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Sir Aldingar

[ Roud 3969 ; Child 59 ; Ballad Index C059 ; trad.]

The Oxford Book of Ballads

Jamie McMenemy sang Sir Aldingar in 1985 on French group Kornog’s Green Linnet album Ar Seizh Avel (On Seven Winds).

Chris Foster sang Sir Aldingar in 2008 on his CD Outsiders. He noted in the album’s booklet:

I have always loved singing the big narrative songs of the British ballad tradition. I found two texts for Sir Aldingar in Francis Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, where it is number 59. Child draws attention to variants of the story from across Scandinavia and as far south as Spain. I do not know of any English language version ever having been collected from the oral tradition, or found written down with a tune. The epic sweep of the two versions in Child’s book was just too good to ignore, so I compiled this text and made up a tune so I could sing it. Someone should make a film of it.

Brian Peters sang Sir Aldingar on his 2008 CD Songs of Trial and Triumph. He noted:

Sir Aldingar was highly-prized by F. J. Child, but he could find only two texts, one from the famous Percy Folio Manuscript (probably compiled in Northern England around 1650) and another from Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in 1803. These are significantly different, in that the latter (Child 59B) has an adult character, Sir Hugh Le Blond, kill the villain Rodingham in battle over the queen’s honour, and omits the prophetic dream.

Several scholars, Child included, tried to draw parallels with the Scandinavian ballad Ravengaard og Memering, documented in 1550, and with much earlier quasi-historical prose accounts and folk tales on the ‘accused queen’ theme. The ‘David and Goliath’ combat scenario occurs in several of these, with the champion variously described as a small man, a dwarf or—in William of Malmesbury’s account from around the year 1100—“a page-boy, the keeper of the queen’s pet starling”.

Sir Aldingar was never encountered by any collector of traditional song, and has never been recorded in English by a folk revival musician until now, when by a bizarre coincidence Chris Foster and myself (rather like the proverbial buses that arrive late and plurally) recorded our own different takes on the ballad co-incidentally, independently and almost simultaneously. Chris’s version is on his album Outsiders.

In attempting to render a ballad like this comprehensible to a modern audience, you have to arrive at a coherent version of the story, and retain a sense of poetry, whilst updating some archaic language in the originals. So for instance I translated the old proverb “When bale is at hyest, boote is at next” as “In time of trial help shall come” (v23). In Child 59A, the equivalent of my verse 27 ran:

When Aldingar see that little one, fful little (sic) of him hee thought
If there had been half a hundred such, of them he wold not haue wrought.

So I cheerfully own up to the fact that Liberties Have Been Taken.

That said, my ballad is collated from the Child A and B versions as follows: Verses 1, 14-1617, 19, 21-23, 26-29, 31-33 are adapted from A, with considerable condensation and rewording (sometimes only a few words of the original verse remain); verses 2-11, 24 and 30 are based loosely on B; verse 13 is from an additional three-verse fragment Child labelled 59C; verses 12, 18, 20, 25 and 34 are largely fabricated, in the spirit of the originals. Verse 18, for instance, combines the idea of messengers heading for the points of the compass—from B—with the successful quest of the Eastward-travelling messenger, from A. And although A includes the promotion of the leper to steward, the fact of the king rewarding the champion is from B—both went into my v34.

The champion is described in A as “a little child”, appearing to be “four yeeres old”. This was taking David and Goliath a bit far, and threatened to make the battle scene rather farcical, so I made him a bit larger, and left his nature ambiguous. A hobbit, perhaps?

I made up the tune. Long after composing it I detected echoes of Steeleye Span’s King Henry, which isn’t altogether surprising as that was the first Child Ballad that really grabbed me as a teenager. They pinched that tune from a different song (When I Was a Little Boy), anyway.

This video shows Brian Peters at the Bridge Folk Club, Newcastle, in November 2018:


Chris Foster sings Sir Aldingar

The birds sang clear as any bell
They never sang so well
The queen has gone to her chamber
To talk with Aldingar
“I love you well my queen my dame
More than lands and rents so clear
And for to spend one night with you
I would bear pain most severe.”

“Away, away you Aldingar
You are both stark and stoor
Would you defile the king’s own bed
And make his queen a whore?
Tomorrow you would be taken sure
And like a traitor slain
And I would be burned at the stake
Although I am the queen.”

Then there came a leper to the queen’s door
He was a leper blind and lame
Aldingar took him upon his back
And on the queen’s bed has him lain
He told the leper to lie still
And not to go away
And he would be a healthy man
By the dawning of the day.

Then he has gone out of the queen’s door
As quickly as he could go
And he’s gone straight to the very place
Where the king himself did go
The king said unto Aldingar
“What news have you for me?”
He said, “Your queen is a false woman
As I did plainly see.”

Then the king has gone into the queen’s door
So costly and so fine
And he’s gone straight to her bed chamber
Where the leper man was lain
He looked down on the leper man
As he lay on his queen’s bed
Then he lifted up the snow white sheet
And unto him he said.

“Since she has lain into your arms
She shall not lie in mine
Since she has kissed your ugly mouth
She’ll never more kiss mine
If you were a man as you are not
It’s here that you would die
But a pair of gallows shall be built
To hang you on so high.”

Then in anger he went unto the queen
Who fell upon her knee
He said, “You false and unchaste woman
What is this you’ve done to me?
If you had taken a comely knight
Well the lesser would have been your shame
But you have taken a leper man
Who is both blind and lame.”

Then the queen she turned herself around
A tear was blinding her eye
She said, “There’s not a knight in all your court
Dare make such a claim to me.”
He said, “’Tis true what I do say
For I a proof did make
Now you shall be taken from my bower
And burned at the stake.”

She said, “I thought that dreams were never true
But now I’ve proved them true at last.
I dreamed a dream the other night
In my bed where I lay
I dreamed a great and a gruesome beast
Had carried my crown away
My gorget and my belt of gold
And all my fair head gear.”

“How he would have worried me with his claws
And carried me into his nest
Saving there came a little hawk
Flying out of the west
Saving there came a little hawk
Which men call merlion
And with his claws he struck him down
And dead he did fall down.”

“Then the king said, “I will give you forty days
To find you a man there in
But if you find not a man in forty days
In a hot fire you shall burn.”
So she called up all her messengers
And sent them to the west
But they couldn’t find none to fight for her
Nor enter in the contest.

Then a messenger the queen sent east
Who rode for many a day
And as he rode along by a riverside
There he met with a little boy
Who said, “Turn again you messenger
Greet well our queen from me
And bid her remember what she has dreamt
In her bed where she lay.”

Then the day came on that was to do
That dreadful tragedy
But the little boy was not come up
To fight for our lady
So before the hour the queen was brought
The burning to proceed
And in a black velvet chair then she was set
It was a token for the dead
And she saw the flames ascending high
A tear blinded her eye
“Oh where is the worthy knight?” she said
“Who is to fight for me.”

Then up and spoke the king himself
“My dearest have no doubt
For yonder comes a little boy
As bold as he set out.”
Then the child advanced to fight the duel
And his sword was tempered steel
He struck the first stroke at Aldingar
And he cut his legs off at the knee.

“Stand up, stand up you false traitor
and fight upon your feet
Now I have taken your legs away
At an even height we shall meet
“Confess your treachery now,” he said,
“Confess it before you die.”
“Oh I do confess it,” said Aldingar,
“For I can no longer lie.”

“Now take your wife you King Henry
And love her with your all
For the queen she is as true to thee
As the stones on your castle wall.”
And the leper under the gallows tree
Was a healthy man and small
And the leper under the gallows tree
Was made steward in the king’s hall.

Brian Peters sings Sir Aldingar

Our king he’s wed a comely queen fair as the morning star,
And in his court he’s kept a steward, called Sir Aldingar.

The birds sang sweet as any bell that rang in heaven above,
Sir Aldingar’s to the queen’s bedchamber to declare his love.

“I love you well my queen, my dame, the truth to you I’ll tell,
And for to lie one night with you, the salt seas I would sail.”

“Away, away, false Aldingar, and darken not my door!
Would you defile the king’s own bed, and make his queen a whore?”

Sir Aldingar ran from the room, an angry man was he,
But there he met a leper begging for his meat and fee.

He’s given that leper wine to drink, liquor strong and sweet,
’Til he was as drunk as any lord, and he fell fast asleep.

He’s taken him in his two arms, and carried him along,
Until he came to the queen’s bedchamber and there he’s laid him down.

Now he has gone unto the king and fell upon his knee,
“Sire, your queen’s a false woman, as you may plainly see.”

He’s taken him to the queen’s chamber, pulled back the snow-white sheets,
And there they saw that leper who was lying fast asleep.

The king has called out for the queen, and an angry man was he,
Saying, “You have took that leper to your bed instead of me.

“Since he has lain all in your arms, you’ll never lie in mine,
Since you have kissed his ugly mouth, I’ll never more kiss thine.

“I will build a gallows tall to hang this leper man
And I will build a bonfire high and in it you shall burn.”

They’ve put her in a prison strong for quarter of a year
Where mice and rats ran o’er the floor and tore her yellow hair.

And she has dreamed a dreadful dream, in the bed where she did rest:
A gryphon seized her in its claws and carried her to its nest.

But then there came out from the East a hawk so small and brownm
Fell upon that deadly beast and struck it to the ground.

“I wish, I wish, I was a man, in battle I would prove,
I’d fight the traitor Aldingar, at him I’d cast my glove.

“But since I cannot battle make, grant to me this right,
Let me seek a champion bold, with Aldingar to fight.”

The queen has sent her messengers to the North, the West and South,
But none of them could find a man to prove the queen’s own worth.

Save for one last messenger, he rode out to the East,
And there he met with a little one no higher than his own breast.

“Oh you are not the man I seek, though you may make so bold,
For you are no more of a man than a child of ten years old.”

“Turn again, you messenger, do not me deny,
Bid the queen think on the dream in the bed where she did lie.

“Bid the queen remember how the hawk so small and brown
Fell upon that deadly beast and struck it to the ground.

“Turn again, you messenger, greet the queen from me,
In time of trial help shall come, so merry she should be.”

Now they have built a bonfire high, forced the queen therein,
Set in a black velvet chair, as a token of her sin.

And they have brought the brands of fire while tears fell to her breast,
But then they saw that little one, come riding from the East.

Saying, “Pull away those brands of fire, douse the flames right well,
I’ll fight the traitor Aldingar and send his soul to Hell.”

But when he saw that little one, he laughed both long and hard,
“Should I fear to fight a man scarce taller than a yard?”

The little one drew forth his sword, it shone as bright as gold,
It cast its light all o’er the field as he set forth so bold.

He struck first at Aldingar, took his legs off at the knee,
“Stand up, stand up, you false traitor! Now you’re a match for me.”

And the next stroke that the little one struck, it pierced him through the side,
’Til his heart’s blood came a-running like some crimson tide.

“A priest, a priest,” cries Aldingar, “for I am bound to die,
I will confess my dreadful deed, no longer can I lie.

“Full well I loved my beauteous queen, to me she did say nay,
’Twas me that brought that leper man all in her bed to lie.

“Take your wife, my noble king, love her, what e’er befall,
For she has proved as true to you as the stone is to the wall.”

The king has made that little man lord of his Eastern lands,
And he has took that leper for the steward at his right hand..


Thank you very much to Brian Peters for sending me his notes and lyrics.