28  A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra, with their unfortunate love [Pepys 1.350-51]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra

Death - heartbreak Death - suicide Emotions - despair Emotions - disdain Emotions - love Emotions - sorrow Employment - crafts/trades Environment - animals Environment - flowers/trees Environment - landscape Environment - sea Environment - weather Gender - courtship Gender - femininity Gender - masculinity History - ancient/mythological Places - English Places - travel/transport Recreation - dance Religion - ghosts/spirits

Song History

This ballad was clearly a major hit in the seventeenth century but its popularity does not seem to have lasted much beyond this and there is no evidence of its survival as a folk-song.

It does not seem to have been noted previously that the narrative is loosely based on a classical story about the ill-fated love of Sappho and Phaon, to whom allusion is made in the sixth and eighth verses (see Related texts). We cannot know what proportion of early-modern consumers spotted the parallel but it seems possible that a basic awareness of the classics was more widely dispersed than we might at first assume. There are many references to the classical story in early-modern literature, and Phaon often reappeared as a generic male lover in other ballads (he even had his own tune in the later seventeenth century, entitled ‘Young Phaon’). An awareness of the song’s classical credentials may also be reflected in the recycling of its tune for another ballad about the equally historical and doomed love-affair of Hero and Leander.

In any case, consumers did not need to understand fully the classical allusions in order to enjoy a rollocking good love-story, ultimately tragic but carried along on what might be considered a bizarrely buoyant tune (see Featured tune history). The anonymous composer makes notably effective use of a familiar ballad-trope, the failure of devoted lovers to synchronise their devotion. Often, as in our ballad, this failure is motivated by a wish to ‘test’ the love of one’s partner but the results are sometimes disastrous. The dangers of ill-judged romantic ‘disdain’ are widely stressed in early-modern ballads and rendered particularly memorable in A most excellent Song.

The success of the ballad may also be related to the skilful manner in which it dramatised common difficulties: romantic separation as a consequence of employment (it is presumably Palmus’ work as a ferry-man that takes him away from Sheldra at the outset); the immense and interrelated power of love and hate; and the dangers of the sea for those living in coastal communities (incidentally, we have not succeeded in locating ‘Shackley-hay’). As the ballad puts it, ‘There is no trust to swelling powers,/ That what it may, it still devoures’.

There is also plenty of skilful ballad-writing on display in this song, and the lines are constructed to fit the tune extremely well. A particular high point comes when the balladeer responds to the implied jocularity of the tune by explaining that Palmus ‘Threw hope away, for he, alas,/ Could be no more drownd then he was’.

Christopher Marsh


Anon, The Constant Lovers Mortal Mistake. While Phaons absence caus’d suspition strange... Tune of, Young Phaon (1678-89), EBBA 30576.

Anon, Leanders love to loyal Hero. To the tune of Shackley hay (1614), EBBA 20161.

English broadside ballad archive: https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, https://www.vwml.org/ (the song is Roud V25856).

Claude Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 811-13.

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of 'Shackley-hay' (standard name: Shackley hay)

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 variation

The tune’s main seventeenth-century title refers to the coastal community (exact whereabouts unknown) that provides the setting for our hit ballad. In the eighteenth century, the alternative tune title ‘To all you ladies now at land’ overtook the original name.

The earliest notation that has been found is in a miscellaneous manuscript of the early seventeenth century, associated with the Shanne family in Yorkshire. This is the version that is used in our recording, though the instrumental rendition that occurs towards the end of the performance introduces a later version (from the Skene manuscript) in order to show the variety of forms in which a single tune might exist. This alternative version is in 6/8 time rather than 4/4 and suggests the kind of creativity that musicians brought to performances as they sought to breathe new life into melodies that they and their listeners already knew well.

Several additional variant forms of the tune exist and it seems that Shackley Hay stimulated even more experimentation than did other melodies. See, for example, the versions in: A Ballad by the late Ld. Dorset when at Sea (c. 1707); Wit and mirth (editions of 1700 and 1719-20); John Mottley, Penelope, A Dramatic Opera (1728); Charles Coffey, The beggar’s wedding (1729); and Lacy Ryan, The Cobler’s Opera (1729). These versions vary rhythmically and melodically – there are additional quavers and flattened sevenths in Wit and mirth, for example – but the overall contours of the tune remain recognisable.

Echoes (an overview)

This catchy tune was not widely used on other ballads of the seventeenth century, perhaps because of its complex ten-line verse pattern and its strong association with A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra.

It is notable that two of the other three songs listed below retained the original ballad’s striking thematic combination of love, separation and the sea. Leanders love to loyall Hero introduces a classical setting but shares with A most excellent Song a tragic conclusion in which the male lover drowns. The Noble seamans complaint to the Ladies at Land is much lighter in tone, but it too is primarily about sweethearts separated by the sea. The Knitters Jobb concentrates on a more conventional courtship and dispenses with the aquatic theme, though listeners familiar with the other songs may have found it hard to push all watery associations from their minds (especially if the ‘Walton Town’ mentioned in the title is to be identified with the coastal parish in Essex where the church was so close to the sea that it fell off the cliff in 1798).

The songs are connected not only by their tune and their themes but also by some direct textual cross-referencing. The distinctive ‘fa la la’ refrain is used in all the songs, thus associating them closely in the minds of knowledgeable listeners. The second line of A most excellent song – ‘whom Sheldra faire did love’ - is echoed by the words ‘whom Fame hath quite forgot’ at the corresponding point in Leanders love (compare also the lines ‘But all in vaine she did complaine’ and ‘Long time these Lovers did complaine’ in the same two songs, both at the opening of verses). A most excellent song shares with The Noble seamans complaint its reference to Neptune, and its rhyming of ‘mind’ and ‘unkind’ recurs in The Knitters Jobb.

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

Songs and Summaries

A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra, with their unfortunate love. To the tune of Shackley-hay (registered 1613; J. W., 1613-46). Pepys 1.350-51; EBBA 20163. Gender – courtship; Environment – sea, weather, landscape, animals, flowers/trees; Places – travel/transport, English; History – ancient/mythological; Emotions – love, disdain, despair, sorrow; Employment – crafts/trades; Death – suicide, heartbreak; Recreation – dance; Religion – ghosts/spirits. Palmus and Sheldra love one another but never at the same time, and the consequences – despite the jaunty tune – are tragic.

Leanders love to loyall Hero. To the tune of Shackley hay (J. W., c. 1613-46). Pepys 1.344-45; EBBA 20161. Gender – courtship, masculinity, femininity; History – ancient/mythological, romance, heroism; Death – accident, tragedy, grief, suicide; Emotions – love, longing, anxiety, sorrow; Places – European, extra- European. This is the ancient tragedy of two lovers, separated by the dangerous waters of the Hellespont.

The Noble seamans complaint to the Ladies at Land, to the tune of Shackerley Hay (no surviving edition before 1700 but entered in the Stationers’ Register, 1664). Employment – sailors/soldiers; Gender – marriage; Environment – sea, weather; Emotions – sorrow, love, hope; Politics – foreign affairs, Royalist; Recreation – games/sports; Places – nationalities; Royalty – general. A group of English seaman write to their womenfolk at home, declaring their sadness at being parted and their hope that their wives and sweethearts will remain constant.

The Knitters Jobb Or the earnest Suitor of WALTON Town to a fair  MAID... To the Tune of Shackley hey (no imprint, 1670-98). Roxburghe 2.244-45; EBBA 30701. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity, singles; Employment – female, crafts/trades; Emotions – love, longing, contentment; Bodies – looks/physique; Environment – birds; Places – English. A young man is besotted with a fair maid who is skilled in carding, spinning and knitting; he declares his love and she, after initial reluctance, agrees to be his sweetheart.


The tune clearly enjoyed a new lease of life in the eighteenth century and was used for the singing of numerous songs. The original ballad about Palmus and Sheldra was printed much less frequently, and The Noble seamans complaint – under various titles – seems to have taken over as the best-known song to the tune. It was issued repeatedly and it also spawned several parodies. These appeared in printed song-books and also in manuscript sources.  A set of family papers from Epping (Essex) includes, for example, ‘A Ballad To the Honorable William Farmorligh on his Birthday’, set to the tune of ‘To all you Ladies’. The nautical theme remained strong, and the song opened with the line, ‘To Billy on the wat[e]ry Main...’

Several decades earlier, Samuel Pepys had spotted the suitability of The Noble seamans complaint for application to the lives of specific individuals whom he knew. On the 2 January 1665, he met friends at Covent Garden and later noted proudly, ‘I occasioned much mirth with a ballet I brought with me, made from the seamen at sea to their ladies in town – saying Sir W. Pett, Sir G Ascue, and Sir J Lawson made them’. The song had actually been written a year earlier by Charles Sackville, the future Earl of Dorset.

Christopher Marsh


A Ballad by the late Ld. Dorset when at Sea (c. 1707).

William Chappell, Popular music of the olden time (1859), vol. I, pp. 367-69.

Charles Coffey, The Beggar’s Wedding (1729), appendix of airs, p. 9.

Essex Record Office, D/DW Z4, no. viii.

John Mottley, Penelope, A Dramatic Opera (1728), appendix of airs, p. 12.

Lacy Ryan, The Cobler’s Opera (1729), appendix of airs, no. 7 (transcription in Simpson).

Samuel Pepys, The diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (1995), vol. VI, p. 2.

Shanne Family Commonplace Book, British Library MS Add. 38599, fol. 140 (transcription in Simpson).

Claude Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its history (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 647-51.

The Skene manuscript (for mandore), National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 5.2.15 (transcription in Chappell).

Wit and Mirth (1700), II, p. 268, and (1719-20), VI, p. 272 (transcription in Simpson).

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Couple with leafy fan

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, not surprisingly, was strongly associated with courtship, and was very popular, particularly in the 1620s and 1630s. By the latter part of the century, however, editions of A most excellent Song used different pictures. A search of the Pepys and Roxburghe collections reveals that the woodcut appeared on ballads issued by an array of publishers, and the presence of several reverse images demonstrates the existence of more than one woodblock (often a sign that an image was popular). Most versions, however, seem to have been produced from the same block.

The surviving ballads for which this picture was chosen were divided fairly evenly between those telling optimistic courtship tales and those describing relationships that, for one reason or another, went wrong. In the case of A most excellent Song, the uncertain interaction between hope and despair that was therefore captured by the image was also amply documented in the text.

This woodcut also illustrated jesting songs about romance and occasional ballads that advised people on choosing partners. Only one of the songs listed below was a clear outlier: A lamentable new Ditty described the repentant death of a criminal, and the text makes no mention of courtship.

Songs and summaries

A lamentable new Ditty, made vpon the death of a worthy Gentleman, named George Stoole, dwelling sometime on Gate-side Moore, and sometime at New-castle in Northumberland: with his penitent end (H. Gosson, 1601-40).  Roxburghe 1.186-87; EBBA 30131. Crime – receiving stolen goods; Death – execution, godly end; Emotions – sorrow, love; Gender – masculinity, adultery/cuckoldry; Religion – Christ/God; Violence – punitive; Environment – animals; Places – English. A woman describes the bravery with which her sweetheart, George Stoole, faced execution, apparently for illegal horse-trading (picture placement: they appear beneath the title).

A pleasant Ditty, of a Maydens Vow, That faine would Marry, and yet knew not how (H. G., 1601-40). Roxburghe 1.280-81; EBBA 30198. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Bodies – physique/looks; Emotions – longing, sorrow.  A maiden delays too long in agreeing to marry a man, and by the time she makes up her mind, he has changed his (picture placement: they stand beneath the title).

A delicate nevv Song, Entituled, Sweet-heart, I love thee (H. G., 1601-40).  Pepys 1.262-63; EBBA 20121. Gender – courtship, femininity; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – disdain; Society – rural life, urban life. A young woman makes the mistake of dismissively rejecting the romantic advances of an honest countryman (picture placement: they appear above the text on the right side of the sheet).

The Married-womans Case: OR Good Counsell to Mayds, to be carefull of hastie Marriage (H. G., 1601-40). Pepys 1.410-11; EBBA 20193. Gender – courtship, marriage, masculinity; Recreation – alcohol, good fellowship; Morality – familial. Women are here advised to be very cautious in committing to marriage because of the dangers posed by a variety of misbehaving male types (picture placement: they appear beneath the title).

A mery new Jigge. Or, the pleasant wooing betwixt Kit and Pegge (H. Gosson, 1601-40). Pepys 1.258-9; EBBA 20119. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Humour – mockery. An amorous man woos an insulting and resistant woman, without success (picture placement: they appear above the text on the right side of the sheet).

A Posie of rare Flowers, Gathered by a Young-man for his Mistrisse (H. Gosson, 1601-40). Pepys 1.308-09; EBBA 20146. Gender – courtship; Emotions – love; Nature – flowers and trees. A wholesome romantic ballad in which a man describes the posie he has prepared for his sweetheart (picture placement: they appear directly beneath the title).

A most pleasant Dialogue: OR A merry greeting betweene two lovers (H. G., 1601-40). Pepys 1.310-11; EBBA 20147. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Humour – misunderstanding; Recreation – good fellowship. A woman initially rejects with aggressive force the advances of a man, but she changes her mind at the last (picture placement: they appear over the text on the right side of the sheet).

The merry Forrester (H. Gosson, 1601-40). Pepys 1.224-25; EBBA 20101.  Gender – femininity, masculinity, sex; History – romance, ancient/mythological; Humour – bawdry; Society – rich/poor. This song celebrates the value of kissing in all epochs and on all social levels (picture placement: they appear above the text on the right side of the sheet).

An Excellent Sonnet: OR, The Swaines complaint, whose cruell doome, It was to love hee knew not whom (J. Wright, 1602-46). Roxburghe 1.110-11; EBBA 30072. Gender – courtship, masculinity, singles; Humour – extreme situations/surprises, mockery, satire; Emotions – confusion. A young man is deeply in love but cannot identify the object of his affections, and he asks us not to laugh at him in his predicament (picture placement: they appear on the right side of the sheet, alongside Akimbo man with plumed hat).

Jone is as good as my Lady (A. M., 1615-53). Pepys 1.236-37; EBBA 20108.  Gender – femininity; Society – rich/poor; Bodies – physique; Employment – agrarian, female/male; Recreation – dance, games, music. A description of a country girl so perfect in all regards that no other woman can match her (picture placement: in a back-to-front version, they appear beneath the title, alongside an aristocratic woman with one hand on her hip).

A delicate new Ditty composed vpon the Posie of a Ring (F. C., 1620-40?).  Pepys 1.228-29; EBBA 20103. Emotions – love; Gender – courtship, masculinity, femininity. An uncomplicated courtship ballad in which a man and a woman each declare their exclusive devotion to the other (picture placement: they appear above the text on the right side of the sheet).

A Yong-mans most earnest affection to his Sweetheart, Exprest in a dainty Courtly Sonnet (no imprint, 1620-40?). Roxburghe 1.438-39; EBBA 30296.  Gender – courtship, femininity; Bodies – physique/looks; Emotions – love, longing; Family – children/parents, kin; Society – friendship; Environment – birds; History – ancient/mythological; Religion – ancient gods. Jack sings in praise of beautiful Dolly, resolving to marry her despite the opposition of his relations and friends (picture placement: they stand over the third and fourth columns of text).

The Passionate Lover (missing imprint, 1620s?).  Pepys 1.320-21; EBBA 20152. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Bodies – physique; Emotions – longing. A man is bowled over by the beauty of a woman and then driven to despair by his failure to win her (picture placement: they appear beneath the title in a reversed example of the usual image).

A Proverbe old, yet nere forgot, Tis good to strike while the Irons hott (Francis Grove, 1623-62). Pepys 1.386-87; EBBA 20179. Gender – courtship, femininity, sex, Cupid; Humour – domestic/ familial, bawdry, satire; Society – old/young. Young men are advised that many widows are currently available for marriage, presenting opportunities that should not be missed (picture placement: they appear, in a reversal of the usual image, on the right side of the sheet).

A pleasant new Ballad of two Lovers (H. G., c. 1623-62). Pepys 1.338; EBBA 20011. Gender –courtship, sex; Emotions – longing, love, joy, sorrow; Recreation – music. A woman is reunited with her lover but, after a night of love, he goes away again, much to her sadness (picture placement: they appear beneath the title and there is no other image on the sheet).

A Batchelers Resolution. OR Haue among you now, Widowes or Maydes (missing imprint, 1624-30?). Pepys 1.232-33; EBBA 20105. Gender – courtship, marriage, femininity, masculinity; Humour – domestic/familial; Economy – money; Bodies – looks/physique; Society – old/young. A man resolves to be a batchelor no longer but hopes that the woman he chooses will not be a slut, a scold or a drunken sot (picture placement: they appear on the right side of the sheet in a reversed reproduction of the usual woodcut).

A most excellent Song of the loue of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra, with their vnfortunate loue (J. W., 1624-46). Pepys 1.350-51; EBBA 20163. Gender – courtship; Environment – sea, weather, landscape, animals, flowers/trees; Places – travel/transport, English; History – ancient/mythological; Emotions – love, disdain, despair, sorrow; Employment – crafts/trades; Death – suicide, heartbreak; Recreation – dance; Religion – ghosts/spirits. Palmus and Sheldra love one another but never at the same time, and the consequences – despite the jaunty tune – are tragic (picture placement: they stand beneath the title, and there are no other woodcuts).

Fond Love why dost thou dally: OR, The passionate Louers Ditty, In praise of his Loue thats faire and witty (Francis Coules, 1624-80). Roxburghe 1.126-27; EBBA 30079. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Bodies – physique/looks; Emotions – longing, love; History – ancient/mythological, romance; Recreation – music; Religion – ancient gods.  A loquacious lover pleads with his sweetheart to grant his desires and praises her manifold qualities (picture placement: a reversed image appears over the third and fourth columns of text, next to a woman in a farthingale skirt).

The true Mayde of the South: OR A rare example of a Maide dwelling at Rie in Sussex, who for the love of a young man of Lester-shire, went beyond Sea in the habit of a Page (Francis Coules, 1624-80). Roxburghe 1.422-23; EBBA 30288. Gender – courtship, femininity, cross-dressing; Bodies – clothing, physique/looks; Emotions – love; Employment – sailors/soldiers, female/male; Environment – sea; Places – English, European. A young woman dresses as a page in order to accompany her sweetheart when he goes to sea and, when the truth emerges, the lovers get married in Germany (picture placement: they stand beneath the title).

A good Wife, or none (Francis Coules, 1626-44). Roxburghe 1.140-41; EBBA 30086. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity, Cupid; Emotions – anger; Morality – sexual; Environment – animals, birds, flowers/trees. A man, let down by an inconstant sweetheart, resolves to make do without women in the future unless he can find a more reliable one (picture placement: they appear beneath the title, accompanied on the other side of the sheet by Akimbo man with plumed hat and Queen Elizabeth).

A pleasant new Court Song, Betweene a young Courtier, and a Countrey Lasse (Edward Wright, c.1628). Pepys 1.300-1; EBBA 20141. Gender – courtship; Emotions – love; Nature – flowers and trees, birdsong. A young man overhears and falls in love with one or possibly two maidens (picture placement: they appear over the text on the right side of the sheet).

A New little Northren Song called, Under and over, over and under (H. G., 1631-40). Pepys 1.264-5; EBBA 20122. Gender – courtship, masculinity, femininity, sex; Humour – deceit/disguise. A young pregnant woman is deserted by a man, but with the help of her mother she tricks an unsuspecting tailor into marriage (picture placement: they appear on the right side of the sheet, in a reverse reproduction of the usual image).

A constant Wife, a kinde Wife, A loving Wife, and a fine Wife (F. C., 1631-56). Pepys 1.390-91; EBBA 20181. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Emotions – anger, love, joy; Morality – familial; Family – kin; Bodies – looks/physique; Violence – interpersonal; Society – old and young, rich/poor.  A young man fights hard to free his sweetheart from the confinement imposed by her disapproving ‘friends’, and then finds time to praise her person in considerable detail (picture placement: they appear on the right side of the sheet). 

The fetching home of May: OR, A pretty new Ditty wherein is made knowne, How each Lasse doth strive for to have a greene Gowne (J. Wright junior, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.538-39; EBBA 30357. Recreation – fairs/festivals, games/sports; Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity, sex, Cupid; Nature – flowers/trees; History – ancient/mythological; Emotions – longing. An exuberant courtship ballad in which the fetching home of May is strongly associated with youthful love-making (picture placement: they stand on the right side of the sheet, alongside a Woman in charge).

Joy and sorrow mixt together: Or, a pleasant new Ditty, wherein you may find Conceits that are pretty to pleasure your mind (John Wright the younger, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.170-71; EBBA 30107. Gender – courtship, marriage, sex; Family – pregnancy/childbirth; Bodies – looks/physique; Emotions – longing, contentment, sorrow; Morality – sexual/romantic; Recreation – alcohol, good fellowship; Society – neighbours. In the first part, a man sings the praises of his sweetheart and marries her, but in the second part, he realises that she is already pregnant by another man and regrets his hurry to be hitched (picture placement: the image appears over the third and fourth columns of text).

The Marryed Mans Lesson: OR, A disswasion from Jealousie (John Wright the younger, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.510-11; EBBA 30343. Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity; Humour – domestic/familial. The narrator warns men to accept all sorts of wives and avoid jealousy because it only leads to further problems (picture placement: they appear beneath the title a on sheet that also features Queen Elizabeth and Akimbo man with clouds).

A pleasant new Ditty: intituled, Though rich golden Booties your luck was to catch, Your last was the best, 'cause you met with your match (J. Wright junior, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.508-09; EBBA 30342. Gender – courtship, marriage, masculinity; Humour – domestic/familial, extreme situations/surprises, bawdry; Bodies – physique/looks, health/sickness; Death – old age, illness; Disability – physical; Society – old/young; Economy – money; Recreation - food. A greedy bachelor marries three old widows in succession, inheriting all their wealth, but is then undone by his fourth wife, a teenager, who ends up inheriting everything (picture placement: they appear on the right, next to a woman in courtly Elizabethan dress).

A Warning for Maides: Or the false dissembling, cogging, Cunning, cozening young Man (John Wright the younger, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.448-49; EBBA 30302. Gender – courtship, sex, masculinity, femininity; Emotions – longing, sorrow; Morality – romantic/sexual; Recreation – dance, games/sports; Society – neighbours. A maiden agrees to have sex with a man only after he promises to marry her, but is then devastated when he refuses to do his duty (picture placement: they stand over the third and fourth columns of text).

The Young-mans Wish, OR, Behold his mind fulfil'd, whom Love had almost kil'd, With joy reviv'd againe, as heere appeareth plaine (John Wright the younger, 1634-58). Roxburghe 1.440-41; EBBA 30297. Gender – courtship, masculinity; Bodies – health/sickness, clothing, nourishment; Emotions – longing, despair, contentment, love. A young man laments the fact that he is unable to express his love for a particular woman, but luckily she overhears and they get married (picture placement: they stand over the third and fourth columns of text).

The Kind beleeving Hostesse (E. G., 1636-52). Roxburghe 1.172-73; EBBA 30109. Employment – alehouses/inns, prostitution, female/male; Gender – sex, marriage; sexual violence; Bodies – clothing, physique/looks; Recreation – alcohol; Economy – livings; Morality – romantic/sexual; Environmnet – animals; Violence – sexual. A man expresses his reluctance to pay his tavern tab and describes, with a measure of disapproval, the sexual trading that is orchestrated by the hostess (picture placement: a reversed image appears over the third and fourth columns of text).

Ill-gotten Goods seldome thrive, Or, The English Antick (W. Gilbertson, 1647-65). Roxburghe 3.237; EBBA 30882. Gender – sex, courtship, masculinity, femininity; Bodies – clothing, adornment; Recreation – fashions, alcohol; Crime – robbery/theft; Employment – crafts/trades, prostitution, alehouses/inns; Humour – bawdry, deceit/disguise, extreme situations/surprises, mockery; Family – children/parents; Morality – romantic/sexual; Violence – interpersonal. Dick, the miller’s son, buys fancy clothes in order to impress women, but the maiden with whom he has sex turns out to be a 'pocky whoore' and steals all his finery in the night (picture placement: in an inverted image, they stand over the third and fourth columns of text).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

This ballad clearly draws loose inspiration from the classical Greek tale of Sappho and Phaon, which appears in numerous early modern printed texts, particularly translations of Ovid’s Heroides (listed below). In early modern versions, the beautiful courtesan named Sappho, properly the subject of the classical story, is often conflated with another Sappho, the famous poet from the island of Lesbos.

The connection between the ancient tale and the Jacobean ballad is alluded to in verses six and eight of the latter (unfortunately, these do not feature in our recording). Here, Palmus compares himself to Phao[n] and declares, ‘Faire Venus never was his fare,/ Ile beare the Queene of love’. This refers to the story from Ovid, in which Phaon offers Venus, the goddess of love, a free ride in his boat and is rewarded with an ointment that makes him irresistibly beautiful. Similarly, the line ‘For Cupids selfe our Barge shall steere’ is clearly related to the statement that Ovid attributes to Sappho: ‘At helme will Cupid sit,/ and steare thy shippe to land’.

Furthermore, Palmus and Sheldra share the initial letters of their names with Phaon and Sappho. And Palmus, like Phaon, is a ferry-man who goes away from his sweetheart without adequate explanation, plunging her into anger and despair. Following this initial departure, the ballad-maker elaborates on the original story by adding new phases: Palmus’ return to Shackley-hay and Sheldra’s retaliatory rejection of him; his dejected second departure and subsequent drowning at sea; and Sheldra’s change of heart, followed by her own sorrowful end. Along the way, the ballad-writer deploys elaborate natural imagery (swans, fishes, woods, flowers) that seems to recall Ovid’s account.

It is likely that the ballad-composer was familiar with another version of the classical story. John Lyly’s work of 1584, Sapho and Phao, was performed before Elizabeth I and aimed to flatter the queen by comparing her to the immensely desirable Sappho. For this device to work effectively, Sappho becomes a great queen herself, even vying with Venus for power.

The classical narrative was changed by Lyly in several other aspects too, and some of these alterations hint at a relationship between his text and the later ballad: the social inequality of the lovers is highlighted in both sources (see verse 4 of the ballad for a hint of this); the idea that love can turn to hate or disdain is similarly prominent; and the ballad describes Sappho as ‘a learned Queene’, a label that is unlikely to have originated in translations of Ovid’s work. It is also worth noting, finally, that Lyly and the ballad-maker both render the key names as ‘Phao’ and ‘Sapho’, rather than the more common ‘Phaon’ and ‘Sappho’.

Christopher Marsh

Texts (in chronological order)

The heroycall epistles of the learned poet Publius Ovidius Naso, in English verse set out and translated by George Turbevile (1567), fos. 108v-117r.

John Lyly, Sapho and Phao played before the Queenes Maiestie on Shrove-tuesday, by her Majesties children, and the Boyes of Paules (1584).

Ovids heroical epistles, Englished by John Sherburne, Gent (1639), pp. 137-44.

A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra (first registered, 1613).

Thomas Heywood, The general history of women (1657), pp. 544-50.

Ovids heroical epistles Englished by W. S. (1663), pp. 165-73.

Ovid’s epistles translated by several hands (1680), pp. 1-7.

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A most excellent Song of the love of young Palmus, and faire Sheldra, with their unfortunate love.

To the tune of Shackley-hay.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text. Verses in square brackets do not appear on the recording]


YOung Palmus was a Ferriman,

whom Sheldra faire did love:

At Shackley where her sheep did graze,

she there his thoughts did prove.

But he unkindly stole away,

and left his love at Shackley hay.

Fa, la la, fa, la la la la.

So loud at Shackley did she cry,

the words resound at Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, fa, la la la la.


But all in vaine she did complaine,

for nothing could him move:

Till wind did turne him backe againe,

and brought him to his love.

When she saw him thus turnd by fate,

She turnd her love to mortall hate.

Fa, la la, &c.

Then weeping to her did he say,

Ile live with thee at Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


No no (quoth she) I thee deny,

my love thou once didst scorne:

And [‘to’ added in other editions] my prayers wouldst not heare,

but left me here forlorne:

And now being turnd by fate of wind,

Thou thinkst to win me to thy mind.

Fa, la la, &c.

Go, go, farewell, I thee denay,

Thou shalt not live at Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


If thou dost my love disdaine,

because I live on seas:

Or that I am a Ferry man,

my Sheldra doth displease:

I will no more in that estate,

Be servile unto wind and fate.

Fa, la la, &c.

But quite forsake Boate, Oares, & Sea,

And live with thee at Shackley-hay,

Fa, la la, &c.


My Sheldra’s bed shall be my Boat,

her armes shall be my Oares,

where love in stead of storms shall float,

on pleasant downs and shores:

Her sweetest breath my gentle gale,

Through tides of love to drive my saile.

Fa, la la, &c.

Her looke my praise, and she my joy,

To live with me at Shackley-hay,

Fa, la la, &c.


[Not Phao shall with me compare,

so fortunate to prove:

Faire Venus never was his fare,

Ile beare the Queene of love:

The working waters never feare,

For Cupids selfe our Barge shall steere,

Fa, la la, &c.

And to the shore I still will cry,

My Sheldra comes to Shackley-hey.

Fa, la la, &c.]


[To strew my Boate for thy availe,

Ile rob the flowrie shores:

And whilst thou guid’st the silken saile,

Ile row with silver Oares:

And as upon the streames we float,

A thousand Swans shal guide our boat.

Fa, la la, &c.

And to the shore still will I cry,

My Sheldra comes to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.]


[And have a story painted there,

wherein there shall be seene:

How Sapho lov’d a Ferriman,

being a learned Queene.

In golden letter shall be writ,

How well in love himselfe he quit.

Fa, la la, &c.

That all the Lasses still shall cry,

With Palmus wee’le to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.]


And walking easily to the Strand,

wee’le angle in the brooke:

And fish with thy white=lilly hand,

thou needst no other hooke:

To which the fish shall soone be brought

& strive which shall the first be caught

Fa, la la, &c.

A thousand pleasures will we try,

As we doe row to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


[And if we be opprest with heat,

in mid=time of the day:

Under the Willowes tall and great,

shall be our quiet bay:

Where I will make thee fans of bowe

From Phoebus beames to shade thy browe

Fa, la la, &c.

And cause them at the Ferry cry,

A boat, a boat to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.]


A troupe of dainty neighbouring girles

shall dance along the strand:

Upon the gravell all of pearles,

to wait when thou shalt land,

And cast themselves about thee round,

Whilst thou with garlands shall be crown[‘d]

Fa, la la, &c.

And all the shepheards with joy shall c[ry]

O Sheldra is come to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


Although I did my selfe absent,

‘twas but to try thy mind:

But now thou maist thy selfe repent,

for being so unkind:

For now thou art turnd by wind & fa[te]

In stead of love th’hast purchast hate.

Fa, la la, &c.

Wherefore returne thee to the Sea,

And bid farewell to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


The second part, to the same tune.


THus all in vaine he did complaine,

and no remorse could find:

Young Palmus through his own disdaine

made Sheldra faire unkind:

And she is from him fled and gone,

He laid him in his boat alone,

Fa, la la, &c.

And so betooke him to the Sea,

And bad farewell to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


Then from the happy sandy shore,

into the floating waves:

His vessell fraught with brinish teares,

into the maine he laves.

But all in vaine, for why, he still

With weeping eyes his boat did fill,

Fa, la la, &c.

And lancht his boat into the sea,

And bade farewell to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


Now farewell to my Sheldra faire,

whom I no more shall see:

I meane to leave my life at sea,

by thy unconstancy.

Come Neptune, come, to thee I cry,

With thee Ile live, with thee Ile dye.

Fa, la la, &c.

Thus he lancht himselfe into the sea,

And bade farewell to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


But farre from thence he had not gone,

ere Sheldra faire returned

Whose heart kind pity made to move,

such passion in her burned:

But when she to that place arriv’d,

She found the shore from him depriv’d.

Fa, la la, &c.

And her deare Palmus now at sea,

Had bade farewell to Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


She then with bitter sighes complaind,

her griefe did so abound:

Oft grieving, that she him disdaind,

whom she so loving found:

But now (alas) ‘twas all in vaine,

For he was gone by her disdaine.

Fa, la la, &c.

Leaving that place to her alone,

Who now laments that he is gone.

Fa, la la, &c.


O wretched Sheldra, then, quoth she,

confesse what fond disdaine,

Hath wrath caused to fall on thee:

could not ['by’ in other editions] this long-suffering paine,

By thee (alas) so soone forgot,

Serv’d to thy loves strange hatefull lot.

Fa, la la, &c.

And thus to lye, and for him crie,

Whom thou so fondly didst deny.

Fa, la la, &c.


Who once did truely love, I see,

shall never after hate,

As doth too well appeare by me,

in my forsaken state.

Alas, I meant my scorne to prove,

By onely tryall of his love.

Fa, la la, &c.

Now haplesse me, since I doe see,

He hath forsaken wofull me,

Fa, la la, &c.


Thus all this while in roughest seas,

poore Palmus boat was tost:

But more his mind with his disease,

because he Sheldra lost.

In midst of this, he her forsweares,

He rent his boat and tore his haires.

Fa, la la, &c.

Threw hope away, for he, alas,

Could be no more drownd then he was.

Fa, la la, &c.


Even as his griefe had swallowed him,

so strove the greedy waves:

About his boat, and o’re the brim,

each lofty billow raves:

There is no trust to swelling powers,

That what it may, it still devoures,

Fa, la la, &c.

But by the breach the seas might see,

the boat felt more the rage then hee.

Fa, la la, &c.


Thus wrackt & scatterd was their state

while he in quiet swomme:

Through liquid pathes to Thetis gate,

by soft degrees went downe

Whom when the Nymphs beheld, the Girles,

Soone layd aside their sorting pearles.

Fa, la la, &c.

And up they heav’d him as a guest,

Unlookt for, now come to their feast.

Fa, la la, &c.


His case they pittied: but when they

beheld his face right faine:

For very love, into the sea

they pulld him backe againe:

So were they with his beauty mov’d,

For what is faire is soone belov’d.

Fa, la la, &c.

Thus with Nymphs he lives in the sea

That lost his love at Shackley-hay.

Fa, la la, &c.


Then Sheldra faire to Shackley went,

to end her wofull dayes,

Because young Palmus cast himselfe

into the floating Seas.

At Shackley-hay did faire Sheldra dye,

And Palmus in the sea doth lye,

Fa, la la, &c.

So as they lived, so did they dye,

And bade farewell to Shackley-hay.

Pa, la la, &c.


Printed at London for J. W.

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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 'Shakeley hay'); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Shackley Hey').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: 1613.

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

No. of extant copies: 12

New tune-titles generated: 'Shakly Hey' (2 ballads).

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 9 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V25856).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 5 + 24 + 12 + 4 + 0 + 0 = 75

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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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