85  A new Ballad, intituled, The stout Cripple of Cornwal [Euing 242]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: A new Ballad, intituled, The stout Cripple of Cornwal

Bodies - clothing Bodies - health/sickness Crime - murder Crime - robbery/theft Death - execution Death - result of immorality Death - unlawful killing Disability - physical Economy - hardship/poverty Economy - livings Economy - money Emotions - anger Emotions - greed Employment - begging Employment - crafts/trades Employment - professions Environment - landscape Environment - rivers Gender - masculinity Humour - deceit/disguise Humour - extreme situations/surprises Morality - social/economic Places - English Places - travel/transport Religion - charity Society - rich/poor Violence - interpersonal Violence - punitive

Song History

This ballad was registered with the Stationers in the 1620s and was issued regularly during the remainder of the seventeenth century. It was also republished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though from c. 1800 it appeared in a shortened form. The publisher John Pitts (1765-1844) stuck with the original twenty-five verses but William Shelmerdine, at work between 1800 and 1849, published editions with only ten verses. His Cripple of Cornwal was clearly very closely related to the seventeenth-century ballad and shared much of its language but it omitted much detail and concentrated on core aspects of the narrative: the fight with the aristocrat, now called ‘Lord Cornwal’ rather than ‘Lord Courtney’; the cripple’s escape across the river (still ‘eighteen feet wide’); his subsequent encounter with the Lord Cornwall, who fails to recognise him and gives him ‘a good British crown’ in charity (formerly ‘an English Crown’); and his eventual arrest and execution (now at Salisbury rather than Exeter).

In Shelmerdine’s version, the cripple changes his clothes while hiding in the hollow tree – an alteration that boosts the coherence of the narrative – and his companions in crime, once ‘thieves’, are now ‘rebels’. Other adjustments are minor, and overall it is clear that the publisher aimed to retain the energy and success of the original ballad while modifying it to suit the slip-song format of the early 1800s (the text is presented in a single column).

There is also evidence of the ballad’s survival as a folk-song, though early twentieth-century collectors only found it on a few occasions. Cecil Sharp wrote down a version from a singer named Lucy Carter at Tintinhull (Somerset) in 1906. Carter had learned the song from her great-grandmother and seems to have recalled only selections. She remembered how the cripple vaulted the river (now fifty feet wide!) and also how he hid in the old tree.

Carter had been under ten years old when her great-grandmother died, so these were the details that stuck in the mind of a young girl as she listened to the singing of an old woman. Interestingly, the remembered text includes the expressions ‘he’s a beautiful boy’ and ‘what a beautiful boy!’ As far as I have been able to establish, none of the printed texts describe the Cripple of Cornwall in this strikingly positive manner.

A fuller version was collected by Ella Leather in Herefordshire in 1909, from a ‘Blind fiddler’ named Gough. Here, the cripple ‘sweeps the highway’ (a new detail) and his miraculous river-vault is reduced to the original eighteen feet again. Gough’s song also dispenses with the cripple’s eventual execution, an omission that must have had a significant effect on the impact of the narrative. At a stroke, a song about a criminal who gets his just desserts becomes a song about a criminal who evades punishment. Indeed, the final lines tell us that the cripple has accumulated £900 ‘By begging & thieving’. As with the Somerset version, one senses multiple influences upon the text, probably including printed broadsides and oral transmission.

The popularity of the song in the seventeenth century was probably related to the manner in which it called upon existing prejudices and tropes that bundled poverty, disability and criminality together. More interestingly, it also played with these aspects of the  audience’s existing knowledge. To a degree, the ballad actually un-bundles these concepts by presenting the cripple’s two livings – a beggar by day and a thief by night – as distinct from one another. Another feature of comparable stories was that the physical impairments of disabled criminals and beggars often turn out to be faked in order to stimulate charity. One historian, under the influence of this common narrative device, argues that the anti-hero of the current ballad ‘feigns being a crippled beggar’ (Harvey). In fact, the ballad tells us quite clearly that the cripple ‘had never a leg to the knee’. With this in mind, his physical achievements – particularly the memorable vault – are remarkable, and perhaps we might even recognise him as a character who refuses to be restricted by his disability.

Despite this suggestion, the ballad is much more likely to have reinforced prejudices against disabled people than to have challenged them. The 'stout cripple' is manipulative, grasping, criminal and violent. He loves alcohol, good fellowship and he also belongs to a gang.

To some extent, however, he also upsets the expectations of listeners. He is severely disabled but immensely able. The severity of his impairment should have enabled him to beg as one of the ‘deserving poor’ but his physical vigour and supplementary criminality render him thoroughly undeserving, He is one of the dreaded ‘sturdy beggars’, and ‘stout Cripple’ may even mimic this well-known label. He deserves to die, and yet perhaps there is something impressive about his resourcefulness (let us not forget that surviving folk versions sometimes omitted his demise and called him a ‘beautiful boy’). As ever, we cannot really know what early-modern consumers thought about the song but a reasonable guess is that it amused them – cripples were funny in this period – by simultaneously confirming and unsettling their prejudices.

It is also worth noting that the Old Bailey records, as investigated by David Turner, suggest rather surprisingly that, in the eighteenth century at least, highway robbery was actually one of the crimes with which disabled men were most often associated. Only 5% of all Old Bailey defendants were accused of highway robbery but among disabled defendants the figure was 29%. Turner makes the interesting suggestion that the life of a highway robber may have offered disabled men a chance to assert their masculinity, a possibility that is reinforced by the violent physicality of the ‘stout Cripple of Cornwal’.

Turner also suggests that ‘cultural stereotyping’ may help to account for the high percentage of disabled highway robbers. One wonders what part our hit song, popular throughout the early-modern period, may have played in this. Did it merely express an existing association or might it also have influenced judicial decisions and even the career choices of some disabled men? Of course, we cannot answer this question.

Prejudices against poor and disabled people were not the only ones expressed in the ballad. Most English people seem to have regarded the far south-western county of Cornwall with something close to contempt in this period. As Mark Stoyle shows, it was considered rough, violent, rebellious, backward, uncivilised and even foreign. In the ballad, the only settlement to be named is Exeter, which is in Devon rather than Cornwall, but we are told repeatedly that the cripple is a Cornishman. ‘Lord Courtney’ cannot be identified precisely, but the Courtenays had deep roots (and deep purses) in both counties. Cornwall was a very poor county and its residents were considered a nuisance in the rest of southern England as they travelled in search of work. The ballad’s leading man must therefore have triggered all sorts of negative feelings that most modern listeners probably do not experience (though a certain degree of antagonism between Cornwall and the rest of England bubbled up to the surface in 2020 as a result of the Covid pandemic).

Stoyle makes the point that Cornwall’s resilient Royalism during the civil war of the 1640s led to an intensification of existing prejudices among Parliamentarians while also stimulating a contrastingly positive view of the county among supporters of the crown. We do not have the evidence to assess how A new Ballad fared in this highly charged atmosphere, though it is intriguing that the ballad partners did not include the song in their block-registration of 1656.

Christopher Marsh 


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

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

English Short Title Catalogue.

Anu Korhonen, ‘Disability humour in English jestbooks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, Cultural history 3.1 (2014), pp. 27-53.

Richard Harvey, ‘English pre-industrial ballads on poverty 1500-1700’, The historian 46.4 (August 1984), pp. 539-61.

Madden Collection, Garlands, vol. 1, nos. 196-97, Cambridge University Library.

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), no. 427.

M. J. Stoyle, ‘Pagans of paragons? Images of the Cornish during the English Civil War’, English historical review 111.441 (April 1996), pp. 299-323.

David M. Turner, ‘Disability and crime in eighteenth-century England. Physical impairment at the Old Bailey’, Cultural and social history 9.1 (2012), pp. 47-64.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, https://www.vwml.org/ [search for Roud number 12763].

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘The Blind Begger’ (standard name: The blind beggar)

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 Victorian musicologist and antiquarian, Edward Francis Rimbault, reportedly found the tune, entitled ‘The Cripple’, in a lute manuscript from the Restoration period, held at Etwall Hall, Derbyshire. William Chappell then published the melody with the words of The rarest Ballad that ever was seen,/ Of the Blind beggers daughter of Bednall-green (the song that gave the tune its main name). Unfortunately, the original manuscript has since gone missing. Reassuringly, the melody bears quite a close resemblance to an alternative version, also printed by Chappell, that was still ‘sung about the country’ during the nineteenth century. Our recording of A new ballad intituled, The stout Criple of Cornwall uses Rimbault’s tune, as notated by Chappell. Early-modern balladeers usually called it ‘Blind Beggar’, though it was sometimes known as ‘Pretty Bessie’.

Echoes (an overview)

The black-letter texts that were set to this tune are interesting in their connections and disconnections. At one level, A new ballad intituled, The stout Criple of Cornwall is very different from the others on the list; it describes a violent, thieving man while The rarest Ballad and The valarous Acts both feature thoroughly admirable women. And the two women – ‘pretty Bessee’ and Mary Ambree - seem different from one another as well, the first modestly conventional and the second boldly defiant.

Yet there are important points of contact too, and the shared melody is crucial in pointing these out. Physical disability connects Bessee, whose father is blind, with the stout cripple, who has no legs below the knee. The two men are also linked by the possession of a large sum of money, though the stout Cripple’s gains are sensationally ill-gotten. The rarest Ballad and The valarous Acts both draw attention to the resourcefulness of their young heroines, even if their particular styles are very different. And the warrior Mary Ambree is linked to the stout Cripple through a taste for violence, though she takes up arms for honorable causes and his only objective is to extract money from others. Thus, there is no one theme that unites these songs but there are many points of comparison.

The other ballad on this list, Good Counsell for young Wooers, can be linked to The rarest Ballad through its courtship theme, but it is rather different in tone and design from the songs with which it shared a tune. Indeed, the words with which the tune is nominated (see below) make the reference to ‘Pretty Bessee’ look almost like an afterthought, and each verse contains rather too many lines for the tune.

There are also a number of clear and specific textual connections between these songs, suggesting that they were composed and probably consumed in relation to one another (whether consciously or unconsciously). Several verses in The rarest Ballad conclude with variations on the line, ‘For none was so comely as pretty Bessee’. In The valarous Acts, this is echoed in the line, ‘But none so much won it as Mary Ambree’. A corresponding line in A new ballad – ‘The Cripple of Cornwal sir named was he’ – is not quite so close, though we should also note that the distinctive device of concluding several lines with the words ‘was he’ had also featured, in feminine form, in The rarest Ballad.

In The valarous Acts, we are told of Mary Ambree, ‘To wait on her person there came thousands three’, and this too echoes a line in The rarest Ballad: ‘and yet for her marriage he gave thousands three’. Such examples could be multiplied, but it is already apparent that these songs were intertwined in curious and interesting ways.

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

Songs and Summaries

The rarest Ballad that ever was seen,/ Of the Blind beggers daughter of Bednall-green (registered 1624, though probably Elizabethan in origin; F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63). Euing 293; EBBA 31907. Family – children/parents, inheritance; Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Disability – physical; Employment – begging, alehouses/inns; Bodies – looks/physique, clothing, injury, nourishment; Recreation – weddings, music, food, alcoholEconomy – hardship/poverty, money; Emotions – disdain, frustration, love, joy;  Places – English, travel/transport; Society – old/young, rich/poor.  A beautiful young woman is abandoned by most suitors when they realise that her father is a blind beggar, but one man remains devoted and he gets his rewards when, at a sumptuous wedding, her true aristocratic ancestry is revealed.

A new ballad intituled, The stout Criple of Cornwall, wherein is shewed, his dissolute Life, and deserved death... To the tune of the Blinde Begger (registered 1624; Printed by the Assignes of Thomas Symcock, 1628-31). Roxburghe 1.446; EBBA 30300. Disability – physical; Employment –begging, crafts/trades, professions; Crime – robbery/theft, murder; Death – unlawful killing, execution, result of immorality; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Society – rich/poor; Bodies – health/sickness,clothing; Economy – livings, hardship/prosperity, money; Gender – masculinity; Emotions – anger, greed; Humour – deceit/disguise, extreme situations/surprises; Morality – social/economic; Places – English, travel/transport. This tells the story of a disabled beggar who manages to double as a highway robber by working with a gang of fellow spongers before receiving his comeuppance in the end.

Good Counsell for young Wooers... To a dainty new tune, or else it may be Sung to the tune of Pretty Bessee (F. G., 1633?). Manchester Central Library, Blackletter Ballads 2.3; EBBA 36050. Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity; Recreation – weddings, fairs/festivals, theatre; Bodies – looks/physique; Emotions – longing, love. Advice is here offered to young men in search of sweethearts, particularly those who wish to ‘wooe a wench with a blacke brow’.

The valorous Acts performed at Gaunt, By the brave bonny Lasse Mary Ambre... To the tune of, the Blind beggar (William Gibertson, 1647-65). Manchester Central Library, Blackletter Ballads 1.14; EBBA 36066. Gender – cross-dressing, femininity, masculinity; Employment – female/male, sailors/soldiers; Violence – between states; Humour – deceit/disguise, extreme situations, misunderstanding; Politics – foreign affairs; Death – warfare; Emotions – joy; Bodies – clothing, physique. This celebrates the heroic bravery of an English female soldier who fought in the Low Countries and told the Duke of Parma she couldn’t marry him because he was a foreigner.


The tune was also nominated for the singing of several white-letter ballads on political themes. A HYMNE To the GENTLE-CRAFT, OR Hewsons Lamentation (1657-60?) is, for example, an attack upon the regicide and former cobbler, Sir John Hewson, and it opens with a nod to the more famous ballad about the stout cripple of Cornwall.  See also ARSY VERSY: OR, The Second Martyrdom of the RUMP (1660) and A New Satyricall BALLAD OF THE Licentiousness of the Times (1679).

Several of these songs also appeared in political songbooks of the period (see, for example, Ratts Rhimed to Death, 1660, and An Exact Collection of the Choicest Poems & Song Relating to the late times, 1661).

Christopher Marsh


Lucy Broadwood, ‘Songs from the Collection of Lucy E. Broadwood’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 1.4 (1902), pp. 202-03.

William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time (1859), vol. 1, pp. 158-60.

An Exact Collection of the Choicest Poems & Song Relating to the late times (1661).

Ratts Rhimed to Death (1660).

Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2012), no. 60.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Little man on grass

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)

The picture was not used on other editions of the song, either earlier or later, and a search of the two largest ballad collections has also been fruitless. The only ballad listed below is therefore our featured edition, taken from the Euing collection. On this edition, the sturdy-looking character reinforces the point made in title and text that the beggar of Cornwall is ‘stout’, despite his physical disabilities. Perhaps the fact that these disabilities were not depicted – his missing legs are clearly visible - also raised the possibility that the thieving beggar was faking his misfortune. If so, the joke did not catch on and the illustration was shelved.

Songs and summaries:

A new Ballad, intituled, The stout Cripple of Cornwal. Wherein is shewed, his Dissolute Life, and deserved Death (F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). Euing 242; EBBA 31791. Disability – physical; Employment –begging, crafts/trades, professions; Crime – robbery/theft, murder; Death – unlawful killing, execution, result of immorality; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Society – rich/poor; Bodies – health/sickness,clothing; Economy – livings, hardship/prosperity, money; Gender – masculinity; Emotions – anger, greed; Humour – deceit/disguise, extreme situations/surprises; Morality – social/economic; Places – English, travel/transport , This tells the story of a disabled beggar who manages to double as a highway robber by working with a gang of fellow spongers before receiving his comeuppance in the end (picture placement: he stands over the opening lines, and there are no other woodcuts).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

We have not found other texts that tell the story of the ‘Cripple of Cornwal’ or that share significant textual material with the ballad. It is intriguing, however, that on two occasions this song was published on the same sheet as another hit ballad, A sweet Sonnet, wherein the Lover exclaimeth against Fortune for the loss of his Ladies favour. (see, for example, our featured edition of this courtship ballad). This is a dialogue-song in which a man expresses romantic despair before being warmly reassured by his sweetheart. The decision to put the two songs together during the 1680s looks like a very deliberate one on the part of the highly successful and experienced publishers (Wright, Clark, Thackeray and Passinger) but it is difficult to assess their reasoning. The songs seem unrelated in terms of their themes, moods and music. Perhaps it was hoped that the novelty of seeing two such well-known titles side by side would be enough to stimulate fresh sales.

Christopher Marsh

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A new Ballad, intituled, The stout Cripple of Cornwal./ Wherein is shewed, his Dissolute Life, and deserved Death.

The tune is, The Blind Begger.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


OF a stout Cripple that kept the Highway,

And beg’d for his living all time of the day,

A story i’le tell you that pleasant shall be,

The Cripple of Cornwall sir - named was he.


He crept on his hands, and knees up and down,

In a torn Jacket, and a ragged torn Gown,

For he had never a leg to the knee,

The Cripple of Cornwal sir - named was he.


He was of stomack couragious and stout,

For he had no cause to complain of the Gout,

To go upon stilts most cunning was he,

With a staff on his neck most gallant to see.


Yea, no good fellowship would he forsake,

Were it in secret a purse for to take,

His help was as good as any might be,

The Cripple of Cornwal sir - named was he.


When he upon any service did go,

The crafty young Cripple provided it so:

His stool he kept close in an old hollow tree,

That stood from the City a mile two or three


Thus all the way ['day' in other editions] long he beg’d for relief,

And all the night long he play’d the false thief;

And seven Years together this custom kept he,

And no man knew him such a person to be.


There were few Grasiers went on the way,

But unto the Cripple for passage did pay,

And every brave Merchant that he did descry,

He emptied their purses e’re they passed by.


The noble Lord Courteney both gallant & bold,

Rode forth with great plenty of silver and gold

At Exeter there a purchase to pay,

But that the false Cripple his journey did stay.


For why the false Cripple heard tidings of late,

As he sat for alms at the Noblemans gate.

This is (quoth the Cripple) a booty for me,

And i’le follow closely, as closely may be.


Then to his companions the matter he moved,

which their false actions before time had proved

they make themselves ready & deeply they swear

The Monies their own before they come there.


Upon his two stilts the Cripple did mount,

To have the best share it was his full account.

All cloathed in Canvas down to the ground,

He took up his place his mates with him round.


Then came the Lord C. with half a score Men

Yet little suspecting these thieves in their Den,

And they perceiving them come to their hand,

In a dark Evening bid them to stand,


Deliver thy purse qd. the Cripple with speed,

For we be good fellows & therefore have need,

Not so, qd. L. Courtney, but this i’le tell ye,

Win it and wear it, else get none of me.


With that the L. Courtney stood in his defence

And so did his servants, but e’r they went hence

Two of the true=men were slain in the fight,

And four of the thieves are put to the flight.


And while for their safeguard they run thus away

The jolly bold cripple did hold them in play

And with his Pike=staff he wounded them so,

As they were unable to run or to go.


With fighting the Lord Courtney was out of breath,

and most of his servants were wounded to death

Then came other Horse=men riding so fast,

The Cripple was forced to flye at the last.


And over a River that ran there beside,

Which was very deep and eighteen foot wide,

With his long staff and stilts leaped he,

And shifted himself in an old hollow tree.


Then throughout the city was hue and cry made

To have these thieves apprehended and staid.

The Cripple he creeps on his hands & his knees,

And in the High=way great passing he sees.


And as they came riding, he begging doth say,

O give me one penny good masters I pray.

And thus unto Exeter creeps he along,

No man suspecting he had done wrong:


Anon the Lord Courtney he spies in the street,

He comes unto him and kisses his feet,

Saying, God save your honour, & keep you from ill,

And from the hands of your enemies still.


Amen qd. L. Courtney, & therewith threw down

Unto the poor Cripple an English Crown.

Away went the Cripple and thus he did think,

Five hundred pound more wil make me to drink


In vain that hue and cry it was made,

They found none of them tho the countrey was laid

But this griev’d the cripple night & day,

That he so unluckily mist of his prey,


Nine hundred pound the Cripple had got,

By begging and thieving so good was his lot;

A thousand pound he would make it up he said,

And then he would give over his trade.


But as he strived his mind to fulfill,

In following his actions so lewd and so ill:

At last he was taken the Law to suffice,

Condemned and hanged at Exeter Size,


Which made all men amazed to see,

That such an impudent Cripple was as he,

Should venter himself to such actions as they,

To rob in such sort upon the High=way.


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 'Cripple of Cornewell'); and Thackeray, 1689 ('Cripple of Cornwall').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 9

No. of extant copies: 9

New tune-titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 72 references, with occasional evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. 12763).

POINTS: 0 + 20 + 0 + 18 + 9 + 0 + 0 + 7 = 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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