Six dukes go to the coast on a fishing trip but find the body of another duke, that of Grantham, washed up on the shore. They take him away, embalm his remains with sweet-smelling ointments and bury him. His wife is, of course, not very happy with this turn of events.
A 1690 broadside is among the first documented accounts of this ballad. It seems likely that the song depicts a real set of events. The best candidate for the body is that of William de la Pole, the first Duke of Suffolk, who was murdered in 1450 by his enemies and thrown into the sea off Dover. De la Pole's untimely death is mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.
Six Dukes Went a-Fishing
As collected by Percy Grainger, in Linconshire (1906)
Six dukes went a-fishing,
Down by yon sea-side,
One of them spied a dead body,
Lain by the waterside.
The one said to the other,
These words I heard them say,
"It's the royal Duke of Grantham,
That the tide has washed away."
They took him up to Portsmouth,
To a place where was known,
From there up to London,
To the place where he was born.
They took out his bowels,
And stretched out his feet,
And they balmed his body,
With roses so sweet.
Six dukes stood before him,
Twelve raised him from the ground,
Nine lords followed after him,
In their black mourning gown.
Black was their mourning,
And white were the wands,
And so yellow were the flamboys,
That they carried in their hands.
Now he lies betwixt two towers,
He now lies in cold clay,
And the Royal Queen of Grantham,
Went weeping away.