> Martin Carthy > Songs > Famous Flower of Serving Men
> June Tabor > Songs > The Border Widow's Lament

Famous Flower of Serving Men / The Lament of the Border Widow

[ Roud 199 ; Child 106 ; G/D 1:163 ; Ballad Index C106 ; Bodleian Roud 199 ; trad.]

Roy Palmer commented in his A Book of British Ballads (1986):

Unusually, it is possible to give a precise date and authorship to this ballad. It was written by the prolific balladeer, Laurence Price, and published in July 1656, under the title of The famous Flower of Serving-Men. Or, The Lady turn'd Serving-Man. It lasted in the mouths of ordinary people for three hundred years: what a tribute to the work of any writer, leave alone the obscure Laurence Price. Oral tradition, however, has made changes. The original has twenty-eight verses and a fairy-tale ending: “And then for fear of further strife, / he took Sweet William to be his Wife: / The like before was never seen, / A Serving-man to be a Queen”.

Bob Davenport sang The Border Widow's Lament in 1964 on the album Northumbrian Minstrelsy.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group sang Highland Widow's Lament in 1966 on their Transatlantic EP Four Highland Songs. Ian Campbell commented in the sleeve notes:

A well known and popular song (Hogg). In a troubled history the Highlands have known many ladies violently widowed and Lorna acknowledges this by omitting in this version all references to Charlie and the Jacobite cause. The tune is Gaelic.

Queen Caroline Hughes sang My Father He Built Me a Shady Bower to Peter Kennedy in her caravan near Blandford, Dorset on April 19, 1968. This recording was included in 2000 on the Rounder anthology CD, Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Volume 1, and in 2012 on the Topic anthology I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Volume 22).

The Clutha sang The Border Widow's Lament in 1971 on their Argo album Scotia!.

Martin Carthy sang Famous Flower of Serving Men on his 1972 album Shearwater. This track was also included on his 4 CD anthology The Carthy Chronicles and on a lot of generic folk compilations. A slightly different live version of this song is on the BBC recording The Kershaw Sessions. Martin Carthy recorded it again in 2004 for his album Waiting for Angels with verses very similar to the BBC recording. and sang it live at Ruskin Mill in December 2004 and live in studio in July 2006 for the DVD Guitar Maestros.

Martin Carthy wrote in the original album's sleeve notes:

There is a whole group of songs and stories in which the heroine, seeking to hide some shame, takes on a disguise. In Fairy stories, this has come out in, among others, the German tale Catskin, and the English Cap O'Rushes (more properly Cap O'Ashes?). In song, one of the forms it has taken is the one known on broadsides as The Lady Turned Serving Man, and [known] in drastically curtailed form to Bishop Percy, Sir Walter Scott and Johnson as The Famous Flower of Serving Men or The Lament of the Border Widow. Having first read The Famous Flower and been fired with enthusiasm, I was sobered by reading the rather pedestrian text of the broadside, which immediately followed, and gave the story an ending, because it simply did not match—either in intensity or elegance—the considerably older, shortened version, and decided to try and tell it in my own way. The tune came from Hedy West, who sings it to an American song called The Maid of Colchester.

and Maggie Holland and John Tobler commented in the sleeve notes of the Mooncrest reissue of Shearwater:

By common consent, the finest piece on the album is Famous Flower of Serving Men. The plot (brace yourself!): a mother sends violent thugs to her daughter's house to kill her husband and baby. The young woman digs their graves, buries them, dries her tears, cuts off her hair and dresses herself as a man. She goes to work at the King's court, where the King falls in love with her although he thinks she is a man, so he makes her his chamberlain. The King goes hunting one day and is led deep into the forest, to the site of the graves, by a magical white hind. He is visited by a white dove who is the spirit of the murdered husband and tells him the whole story, whereupon the King rides home, swearing vengeance on the mother, and sweeps the Famous Flower of Serving Men into his arms, and has the mother taken prisoner and burned at the stake. No mention of happy ever afters. The song is utterly compelling, with its complex but hypnotic rhythm and the vivid images it inspires: “They left me naught to dig his grave but the bloody sword that slew my babe”—it could easily be the substance of a full length opera, a film, a classical ballet, and Shakespeare could have made a major play out of it. Carthy manages to convey all this immense drama and emotion in under ten minutes. A. L. “Bert” Lloyd (one of the doyens of English folk music) apparently once said something about this: one shouldn't be surprised at such a song being so many verses long, but that it should be so many verses short.

Martin Carthy also wrote in the sleeve notes of Waiting for Angels:

[...] The last song is The Famous Flower of Serving Men—which is very close to my heart. I first recorded it on a now unavailable album called Shearwater and felt that it was time to have another shot at it. Over time these big songs have a habit of revealing more of themselves to you and over the space of thirty years or more this is no exception. The Famous Flower is another name for the May flower which is a symbol of ill luck and mischief. This song is about terminal bullying, child killing, abject humiliation and shame, redemption and terrible revenge. And all in the name of justice. There's a fury in those first five verses which sends the same shiver through me as when I first read them in 1970. The parson who sent them to Sir Walter Scott never sent the rest (!) so I glued some bits together and made up chunks to tell a story which is clear and terrifying. How people do things like this to each other and survive such episodes is beyond me but they do, don't they?

This video shows Martin Carthy at The Albert Hole in Bristol on February 28, 1996:

The High Level Ranters sang The Border Widow's Lament in 1973 on their Trailer album A Mile to Ride.

Linda Adams sang The Lament of the Border Widow in 1975 on her and Paul Adams' album Far Over the Fell and in 1998 on the Fellside anthology Fyre & Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. Paul Adams commented in the latter album's notes:

It is no coincidence that the Reivers gave the word bereave to the English language. The personal strength of the woman in the midst of crisis makes this a very moving song. There are many theories surrounding the historical context of this song. Scott maintained that it concerned “the execution of Cockburn of Henderland, a Border freebooter, hanged over the gate of his own Tower by James V in the course of the memorable expedition of 1529 which was fatal to Johnnie Armstrong, Adam Scott of Tushielaw and many other marauders.” Sadly William Cockburn was not hanged “over the gate” but was tried and beheaded in Edinburgh. However, we'll allow Marjorie Cockburn her grief and supreme nobility in this hauntingly beautiful ballad. Linda originally learnt it from the singing of Gordeanna McCulloch over twenty-five years ago and it has remained in her repertoire ever since. A version was collected in Oklahoma, USA, published in Ballads and Folk Songs of the South West which appeared on an LP complete with remarkably similar melody. In the note to the songs it says “an Oklahoma frontier wife and a Scots Border widow are, in many ways, sisters of circumstance.”

Mary Delaney sang My Brother Built for Me a Bancy Bower to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in Co. Tipperary in between 1973 and 1985. This track was included in 2003 on the Musical Traditions anthology of their recordings of Irish Travellers in England, From Puck to Appleby. They commented in the album's booklet:

In 1776, Bishop Percy of Dromore obtained a text of The Famous Flower of Serving Men from the Dean of Derry, whose mother remembered having seen it on a broadside. It does not seem to have turned up in Ireland since, apart from this confused fragment which Mary got from her father. However, Frank Purslow, in his note to the version included in the Hammond and Gardiner collection, found in Hampshire in 1908, writes of the song and its singer, Albert Doe:

Apparently a good singer with a very fine repertoire, some, if not all, of Irish origin. The tune of this, in any case, betrays its country of origin, as it is a variant, a good one, of a tune very much associated with texts of Irish origin, such as The Croppy Boy, The Isle of France, Sweet William, The Wild and Wicked Youth and several others.

The earliest known text was on a broadside in the mid-17th century, which was said to have been written by one Laurence Price, but Child suggests that he had based this on an earlier popular romance. It has been found among English Travellers, one of the most complete versions being from Dorset gypsy, Caroline Hughes, in the 1960s.

Ref: The Constant Lovers, Frank Purslow, EFDSS Publications Ltd,1972; Travellers Songs from England and Scotland, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (eds), R.K.P, 1977.

Jasper Smith sang The Small Birds Whistle to Mike Yates near Epsom, Surrey on April 26, 1975. This recording was released in 1977 on the Topic anthology of Gypsy singers, The Travelling Songster, and in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Father's the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Volume 11).

Chris Foster sang The Flower of Serving Men in 1977 on his Topic album Layers and in 2003 on his Tradition Bearers CD Traces.

Ellen Mitchell sang Border Widow's Lament on her and her partner Ken Mitchell's Musical Traditions CD Have a Drop Mair. The album's booklet commented:

Ellen: I learned this ballad from Gordeanna McCulloch, of Glasgow, and she doesn't seem to sing it very often any more, which is a great pity. She is the only person I have ever heard singing it.

A very old ballad; among Roud's 72 instances F.J. Child quotes a collection from a Mrs Barnard in Ireland in 1776, but it is obviously older than that. It was printed as a broadside all over these islands (including by both Anderson and Colquhoun of Edinburgh) and has been collected widely here and in the USA and Canada. It was printed in Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1806) and The Pocket Songster or Caledonian Warbler (1823), so it's not surprising that most British examples have come from Scotland, where the present title seems the most common; elsewhere it is more often known as The Famous Flower of Serving Men.

June Tabor sang The Border Widow's Lament in 2003 on her Topic album of Border ballads, An Echo of Hooves.

Isla St Clair sang The Border Widow's Lament in 2004 on her CD Looking Forward to the Past.

The Demon Barbers learned The Famous Flower of Serving Men from the singing of Martin Carthy and recorded it in 2005 for their CD Waxed.

Andy Turner sang The Small Birds Whistle as the October 31, 2014 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Kirsty Law sang the Lament of the Border Widow on her 2014 album Shift. She noted:

The version of this haunting song is from Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, sung to a version of a tune learned from singer and song writer Sandra Kerr.

False Lights sang Serving Man Become a Queen on their 2018 CD Harmonograph. They commented:

This set of words appears in Frank Purslow's book The Constant Lovers, from the Gardiner collection. Jim [Moray] learned them from Chris Foster, and set them to a couple of different tunes—the first newly written and the second borrowed from The New York Trader.

You Are Wolf sang The Weeper, together with Lisa Knapp, on her 2018 album Keld. She noted:

The Caoineag was a banshee spirit attached to Scottish Highland clans; she could be heard wailing at the bottom of waterfalls before death or catastrophe.

Lisa [Knapp] sings an adapted version of The Border Widow's Lament, its text [is] from A Choice Collection of Several Scots Miscellanie Poems and Songs. I use the tune from The Highland Widow's Lament [Roud V13721]—a song I know best from the opening of the 1973 film The Wicker Man. Both songs are about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692.

Includes a treated recording of a waterfall on Fair Isle made by Grace Parnaby, aged 7.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings Famous Flower of Serving Men on Shearwater Martin Carthy sings Famous Flower of Serving Men on The Kershaw Sessions

My mother did me deadly spite
For she sent thieves in the dark of night
Put my servants all to flight
They robbed my bower they slew my knight

My mother did me deadly spite
For she sent thieves in the dark of night
Put my servants all to flight
They robbed my bower, they slew my knight

They couldn't do to me no harm
So they slew my baby in my arm
Left me naught to wrap him in
But the bloody sheet that he lay in

They couldn't do to me no harm
So they slew my baby in my arm
Left me naught to wrap him in
But the bloody sheet that he lay in

They left me naught to dig his grave
But the bloody sword that slew my babe
All alone the grave I made
And all alone the tears I shed

They left me naught to dig his grave
But the bloody sword that slew my babe
All alone the grave I made
And all alone the tears I shed

And all alone the bell I rang
And all alone the psalm I sang
I leaned my head all against a block
And there I cut my lovely locks

And all alone the bell I rang
And all alone the psalm I sang
I leaned my head all against a block
And there I cut my lovely locks

I cut my locks and I changed my name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William
Went to court to serve my king
As the famous flower of serving men

I cut my locks and I changed my name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William
I went to court to serve my king
As the famous flower of serving men

So well I served my lord, the king
That he made me his chamberlain
He loved me as his son
The famous flower of serving men

So well I served my lord, the king
That he made me his chamberlain
He loved me as his son
The famous flower of serving men

Oh oft time he'd look at me and smile
So swift his heart I did beguile
And he blessed the day that I became
The famous flower of serving men

And oft time he'd look at me and smile
So swift his heart I did beguile
And he blessed the day that I became
The famous flower of serving men

But all alone in my bed at e'en
Oh there I dreamed a dreadful dream
I saw my bed swim with blood
And I saw the thieves all around my head

Oh but all alone in my bed at e'en
There I dreamed a dreadful dream
I saw my bed swim with blood
I saw the thieves all around my head

Our king has to the hunting gone
He's ta'en no lords nor gentlemen
He's left me there to guard his home
The famous flower of serving men

Our king has to the hunting gone
He's ta'en no lords nor gentlemen
He's left me there to guard his home
The famous flower of serving men

Our king he rode the wood all around
He stayed all day but nothing found
And as he rode himself alone
It's there he saw the milk white hind

Our king he rode the wood all around
He stayed all day but nothing found
And as he rode himself alone
It's there he spied the milk white hind

Oh the hind she broke, the hind she flew
The hind she trampled the brambles through
First she'd mount, then she'd sound
Sometimes before, sometimes behind

Oh the hind she broke, the hind she flew
The hind she trampled the bramble through
First she'd melt and then she'd sound
Sometimes before, sometimes behind

Oh what is this, how can it be?
Such a hind as this I ne'er did see
Such a hind as this was never born
I fear she'll do me deadly harm

Oh what is this, how can it be?
Such a hind as this I ne'er did see
Such a hind as this was never born
I fear she'll do me deadly harm

And long, long did the great horse turn
For to save his lord from branch and thorn
And but long e'er the day was o'er
It tangled all in his yellow hair

And long, long did the great horse turn
For to save his lord from branch and thorn
But long e'er the day was o'er
They tangled all in his yellow hair

All in the glade the hind drew nigh
And the sun grew bright all in their eye
And he sprang down, sword drew
She vanished there all from his view

And all in the glade the king drew nigh
Where the hind stood bright all in his eye
And he sprang down, sword [he] drew
She vanished there all from his view

And all around the grass was green
And all around where a grave was seen
And he sat himself all on the stone
Great weariness it seized him on

And all around the grass was green
All around where a grave was seen
He sat himself down on the stone
Great weariness it seized him on

Great silence hung from tree to sky
The woods grew still, the sun on fire
As through the woods the dove he came
As through the wood he made his moan

Great silence hung from tree to sky
The woods grew still, the sun on fire
As through the wood the dove he came
As through the woods he made his moan

Oh, the dove, he sat down on a stone
So sweet he looked, so soft he sang
“Alas the day my love became
The famous flower of serving men”

Oh the dove, he sat down on a stone
So sweet he looked, so soft he sang,
“Alas the day my love became
The famous flower of serving men.”

The bloody tears they fell as rain
As still he sat and still he sang
“Alas the day my love became
The famous flower of serving men”

Oh the bloody tears they fell as rain
As still he sat and still he sang,
“Alas the day my love became
The famous flower of serving men.”

Our king cried out, and he wept full sore
So loud unto the dove he did call
“Oh pretty bird, come sing it plain”

Our king cried out, and he wept full sore
So loud unto the dove he did call
“O pretty bird, come sing it plain.”

“Oh it was her mother's deadly spite
For she sent thieves in the dark of the night
They come to rob, they come to slay
They made their sport, they went their way

“Oh it was her mother's deadly spite
For she sent thieves in the dark of the night
They come to rob, they come to slay
They made their sport, they went their way

“And don't you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don't you think her heart was woe
As she turned her back away to go

“And don't you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don't you think her heart was woe
As she turned about, all away to go

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men”

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William,
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men.”

Oh the bloody tears they lay all around
He's mounted up and away he's gone
And one thought come to his mind
The thought of her that was a man

Oh the bloody tears they lay all around
He's mounted up and away he's gone
One thought come to his mind
The thought of her that was a man

And as he rode himself alone
A dreadful oath he there has sworn
And that he would hunt her mother down
As he would hunt the wildwood swine

And as he's rode himself alone
A dreadful oath he there has sworn
That he would hunt her mother down
Like he would hunt the wildwood swine

For there's four and twenty ladies all
And they're all playing at the ball
But fairer than all of them
Is the famous flower of serving men

There's four and twenty ladies all
And they're all playing at the ball
Fairer than all of them
Is the famous flower of serving men

Oh he's rode him into his hall
And he's rode in among them all
He's lifted her to his saddle brim
And there he's kissed her cheek and chin

Our king rode him into his hall
And he's rode in among them all
Lifted her to his saddle brim
He's kissed her there both cheek and chin

His nobles stood and they stretched their eyes
The ladies took to their fans and smiled
For such a strange homecoming
No gentleman had ever seen

Oh, the lords all stood and they stretched their eyes
The ladies took to their fans and smiled
For a stranger homecoming
No gentleman had ever seen

And he has sent his nobles all
Unto her mother they have gone
They've ta'en her that's did such wrong
They've laid her down in prison strong

And he has sent his nobles all
Unto her mother they have gone
Ta'en her that did such wrong
They've laid her down in a prison strong

And he's brought men up from the corn
And he's sent men down to the thorn
All for to build the bonfire high
All for to set her mother by

And he's brought men up from the corn
And he's sent men down to the thorn
All for to build the bonfire high
All for to set her mother by

All bonny sang the morning thrush
All where he sat in yonder bush
But louder did her mother cry
In the bonfire where she burned close by

O bonnie sang the morning thrush
All where he sat in yonder bush
But louder did her mother cry
In the bonfire where she burned close by

For there she stood all among the thorn
And there she sang her deadly song
“Alas the day that she became
The famous flower of serving men”

Oh, for there she stood all among the thorn
And there she sang her deadly song,
“Alas the day that she became
The famous flower of serving men.”

For the fire took first all on her cheek
And then it took all on her chin
It spat and rang in her yellow hair
And soon there was no life left in

For the fire took first all on her cheek
And then it took all on her chin
Spat and it rang in her yellow hair
As there she burnt like hokey green

Ellen Mitchell sings Border Widow's Lament Linda Adams sings The Lament of the Border Widow

My love built me a bonny bower,
And clad it aa with a lily flower
A brawer bower you ne'er did see
Than my true love he built for me

My love built me a bonnie bower
And clad it all with lily flower
A brawer bower I ne'er did see
Than my true love he built for me

There cam a knight by middle o' day
He spied his sport and he went away
He brought the king at dead o' night
Oh I brak my bower and slew ma knight

There came a man by middle day
He spied his sport and went away
He brought the King at that very night
Who broke my bower and slew my knight

He slew ma knight so dear to me
He slew ma knight and he poined his gear [pawned]
Ma servants a' for their lives did flee
And left me in extremity.

He slew the knight tae me sae dear
He slew my knight and poin'ed his gear
My servants all for life did flee
And left me in extremity

I saw his sheet makin ma main
I watched the corpse mysel alane
I watched his body baith night and day
And nae living creature came that way.

I sewed his sheets, making my moan
I watched his corpse, myself alone
I watched his body, night and day
Nae living creature came that way

I took his body on my back
And whiles I gaed and whiles I sat
I digged his grave and laid him in
And happed him wi the sod so green.

I took his body on my back
And times I gaed and times I sat
I digged a grave and I laid him in
And happ'd him with the sod sae green

But think na ye ma hairt was sair
When I threw the mold on his yellow hair
Think na ye ma hairt was wae
When I turned aroond awa to gae.

And think you not my heart was sore
As I laid the mold on his yellow hair
And think you not my heart was woe
As I turned about, away to go

Nae livin man I'll loo again
Noo that ma lovely knight is slain
And wi a lock o' his yellow hair
I've chained ma hairt forever mair.

Nae living man I'll love again
Since that my lovely knight is slain
With a lock of his yellow hair
I'll chain my heart for evermair

Mary Delaney sings My Brother Built Me a Bancy Bower

My brother built me for a bancy bower,
It was decked all over with pinks and flowers,
It was decked all over with the laurel green,
And such a bower that was never seen.

When Sweet William, he got the house alone,
He pulled out his bagpipes and played one tune,
Oh he changed his name oh, by note to note,
From Sweet William into Fair Ellen.

Now he went down to the looking glass,
And there he cut off his yellow locks,
When he changed his name into Fair Ellen.

They could not do him any greater harm
Than to kill the baby lie in his arms,
For to kill the baby lie in his arms,
And to change his name into Fair Ellen.

Notes

Notes by Greer Gilman

There is a live performance of this song on The Kershaw Sessions, with slight variations in the lyrics and a new last line, which Carthy now sings:

For the fire took first all on her cheek
And then it took all on her chin
It spat and it rang in her yellow hair
As there she burnt like hokey green

“Hokey green,” says Martin Carthy, is hawthorn, “the flower of mischief and magic”. In folklore, the whitethorn is an unchancy flower, the token of unwedded love, green gowns and May games; it is death to bring it in the house. Among its many names are: Whitethorn, Quickthorn, Hag Tree, and Scrog. Its leaves are Bread-and-Cheese; its fruits are Cat-Haws, Heg-Pegs, Arzy-garzies; and its blossom is called May (for its month of blooming) and—most aptly—Mother-Die.

There are good entries on hawthorn in:

  • Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman's Flora (London : J.M. Dent, 1987).
  • Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica (London : Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996).
  • Vickery, Roy. A Dictionary of Plant Lore (Oxford University Press, 1985).

A philological note: In none of these, however, is it called “hokey green”; nor in Joseph Wright's great English Dialect Dictionary, though “by hokey!” is a petty oath. I'd love to know where that name came from.

A note from Jane Barrett

“Hokey Green” is in the glossary of the Child Ballads, and is there spelled “hoky-gren”, and is in the last four lines of the Scottish version “A” of Ballad #68, called Young Hunting. (These lines are almost the same as those used in the Kershaw version of Famous Flower of Serving Men):

And they hay put that lady in;
O it took upon her cheek, her cheek,
An it took upon her chin,
An it took on her fair body,
She burnt like hoky-gren.

In that story, the fire refused to burn the innocent woman, but consumed the real murderer of Young Hunting!

In the Child Ballads glossary, the entry for “hoky-gren” cites Jamieson as saying a hoakie is “a fire that has been covered up with cinders, when all the fuel has become red.” He also adds possible suggestions, with question marks, which leads me to believe that Professor Child was also a bit bamboozled by this strange term!

Acknowledgements

Transcription of Famous Flower of Serving Men (with a couple of small corrections by Garry Gillard) and notes by Greer Gilman and Jane Barrett.