within the Earth and Sky.

Repent, &c.


Why dost thou put thy confidence,

in strong and stately Towers,

Why takest thou such pleasure,

in building sumptuous Bowers

Rejoicing in thy Pastures

and Parks of follow [‘fallow’ in other editions] Deer

Repent, &c.


Why seeketh thou deceitfully,

to purchase treasure great,

or why dost thou through usury,

the bread of poor men eat.

Why doth thy life and living,

so filthily appear,

Repent, &c.


Wherefore let all good people,

upon their knees proceed,

I [‘In’ in other editions] making earnest prayers,

for never was more need

That God may spare these punishments

even for his mercy meer.

And give us grace to bear in mind,

the judgement day is neere.


London, Printed for F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List A (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

Shirburn ballads: no. VI.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Pavier and partners, 1624 (?as 'O man in desperacion'); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689.

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: 1586.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 9

No. of extant copies: 10

New tune-titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none established with certainty.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 12 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V16671).

POINTS: 2 + 30 + 5 + 18 + 10 + 0 + 0 + 1 = 66

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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