7  THE/ Sale of Esau's Birth-right;/ OR,/ The New Buckingham Ballad [Crawford 3537]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: The Sale of Esau's Birth-right

Emotions - anger Emotions - suspicion Employment - crafts/trades Gender - adultery/cuckoldry Humour - mockery Humour - verbal Morality - political Places - English Politics - controversy Politics - domestic Politics - elections Politics - parliament Religion - Catholic/Protestant

Song History

The Sale of Esau’s Birth-right, Or, The New Buckingham Ballad caused a sensation in the months between August 1679 and May 1680. It ran to at least eight editions and more than thirty copies have been located so far.

Historical Context

The Sale of Esau's Birth-right was 'privately printed' in 1679 in the wake of the second parliamentary elections of the year for the borough of Buckingham.

Buckingham’s borough elections epitomised the corrupt political systems of the period. The town's charter empowered twelve town burgesses and an appointed bailiff to elect the borough’s two MPs. The bailiff announced when and where to hold both borough and county elections and was responsible for the return of the votes. Buckingham’s burgesses were notoriously willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder for the town’s benefit (or their own). They often attempted, for example, to coerce parliamentary candidates into providing the money and resources to rebuild their town hall, which had burned down before the civil wars.

Competition was fierce between the pro- and anti-court candidates and there is little doubt that corrupt practises were adopted by both sides. For example, during the first election of the year, in February 1679, the High Steward of the borough, the duke of Buckingham, got the bailiff drunk, and persuaded him to call a snap poll of the twelve burgesses while the duke’s preferred anti-court candidate, Sir Peter Tyrell, was ahead of the pro-court candidate, Sir Richard Temple. The burgess obliged, and the duke secured a record of the result, which was immediately sent to the parliamentary elections office. Having sobered up the following day, the bailiff took a second poll of the burgesses and declared Sir Richard Temple elected. However, once the new parliament assembled, the electoral complaints committee decided in favour of the first return, and Tyrell retained the seat.

The king found his new parliament unmanageable and determined to exclude his avowedly Catholic brother from the succession. In July 1679, he dismissed the parliament and called for yet another election. In Buckingham, Sir Richard Temple was determined to regain his seat and had been preparing for his chance. As the ballad notes, he tried to buy votes by promising to rebuild the town hall (earning him the nickname ‘Timber’ Temple) and by lavishly entertaining the burgesses to treats of ‘beef and ale’. His treats and promises paid off and he was duly elected to one of Buckingham’s two borough seats with a clear majority of seven votes over his anti-court opponent, Thomas Hackett.

The sitting MP, Sir Peter Tyrrell, was in competition with another pro-court candidate Lord Latimer, son of Thomas Osborne, who was, at that time, imprisoned in the tower. Despite Latimer dancing with the burgesses' wives at an election ball, and promising that his own wife would visit them, Tyrell was expected to win. But, in the event, the two candidates were unexpectedly tied with six votes each, because one burgess, William Hartley, deliberately absented himself, and another, the barber, Henry Howard, was (possibly) bribed to change sides at the last minute. The Bailiff gave his casting vote for Latimer.

Content and Intent

THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right bitterly libelled both the successful pro-court candidates and the burgesses that had voted for them. It castigated their actions as political treason, because, like Esau in the title, they had sold their birthright for a bowl of pottage. Rather than stand up for ‘their King, Country and Protestant Religion’, they had elected men who would ‘le[a]d the way to Popery and sorrow’. As was noted in the ballad’s colophon, the town’s charter dated back to the time of Mary I. This was a gift to the satirist, given the heightened anti-Catholic sentiment at the time, which had been sparked by Titus Oates’ recent allegations of a 'Popish Plot' to kill the king in favour of his Catholic brother, the duke of York. 

Six verses, an aside in the colophon, and the woodcut of the illustrated edition were directed at the hapless barber Henry Howard, whose duplicity in the August poll gave the election to Latimer. He is described as a ‘lowsie perjured hireling’ and as ‘Poor Judas younger brother’. One line - ‘God damn and rot his Arm’ (v. 16) - explicitly repeats an oath Howard was reported to have made when promising to vote for Tyrell. The balladeer expressed delight that, since the election, Howard had 'faced a sad disaster’ (v.17). Having once ‘hob-nobbed with Lords’, he was now reduced to shaving ‘reverend owls’ and ‘madge owlet’ in the dark of a prison cell. The 'sad disaster' that Howard faced was a case of scandalam magnatum brought against him by the duke of Buckingham for words spoken during the election. Howard was thrown into prison while awaiting trial. (In 1680, he was fined £1000 and imprisoned until it was paid or Buckingham relented.).

The Sale of Esau’s Birth-right first appeared on 21 August 1679, during Buckinghamshire’s election for its county MPs. This election was tainted by a last-minute shift of the poll from Aylesbury to Buckingham, a clear attempt to prevent many county voters from voting. The attempt failed. Copies of the song were distributed to the hundreds of anti-court voters in the county that had ridden all night and descended on the town to elect two anti-court MPs. It was not only an entertaining libel, but also a way of keeping the corrupt circumstances of the borough election fresh in the county's minds, in anticipation of the possibility that, when the new parliament met in October, Tyrell would challenge his defeat before the electoral committee. In the event, however, parliament was not called to sit until the following year and no challenge was ever brought.

Publication and Popularity

Our featured edition of THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right is the only one known to have been published in a black-letter format, though it was not produced or distributed by a typical black-letter publisher. Rather, as with Brome's production of The Catholick Balladthe song's form and format were intended to heighten the ignominy of being ‘balladed’ for the MPs and Burgesses who were named and shamed. The song was probably intended primarily for an audience of gentlemen and tradesmen with sufficient property to vote in borough or county elections.

For several months after the election, the sound and rumour of THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right resonated among gossipy political elites in London and local tradesmen in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, and Oxfordshire. Meanwhile, Sir Richard Temple launched an investigation of all those involved in its dissemination. On 5 May he brought a case of libel against the Buckingham burgess, Henry Robinson, who had first brought the ballad to the town. Despite extensive investigations, which went on from 4 September 1679 until 30 January 1680, Temple was not able to discover either the author or printer of the ballad, and we can still only speculate on their identity today.


Decades after Temple’s case, Browne Willis, a renowned Buckinghamshire antiquary and MP, asserted that the radical theist, Charles Blount (one of the Buckinghamshire gentry) had authored THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right, on the grounds that Blount had written ‘bad books’. This attribution (though not the poor reasoning behind it) is widely cited in catalogues. However, Blount is not known to have published any other form of verse and although THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right demonstrates an intimate knowledge of libellous local gossip – of which Blount was very probably aware – the song was very ably written and skilfully set to its lively tunes (See Featured Tune History). We can only speculate regarding other possible authors, but two possible candidates resided in the county - see the discussion of A New Song.

Angela McShane


On the Buckinghamshire elections: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/constituencies/buckingham

See Angela McShane, The Ballad Trade and its Politics in Seventeenth Century Britain (Woodbridge, forthcoming), ch. 9, for an extended case study of The Sale of Esau.

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Featured Tune History

To the Tune of ‘Little Peggy Ramsey’ (standard name: Peggy Ramsey)

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 simple tune was almost always known as ‘Peggy Ramsey’, with variations such as ‘Peg of Ramsey’ and ‘Little Peggy Ramsey’. Our recording uses the version that appears in William Ballet’s manuscript lute book, which probably dates from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Other versions of the tune occur in the manuscript books of keyboard music originally owned by Clement Matchett and Robert Creighton, and in a manuscript medley of different songs by William Cobbold.

These examples of the tune were all recorded in the early seventeenth century and they are closely related, though there are sufficient differences to indicate the manner in which the same melody might shift and develop as it moved around in time and space. Indeed, Ward suggests that early-modern renditions of ‘Peggy Ramsey’ should probably be considered as descants that were improvised over a constant bass-line rather than examples of a specific melody (though such descants could develop into tunes, as happened with ‘Rogero’). ‘Peggy Ramsey’ was sometimes associated with dancing, and it is therefore surprising that John Playford did not include it in his famous printed collection of dance tunes.

Echoes (an overview)

‘Peggy Ramsey’ probably took its name from an Elizabethan song, now lost (it is unclear whether this bore any relation to the eighteenth-century song about ‘Bonny Peggy Ramsey’ that appears in Wit and Mirth). After 1600, the tune was nominated only rarely for the singing of ballads. Moreover, the three examples listed below are separated by several decades and it seems unlikely that many consumers of THE sale of Esau’s Birth-right, one of the hits of 1679, recalled the earlier ballads. This is probably why there do not appear to be any significant intertextual echoes linking our hit song with its predecessors.

The three songs are also quite different in their themes, and it is perhaps most likely that the tune was chosen for THE Sale of Esau’s Birth-right because of some combination of its playful mood, its simplicity, its association with dancing, and its circular structure (it does not return to the key note in the final line, so each verse leads back into the next one as if the tune has no ending). Each of these features suited it admirably to a mocking political song that was designed to catch on quickly. It is worth noting that ‘London Gentlewoman’, the tune named as an alternative for the singing of this ballad, was also strongly connected with dancing.

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

Songs and Summaries

An excellent merye songe of the freier and the boye. To the tune of Peggy Ramsey (no printed copy, but registered 1586 and copied out by hand, 1603-16). Shirburn Ballads, XXXVII. Family – children/parents; Humour – extreme situations/surprises, scatological; Recreation – music, dance, hunting; Religion – conjuration, clergy, Catholic/Protestant; Bodies – bodily functions, injury;  Morality – familial; Emotions – anger, confusion, contentment;  Employment – agrarian; Environment – animals, birds, flowers/trees; Society – old/young. Young Jack, mistreated by his step-mother and a friar, takes revenge on them with the aid of a magical, musical pipe given to him by a mysterious old man.

A merry Jest of John Tomson, and Jakaman his Wife: Whose Jealousie was justly, the cause of all their strife. To the Tune of Pegge of Ramsey (registered 1586; Edward Wright, 1611-56).  Roxburghe 1.254-55; EBBA 30181.  Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity, adultery/cuckoldry, singles; Bodies – clothing; Emotions – frustration; Morality – romantic/sexual; Employment – apprenticeship/service; Society - neighbours. A man is exasperated by the domineering jealousy of a wife who forces him to ‘stand like John hold my staffe’ and hide his face from public view.

THE Sale of Esau’s Birth-right; OR, The New Buckingham Ballad. To the Tune of the London Gentlewoman, or Little Peggy Ramsey (no imprint, 1680). Crawford 3537; EBBA 34366. Politics – controversy, domestic;  Religion – Catholic/Protestant; Emotions – anger, suspicion; Employment – crafts/trades; Gender – adultery/cuckoldry; Humour – mockery, verbal; Places – English. This controversial ballad ridicules those elected as members of Parliament for Buckingham in 1679, accusing them of self-seeking and of Catholic sympathies.


THE Sale of Esau’s Birth-right was also published in several white-letter editions, but ‘the tune of Peggy Ramsey’ does not seem to have been used for other songs in this more expensive format. Nor was it called for in song-books of the period. Literary commentary suggests that this was primarily a dance tune that had its heyday in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Thomas Nash, for example, named it in a list of melodies used for dancing on the village green (Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596). Other examples are cited by Simpson.

Christopher Marsh


William Ballet’s lute book, Trinity College Dublin, MS 408, p. 26 (transcript in Simpson).

Jeremy Barlow (ed.), The complete country dance tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master (1985).

William Cobbold, medley, in British Museum Additional MS. 18936, fo. 58v (transcript in Ward).

Robert Creighton’s virginal book, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Conservatoire Rés. 1186, fo. 122 (transcript in Simpson).

Clement Matchett’s virginal book, ed. Thurston Dart (1957), p. 10.

Thomas Nash, Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), T1r.

John Playford, The English dancing master (1651 and later editions).

Claude M. Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 570-71.

John M. Ward, ‘Apropos The British broadside ballad and its music’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 20.1 (Spring 1967), p. 65.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Barber shaving owl

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)

This image was clearly designed specifically for this cryptic political ballad, with its semi-coded references to those involved in the controversial Buckingham election of August 1679 (see Song history). The final column contains a reference to the ‘Barber’ who had been called upon to trim ‘A Rev’rend Owl his Master’ (the individuals concerned are identified at the bottom of the ballad).  The woodcut depicted this moment so precisely that it could not easily be used on other songs. We have searched the Pepys and Roxburghe ballad collections for other examples, but none are to be found. The only song listed below is therefore our featured edition, taken from the Crawford collection. There were also several white-letter editions of the ballad but these did not include woodcuts.

Songs and summaries:

THE Sale of Esau’s Birth-right; OR, The New Buckingham Ballad (no imprint, 1680). Crawford 3537; EBBA 34366. Politics – controversy, domestic;  Religion – Catholic/Protestant; Emotions – anger, suspicion; Employment – crafts/trades; Gender – adultery/cuckoldry; Humour – mockery, verbal; Places – English. This controversial ballad ridicules those elected as members of Parliament for Buckingham in 1679, accusing them of self-seeking and of Catholic sympathies (picture placement: the scene appears beneath the title, and there are no other woodcuts).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

THE Sale of Esau's Birth-right was sold as a single sheet but was also appended to a printed open letter entitled, A Mild but Searching Expostulatory Letter from the Poor and Plain Dealing Farmers of the Neighbouring Villages to the Men of Buckinghamshire (1679). In Sir Richard Temple's case, both these texts were deemed to be libels against the Buckingham Corporation.

For discussion of other related texts and manuscripts, see the extended case study in Angela McShane, The Ballad Trade and its Politics in Seventeenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, forthcoming), ch. 9.

Angela McShane

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THE/ Sale of Esau's Birth-right;/ OR,/ The New Buckingham Ballad,

To the Tune of the London Gentlewoman, or Little Peggy Ramsey.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


A Wondrous Tale I will relate;

The like was never told you,

Of English men that England hate,

The Town of Bucks has sold you.


[T]o serve in Parliament they chose

Two men I fear to name them;

For if I did, you would suppose

I told a Lye to shame them.


That Beef and Ale should yet prevail,

You need no longer wonder:

For men of wit, must still submit

To Fools of greater number.


The D___, the Pope, and Tyrauny,

Need never fear a Down=fall,

For Teige and Wakeman both would be

Elected for a Town=hall.


These Loyal men of Buckingham,

(True only to their Purses)

Would sell the Crown, t' enrich the Town,

And laugh at all your Curses.


When they have sin'd, and damn'd their Souls,

Or to the Devil gave them;

Their Friend the Pope, in him they hope,

Well knowing he can save them.


The Second Part, to the same Tune.


IF Sc___s would take off Oates's head,

He need not fear succeeding;

But send him down unto this Town,

He soon might see him bleeding.


Of Thirteen men there are but Six

Who do not merit Hemp well;

The other seven play their Tricks

For L___ and T___


The Father is a Reprobate,

And yet the Son's Elected:

The Gawdy Youth comes down in State,

And must not be rejected.


Our prating Knight doth owe his Call

To Timber, and his Lady;

Though one goes longer with Town=hall,

Then t'other with her Baby.


These men do to their choosing trudge,

With all the speed that can be,

And make the Son the Father's Judge,

To save great Tom of D___


The Bailiff is so mad a Spark,

(Though lives by Tanning Leather)

That for a Load of Temple's Bark

He'd Sacrifice his Father.


His Horns do shine, his Wife kept fine,

All men would blame him had he

Not made him stand, whose helping hand

Must make him be a Daddy.


He huffs and rants, and calls to Hall,

But will not give men warning:

When drunk o're night, he takes delight

To play the Rogue i' th' morning.


Next comes the Barber, who will do

Whatever you desire him;

He for a Groat, will cut your Throat,

A Lowsie perjur'd Hireling.


God damn and rot his Arm, he cries,

And swears like any Lover,

For to be true, to three in two,

Poor Judas younger Brother.


Of late he huff'd, and drank with Lords,

But since a sad Disaster

Hath summon'd him to Wash and Trim

A Rev'rend Owl his Master.


Another he hath kiss'd a hand,

Which puts him in a Rapture;

So have I known a Miss o' th' Town,

Adore the Fop that Clapt her.


Since kissing hands can so prevail,

There's no man need want Riches;

If they'l be kind, and come behind,

They're welcome to our Breeches.


Thus Buckingham hath led the way

To Popery and sorrow:

Those seven Knaves, who make us Slaves,

Would sell their God tomorrow.


A List of those who Voted for their King and Country, and Sir P.___ T.___

Mr. Rogers Draper,/ Mr. Brown Gent./ Mr. Mason Apothecary,/ Mr. Eversay Draper,/ Mr. Robinson Laceman,/ Mr. Walter Arnot Ironmonger.

Mr. William Hartly was absent at the Election, nor was there any need of his Company.


Those who Voted for the L___d L___, Sir Timber T___, and for their Town-hall.

George Dancer Tanner and Bayliff,/ Pellam Sandwell Maulster,/ _____ Stevens Maulster,/ Thomas Sheen Farmer,/ George Carter Baker/ Henry Hayward, Shaver in Ordinary to her Excellency Madge Owlet.

The Charter of this Town was given them by Queen Mary for their good Service in the propagation/ of Popery; Therefore (to give the Devil his due) they are but true to the old Cause.


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

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 8

No. of extant copies: 35

Appearances on publishers' lists: none.

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

3-yr periods that produced multiple editions: 1679-81 (8)

New tune titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: Barber shaving owl on featured edition.

Pre-1640 bonus: no.

POINTS: 16 + 35 + 0 + 0 + 48 + 0 + 5 + 0 = 104

[On this ballad, see also Angela McShane, Political Broadside Ballads of Seventeenth-Century England, no. 514X]


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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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