84  A very godly Song, intituled, The earnest petition of a/ faithfull Christian, being Clarke of Bodnam, made upon his/ Death-bed [Pepys 1.48-49]

Author: Anonymous

Death - godly end Emotions - hope Family - children/parents Gender - marriage Recreation - music Religion - Bible Religion - Christ/God Religion - angels Religion - body/soul Religion - faith Religion - heaven/hell Religion - prayer Religion - sin/repentance

Song History

A very godly Song was clearly successful from the 1620s until the 1680s but it then appears to have faded in popularity. It presents the final words of a devout parish clerk, a lay officer of the local church rather than an ordained minister. He comes from ‘Bodnam’, raising the possibility that the song might conceivably be related to the death of an actual individual. Attempts to track him down seem futile, however, for the clerk does not tell us his name – he has other things on his mind – and we cannot even be sure where he lived. The Cornish parish of ‘Bodmin’ was sometimes called ‘Bodnam’ in this period (see Anon, Strange and true Newes) and it seems the most plausible candidate but there were also settlements called ‘Bodenham’ in Herefordshire and Wiltshire.

Most historians of religion can probably agree that the success of this song reflects a strong demand for serious, sober religion in ballad form during the seventeenth century. Beyond this, however, they have reached different conclusions about the religious content of the song. Tessa Watt considers it a ‘thoroughly Protestant’ publication that presents justification by faith alone as a positive prospect for all who turn to God. Ian Green, in contrast, finds little evidence of genuinely Protestant doctrine, arguing that the clerk’s faith and repentance are both under-developed and that his love of funereal bell-ringing would have been suspect in the eyes (or ears) of well-informed believers.

Green also notes the clerk’s questionable beliefs that a place in heaven could be ‘won’ through personal repentance and that salvation was available ‘at any time’ (the implication being that deathbed conversions were acceptable to God). All in all, Green argues, the supposedly ‘godly’ clerk believes that his own conduct in his last hours is the crucial determinant of his soul’s ultimate destination, an assumption that was unacceptable to Protestants.

Perhaps this argument goes too far in denying the presence of Protestantism within this song. There are, after all, many features of the clerk’s speech and conduct that seem entirely in line with the characteristics of a ‘good death’, as described by Protestant, even ‘puritan’, authors of the period (Houlbrooke): the dying man emphasises the saving sacrifice of Christ and his own faith in its efficacy; he does not believe that his good works will help him to reach heaven, and the reference to ‘winning’ salvation through repentance seems clumsy rather than ignorant; he does, admittedly, believe that divine mercy is available ‘at any time’, but only to those who have the ‘power and grace’ to refrain from carnal sin; he is willing and ready to die, and patient in his suffering; he bids a loving farewell to his family and urges them not to grieve; he anticipates a ‘transmutation’ that occurs instantaneously at the moment of death, and there are no lingering references to purgatory; he mentions repeatedly the simple tolling of a ‘passing Bell’ – acceptable to most Protestants - but never asks for the more elaborate ringing that sometimes caused controversy at early-modern funerals;  and his words are peppered with references to the Scriptures (see Related texts).

Perhaps the clerk does not develop his points as fully as he might have done but we must remember that (a) he was dying, and (b) the ballad-maker was short of space on the page. Moreover, there can be little doubt that most contemporary ballad-consumers would have understood A very godly Song as a broadside that described an exemplary Protestant death. The first woodcut sets the scene perfectly, and Andrew Cambers sees it as evidence of a practice that was ‘at the heart of the godly experience’. After the Reformation, the presence of a clergyman was no longer a necessary feature of a ‘good death’ but the local minister was probably still quite a regular guest at the deathbeds of the devout. In the picture, he reads to the company from a book, presumably the Bible.

There is also something to be said about the fact that the singer of the ballad was a parish clerk. Every parish had such a clerk, and his role was to ‘bear a part in all the Divine Offices of the Church’ (B.P.). One of the clerk’s principal duties during the seventeenth century was to lead the congregation in singing a metrical psalm during divine service. He was therefore expected to be musically competent, and it is interesting that the Clerk of Bodnam asks for divine assistance so that he can ‘rejoyce and sing,/ With Psalmes unto my heavenly King’. He mentions singing twice more in the song, and the repeated references to bell-ringing add to the impression that this was a godly man with a particular interest in the music of the parish church (see also Related texts).

This ballad was probably one of the most widely known of all deathbed compositions in early modern England, and Tessa Watt is right to highlight its optimistic tone. The clerk models Christian fortitude in the face of death, reassuring listeners that the spiritual prospects were positive for those whose intentions were good. Pain and temptation are well-managed, and the clerk shows us that we, like him, can hope and expect to ‘live for ever in true rest’. He may from time to time have been a little off-the-mark in theological terms but he probably did society a service, nonetheless. To such a man, even the sound of his own ‘passing bell’ was ‘sweet’.

Christopher Marsh


Anon, Strange and true Newes of an Ocean of Flies dropping out of a Cloud, upon the Towne of Bodnam in Cornwall. To the Tune of Cheevy Chase (1647).

The Bible and Holy Scriptures conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament (Geneva, 1561).

The Bible in Englishe, according to the translation of the great Booke (1553).

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

Andrew Cambers, Godly reading. Print, manuscript and puritanism in England, 1580-1720 (Cambridge, 2011), p. 68.

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

English Short Title Catalogue.

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), pp. 452 and 466.

The Holy Bible. Quatercentenary edition… of the King James Version… published in the year 1611 (Oxford, 2010).

Ralph Houlbrooke, ‘The puritan death-bed, c.1560–c. 1660’ in  Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales (eds.), The culture of English puritanism, 1560–1700 (London, 1996), pp. 122-44.

B. P., The parish-clerk’s vade mecum (1694).

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. 311 and 2811.

Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, The whole book of psalmes, collected into English metre (1562; edition of 1668), psalms 9, 14, 48 and 121.

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 104-06.

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Featured Tune History

‘To a pleasant new tune’ (unidentified)

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

The ‘pleasant new tune’ to which this song was sung has not been identified and we have therefore not made a recording.

Echoes (an overview)

Without a clearly identified tune, it is impossible to provide information on other ballads that used the same melody.

Songs and Summaries

A very godly Song, intituled, The earnest petition of a faithfull Christian, being Clarke of Bodnam, made upon his Death bed... To a pleasant new tune (H. G., 1624-40). Pepys 1.48-49; EBBA 20228. Death – godly end; Religion – prayer, Bible, body/soul, Christ/God, heaven/hell, sin/repentance; Emotions – hope; Family – children parents; Gender – marriage. A humble and exemplary Christian dies a good death, bidding farewell to his loved ones and praying to God for salvation through faith in Christ.

Christopher Marsh

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Biblical scene

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)

Margaret Aston has pointed out that this image, depicting Biblical events described in the Book of Joshua, originated in the Holie Bible of 1572 (known as the Bishops’ Bible). In order to produce the ballad illustration, the woodblock has evidently been cut so that the new image includes only one section – roughly a quarter – of the original. On two of the ballads listed below, the specificity of the Bible picture has also been reduced by the removal of the labels – ‘JOSU 7’ and ‘JOSU 10’ – that had been present in 1572.

The woodcut’s highly unusual journey from a grand Elizabethan Bible to three common ballads of the 1620s is difficult to trace. It seems that editions of the Bible from 1578 onwards dropped the picture, along with many others. This was probably because of intense Protestant qualms over the use of pictures in Scripture. As Aston demonstrates, the woodblock was passed from printer to printer before the image re-surfaced in the ballad literature of the early seventeenth century.

On our hit ballad, the details of the picture are impossible to make out and it seems unlikely that the events described in the relevant chapters of the Book of Joshua – various bloody battles – are in play here. It may be mistaken, however, to suppose that the image was chosen without consideration and purpose. The distinctive design makes it likely that viewers would have recognised it as a Biblical image, even if they could not identify the particular events that were depicted. It therefore serves as a symbol of religious devotion that is entirely suited to A very godly Song about the pious death of an exemplary parish clerk, a man who clearly knew the Scriptures intimately (see Related texts).

Similar associations are called up by the other ballads listed below, though in A Prophesie of the Judgment Day the woodcut, set alongside others of a similar sort, was also being used to create an apocalyptic sense of imminent catastrophe (warfare, floods and famine). Even though the original Biblical labels are visible on this version of the picture – they had not yet been filed away - the associations are again general rather than specific.

The surviving woodcuts appear to have been produced from the same Elizabethan woodblock, and it was in remarkably good condition given its age. This suggests that it had been carefully stored somewhere for many years. Its emergence was, however, short-lived and it did not appear regularly on ballads of the seventeenth century.

Songs and summaries:

Glad tydings from Heauen: OR Christs glorious Inuitation to all Sinners, wherein is described the misery of his Manhood, and the bitternesse of his Passion endured for Man (C. W., 1610-38). Roxburghe 1.134-35; EBBA 30083. Religion – Christ/God, sin/repentance, Bible, body/soul, heaven/hell; Death – execution, godly end; Bodies – injury; Violence – punitive; Emotions – hope; Crime – murder, general; Morality – general; Family – children/parents. Jesus appeals directly to all people, urging them to turn to him, repent their sins and remember how he suffered to save humankind (picture placement: the scene appears over the third and fourth columns of text).

A Prophesie of the Judgment Day.  Being lately found in Saint Denis Church in France, and wrapped in Leade in the forme of an Heart (I. W., 1619-20).  Pepys 1.36-37; EBBA 20171.  Religion – prophecy, Christ/God, divine intervention, prayer, heaven/hell; Death – general; Nature – wonders; Violence – divine; Society – criticism. This reveals the content of a recently discovered French prophecy that predicts terrible events during the 1620s, culminating in Judgement Day at the start of the next decade (picture placement: the scene appears alongside another Biblical scene, and Biblical references to Joshua, chs. 7 and 10, can be read on the labels).

A very godly Song, intituled, The earnest petition of a faithfull Christian, being Clarke of Bodnam, made upon his Death bed (H. G., 1624-40). Pepys 1.48-49; EBBA 20228. Death – godly end; Religion – prayer, Bible, body/soul, Christ/God, heaven/hell, sin/repentance; Emotions – hope; Family – children parents; Gender – marriage.  A humble and exemplary Christian dies a good death, bidding farewell to his loved ones and praying to God for salvation through faith in Christ (picture placement: the scene appears on the right side of the sheet).

Christopher Marsh


Margaret Aston, ‘Bibles to ballads: some pictorial migrations in the Reformation’ in Simon Ditchfield (ed.), Christianity and community in the West: essays for John Bossy (Aldershot, 2001), pp. 106-30.

Tessa Watt, Cheap print and popular piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 168-69.

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Related Texts

The Clerk of Bodnam clearly knew his Bible well. In verses that are situated just beneath the woodcut, he refers repeatedly to ‘thy Gospell’ and ‘thy Blest word’ as he asks God to admit him to heaven. He refers directly to the Bible on four occasions, and several of his remarks reveal his knowledge of its contents. The reference to Simeon, for example, is from Luke 2:25-35, and the verse about scarlet sins that are rendered snow-white comes from Isaiah 1:18.

The clerk’s reference to his soul’s imminent ascent of ‘Sion hill’ - the mountain in Jerusalem that also symbolised heaven - is particularly interesting. None of the editions of the Bible that might have been known to him used the term ‘Sion hill’, opting instead for ‘Mount Sion’ or ‘Mount Zion’. ‘Sion hill’ was, however, a term that appeared regularly in the Whole book of Psalmes, collected into English metre, a publication upon which all parish clerks relied in performing their musical duties. It therefore appears that the ballad-makers worked hard to create an authentic impression of an experienced parish clerk approaching his death, something that must have contributed to the success of the song (see also Song history).

Christopher Marsh

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A very godly Song, intituled, The earnest petition of a/ faithfull Christian, being Clarke of Bodnam, made upon his/ Death bed, at the instant of his Transmutation.

To a pleasant new tune.

[We have not made a recording because the tune is unknown]


NOw my painfull eyes are rowling,

And my passing Bell is towling:

Towling sweetly: I lye dying,

And my life is from me flying.


Grant me strength, O gracious God,

For to endure thy heavy rod:

Then shall I rejoyce and sing,

With Psalmes unto my heavenly King.


Simeon that blessed man,

Beleeved Christ when he was come,

And then he did desire to dye,

To live with him eternally.


Christ wrought me a strong salvation,

By his death and bitter passion:

He hath washt and made me cleane,

That I should never sinne againe.


Grievous paines doe call and cry,

O man, prepare thy selfe to dye.

All my sinnes I have lamented,

And to dye I am contented.


Silly Soule, the Lord receive thee,

Death is come, and life must leave thee,

Death doth tarry no mans leasure,

Then farewell all earthly pleasure.


In this world I nothing crave,

But to bring me to my Grave,

In my Grave while I lye sleeping,

Angels have my soule in keeping.


When the Bells are for me ringing,

Lord receive my soule with singing:

Then shall I be free from paine,

To live and never dye againe.


Whiles those wormes corruption breed on,

Wayte my noysome corpes to feed on,

My fervent love (this prison loathing)

Craves a robe of Angels cloathing.


Farewell world and worldly glory,

Farewell all things transitory,

Sion hill my soule ascendeth,

And Gods Royall Throne attendeth.


Farewell wife and children small,

For I must goe now Christ doth call,

And for my death be ye content,

When I am gone, doe not lament.


Now the Bell doth cease to towle,

Sweet Jesus Christ receive my soule.


The second part of the Clarke of Bodnam.

To the same tune.


O God which did the world create,

Heare a poore sinner at thy gate:

Thou that from death didst set me free,

Remit my sinne and shew mercy.


Oh thou that caus’dst thy blessed Sonne,

Into this Universe to come,

Thy Gospell true here to fulfill,

And to subdue death, sinne, and hell.


Grant for his sake that dy’d on tree,

On the blest Mount of Calvary:

That I being grieved for my sin,

May by repentance heaven win.


The Gospell saith, Who so beleeve,

To them wilt thou a blessing give:

Amongst which number grant me faith,

That to beleeve, thy Gospell saith.


Which if I doe, (as grant I may,

Though here I dye, I live for aye:

Then Saviour sweet, remit my sin,

And give me grace that life to win.


And since they death (a price most great)

Hath bought me, here I doe intreat,

To give me grace thy Name to praise,

Both now, and evermore alwaies.


For by thy death my soule is free

From hell, which still by thy decree,

To sinners all for sinne is due,

Untill thy Son our Saviour true,


Did vanquish by Almighty power,

Death, hell, and all that could devoure

My sinnes, O Lord, I doe confesse,

Like sands in Sea are numberlesse.


Yet though my sinnes as scarlet show,

Their whitenesse may exceede the Snow,

If thou thy mercy doest extend,

That I my sinfull life may mend.


Which mercy thy blest Word doth say,

At any time obtaine I may,

If power and grace in me remaine,

From carnall sin for to refraine.


Then give me grace, Lord, to refraine

From sinnes, that I may still remaine

With thee in heaven, where Angels sing,

Most joyfully to thee our King.


And grant (O Christ) that when I dye,

My soule with thee immediately,

May have abode amongst the blest,

And live for ever in true rest.


Printed at London for H. G.

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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 'Clarke of Bodnam'); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Clerk of Bodnam').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

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

No. of extant copies: 8

New tune-titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 8 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V31896).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 0 + 16 + 8 + 0 + 0 + 0 = 54

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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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