53  The Dead Mans Song,/ Whose dwelling was neere unto Bassings Hall in London [Roxburghe 1.72-73]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: The Dead Mans Song

Bodies - health/sickness Death - illness Emotions - wonder Environment - animals Environment - flowers/trees Environment - wonders Family - children/parents Gender - marriage Recreation - music Recreation - sight-seeing Religion - Christ/God Religion - Devil(s) Religion - angels Religion - body/soul Religion - heaven/hell Religion - sin/repentance Society - neighbours Violence - diabolical Violence - punitive

Song History

This was one of early-modern England’s best-loved religious ballads. It was probably the most widely known combined vision of heaven and hell to circulate in the period, with the exception of the Bible. Editions were also published in the eighteenth century, and the song appeared in the 1810 edition of Thomas Evan’s collection, Old ballads. It did not, however, survive as a folksong.

The descriptions of heaven and hell reveal the powerful hold that medieval conceptions of the afterlife still held in post-Reformation England. There were potent precedents for many of the song’s key features: the manner in which divine messages are communicated to humanity through a vision delivered to a chosen believer; the graphic details of the punishments inflicted in hell, each one fitting a particular crime in cruelly inventive fashion; the attention paid to the traditional ‘seven deadly sins’; and the presence of a divine tour-guide who leads the way and offers explanations when necessary (see also Related texts).

The text, in combination with its woodcut pictures, is strongly reminiscent of the ‘doom’ paintings on church walls that had been white-washed by official order during the mid-sixteenth century, as part of Protestant efforts to eradicate ‘popish’ images. Of course, purgatory – the medieval holding chamber that stood between earth and heaven – makes no appearance in the ballad, but in most other respects there is little to distinguish it from pre-Reformation visions of the afterlife.

Several other features of the ballad may also help to account for its evident appeal to early-modern English people. The ballad-makers, for example, gave their highly traditional representation of heaven and hell a modern twist by locating the death-bed in contemporary London, ‘neere unto Basings Hall’. The value of a current and familiar setting is also suggested by the references to the early-modern culture of death (the passing bell and the winding sheet, for example) that were included in the opening verses. Throughout the account, the song also appeals to multiple senses, most notably sight, sound and smell. It has been remarked that hell is the ‘real focus’ of the ballad (Watt) but heaven too is richly characterised in terms of jewel-encrusted buildings, ‘music, mirth and melody’ and ‘the sweet’st and pleasant’st smell,/ That ever living creature felt’.

Ballad-makers are often considered to have been careless about details in their manic dash for cash. Occasionally, however, there is evidence of close attention to specifics. The earliest surviving edition of this ballad (c. 1624), for example, talks of the ‘treacherous flesh’ that is flayed from one group of unfortunate sinners in hell. Subsequent editions, however, replaced ‘treacherous’ with ‘lecherous’, a term far better suited to a ballad focusing on the seven deadly sins.


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

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

Thomas Evans, Old ballads, historical and narrative, 4 vols. (1810), vol. 1, pp. 297-305.

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), pp. 452 and 467.

Madden Collection, Garlands, vol. 1, no. 239, Cambridge University Library.

Peter Marshall, ‘The Reformation of hell? Protestant and Catholic infernalisms in England, c. 1560-1640’, Journal of ecclesiastical history 61.2 (April, 2010), pp. 279-92.

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. 495 and 2498.

Joseph Ritson, Ancient songs (1790), pp. 286-94.

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 111-12.

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘Flying Fame’ (standard name: Chevy Chase)

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 endeavored 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 most commonly known as either ‘Flying fame’ or ‘Chevy Chase’ and more occasionally as ‘Fair Rosamond’, ‘Black and yellow’ or ‘Lord Darley’. Beyond this, it presents a puzzle. ‘Chevy Chase’ was clearly one of the seventeenth century’s best-known pieces of music: many ballads called for it (eight of them appearing on our list of hits) and it was very frequently referred to in passing by a wide variety of literary commentators. It is therefore surprising that it was so rarely written down in musical notation. This may have been primarily because its perceived simplicity and tonal ambiguity rendered it unappealing to many musically-sophisticated composers.

Edward Lowe, an Oxford organist, was clearly an exception, and he provides the only written version from the seventeenth century. In Lowe’s transcription, the tune’s four short lines begin as if the key is G minor but they end as if in C major. This gives the tune a curious feel - circular, unending, modal - that seems to reveal an unusually clear dividing line between the tastes of the musically educated and those of the ballad-buying public at large. This is the earliest known version of the tune and it is used on our recording of The Dead Mans Song.

It is interesting that the melody was notated much more frequently in the eighteenth century, by which time it had been re-shaped by unknown hands so that it was more clearly and consistently in a single key (usually G). Some of these later versions have six beats in a bar, like the seventeenth-century example, but others smooth the tune out into quadruple time. Compare, for example, the versions in Wit and Mirth (1719-20) and John Kelly’s ballad-opera, The Plot (1735).

Echoes (an overview)

This was a remarkably popular tune, nominated on many ballads. It was associated, above all, with narratives that were set in the distant past. As the decades passed and the melody’s success mounted, it also came to be heard as a tune that was historical in its own right (one edition of [The] BELGICK BOAR was advertised as ‘a New SONG, to the Old Tune of Chevy-Chase’).

Within this potent association, there were several others, forming threads that can be traced through the ballads listed below. A number of the songs described great militaristic confrontations of the past and their often bloody outcomes. These included A Memorable song made vpon the vnhappy hunting in Chevy Chase, and it was not alone in drawing attention to acts of manly heroism. Other songs set confrontation not on the battlefield but within the drama of human relationships, telling stories of ungrateful children, disputed inheritances and cruel employers. In some of these songs, the heroic vibe is carried over from the battle-ballads. In A worthy example of a vertuous wife, for example, the bravery is not manly but womanly, an interesting and thought-provoking inversion.

Occasionally, the tune was deployed for comic effect: The Shepheard and the King managed the trick of appropriating the heavyweight historicism of the melody in order to amuse, and in [The Wanton W]ife of Bath the monumental clash is not between proud earls but between a scolding woman and the Biblical VIPs who refuse to allow her through the gates of heaven. There is a connection here with another group of more serious ballads, in which the larger-than-life element is supplied by divine intervention or angelic visitation. The Dead Mans Song is a leading example of this sub-genre, and it seems certain that the inherent drama of the tale was enhanced by the heroic sensationalism that the tune came to express through its gathering associations (see also The Worlds Wonder).  And in the last song on the list, [The] BELGICK BOAR, many of these associations – historical, heroic and providential – are arguably in play within this passionate and seemingly contemporary attack upon William III, the invading king.

Ballads set to this melody are particularly rich in intertextual references. In A pleasant History of a Gentleman, for example, the opening lines are very similar to those at the start of A most notable example of an ungracious Son. In The Dead Mans Song, the line, ‘With musick, mirth and melody’, recalls ‘There was great mirth and melody’ in A most excellent ballad of S. George. And the opening line of The Dead Mans Song - ‘Sore sick deare friends, long time I was’ – can be compared with ‘Upon a time sore sick she was’ near the start of [The Wanton W]ife of BATH (an almost identical line also appears in A pleasant History of a Gentleman).

In The Royal Patient Traveller, the opening line, ‘God have preserved our Royal king’, recalls ‘God prosper long our Noble king’ in A Memorable song made vpon the vnhappy hunting in Chevy Chase, and the next line, ‘the second of that name’, is identical to the corresponding line in The Lamentable Ballad of Fair Rosamond. Even more strikingly, [The] Belgick-Boar was clearly written with the famous song about the battle at Chevy Chase in mind, and there are verbal echoes throughout.

Several of the songs listed below open either with references to hunting, probably derived originally from  the potent Chevy Chase ballad, or with explicit and unusual references to a source-text for the ballad. An early and influential example, A most notable example of an ungracious Son begins, ‘In searching famous Chronicles,/ it was my chaunce to read’, and several other ballads adopted a similar opening gambit. Overall, it is clear that the songs set to this tune were tied together to a remarkable degree.

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

 Songs and Summaries

The Shepheard and the King, and of Gillian the Shepheards Wife, with Her Churlish answers: being full of mirth and merry pastime. To the Tune of flying fame (lregistered 1578; no imprint, 1624-56?). Pepys 1.76-77; EBBA 20272. Employment – agrarian, female/male, apprenticeship/service; Gender – marriage, masculinity, femininity; History – medieval; Humour – deceit/disguise, domestic/familial, extreme situations/surprises, misunderstanding, mockery; Royalty – praise; Society – rural life, rich/poor; Violence – interpersonal; Bodies – clothing, nourishment; Economy – hardship/prosperity, household, prices/wages; Environment – buildings; Politics – court, obedience, Royalist; Recreation – food, music; Places – travel/transport; Emotions – anger, confusion, anxiety, joy. King Alfred, in disguise, takes up employment and residence with a shepherd, and is roundly criticised by the woman of the house for burning a cake.

A Dolefull Ditty, or sorrowfull Sonet of the Lord Darly, sometime King of Scots... to be song to the tune of blacke and yellowe (registered ?1579 and 1586; Thomas Gosson, late sixteenth century?). Society of Antiquaries, London, Broadsides Cab Lib g, 1.58; EBBA 36304. Politics – court, controversy, domestic, plots; Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing; Violence – interpersonal; Emotions – sorrow; Gender – marraiage; Recreation – food, alcohol; Royalty – general. This tells the story of Lord Darnley, the English nobleman who married Mary, Queen of Scots, but was subsequently murdered after becoming embroiled in Scottish court politics.

A most notable example of an ungracious Son… To the Tune of, Lord Darley (registered 1586; no imprint, 1586-1624?). Britwell 18341; EBBA 32521. History – ancient/mythological; Family – children/parents; Economy – credit/debt, hardship/prosperity, money; Employment – professions; Crime – prison; Places – European, travel/transport; Recreation – reading/writing, games/sports, alcohol; Environment – animals, crops, buildings; Religion – sin/repentance, charity; Emotions – sorrow, despair, pride; Bodies – clothes, nourishment.  A dissolute son falls on hard times and is bailed out by his father, but when his father, later in life, comes to him for aid, he proves heartless and is consequently punished by God with a pie full of toads.

A Lamentable Ballad of Fair Rosamond, King Henry the Second's Concubine... The Tune is, flying fame (originally composed in the 1590s; W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1687-88). Pepys 1.498-99; EBBA 20235. Gender – adultery/cuckoldry, femininity, masculinity; History – medieval; Politics – court, domestic; Royalty – general; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – love, hatred; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Crime – murder, punishment; Death – unlawful killing; Places – English, European; Recreation – music, dance. Henry II does all that he can to protect his beloved concubine, Rosamond, from the jealous Queen Eleanor, but in the end there is no escape.

A worthy example of a vertuous wife, who fed her father with her own milk... To the tune of Flying Fame (registered 1596; E. W., 1611-56). Roxburghe 3.48-49; EBBA 30398. Family – children/parents, siblings; Gender – femininity, masculinity; History – ancient/mythological; Morality – familial; Crime – prison; Bodies – nourishment, health/sickness; Emotions – despair, love, joy; Places – European; Politics – court. In ancient Rome, an old man is imprisoned and starved by the angry emperor, but one of his daughters finds an ingenious method of keeping him alive.

A new Ballad of the most wonderfull and strange fall of Christ’s Church pinnacle in Norwitch, the which was shaken downe by a thunder-clap on the 29 April 1601... To THE TUNE of Flyinge fame (no printed copies have survived but the song was copied out by hand, c. 1600-03). Shirburn Ballads, XLVIII. Violence – divine; Emotions – fear, wonder; Environment – buildings, weather, wonders; Religion – divine intervention, sin/repentance, church; News – sensational; Places – English. This tells the dramatic story of a church steeple’s collapse following a lightning strike, and we are all warned to repent our sins with urgency.

The Noble Acts newly found, Of Arthur of the Table Round To the Tune of, Flying fame (registered 1603; F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). Roxburghe 3.25; EBBA 30381. Gender – masculinity; History – ancient/mythological,medieval; Violence – chivalric, interpersonal; Politics – domestic, court; Royalty – praise; Bodies – injury; Death – warfare; Employment – sailors/soldiers; Family – siblings. This tells the tale of Lancelot’s fierce fight with Tarquin and of his success in freeing sixty-four fellow knights.

A most excellent ballad of S. George for England and the kings daughter of AEgipt, whom he delivered from death; and how he slew a mighty dragon. The tune is flying fame (printed copies are later, but the song was copied out by hand, 1603-16). Shirburn Ballads, XXIII. History – ancient/mythological, romance, villainy; Death – warfare; Violence – chivalric; Gender – courtship, masculinity, femininity; Emotions – excitement; Nature – animals; Places – extra-European, English; Politics – court, foreign affairs; Religion – heathens/infidels; Employment – sailors/soldiers; Family – children/parents. This opens with a reference to Homer and the sack of Troy before presenting a narrative of St. George’s heroics and his romantic relationship with Sabrine, a princess from Egypt.

A new Song, shewing the crueltie of Gernutus a Jew... To the tune of, Blacke and Yellow (T. P., 1603-25). Pepys 1.144-45; EBBA 20063. Economy – credit/debt, money, trade; Emotions – greed, horror; Religion – Judaism, charity; Employment – professions; Bodies – injury; History – recent; Morality – social/economic, general; Places – European; Society – friends; Violence – interpersonal. This tells the famous story of the Jewish usurer in Venice who demanded a pound of flesh when a merchant failed to repay a loan but was outwitted in the nick of time by a cunning judge.

A new Ballad, intituled, The Battell of Agen-Court, in France, betweene the English-men and Frenchmen. To the tune of, When flying Fame (S. W., 1615-35). Pepys 1.90-91; EBBA 20278. Death – warfare; Politics – foreign affairs; Royalty – praise; Violence – between states; Employment – sailors/soldiers; Gender – masculinity; History – medieval; Emotions – disdain, excitement; Bodies – physique, looks; Places – European, nationalities. This tells the story of the king’s famous victory at Agincourt against numerically superior French opposition.

The Worlds Wonder. Or, A strange and miraculous work of Gods providence… To the Tune of, Chevy Chase ([Francis] Grove, 1623-62). Euing 401; EBBA 32038. Religion – prayer, divine intervention, Bible, Christ/God, faith; Family – children/parents; Gender – femininity; Bodies – nourishment; Society – criticism; Economy – hardship, household; Morality – social/economic; Crime – robbery/theft; Places – English.  A poor widow prays to God and is miraculously enabled to keep her seven children alive for seven weeks on a single loaf of (burnt) bread.

THE DEAD MANS SONG, Who[se] dwelling was near Basing-hall in London. To the Tune of, Flying Fame (registered 1624 and possibly 1561-62; no imprint, 1624-56?). Euing 73; EBBA 31756. Religion – heaven/hell, sin/repentance, body/soul, angels/devils, Christ/God, Death – illness; Bodies – health/sickness; Emotions – wonder; Nature – animals, flowers/trees, wonders; Recreation – music, sight-seeing; Society – neighbours; Violence – diabolical, punitive; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage.  A seriously sick man is shown a vision of heaven and hell before regaining consciousness and telling his family and neighbours of the wonders he has witnessed.  

A Memorable song made vpon the vnhappy hunting in Chevy Chase between the Earle Pea[rcy] of England and the Earle Douglas of Scotland to the tune of Flying fame (registered 1624 but probably  composed much earlier; no imprint, 1624-56?). Manchester Central Library Blackletter Ballads BR f 821.04 B49; EBBA 36060. History – medieval; Politics – domestic, power; Gender – masculinity; Bodies – injury; Violence – between states, chivalric; Death – warfare; Recreation – hunting; Emotions – excitement, pride; Employment – sailors/soldiers; Environment – animals; Places – English, Scottish, travel/transport; Royalty – general. An exceptionally famous song in which two great earls come to savage blows in Chevy Chase, each backed by their entourages.  

An excellent Song, called, The Shooe-makers travell. To the tune of, Flying Fame (registered 1624; Edward Wright, 1624-56?).  Wood 401 (69). Society – criticism, friendship, rich/poor; Places – English, travel/transport; Morality – social/economic, general; Religion – sin/repentance, charity, church, clergy, Christ/God, prayer; Recreation – fashions, general; Emotions – despair, hope; Employment – professions; Crime – general; Bodies – clothing. A shoemaker travels the country, drawing attention to the sins of the English and the urgent need for repentance.

[The Wanton W]ife of Bath. [To the Tune of, Flying Fame (Francis Coles, 1624-80). Euing 374; EBBA 31985. Religion – heaven/hell, sin/repentance, faith, prayer, Bible, body/soul, Christ/God, Humour – extreme situation/surprises; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – anger; Gender – femininity, marriage; Death – old age. The Wife of Bath approaches the gates of heaven and lambasts a series of Biblical superstars until, finally, Christ appears and recognises her repentance as genuine, despite all the scolding.  

The lamentable fall of Queen Elenor, who for her Pride and wickedness by Gods judgements sunk into the ground at Charing-Cross, and rose at Queen hive. To the tune of, Gentle and Courteous (composed before 1625; F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63). Euing 184; EBBA 31939. History – medieval; Royalty – criticism; Death – unlawful killing, result of immorality; Religion – divine intervention; Bodies – clothing, looks/physique, adornment, nourishment; Crime – murder; Violence – interpersonal; Politics – domestic, controversy, power, court; Recreation – fashions, food, alcohol; Emotions – hatred, horror, wonder; Gender – femininity; Family – pregnancy/childbirth; Morality – general; Environment – landscape; Places – English, European, nationalities; Society – urban life. This describes the strange demise of Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I, who suffered at God’s hands after a lifetime spent forcing foreign fashions upon the English and victimising perfectly innocent subjects.

The life and death of M. Geo: Sands... To the tune of Flying Fame (F. Couls, 1626?). Pepys 1.128-29; EBBA 20055. Crime – murder, robbery/theft, rape; Death – execution, unlawful killing, result of immorality; Gender – masculinity, sexual violence; Violence – interpersonal, sexual; Family – children/parents; Bodies – injury; Morality – social/economic, romantic/sexual; News – convicts/crimes; Places – English; Society - old/young; Religion – sin/repentance, Christ/God, prayer. This tells the terrible tale of criminal, executed in 1626 following a life of robbery, murder and rape.

A new ballad, intituled, A warning to Youth, shewing the lewd life of a Marchants Sonne of London… To the tune of Lord Darley (Assignes of Thomas Symcocke, 1628-31). Roxburghe 1.447; EBBA 30301. Family – children/parents, pregnancy/childbirth, inheritance; Gender – masculinity, sex, sexual violence, cross-dressing; Crime – rape; Death – suicide, result of immorality, tragedy, providential; Violence – interpersonal, sexual; Recreation – alcohol, fashions; Bodies – physique/looks, clothing, health/sickness, adornment; Emotions – despair, longing, horror; Religion – angels/devils, Christ/God, divine intervention, sin/repentance; Morality – romantic/sexual, social/economic; Employment – apprenticeship/service, professions; Economy – money; Places – European, travel/transport; History – medieval, villainy; Royalty – general. A wealthy merchant’s son comes into his inheritance and embarks on a life of lechery, during which he rapes a young woman and is punished by God for his many sins.

A pleasant History of a Gentleman in Thracia, which had foure Sonnes, and three of them none of his own… To the tune of, Chevy Chace (registered 1633; H. G., 1633-40?). Roxburghe 1.300-01; EBBA 30209. Family – children/parents, siblings; Gender – marriage, adultery/cuckoldry, femininity, masculinity; History – ancient/mythological; Morality – familial; Bodies – health/sickness; Death – illness, old age; Emotions – sorrow, confusion; Places – European; Religion – divine intervention.  The wife of a wealthy man dies, after confessing to her husband that only one of their four sons is biologically his own, and, after he follows her to the grave, sage counsellors devise a sophisticated test that identifies the true heir.

Strange and true Newes of an Ocean of Flies dropping out of a Cloud, upon the Towne of Bodnam in Cornwall. To the tune of Cheevy Chase (‘Printed in the Yeare of Miracles. 1647’). Thomason Tracts 669.f.11[52]. Emotions – wonder, fear; Environment – animals, wonders, weather, flowers/trees; Politics – domestic, controversy, Royalist, plots, war; Religion – divine intervention, sin/repentance; Royalty – praise; Society – criticism; News – domestic, sensational; Places – English. This describes a strange plague of flies in Cornwall, interpreting the wonder as evidence of God’s anger at the people of England for rebelling against their lawful king.

The Spanish Virgin; Or, The Effects of Jealousie… To the Tune of, Chievy Chase; Or, Aim not too high (W. Thackeray, 1664-92). Pepys 2.143; EBBA 20761. Gender – marriage, femininity, adultery/cuckoldry; Bodies – health/sickness; Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing; Violence – interpersonal; Morality – familial, romantic/sexual; Emotions – anger, hatred, sorrow; Employment – apprenticeship/service, female/male; Places – European, nationalities. A jealous mistress, believing wrongly that her waiting woman is having sex with her husband, imprisons the young virgin in a dungeon until the adders and toads that live there have killed her.

Of the faithful Friendship that lasted between two faithful Friends. To the Tune of, Flying Fame (no imprint, mid-seventeenth century?). Roxburghe 1.503; EBBA 30339. Society – friendship; History – ancient/mythological; Bodies – looks/physique; Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing; Violence – interpersonal; Emotions – love; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage, masculinity; History – ancient/mythological; Places – European, travel/transport. A story from the classical age in which Gancelo allows Alphonso to marry the woman they both love, and Alphonso returns the favour by protecting his dear friend from a murder charge.

The Royal Patient Traveller, OR, The wonderful Escapes of His Sacred Majesty King Charles the Second from Worcester-fight… To the tune of, Chivy Chase, Or, God prosper long our Noble King (‘Printed for the Author’, 1660). Wood  401 (171). Politics – Royalist, domestic, obedience, controversy; Royalty – incognito, praise, authority; Employment – apprenticeship/ service; Bodies – clothing, physique/looks; Emotions – anxiety, excitement, joy; Humour – deceit/disguise, extreme situations/surprises; Places – English, travel/transport. This describes the king’s efforts, aided by trusted individuals, to escape from his enemies following the Battle of Worcester.

Here is a true and perfect Relation from the Faulcon at the Banke-side; of the strange and wonderful aperition of one Mr. Powel a Baker lately deceased… The tune of, Chevy Chase (F. Coles, T. Vere, and William Gilbertson, 1661). Wood 401 (183). Religion – ghosts/spirits, Bible; conjuration; Death – general; Emotions – fear; Employment – crafts/trades, apprenticeship/service; News – sensational. The ghost of a dead man returns to haunt his former house and is only pacified by the intervention of ‘Learned men of Art’ (also called ‘Conjurers’).

Terrible news from BRAINFORD: or, A perfect and true Relation of one Thompson a Waterman… To the Tune of, Chievy Chase (F. Coles, M. Wright, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661). Wood 401 (181). Recreation – alcohol, good fellowship, hospitality; Violence – diabolical; Religion – angels/devils, prayer, body/soul; Death – result of immorality;  Gender – masculinity; Morality – general; Emotions – fear, confusion; Employment – alehouses/inns, crafts/trades; News – sensational; Places – English. An inebriated waterman slumps dead on the table after drinking an ill-advised health to the Devil, and the shock experienced by witnesses intensifies further when Satan appears in person.

The KING and the BISHOP. OR, Unlearned Men, hard matters out can find, When Learned Bishops, Princes eyes do blind. To the Tune of, Chevy-Chase (F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). Roxburghe 3.170-71; EBBA 30471. History – medieval; Politics – court, power, obedience; Religion – clergy, Catholic/Protestant; Royalty – authority; Humour – deceit/disguise, verbal, extreme situations/surprises; Family – siblings; Employment – agrarian, professions; Bodies – clothing; Emotions – fear, joy; Places – travel/transport. A playful king tells a terrified bishop he must answer three riddles to avoid execution, and the bishop gives up hope until his brother, a mere shepherd, comes skilfully to his rescue.

[Saint BERNARD'S Vision. (A brief Discourse Dialogue-wise) between the Soul and body of a Damned Man newly Deceased... To the Tune of, Flying Fame (F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). Euing 317; EBBA 31966. NB This song was usually set to the tune of ‘Fortune my Foe’, and its metre makes it unsuitable for the ‘Flying Fame’ melody].

The Unfortunate Forrester, Or, Fair Elener's Tragedy… Tune is, Chevy Chase (W. Thackeray, T. Passenger, and W. Whitwood, 1666-79). Pepys 4.48; EBBA 21714. Gender  - courtship; Emotions – love, despair; Family – children/parents; Death – suicide, heartbreak; History – medieval; Violence – self-inflicted; Morality – familial; Recreation – hunting; Environment – animals. Young Lord Thomas loves Lady Eleanor, but when his mother insists that he marry another a tragic ending is guaranteed.  

The Patient Wife betrayed; OR, The Lady Elizabeths Tragedy... To the Tune of, Chevy Chase, or The Lady Izabells Tragedy (J. Clark, 1666-86). Euing 289; EBBA 31903.  Gender – marriage, adultery/cuckoldry, femininity, masculinity; History – ancient/mythological; Morality – romantic/sexual; Crime – murder, punishment; Death – unlawful killing, execution, ghostly abduction; Religion – ghosts/spirits; Violence – interpersonal, domestic, punitive; Emotions – love, hatred; Environment – flowers/trees, landscape; Places – extra-European. A Turkish knight and his harlot plot to kill his loving wife, but she returns as a ghost and, finally, justice is done.

Bloudy news from Germany or The peoples misery by famine… Tune of, Chievy Chase (Philip Brooksby, 1670-96). Roxburghe 2.38-39; EBBA 30183. Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing, result of immorality; Economy – hardship/poverty; Morality – social/economic; Religion – divine intervention; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Bodies – nourishment; Emotions – disdain; Employment – apprenticeship/service; History – recent, medieval; Environment – buildings; Places – European. This tells a historical story about a German nobleman (also an archbishop) who, in time of famine, compared the local poor to rats and burned many of them alive in a barn, but God avenged them all by plaguing the noble’s house with vermin and bringing about his painful end.

The Lady Isabella's Tragedy, or, the Step mothers cruelty… To the Tune of, Fair Rosamond, Or, Chivy Chase (‘Printed for E. A. and are to be sold by F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, and J. Clarke, 1675-80). Wood E25 (54). Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing, execution; Violence – interpersonal; Family – children/parents, inheritance; Gender – femininity, masculinity; Morality – familial; Emotions – hatred, anger, sorrow; Recreation – food; Employment – crafts/trades. A beautiful young lady is cruelly murdered by her jealous step-mother and the household’s master-cook, but an honest scullion boy reveals the truth and both killers are executed – the woman is burnt at the stake and the man is boiled in oil.

[The] BELGICK BOAR, To the TUNE of Chivy-Chase (no publisher named, 1695). Crawford 429; EBBA 32786. Politics – controversy, domestic, foreign affairs, Royalist, obedience; Emotions – anger; Royalty – criticism, praise; Family – children/parents, kin; Economy – hardship/ prosperity, taxation; Employment – crafts/trades; Places – English, European. A fierce critique of William’s invasion of England, declaring loyalty to the true king, James, and castigating all those who contributed to his downfall and the disastrous consequences that have followed.


Regular literary references to the tune demonstrate its ubiquity during the seventeenth century, though it is often clear that melody’s popularity was being gently mocked rather than merely noted. A letter published in Charles Gildon’s The post-boy rob’d of his mail (1692) argues that the best way to spread news across the nation is to set a ballad to ‘the celebrated Tune of Chevy Chase’. In The Married mens feast (1671), a celebratory meal for strong husbands is carried in to the sound of ‘six Trumpeters playing the tune of Chevy Chase, a very martial tune’. And a prognostication of 1683 entitled Poor Robin notes that English plough-boys frequently ‘whistle Chevy-chase’ to their working animals.

The melody was also nominated in many published collections of songs, where it was usually connected with one or more of the themes identified above. See, for example: ‘A Princely Song made of the Red Rose and the White’ in Richard Johnson’s Crowne garland (1612); ‘Zeale over-heated: A Relation of a lamentable fire’ in John Taylor’s Three-fold discourse betweene three neighbours (1642); and ‘A Carol for Saint Johns day’ in Good and true, fresh and new Christmas carols (1642).

The melody was used sparingly for white-letter ballads in the seventeenth century, perhaps suggesting again its relative lack of credibility in sophisticated circles (but see ‘Bloody News from CHELMSFORD’, 1663, and ‘The New Catholick Ballad’, 1681). It remained a potent force within balladry, however, and was nominated on ballads of all sorts and in a number of ballad-operas during the eighteenth century.


Charles Gildon, The post-boy rob’d of his mail (1692), p. 142.

Good and true, fresh and new Christmas carols (1642), A5v-6v.

Richard Johnson, Crowne garland (1612), A2r-6r.

John Kelly, The Plot (1735), p. 12.

Edward Lowe, music manuscript, Edinburgh University Library, MS Dc.1.69, fo. 113 (transcription in Simpson, p. 97).

The Married mens feast (1671), p. 4.

Poor Robin, 1683 A Prognostication (1683), C3r.

Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 96-101.

John Taylor, Three-fold discourse betweene three neighbours (1642), A4r-v.

Wit and Mirth: OR Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-20), vol. 4, pp 1 and 289.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Jaws of Hell

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 very traditional image appeared on most surviving editions of The Dead Mans Song, though the earliest extant copy has no woodcuts. All surviving versions seem to have been produced from the same woodblock. The image has not, however, been found on any other ballads in the two largest collections. The only song listed below is therefore our featured edition. The picture is directly relevant to this particular text, which describes visions of heaven and hell, and it may have been a key ingredient in the song’s success. Some of the other images on the ballad were changed from edition to edition, but this one clearly stuck, and consumers may have come to perceive it as tied specifically to this song. English people could no longer look to the chancel wall in church for motivating images of the saved and the damned, but they could find exactly what they needed on this hit ballad.

Songs and summaries

The Dead Mans Song, Whose dwelling was neere unto Basings Hall in London (F. Coules, 1624-44). Roxburghe 1.72-73; EBBA 30050. Religion – heaven/hell, angels/devils, body/soul, sin/repentance; Emotions – joy, fear, wonder; Morality – general; Environment – flowers/trees, buildings, wonders;  Bodies – health/sickness, looks/physique, nourishment, injury; Violence – punitive; Society – friendship, neighbours; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage; Recreation – music, sight-seeing; News – sensational. A man passes out for five hours, during which he is shown visions of heaven and hell by an angelic young man (picture placement: it appears beneath the title, to the right of a more encouraging image of Christ in heaven, surrounded by the blessed).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

Ian Green has remarked, with some justification, that this ballad is ‘more reminiscent of a medieval doom-painting than a scripturally inspired utterance’. We should not, however, overlook the possibility that the Book of Revelation was an important source for the ballad-makers. During a recent undergraduate seminar, a student remarked to me that the song reminded her strongly of Revelation, chapter 21, and the two texts do indeed share significant features (I am grateful to Emma Luke for her insight). In Revelation, John is appointed to bear witness to the vision he receives, rather like the ‘dead man’ in the ballad. Both men are guided by a representative of God. In the two descriptions of hell, there are affinities between the Bible’s ‘bottomlesse pit’ and the ballad’s ‘cole-black den’.

Something similar can be said of heaven, represented in both sources as a city filled with extraordinary light and decorated with gold and precious stones. It might also be noted that purgatory, a feature of all comparable late-medieval accounts, is missing in both the Book of Revelation and The Dead Mans Song. Of course, there may also have been many intermediate sources for our song but, given that the makers of religious ballads often did consult the Bible during the composition process, we cannot rule out the possibility that this also happened here (for comparison, see: An Excellent Ballad, intituled, The Constancy of Susanna; An Hundred Godly Lessons; A new Ditty, shewing the wonderfull Miracles of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; and A Pleasant Ballad of Tobias).

It is difficult to identify other clearly related sources because there are so many possibilities. Ideas about heaven and hell must have circulated so widely and in so many different ways, many of them non-textual, that it is often impossible to pinpoint the influence of one written document over another. All of the texts listed below include descriptions of heaven and/or hell but most of them were probably linked only indirectly to the ballad (see Lyndsay, Colville, Milton, and the anonymous works entitled The shephardes kalendar and The most wonderfull and true storie). Those who hear or read the song today may find that the first text to spring to mind is Dante’s Divine comedy but the work was not published in English until the early nineteenth century and it therefore seems unlikely that it was well known to our ballad-makers.

One medieval text deserves slightly fuller consideration. The ecclesiastical history by the Venerable Bede was originally written in c. 731 and, unlike Dante’s great work, was translated and published fairly regularly in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (Stapleton’s translation was first issued in 1565). It includes a story about a man from Northumbria who is shown a vision of the afterlife before returning to his wife and family. It shares a surprising number of details with The Dead Mans Song: the vision occurs during a period of temporary death, rather than during a dream; the figure who serves as a guide to heaven and hell is unnamed; the dead man’s return to life causes alarm among his neighbours; Bede’s vision of heaven includes a ‘faire brode field’ with ‘fresh florishing floures’ and the ballad describes a ‘lovelie green,/ where pleasant flower sprang’; and in Bede’s heaven, the light is ‘more fayrer, than the brightnesse of the day and beames of the some [sun]’ while in the ballad it is ‘more brighter than the morning sun’.

This coincidence of characteristics, several of which are not found commonly in other comparable sources, raises the possibility of a more direct relationship between the texts. This possibility was also noted in 1774 when Thomas Warton recounted Bede’s tale before remarking, ‘I have seen an old ballad, called the Dead Man’s Song, on this story’.

Christoher Marsh

Texts (in chronological order)

David Lyndsay, ‘The dreme of Schir David Lyndesay’ (1528), in The poetical works of Sir David Lyndsay, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1871), vol. 1, pp. 3-41.

The Venerable Bede, The history of the Church of Englande (originally composed c. 731; translation by Thomas Stapleton, 1565), fo. 161r-69r. This work is normally known as The ecclesiastical history of the English people.

Anon, The shepardes kalendar... newly augmented and corrected (1570).

Anon, The most wonderfull and true storie, of a certaine witch... As also a true report of the strange torments of Thomas Darling, a boy of thirteene yeres of age (1597).

Elizabeth Colville, Ane godlie dreame, compylit in Scottish meter (Edinburgh, 1603).

The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New (1611), ‘The Revelation of S. John the Divine’, especially ch. 21.

The Dead Mans Song...to the tune of Flying Fame (registered 1624).

John Milton, Paradise lost (1667).


Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), pp. 452 and 467.

Kenneth C. M. Sills, ‘References to Dante in seventeenth-century English literature’, Modern philology 3.1 (June, 1905), pp. 96-116.

Thomas Warton, The history of English poetry, 3 vols. (1774-81), vol. 1 (1774), unpaginated.

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The Dead Mans Song,/ Whose dwelling was neere unto Basings Hall in London.

to the tune of, Flying Fame.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


SOre sick deare friends long time I was

and weakely laid in bed;

And for five hours in all mens sight,

at length I lay as dead:

The bel rung out, my friends came in,

and I key cold was found,

Then was my carkasse brought from bed,

and cast upon the ground:


My loving wife did weepe full sore,

and children loud did cry,

My friends did mourn, yet thus they said

all flesh is born to dye:

My winding sheet prepared was,

my grave was also made,

And five long hours by just report,

in this same case I laid:


During which time my soule did see

such strange and fearefull sights,

That for to heare the same disclos’d,

would banish all delights.

Yet sith the Lord restor’d my life,

which from my body fled,

I will declare what sights I saw,

that time that I was dead.


Me thought along a gallant greene,

where pleasant flowers sprung,

I tooke my way, whereas I thought,

the Muses sweetely sung.

The grasse was sweet the trees ful fair,

and lovely to behold,

And full of fruit was every twig,

which shin’d like glistering gold,


My cheerefull heart desired much

to taste the fruit so faire:

But as I reacht a faire young man,

to me did fast repaire,

Touch not (qd. he) that’s none of thine,

but wend and walke with me,

And see thou marke each severall thing

which I shall show to thee:


I wondred greatly at his words,

yet went with him away:

Till on a goodly pleasant banke,

with him he bad me stay.

With branches then of Lillies white,

mine eyes there wiped he,

When this was done he bad me look,

what I farre off could see.


I looked up, and loe at last,

I did a City see,

So faire a thing did never man

behold with mortall eye:

Of Diamonds, pearls, and precious stones

it seem’d the wals were made:

The houses all with beaten gold,

were til’d and overlaid.


More brighter then the morning Sun,

the light thereof did show,

And every creature in the same,

like crowned Kings did goe.

The fields about this City faire,

were all with Roses set:

Gilly-flowers, and Carnations faire,

which canker could not fret:


And from these fields there did proceed

the sweet’st and pleasant’st smell,

That ever living creature felt,

the scent did so excell:

Besides such sweet triumphant mirth,

did from the City sound,

That I therewith was ravished,

my joy did so abound.


With musick, mirth, and melody,

Princes did there embrace,

But in my heart I long’d to be,

within that joyfull place.

The more I gaz’d, the more I might,

the sight pleas’d me so well,

For what I saw in every thing,

my tongue can no way tell:


Then of the man I did demand,

what place the same might be,

Whereas so many Kings do dwell,

in joy and melody?

Quoth he, that blessed place is heaven,

where yet thou must not rest,

And those that do like Princes walke,

are men whom God hath blest.


Then did he turne me round about,

and on the other side,

He bad me view and marke as much,

what things are to be spide.

With that I saw a cole-blacke den,

all tand with soot and smoake,

Where stinking Brimstone burning was

which made me like to choake,


An ugly creature there I saw,

whose face with knives was slasht,

And in a caldron of poyson’d filth,

his ugly corps were washt,

About his necke were fiery ruffes,

that flam’d on every side,

I askt, and lo the Young man said,

that he was damn’d for pride,


Another sort there did I see,

whose bowels Vipers tore,

And grievously with gaping mouth,

they did both yell and roar.


The second part, to the same Tune.


A Spotted person by each one,

stood gnawing on their hearts,

And this was conscience I was told,

which plagu’d their envious parts.


These were no sooner out of sight,

but straight came in their place,

A sort still throwing burning fire,

which fell against their face.

And ladles full of melted gold,

were poured downe their throats,

And these were set (it seem’d to me)

in midst of burning boats:


The formost of this company,

was Judas I was told,

Who had for filthy lucre’s sake,

his Lord and Master sold,

For covetousnesse these were condemn’d,

so it was told to me,

And then methought another rout,

of Hel=hounds I did see:


Their faces they seem’d fat in sight,

yet all their bones were bare,

And dishes full of crawling Toades,

was made their finest fare:

From armes, from hands, from thighs and feete,

with red hot pincers then,

The flesh was pluckt even from the bone,

of these vile gluttonous men:


On cole=black beds another sort,

in grievous sort did lye,

And underneath them burning brands,

their flesh did burne and fry.

With brimstone fierce their pillowes eke,

whereon their heads were laid,

And fiends with whips of glowing fire,

their lecherous skins off flaid.


Then did I see another come,

stab’d in with daggers thicke,

And filthy fiends with fiery darts,

their hearts did wound and pricke,

And mighty bowles of corrupt blood,

was brought for them to drink,

And these men were for murther plagu’d,

from which they could not shrinke.


I saw when these were gone away,

the Swearer and the Lier,

And these were hung up by the tongues,

right over a flaming fire.

From eyes, from eares, from Navell & nose

and from the lower parts,

The blood methought did gushing runne

and clodded like mens hearts.


I asked why that punishment,

was upon swearers laid:

Because, quoth one, wounds, blood and heart,

was still the oath they made.

And therewithall from ugly Hell,

such shriekes and cryes I heard,

As though some greater griefe and plague

had vext them afterward.


So that my soule was sore afraid,

such terrour on me fell:

Away then went this young man quite,

and bad me not farewell.

Wherefore unto my body straight,

my spirit return’d againe,

And lively blood did afterwards

stretch forth in every veine.


My closed eyes I opened,

and raised from my swound,

I wondred much to see my selfe

laid so upon the ground:

Which when my neighbours did behold,

great feare upon them fell,

To whom soone after I did tell,

the newes from heaven and hell.

Printed at London for F. Coules.

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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: not included.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Pavier and partners, 1624 (as 'sore sicke deare freinds' from first line); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689.

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none clearly established.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 12

No. of extant copies: 11

New tune-titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none certainly established.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 12 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V23940).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 0 + 24 + 11 + 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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