33  The most Rare and Excellent History,/ Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity [Euing 228]

Author: Deloney, Thomas (d. in or before 1600)

Recording: The most Rare and Excellent History, Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity

Death - execution Environment - weather Family - children/parents Gender - femininity Gender - marriage Gender - masculinity History - recent Places - European Places - extra-European Places - travel/transport Politics - controversy Politics - court Recreation - hospitality Religion - Catholic/Protestant Religion - church Religion - divine intervention Religion - heroism Royalty - praise Society - rich/poor Violence - interpersonal Violence - punitive

Song History

Catherine Bertie (née Willoughby), Duchess of Suffolk, was one of the heroes of English Protestantism in the mid-sixteenth century. She was well-known for her personal zeal and her generous patronage of similarly devout Protestant clergymen. She was also a woman of exceptionally high rank: her mother, a Spanish aristocrat, had been a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first queen; she was a close acquaintance of Catherine Parr, the last of Henry’s spouses; and she was the dowager Duchess of Suffolk following the death of her first husband in 1545.

In 1552, she married her own gentleman usher, Richard Bertie, and this is the relationship featured in the ballad. Early in 1555, fearing imprisonment for their Protestant faith under the Catholic Queen Mary, the couple left England for the continent, only returning home when Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. The Berties' story was told most famously by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments (it appears in editions from 1570 onwards) and has featured in histories of the English Reformation ever since.

Unusually, it is also possible to introduce the ballad’s composer, Thomas Deloney. He was arguably the most successful ballad-writer of his age, and seven of his songs appear on our list of hits (no other writer matches this figure). Remarkably, they all feature women very prominently (see Marsh). The first surviving version of The most rare and excellent History is in the book, Strange histories (1602), a collection of Deloney’s songs. It seems certain that this was a gathering of existing broadside ballads and that the song about the Duchess of Suffolk was originally written in the 1590s (an earlier edition of Strange histories is also lost).

From the late 1580s onwards, Deloney had worked to develop his remarkable talent as a ballad-maker, and he used it to supplement his income during the economic difficulties of the next decade. He was a silk-weaver by training, and he remained active in this trade, even as he diversified. Deloney also played an important role in defending the interests of native weavers against foreign competitors during the last decade of the sixteenth century and, in 1595, he even spent time in Newgate prison for his efforts.

Nor was this Deloney’s only brush with controversy, for in 1596 he wrote a controversial ballad – now lost - in which he imagined Elizabeth I speaking up for England’s poor people in their economic misery. This appropriation of the royal voice angered the Mayor of London, who reported Deloney to the Queen’s Privy Council. The Mayor tried to arrest Deloney but was unable to track him down. He died in c. 1600 and, in recent times, has been more famous for his prose works than for his ballads.

Deloney clearly had a hunch that the Duchess’ story could be turned into a successful song and he was absolutely right. In the 1602 edition of Strange histories, the ballad about the Duchess is the only one to be mentioned specifically on the title-page, probably indicating its value as a lure to potential book-buyers. Numerous broadside editions of the song were issued during the seventeenth century, and it was only after 1750 that it appears to have faded in popularity. Even in this later period, editions were still occasionally issued and the song was sometimes included in printed song collections. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the ballad survived as a folk song in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We might seek to understand the ballad’s early-modern success in a several different ways. It perhaps chimed with a widely diffused brand of patriotic Protestantism that rooted itself more in stories of brave English heroes suffering for their faith in accordance with divine providence than in the finer points of theology. The Duchess was a kind of replacement for the female saints of the medieval age and her adventure revealed the emergence of truth from falsehood and light from darkness in the life of an individual and, by extension, a nation.

Historians have remarked that the ballad, after its opening verses, is devoid of Protestant content and even ‘motivation’ but this may be partially to miss the point (Watt and Green). The opening verses are deliberately hard-hitting and therefore extremely important in establishing the fundamentally religious context, and everybody surely understood what it meant that the Duchess’ ship was blown to Flanders by ‘a prosperous gale of wind’ (people who had watched the Spanish Armada come and go just a few years earlier knew all about providential storms). This was certainly a powerfully Protestant ballad, even if it said little about predestination or justification by faith alone.

In our list, there are two ballads about Protestant martyrs of the mid-sixteenth century, and both concentrate on women (the other is about Ann Askew, a woman who probably knew the Duchess of Suffolk personally). In The most rare and excellent History, the Duchess is the central figure and her husband, Bertie, plays a relatively minor role. Even when he delivers his ‘gallant speech’ in Latin towards the end – a key moment because it lets the witnesses know that he is no ordinary man – it is the Duchess, rather than her husband, who is then recognised as ‘A Princesse of most high degree’ (she is perhaps termed a princess because her first husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had previously been married to Henry VIII’s sister). It seems possible that there was a distinctive appeal to female ballad consumers in this emphasis, though we can hardly know this for sure.

It is also possible that the prominence and power of the Duchess in the ballad made some men a little uneasy. It is noticeable, for example, that the two woodcut pictures place Bertie firmly in charge (see also Featured woodcut history), and several editions of the ballad actually changed ‘Princesse’ to ‘Prince’ in the quotation given above. The editor of an early nineteenth-century edition that appears in the Madden Collection calls the ballad ‘The Most Rare and Excellent History of the Dutchess of Suffolk and her husbands Richard Berties Calamities’ (I have added italics to identify the words that were not present in the original title).

There clearly must also have been something immensely appealing in the notion of a family of aristocrats disguising themselves as common folk in order to escape danger. Any disguise was interesting to early-modern minds but the image of a duchess, creeping out of her own country ‘In poore array’, was perhaps irresistible. Commenting on the Duchess’ story in 1653, Edward Waterhouse noted approvingly that she did not consider her honour debased by ‘such a wander, with her Love, and for her Religion’. In a hierarchical age, this relinquishing of privileges was an intriguing element of the story, perhaps because it implied that the differences between rich and poor were more superficial and more fragile than was conventionally supposed. This was potentially upsetting to people of high rank but the Duchess of Suffolk, to her credit, took it on the chin.

Christopher Marsh


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

Thomas Deloney, Strange histories (1602), A5v-A8r.

Thomas Deloney, The works of Thomas Deloney, ed. Francis Oscar Mann (Oxford, 1912).

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

English Short Title Catalogue.

Thomas Evans, Old ballads, historical and narrative (1777), vol. 2, pp. 92-98.

John Foxe, Actes and monuments (1563; edition of 1570), Book 12, pp. 2323-26. See Acts and Monuments online: https://www.dhi.ac.uk/foxe/

Melissa Franklin-Harkrider, Women, reform and community in early-modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s godly aristocracy (Woodbridge, 2008).

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), p. 458.

Madden Collection, Garlands, vol. 2, no. 408, Cambridge University Library.

Christopher Marsh, ‘Best-selling ballads and the female voices of Thomas Deloney’, Huntington Library Quarterly 82.1 (Spring, 2019), pp. 127-54.

Ambrose Philips, A collection of old ballads, vol. 3 (1738), pp. 91-98.

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. 647 and 1811.

Susan Wabuda, ‘Bertie [née Willoughby; other married name Brandon], Katherine, duchess of Suffolk’ (2008), Oxford dictionary of national biography.

Edward Waterhouse, Two brief meditations (1653), p. 47.

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 91-4 and 126.

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of 'Queen Dido' (standard name: Troy Town)

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 known variously as ‘Troy Town’, ‘Queen Dido’, ‘The Wandring Prince of Troy’ and ‘The Dutchess of Suffolk’ (the last of these derived from the hit song under discussion here). It was written down in a wide range of printed and manuscript sources during the seventeenth century and was clearly very well known. It appears with the text of A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy in a miscellaneous manuscript of the early seventeenth century, associated with the Shanne family in Yorkshire. This was clearly intended for singing, but the tune can also be found in Robert Creighton’s manuscript book of music for virginals.

Printed versions of the tune appear in song collections such as John Wilson’s Select Ayres (1659) and John Hilton’s Catch that catch can (1667). The tune remained popular into the eighteenth century, and notation can be found in at least two ballad operas.

These examples are all very obviously versions of the same tune but there is considerable variation in melodic details, demonstrating that there was no such thing as an authorised version. Melodies were breathing, living creatures and they appeared in a number of different guises. The tune in John Gay’s ballad opera, Polly (1729), has four beats in a bar but in Charles Coffey’s The Devil to Pay (1731), we find a triple-time version that seems to be in the Mixolydian mode (the seventh note of the scale is not sharpened, as in a modern major scale). The version we have chosen for our recording of The most rare and excellent History Of the Dutchesse of Suffolkes calamity is the three-part setting that appears in Hilton’s Catch that catch can.

Echoes (an overview)

The melody’s earliest and most potent associations surely derived from the two best-selling songs that are listed below in bold type.  Both ballads presented a female hero, a narrative that involved travel and exile, and a mood of sobriety. To these resonances, A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy added a Mediterranean setting, tortured romance, the tragedy of suicide and the prominence of a ghost, while The most rare and excellent History contributed an emphasis on religious devotion. These ballads continued to circulate throughout the seventeenth century, interacting with many of the other songs that subsequently nominated the tune, most commonly as either as ‘Queen Dido’ (dominant in the early decades) or ‘Troy Town’ (more prominent from c. 1630). 

Many of these additional songs tapped into one or more of the tune’s existing associations: The Royal Wanderer, for example, drew on the melody’s connections with aristocratic exile to tell the story of Charles Stuart’s flight from England in 1651; several songs – The Spanish Tragedy, Mount Aetna’s flame and A Looking-Glass for Ladies – were set in the Mediterranean world, sometimes in the classical past; and other ballads – The Fair Maid of Dunsmore’s Lamentation, The London Damsels fate and A New Ballad of The Midwives Ghost - presented heroines who were either undone by harsh experiences in romance, sometimes resulting in suicide, or who returned to the earth as ghosts with business to complete.  Beyond these examples, there were plenty of heavily godly and moral songs that also called for the tune. 

The melody itself is in a major key and has the potential to feel quite bright. It is therefore notable that no ballad is known to have deployed this melody to carry topics that were in any way light or jocular (but see the comments on ‘Bonny Nell’ in the ‘Postscript’, below).  Indeed, the reputation of ‘Queen Dido’ was such that the clergyman, William Slatyer, chose it as one of the ‘common, but solemne tunes’ for the metrical psalms that he published, controversially, in 1630.

Some of these songs were connected with one another not just by their shared tune but by inter-textual referencing, whether deliberate or unconscious. In MISERY to be Lamented, for example, the line that concludes several verses, ‘be ready for your dying day’, is reminiscent of ‘And no man knew his dying day’, the final line in A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy. The same hit song is also referenced in The Londoners Lamentation, issued after the Great Fire of London: the last lines of the first verse, ‘Wast lye those buildings were so good,/ And Ashes lye where London stood’, recall ‘Wast lye those walls that were so good,/ And corne now growes where Troy Towne stood’ in the earlier ballad. And in The Sorrowful Mother, the line, ‘her Mothers sorrow was not small’ echoes ‘their griefe and sorrow was not small’ in The most rare and excellent History.

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

Songs and Summaries

A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy[.]  To the tune of Queene Dido (originally registered 1564-65; John Wright, 1602-46).  Pepys 1.84-5; EBBA 20276.  Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; History - ancient/mythological, romance, villainy; Death – grief, suicide, tragedy; Emotions – anger, love, sorrow, guilt; Morality - romantic/sexual; Bodies - health/sickness; Employment - sailors/soldiers; Places - extra-European, European, travel/transport; Politics – court, foreign affairs; Recreation – hospitality; Religion – ghosts; Royalty – criticism, praise; Violence - self-inflicted. The tragic tale of Dido’s demise following the departure from Carthage of her beloved Aeneas, the ‘wandring Prince’.

The most rare and excellent History Of the Dutchesse of Suffolkes calamity… To the tune of Queene Dido (originally composed before c. 1600; Edward Wright, 1611-56).  Roxburghe 1.94-95; EBBA 30064.  Religion – Catholic/Protestant, church, divine intervention, heroism; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity; History – recent; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Death – execution; Royalty – praise; Society – rich/poor; Environment – weather; Places – travel/transport, English, European; Politics – controversy, court; Recreation – hospitality. This describes the adventures of the Protestant Duchess of Suffolk who, with her family, fled from England during Mary’s reign, returning home only when Elizabeth came to the throne.

The Spanish Tragedy, Containing the lamentable Murders of Horatio and Bellimperia… To the tune of Queene Dido  (H. Gosson, 1601-40).  Roxburghe 1.364-65; EBBA 30246.  Family – children/parents; Death – suicide, unlawful killing; Emotions – hatred, anger, love; Crime – murder, prison; Politics – court, plots, domestic; Violence –interpersonal, self-inflicted; Gender – marriage, courtship, masculinity; Employment – sailors/soldiers; Places – Spanish, nationalities. Old Hieronimo describes the venomous intrigue that led to the deaths of his son, his wife and many more besides.

A Table of good Nurture... To the tune of, The Earle of Bedford + The second Table of good Nurture, To the tune of, Troy Towne (H. G., 1601-40).  Roxburghe 1.402-03; EBBA 30276.  Religion – moral rules, Christ/God; Employment – apprenticeship/service, professions; Family – children/parents; Society – old/young, rich/poor; Gender – masculinity; Morality – general; Politics – obedience; Royalty – authority.  The second part of this ballad is a set of pithy moral instructions, offered by a patriarchal figure (schoolmaster, father, householder) to his dependants.

The Sinners Supplication.  Confessing his sins, and humbly craving pardon of the Lord… To the tune of, Troy Towne  (Henry Gosson, 1601-40).  Roxburghe 1.378-79; EBBA 30254.  Religion – prayer, Christ/God, heaven/hell, sin/repentance, Bible; Death - godly end; Emotions – hope, longing, anxiety; Society – criticism; Morality – general; Environment – birds, flowers/trees; Places – extra-European.  A deeply repentant individual criticises the world and pleads with God to receive him into heaven.

A new Ballad intituled A myrrour or looking glasse for all sinners. TO THE TUNE of Queene Dido (no printed copies have survived but the song was copied out by hand, c. 1603-16). Shirburn Ballads XXXVI. Religion – sin/repentance, Christ/God, Bible, angels/devils; Death – general, godly end, accident; Emotions – anxiety, excitement, patriotism; Society – rich/poor; Bodies – clothing. A call to repentance, warning all people that death can come at any moment and that the things of the world are not to be loved.

The Royal Wanderer: OR, Gods Providence evidently manifested in the most mysterious Deliverance of the Divine Majesty of CHARLS the Second… to the Tune of, The wandring Prince of Troy, or, Troy town (F. Grove, 1652-62).  Euing 312; EBBA 31952.  Royalty – incognito, praise; Politics – celebration, domestic, Royalist; Bodies – clothing; Emotions – patriotism; Family – siblings; Places – English, European.  This tells the tale of Prince Charles’ escape from England, in disguise and aided by a chain of trusted individuals, following the Battle of Worcester.

MISERY to be Lamented: Or, A Doleful Relation of the sad Accident which befell Lawrence Cawthorn… To the Tune of, Troy Town (F. G., 1661).  Wood 401(185).  Religion – body/soul, sin/repentance, prayer; Death – godly end, illness; Bodies – health/sickness, clothing; Employment – apprenticeship/service, crafts/trades; News – sensational; Emotions – fear; Crime – robbery; Places – English.  A message about the urgent need for repentance is here given extra force by the tale of a young man who was buried in the ground despite being merely unconscious.  

Mount Aetna's flame. OR The Sicilian Wonder… Tune of, Troy Town (F. Coles, T. Vere and J. Wright, 1665-74).  Wood 401 (199).  Death – tragedy; Emotions – wonder; Environment – wonders; News – sensational, international; Places – European.  A song describing the terrible destruction caused in Sicily by an eruption of Mount Etna.

The Londoners Lamentation Wherein is contained a sorrowfull description of the dreadful fire which happened in Pudding-Lane… Tune is, When Troy town, &c. (J. Clark, 1666-67?).  Euing 170; EBBA 31925.  Emotions – wonder; Morality – general; Religion – divine intervention, sin/repentance; Environment  – wonders; Royalty – praise; Family – siblings; Violence – divine; Places – English.  This describes the devastating progress of the Great Fire of London, crediting the King and his brother for bringing the flames under control, and interpreting the tragedy as a call to repentance.  

The WORLDLINGS FAREWELL: Or, The State of a DYING-MAN, who had always preferred Temporal before Eternal Things… To the Tune of Guy of Warwick: or Troy Town (W. Thackeray, T. Passenger, and W. Whitwood, 1666-79).  Pepys 2.15; EBBA 20641.  Death – general, illness, result of immorality; Religion – body/soul, heaven/hell, sin/repentance; Bodies – health/sickness; Emotions – fear; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage; Morality – general.  A graphic account of the pains of death and the dismal prospects beyond it that await those who concentrate on worldly things to the neglect of their eternal souls. 

The London Damsels fate… Tune of Troy Town (P. Brooksby, 1670-96).  Douce 1 (117b).  Death – heartbreak, suicide; Emotions – love, sorrow; Family – children/parents; Gender – courtship; Morality – familial.  The heartless parents of a young woman prevent her from marrying the man she loves, leading first to his death from heartbreak and then to her suicide.

A Looking-Glass for Ladies… Tune of Queen Dido:  or, Troy Town (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright and J. Clarke, 1675-80).  Pepys 4.81; EBBA 21745.  History – ancient/mythological, romance; Gender – marriage, femininity; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – love, anxiety, joy; Employment – female/male, sailors/soldiers; Politics – foreign affairs; Religion – charity; Recreation – reading/writing; Bodies - adornment.  This commends the constancy of Penelope, who displayed all the required female virtues while her husband, Ulysses, was away fighting for the Greeks in their war against the Trojans.  

A New Ballad of The Midwives Ghost… To the Tune of, When Troy Town &c (T. Vere, 1680).  Pepys 2.145; EBBA 20763.  Crime – infanticide; Death – unlawful killing, result of immorality; Violence – interpersonal; Religion – ghosts; Emotions – guilt; Employment – female, professions; Family – children/parents; Gender – femininity; Morality – familial; News – sensational; Recreation – sight-seeing; Places – English.  The ghost of a midwife haunts her former abode and directs a maid to the bodies of infants whom she murdered and concealed.

A New Wonder: OR, A strange and True Account from Shrewsbury of a Dreadful Storm… To the Tune of, Troy Town (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Thackeray and T. Passinger, 1680-81). Wood E 25(97).  Emotions – wonder; Nature – wonders; Religion – divine intervention, sin/repentance, Christ/God; Morality – general; Society – criticism; News – sensational; Places – English.  A call for urgent repentance, provoked by an extraordinary storm in Shrewsbury, during which multi-coloured grains of corn fell from the sky.

The Matchless Murder.  Giving  an Account of the most horrible and bloody murthering of the most worthy Gentlemen Thomas Thin Esq… To the Tune of Troy Town ((J. Conyers, 1682).  Roxburghe 4.60; EBBA 31359.  Crime – murder, prison; Death – unlawful killing; Violence – interpersonal; Emotions – anger, sorrow; Morality – general; News – convicts/crimes; Society – friendship; Places – English, travel/transport.  This describes the callous murder of a much-loved gentleman as he travelled in his coach, and the efforts made to find the killers by his friend, the Duke of Monmouth. 

The Fair Maid of Dunsmore's Lamentation… Tune of, Troy Town (J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Tha[cke]ray, and T. Passinger, 1682-84).  Roxburghe 2.170-71; EBBA 30646.  Gender – sex, masculinity, femininity; Family – pregnancy/childbirth; Society – rich/poor; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – longing, fear, sorrow, hatred; Death – suicide; Bodies – physique/looks.  Lord Wigmore, Governor of Warwick Castle, is overcome with lust for a shepherd’s daughter and the consequences are tragic.

[A W]arning to Murtherers: OR,  [?The sa]d and Lamentable Relation of the Condemnation, [??]n, and Excecution, of John Gower Coach-Maker… To the Tune of, Troy Town (J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Tha[ckeray] and T. Passinger, 1682-84).  Pepys 3.358v; EBBA 21374.  Crime – murder; Death – execution, result of immorality, godly end; Gender – marriage; Morality – familial; Religion – sin/repentance; Emotions – sorrow; Places – English.  An account of Gower’s murder of his wife, and of the repentant spirit in which he faced execution.

[?The] Sorrowful Subject, Or Great-Brittains Calamity… To the Tune of, Troy Town (J. Clarke, W. Thackeray and T. Passinger, 1685).  Pepys 2.227; EBBA 20840.  Death – grief, general; Royalty – praise;  Emotions – sorrow, patriotism; Politics – domestic, Royalist; Religion – Christ/God, heaven/hell; Society – rich/poor.  An expression of England’s sense of loss following the death of Charles II.

The Mournful SUBJECTS… To the Tune of, Troy Town; Or, The Dutchess of Suffolk  (no imprint, 1685).  Pepys 2.228; EBBA 20841.  Royalty – praise; Death - general; Emotions – sorrow, patriotism; Politics – domestic, Royalist, court; Religion – divine intervention, Christ/God.  A fond farewell to the late Charles II that commends his regal qualities and rebukes those who opposed him.

The Sorrowful Mother, OR, The Pious Daughters Last Farewel…To the Tune of, Troy Town (J. Deacon, 1685-88).  Roxburghe 2.438; EBBA 30904.  Family – children/parents; Religion – body/soul, Christ/God, heaven/hell, angels/devils; Death – godly end, grief, illness; Emotions – sorrow, hope, joy.  A dying woman explains to her mother that there is no need to grieve because she is about to experience the joys of eternal life.  


Not surprisingly, this highly successful tune was also nominated for the performance of various songs that appeared in published collections. These all fit comfortably into one or more of the thematic categories outlined above. Examples include: ‘A Caroll for Christmas day’ in Good and True, Fresh and New Christmas Carols (1642); ‘A lamentable Sonnet of the fall of the great Dutchess of Glocester’ in Cupids Garland (1674); and ‘The Pious Christians Mournful Lamentation’ in Great Britains Call to REPENTANCE (1693). In 1716, the tune was deployed satirically in order to mock the Jacobite cause in ‘The Stroler, or a hard Fate, but good Fate at last’ (A Collection of State Songs), a song that picked up on the wanderer theme but applied it to a hapless political enemy.

A passing reference to the melody, demonstrating its persistent association with tortured romance, occurs in ‘The Tragedie of Bonduca’. Here, one male character is said to be ‘In love, indeed in love, most lamentably loving, to the tune of Queen Dido’ (Comedies and tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, 1647). Ross Duffin shows how playwrights sometimes composed songs for the stage with this famous melody in mind. He also suggests that ‘Bonny Nell’, a tune thought to have been lost, is actually ‘Queen Dido’ by another name. If so, then this is an interesting example of a tune with sombre associations that was chosen, with comic intent, for a scurrilous ballad about a beggar woman (Duffin has recently discovered the text of a song about Bonny Nell). The links between text and tune remain uncertain, however, and we have therefore not included ballads sung to ‘Bonny Nell’ in the list set out above.

Christopher Marsh


Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Comedies and tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (1647), p. 51.

Charles Coffey, The Devil to Pay (1731), p. 18,

Robert Creighton, virginal book, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Conservatoire Rés. 1186, fo. 57v.

A Collection of State Songs (1716), pp. 107-110.

Cupids Garland (1674), A8r-B1r.

Ross W. Duffin, Some other note. The lost songs of English Renaissance comedy (Oxford, 2018), pp. 475 and 667-72.

John Gay, Polly (1729), appendix of airs, no. 45.

Good and True, Fresh and New Christmas Carols (1642), A2r-3v.

Great Britains Call to Repentance (1693), pp. 10-14.

John Hilton, Catch that catch can (1667), p. 122.

Shanne Family Commonplace Book, British Library MS Add. 38599, fol. 138v (transcription in Simpson).

Claude Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 587-90.

William Slatyer, Psalmes, or songs of Sion turned into the language, and set to the tunes of a strange land (1631), table at back.

John Wilson, Select Ayres (1659), p. 94.

Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge melancholy (1719-20), vol. 4, p. 266.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Attack with keys

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 particular ballad. It was used so frequently on editions of The most Rare and Excellent History that it must have been a vital component in the song’s long-lived success.  Most published versions of the picture seem to have come from the same, steadily deteriorating, woodblock. The original and anonymous artist focused on a key moment of violence, described precisely in the accompanying text, and the blood spurting from the scalp of the sexton, clearly regretting his officiousness, is particularly memorable (immediately beneath this detail of the picture, we are told that the duchess’ husband ‘struck him so that all the blood/ his head ran down as he did stand’).

Due to this level of specificity, the woodcut was rarely used on other ballads. Only one exception is listed below, and here the image seems designed to illustrate the moment at which an ‘Ungracious son’ instructs an employee to drive his impoverished father from his gate. This decision opened up the possibility for some fruitful interplay between the two hit ballads in the minds of viewers.

Songs and summaries:

The most rare and excellent History/ Of the Dutchesse of Suffolkes calamity… To the tune of Queene Dido (F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74).  Euing 228; EBBA 31743.  Religion – Catholic/Protestant, church, divine intervention, heroism; Family – children/parents; Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity; History – recent; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Death – execution; Royalty – praise; Society – rich/poor; Nature – weather; Places – English, European; Politics – controversy, court; Recreation – hospitality. This describes the adventures of the Protestant Duchess of Suffolk who, with her family, fled from England during Mary’s reign, returning home only when Elizabeth came to the throne (picture placement: the scene appears on the right and illustrates a key moment in the nearby text).

A most Notable Example of an Ungracious son (J. Clark, W. Thackeray and T. Passinger, 1684-86).  Pepys 2.180-81; EBBA 20797.  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 is proves heartless and is rewarded with a pie full of toads (picture placement: the image appears over the text on the left side of the sheet – the other side features a Courtroom with hat on floor).

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Related Texts

John Foxe’s account of the Duchess of Suffolk’s experiences in the 1550s was first published in the revised edition of his Acts and martyrs that appeared in 1570. It was the fullest version of her story published in the early modern period and it exerted a powerful influence over all subsequent accounts, including The most rare and excellent History. Foxe’s report was also incorporated without significant changes in the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles.

The Duchess is certainly the central character in Foxe’s story, though her husband, Richard Bertie, is also heavily involved. The story opens, for example, with a long section in which Bertie conducts tense negotiations with Bishop Gardiner of Winchester who is deeply suspicious about the religious beliefs and activities of his wife. After the couple decide to leave England, their unfolding story includes the following important elements: the Duchess’ disguise as ‘a meane Marchantes wife’ during her flight from London with a severely restricted entourage; an elaborate journey from London to the south coast for departure, during which the party breaks up into smaller units in order to avoid suspicion (and, in Foxe’s account, Bertie has gone ahead and is already waiting in Brabant); a very difficult journey across northern Europe, still in disguise, with lots of close scrapes and narrow escapes; a mixed reception – sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile – along the way; the difficulties encountered in finding safe accommodation en route; and the presence of their one-year-old daughter, mentioned regularly in passing. Eventually, they arrive in Poland where the king receives them kindly and places an entire earldom at their disposal. Here they remain ‘till the death of Queene Mary’.

The ballad was written around twenty years after Foxe’s account and was clearly based upon it. Inevitably, the single-sheet format means that a great deal of detail is lost, though the author, Thomas Deloney, skilfully retains the core events of the narrative. He also makes significant changes, however. Sometimes, he highlights a theme or feature that was present but underdeveloped in Foxe’s version. The pressures of childcare, for example, take on a new significance in the ballad, and the scene in which the family is turned away when seeking accommodation echoes the Biblical nativity more loudly than does Foxe’s account. If anything, the hardship of the journey is heightened in the ballad because Deloney generally drops Foxe’s information on the ‘fair houses’ that the couple sometimes rented and the wealthy hosts who sometimes put them up. And the Duchess’ dominance of the narrative is also enhanced: the long preamble in which Bertie represents her to Gardiner is dropped; she is credited with spotting the rising danger in England and with making the decision to leave; she leads the mission, and the first mention of Bertie comes in the lines, ‘She with her Nurse, Husband and Child,/ In poor array their sighs beguil’d (meaning ‘charmed’ or ‘eased’)’. Are we to understand that one of her tasks is to cheer up her dejected husband?!

At other times, Deloney adds entirely new detail. Bertie puts his rather inauspicious start behind him when, in his big scene, he beats up the irritating sexton of a German church after the family seeks shelter in the porch. Foxe had mentioned the church porch but the fight with the sexton was apparently a product of the ballad-maker’s imagination. Similarly, Deloney tells us that the family’s nurse ran away when the going got tough, and that the couple’s second child, Peregrine, was born during the period of exile. Neither of these details had appeared in Foxe’s Acts and monuments.

Deloney’s instinct for elaboration was, however, modest in comparison to that of the playwright, Thomas Drue. In 1624, his Life of the Dutchess of Suffolke was performed by the Palsgrave’s Company, very probably in the recently reconstructed Fortune theatre. The title-page of the printed version claimed that the play had been ‘divers and sundry times acted, with good applause’.

Drue based his creation squarely on the story in Acts and martyrs, and he even introduced a loyal servant named ‘Fox’, presumably in order to acknowledge his debt. Some of Drue’s interventions, however, are far more ambitious than this: at the start, there are aristocratic rivals for the Duchess’ hand in marriage but she chooses to marry Bertie instead; wherever the Duchess and her family go, they are pursued by agents of the vindictive and merciless Bishop Bonner (‘If she recant not,’ he says, ‘I will faggot [burn] her’); and the play introduces numerous characters who play no part in Foxe’s version. Some of these are celebrities such as the martyred bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, whose appearances presumably pleased the punters. The most memorable stage direction runs, ‘Enter ERASMUS  and others’. Bertie takes one look at the celebrated Dutch scholar, who had in fact been dead for over a decade by the time of the events represented in the play, and says, ‘It may be he can speak the Latin tongue’.

Drue’s knowledge of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments is clear at numerous points but it is equally apparent that he was thoroughly familiar with the ballad. In particular, the absconding of the nurse, the assault upon the sexton and the birth of Peregrine are all retained. Indeed, the latter event is now dramatised for the first time and treated as a crucial moment. This enhances the importance of childcare in the story, another feature that is largely inherited from Deloney’s ballad.

Drue also builds on Deloney’s foundations to present the Duchess as the dominating force in the narrative. She is regularly to be heard directing the actions of her male companions, Bertie included, and on two occasions she is prepared to fight physically in order to defend her husband from attackers. On the first occasion, she declares, ‘Then farewell woman weakness, welcome sword/ For once I’ll play the man, to save my Lord’ (the next stage direction declares, ‘She fights, beats them off’). And on the second occasion, she actually instructs Bertie to climb a nearby ladder for his own safety while she stands at the bottom, armed with a sword. This scene is based on one that had appeared in Foxe’s account, though the famous martyrologist allowed Bertie to defend himself, rather than relying on his wife.

Despite all this adventure, the most interesting aspect of the play was its politically controversial nature in the middle of the 1620s.  When the Master of the Revels licensed it on 2nd January 1624, he noted that the original text had been ‘full of dangerous matter’. It was now ‘much reformed’ by his own hand; he had presumably cut scenes and lines that he considered inappropriate. As others have explained, the official sensitivities about the play were connected to James I’s foreign policy and the intense criticism that it was attracting (see references, below).

In particular, the king was accused of failing to support his daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Frederick V, Elector Palatine. Frederick was a Protestant champion who had claimed the throne of Bohemia in 1619 before his forces were roundly beaten at the Battle of White Mountain a year later. As a consequence of this defeat, he and his wife fled into exile and stood in need of support. James I not only resisted calls for English intervention but also sought to marry his son, Prince Charles, to a Spanish Catholic princess. English Protestants were incensed by these plans, and overjoyed when they fell through in 1623-24.

It was into this febrile atmosphere that Drue introduced his play, and it seems clear that his distinctive perspective on the old story of the Duchess of Suffolk was intended to fuel comparisons between her painful Protestant exile and that of the king’s own daughter. The acting company’s main patron was, after all, Frederick V himself (known in England as the Palgrave), and the appearance in the play of his mid-sixteenth-century counterpart - as a benevolent friend of the Duchess in exile – can have left Jacobean audiences in little doubt about the contemporary resonances of the play. The fact that the parallels are readily apparent in the surviving text makes one wonder what was contained in the scenes excised by the Master of the Revels. More broadly, the fascinating context sketched here raises the possibility that editions of the ballad from the mid-1620s may also have been understood in relation to the key foreign policy issues of the moment.

Christopher Marsh

Texts (in chronological order)

John Foxe, Actes and monuments (1563; edition of 1570), Book 12, pp. 2323-26. See Acts and Monuments online: https://www.dhi.ac.uk/foxe/

Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), vol. 6, pp. 1141-45.

Thomas Deloney, The most Rare and Excellent History, Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity. To the Tune of, Queen Dido (probably composed in the 1590s; included in Deloney, Strange histories, 1602, A5v-A8r).

Thomas Drue, The Life of the Dutchess of Suffolke. As it has been divers and sundry times acted, with good applause (1631). See the modern edition published as The Duchess of Suffolk, ed. Richard Dutton and Steven K. Galbraith (Columbus, Ohio, 2015).


Thomas Drue, The Duchess of Suffolk, ed. Richard Dutton and Steven K. Galbraith (Columbus, Ohio, 2015), introduction.

Leslie Mahin Oliver, ‘Thomas Drue’s “Duchess of Suffolk”: a Protestant drama’, Studies in bibliography (1950-51), pp. 241-46.

Paul Salzman, Literature and politics in the 1620s. Whisper’d counsells (London, 2014).

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The most Rare and Excellent History,/ Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity.

To the Tune of, Queen Dido.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


WHen God had taken for our sin,

the prudent Prince K. Edward away,

Then bloody Bonner did begin

his raging malice to bewray:

All those that did Gods Word profess,

He persecuted more or less.


Thus whilst the Lord on us did lowre,

many in Prison he did throw,

Tormenting them in Lollards Tower,

whereby they might the truth forego,

Then Cranmer, Ridley, and the rest,

were burning in fire, that Christ profest.


Smithfield was then with Fagots filld,

and many places more besides,

At Coventry was Sanders kill’d,

at Wooster eke good Hopper dy’d;

And to escape this bloody day,

Beyond=sea many fled away.


Amongst the rest that sought release,

and for their faith in danger stood,

Lady Elizabeth was chief,

King Henries Daughter of Royall blood;

Which in the Tower did Prisoner lye,

Looking each day when she should dye.


The Dutchess of Suffolk seeing this,

whose life likewise the Tyrant sought:

Who in the hopes of heavenly bliss,

within Gods Word her comfort wrought:

For fear of death was faine to fly,

And leave her house most secretly.


That for the love of God alone,

her Land and Goods she left behind,

Seeking still for that precious stone,

the word and truth so rare to find:

She with her Nurse, Husband, and Child,

In poor array their sighs beguil’d.


Thus through London they passed along,

each one did take a several street,

Thus all along escaping wrong,

at Billingsgate they all did meet:

Like people poor in Gravesend-barge,

They simply went with all their charge.


And all along from Gravesend-town,

with journeys short on foot they went,

Unto the Sea-coast came they down,

to pass the Seas was their intent:

And God provided so that day,

That they took ship and sayld away.


And with a prosperous gale of wind,

in Flanders they did safe arrive,

This was to their great ease of mind,

and from their heavy hearts much wo did drive

And so with thanks to God on high,

They took their way to Germany.


Thus as they travel’d still disguis’d,

upon the High=way suddenly,

By cruel Thieves they were surpriz’d,

assayling their small company:

And all their treasures and their store,

They took away and beat them sore.


The Nurse in midst of their fight,

laid down the Child upon the ground,

She ran away out of their sight,

and never after that was found:

Then did the Dutches make great moan,

With her good Husband all alone.


The Thieves had there their horses kill’d,

and all their money quite had took,

The pretty baby almost spoil’d,

was by the Nurse likewise forsook:

And they far from their friends did stand,

And succourlesse in a strange Land.


The Sky likewise began to scowl,

it Haild and Raind in pitious sort,

The way was long and wondrous foul,

then may I now full well report,

Their griefe and sorrow was not small,

When this unhappy chance did fall.


SOmetimes the Dutches bore the Child,

as wet as ever she could be,

And when the Lady kind and mild

was weary, then the Child bore he:

And thus they one another eas’d,

And with their fortunes well was pleas’d.


And after many a weary step,

all wet=shod both in dirt and mire,

after much grief their hearts yet leaps,

for labour doth some rest require:

A town before them they did see,

But Lodged there they could not be.


From house to house then they did go,

seeking that night where they might lye,

But want of money was their wo,

and still their babe with cold did cry:

With cap and knee they courtesie make

But none of [‘on’ in other editions] them would pitty take.


Lo here a Prince [‘Princess’ in other editions] of great blood,

doth pray a peasant for releif,

With teares bedewed as she stood,

yet few or none regard her grief:

Her speech they could not understand,

But gave her money in her hand.


When all in vain her speeches spent,

and that they could not house=room get,

Into a Church=porch then they went,

to stand out of the rain and wet:

Then said the Dutches to her Dear,

O that we had some fire here.


Then did her Husband so provide,

that fire and coals he got with speed:

She sate down by the fire side

to dress her Daughter that had need:

And while she drest it in her lap,

Her Husband made the infant pap.


Anon the Sexton thither came,

and finding them there by the fire,

The drunken knave, all void of shame,

to drive them out was his desire:

And spurn’d forth the Noble Dame,

Her husbands wrath she [‘it’ in other versions] did inflame.


And all in fury as he stood,

he wrung the Church=keys out of his hand

And struck him so that all the blood,

his head ran down as he did stand:

Wherefore the Sexton presently,

For help and aid aloud did cry.


Then came the Officers in hast,

and took the Dutches and her Child,

And with her husband thus they past,

like Lambs beset with Tygers wild;

And to the Governor were brought,

Who understood them not in ought.


Then Master Bertue brave and bold,

In Latine made a gallant speech,

Which all their misery did unfold,

and their high favour did beseech?

With that a Doctor sitting by,

Did know the Dutches presently.


And thereupon arising streight,

with words abashed at this sight:

Unto them all that there did wait,

he thus brake forth in words aright:

Behold within your sight, quoth he,

A Prince [‘Princess’ in other editions] of most might degree.


With that the Governour and all the rest

were all amazed the same to hear,

Who welcomed this new come guest,

with reverence great and Princely chear,

And afterwards convey’d they were,

Unto their Friend, Prince Cassimere.


A Son she had in Germany,

Pergrine Bartue call’d by name

Surnam’d the good Lord Willoughby,

of courage great and worthy fame:

Her daughter young [‘which’ appears here in other editions] with her went

was afterwards Countess of Kent.


For when Queen Mary was deceast

the Dutches home return’d again

Who was of sorrow quite releast,

by Queen Elizabeths happy Raign:

Whose godly life and piety,

We may praise continually.

London, Printed for F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright.

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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 'Duchesse of Suffolke'); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Dutchess of Suffolk').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 11

No. of extant copies: 10

New tune-titles generated: 'Duchess of Suffolk' (1 ballad).

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: Protestant party leaving England on featured edition (and other editions); Attack with keys on featured edition (and other editions).

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 9 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V39049).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 0 + 22 + 10 + 2 + 10 + 0 = 74

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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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