The bishop of Canterbury replies that these are hard questions. It will take him three days to find some replies. If he fails to arrive at the rights answers, King John will then execute the bishop. On his travels, the bishop meets a shepherd (or his own brother), and explains his dilemma. The shepherd says, "Lend me you clothes, I will deliver the correct answers for you". The disguised shepherd then meets King John. His answers are:
As a result of this clever response, King John allows the bishop to live.
On the one hand the song is an oblique reference to the poor relationship between King John and the archbishop of Canterbury. On the other hand it can be enjoyed as a clever riddle-song. Francis James Child makes the comment that the roots of this ballad may be much older - perhaps going back to the sixth century, when riddling was a much stronger tradition in English poetry. (see Exeter Book and Anglo-Saxon literature).
The "Derry down" chorus belongs very much to the sixteenth century, similar to the song "The Keeper". A website dedicated to the printed books of William Chappel ("Popular music of Olden Time") suggests that milkmaids frequently sang as they went milking. The explanation of the "Derry down, down hey, derry down" might be the milkmaids pulling the cow teats down. (see Olden Times). However no other site endorses this theory.
In the "New York Folklore Quarterly", 1973 W. F. H. Nicolaisen went so far as to suggest that the song "originated before 850 A.D. in a Jewish parish in the Near East." Short of reading the magazine, it is hard to see how this theory can stand up.
An unusual version of the title is "The old Allot and King Olfrey" (Douce Collection, fol. 169). Olfrey is supposed to be a corruption of Alfred.
King John's father, Henry II, indirectly made a martyr out of Thomas a Beckett. Like his father, John had conflict with the Catholic church, and refused to ratify the Pope's choice for the post of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. The Pope responded with bureaucratic contraints, and in retaliation John removed several bishops from office.
The song has been found in England, The USA and Canada. The historical aspects of the song are for most people a mere backdrop to the real appeal of the song, as a riddle.
The idea that a shepherd, or the lesser brother of a bishop, could out-wit a king, is quite subversive. Most of the Robin Hood ballads have the same characteristics, except that the sherrif is in place of the king. King John is closely associated with Robin Hood, so perhaps this is not a coinidence. There is also the suggestion that the educated bishop (or abbot) is not as wise as the uneducated brother (or shepherd) - implying there is a "native wit" that is more valuable than school-book wisdom.
It is sufficiently old and widespread to have its own entry in the Aarne-Thompson classification system of fokltale classicifications, where it is classed as "AT 922". It is theoretically possible that it began as mythic folk tale, and was superimposed onto a story from history and then written as a song.
In 1923 Walter Anderson wrote a monograph called "Kaiser und Abt", mentioning 640 versions of the story. One of the Till Eulenspiegel stories has the King of Poland pitted against Till Eulenspiegel in a similar battle of riddles.
Percy Grainger collected a version in 1906. Helen Hartness Flanders made a field recording on wax cylinder some time between 1930 and 1958.
Over 10 ballad operas mention the tune by name. There are another 3 or 4 instances of broadside printings/Chapbook printings of it.
The versions from the USA, and versions collected in the twentieth century are less likely to depict King John as a villain in the opening verse.
The short stories (novelle) of Franco Sachetti (b 1335) contain a version of the story.
"More English Fairy Tales" by Joseph Jacobs (1894) contains a version adapted from the song. In his scholarly notes he says that there is a version by Vincent of Beauvais.
There is an illustrated children's book called "Riddle Me This! Riddles and Stories to Challenge Your Mind" (2003) by Hugh Lupton. It contains "The Riddle Song" and "King John and the Bishop of Canterbury". Jan Mark wrote an illustrated children's book called "King John and the Abbot" (2006), based on the song.
The English poet John Gower wrote a story called "The Tale of the Three Questions" in "Confessio Amantis". The King is guilty of envy, asks three difficult questions, and sets a similar time limit. A distant relative of inferior standing comes to the rescue. The only problem is that the riddles are not the same as the ones in the ballad. It has been suggested that the ballad was re-written in the sixteenth or seventeenth century in order insert new riddles, and so generate extra sales.
James Balwin retold the story in prose in the collection "Fifty Famous Stories Retold".
The tune is also known as "Shaking of the Sheets". It was printed with this title in 1776 in Hawkins "History of Music". It also appears as "Shakinge of the Sheetes" in William Ballet's lute manuscript. A tune of this title appears in the Stationer's register of 1568/9. The title is also mentioned in a play of 1560. The words that accompany this tune are a witty comparison between the bedsheets (a dance of life) and the winding sheets (the dance of death). "Shaking of the sheets" is sung by Steeleye Span on the album Tempted and Tried and by "The City Waites" on "Ghosts, Witches and Demons" (1995)
In Playford's dance manual (1650) this tune has the title "The Night Peece". Only with difficulty can the words of the Percy manuscript text, be made to fit this version of the tune. The tune also goes by the name "Derry Down". "The Night Peece" is the name of a dance in Playford's books.
|"Burly Banks of Barbry O: Eight Traditional British-American Ballads"||Elmer George||1953||"King John and Bishop"||.|
|"Child Ballads Traditional in the United States, Vol. 1"||Warde H Ford||1960 (recorded 1938)||"The Bishop of Canterbury"||.|
|"All Things in Common"||Chris Foster||1979||"King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"||.|
|"Contentment Or, the Compeat Nutmeg-state songster"||Jim Douglas||1986||"King John and the Bishop"||.|
|"D-Major Singers Vol 3"||D-Major singers||1994||"Bishop of Canterbury"||.|
|"Ballads Thrice Twisted"||Margaret MacArthur||1999||"King John and the Bishop"||.|
In 1891 Charles Josph Frost wrote a cantata "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" based on the ballad.
Thomas Baker's play "Tunbridge-Walks; or, The Yeoman of Kent" (1703) contains the ballad, but only the opening verses. This appearance may have been the inspiration for the tune being used on stage several times over the next 50 years, with different words.
In 1728 the ballad opera "Penelope" by Thomas Cooke & John Mottley used the tune. The same is true for Charles Johnson with his ballad opera "The Village Opera". In Charles Coffey's ballad opera "The Beggar's Wedding" (1729) there is a song ("When beggars do marry for better for worse"), set to the air "Abbot of Canterbury". He used the tune again in "The Devil To Pay" (1731), and yet again in "The Boarding School" (1733).
Thomas Cooke's ballad opera "Love and Revenge" (1729) uses the tune. In 1731 the ballad opera "The Jovial Crew" (by Matthew Concanen and others) was published with one song, entitled "The Snipe". It carried the direction that it was to be sung to the tune "The Abbot of Canterbury". Henry Fielding's play "Tumble-Down Dick" (1736) contains a song, "You Wonder Perhaps at the Tricks of the Stage", sung to the air "Abbot of Canterbury".
Abraham Langford's play "The Lover His Own Rival" (1736) uses the tune. In 1737 Dr Johnson published a collection of opinions on poems and songs. It includes this entry:
'The Gossipping: a ballad. To the tune of King John and the Abbot of Canterbury.' A mythological ditty of fourteen verses, each ending with a derry down.
It is not known where this song comes from.
In 1750 "The Gentleman" magazine published a song called "A Ballad of New Scotland", to be sung to the tune "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury". "New Scotland" is a reference to Halifax in Canada, founded 1749. A collection of songs called "The Button Hole Gallery" (c 1720 - 1750) contains a riddling song called "The Button Hole". It was sung to the air "The Abbot of conterbury". It reappeared as part of a collection of songs called "Merry Songs" (1897), edited by John S. Farmer.
The ballad is discussed here:
The Gower issue is discussed here:
W. F. H. Nicolaisen's theory
Jan Mark's book:
The lyrics are given here:
The lyrics to "Shaking of the Sheets" are given here:
Prose version by Joseph Jacobs:
Aarne-Thompson Type 922:
Various Ballad operas mention the tune:
The text of Coffey's "The Beggars' Wedding" is given here:
The text of Fielding's "Tumble-Down Dick" is given here:
The songs from "The Jovial Crew" are listed here:
Quotations from Dr Johnson's "Poems on various occasions" are given here:
The song "The Button Hole" is given here:
A description of the dance "The Night Peece" is given here, together with printed music