This earliest documented version of this tragic ballad is The Ballad of Lady Hounsibelle and Lord Lovel in Horace Walpole's letter to Rev. Thomas Percy on February 5, 1765. According to F.J. Child the ballad is made up of several earlier ones including Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor (Child 73), Lady Maisry (Child 65), Death and the Lady, and Barbara Allen (Child 84).
Ethel Findlater from Dounby, Orkney, sang Lord Lovel on July 12, 1955 to Peter Kennedy. This recording was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4, Caedmon 1961, Topic 1968).
Jeannie Robertson sang a Scottish version as Lord Lovat, in a recording made in 1955, on her 1957 Riverside album Songs of a Scots Tinker Lady. Another recording made by Bill Leader in 1959) was released on her eponymous Topic album Jeannie Robertson. Hamish Henderson commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:
Better known as Lord Lovel, this classic ballad—number 75 in Child's collection—is still very popular in Aberdeenshire. Professor Child included ten versions of this ballad in his great textual compilation The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and most texts collected in modern times, as well as the one sung here, appear to have derived from Child's “H” text, a London broadside published in 1846. The English Lord Lovel has in Scotland become Lord Lovat—not unnaturally, for the latter is a famous name in the Highlands. The Lord Lovat of the 1745 rebellion, redoubtable chief of the clan Fraser, was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1747. Hogarth painted a celebrated portrait of him while he was in captivity awaiting trial.
The ballad has been a popular in both America and Britain. Most versions here have a bouncing melody completely out of context with the tragic seriousness of the ballad tales; Jeannie's version, however, is cloaked in the proper solemnity.
Robin Hall sang Lord Lovel in 1960 on his Collector album of ballads from the Gavin Greig Collection, Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads.
Dave Burland sang Lord Lovel in 1971 on his first Trailer album, A Dalesman's Litany.
Lizzie Higgins sang Lord Lovat to Tony Engle at home in Aberdeen in 1975. This recording was released in the same year on her Topic album Up and Awa' Wi' the Laverock. Peter Hall commented in the liner notes:
This ballad has had a bad press from the scholars because of the alleged triviality of its story, and indeed one can understand this attitude in those who have only read the text. In a performance of such emotional commitment as Lizzie’s, this universal yet simple narrative cannot fail to grip the listener. Professor Bronson describes “this too, too insipid ballad” as being made up of “tripping melody and lachrymose text”; the words are from broadside and the common tune at least affected by print—it appears in Davidson’s Universal Melodist (1848). The air here is a distant cousin of the standard type, but the effect of the melodic differences, which have a decided highland feel to them, and of the beautifully judged decoration, creates an effect that is truly ‘magic’. A very old Perthshire woman taught the piece to Jeannie and she used it as a lullaby for her daughter, who now naturally regards it with special affection.
Another recording, made my Peter Hall in the 1970s, was included in 2006 on her Musical Traditions anthology In Memory of Lizzie Higgins. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:
Duncan commented that although Child has ten versions, and the story is mirrored in Germany, Scandinavia and Greece, that the nine versions he and Greig collected (all entitled Lord Lovel) were relatively modern, deriving from an 1846 London broadside. Lizzie's version, learned from her mother—apart from calling the hero ‘Lovat’ and the mention of ‘Capeltown’, is pretty much a shortened version of those in the Greig-Duncan Collection (which often set the scene in St Pancras, London). Jeannie, who had learned it from an old Perthshire woman, had sung it to Lizzie as a lullaby. Lizzie's singing and beautiful decoration of the very simple story belie Bronson's harsh description of it as a “too, too insipid ballad”.
(Are, indeed, the Lords Lovel, Lavel, Travell and Revel who have inhabited the ballad since 1770 in fact the Lords Lovat, Chiefs of the great Clan Fraser, whose lands lie to the north-west of Inverness? A splendidly romantic body of men, from the last noble to be beheaded at the Tower of London, to the one who insisted on leading the 1st Commando Brigade at Sword Beach on D-Day in a bright white pullover, “head held high”, accompanied (completely against orders) by his piper Bill Millin playing Highland Laddie—“so that my men can see me”. The clan records do not mention any Lady Nancy Bell, but nothing would surprise anyone familiar with these dashing men.)
Peter Bellamy sang Lord Lovel unaccompanied in a recording of unknown origin, possibly from the 1975 Peter Bellamy recording sessions; at least it was included in 2004 on that album's CD reissue as part of the Fair Annie double CD set.
Walter Pardon sang Lord Lovel in a recording made by Mike Yates in 1975 or 1979 that was included in 2000 on Pardon's Musical Tradition anthology Put a Bit of Powder on It, Father.
Charlotte Renals sang Lord Lovell in 1978 to Pete Coe. This recording was released in 2003 on the Veteran/Backshift CD Catch Me If You Can: Songs from Cornish Travellers. Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:
Although known from a version in the 18th century Percy Papers, most versions of this ballad can be traced to a broadside printed in London in 1848 (Child’s version ‘H’). Robert Bell, in his Early Ballads Illustrative of History, Traditions and Customs (1877) mentions a black letter broadside dating from the times of Charles II and suggests that the ballad’s hero could have been a member of the Loveles or Delavelles Family of Northumberland mentioned in the Ballad of Chevy Chase (Child 162). There were numerous Music Hall parodies, such as Sam Cowell’s Joe Muggins, and one Vauxhall Gardens’ singer included the following verse in a otherwise more-or-less straight version of the song:
Then he flung his self down by the side of the corpse,
With a shivering gulp and a guggle,
Gave two hops, three kicks, heaved a sigh, blew his nose,
Sung a song and then died in the struggle - uggle - uggle,
Sung a song and then died in the struggle.
Lord Lovell has been equally popular in Scotland, (where Gavin Greig found no fewer than nine versions), in Ireland and in North America.
Jimmy Hutchison sang Lord Lovel at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2010. This recording was included a year later on the festival anthology Hurrah Boys Hurrah! (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 7).
Collected from Prudence Goodfield, Crudwell, by Alfred Williams and published in Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, 1923.
The melody comes from Peter Bellamy's version of Lord Lovel.
Lizzie Higgins sings Lord Lovat
Lord Lovat he stands at his stable door.
He was brushing his milk steed down,
When who passed by but Lady Nancy Belle
She was wishing her lover Godspeed,
She was wishing her lover Godspeed.
“Oh where are going, Lord Lovat?” she said,
“Come promise, tell me true.”
“Going over the seas, strange countries to see.
Lady Nancy Belle, I'll come and see you,
Lady Nancy Belle, I'll come and see.”
He hadn't been gone a year or two,
Scarcely had been three,
When a mightiful dream came into his head:
“Lady Nancy Belle I'll come and see you,
Lady Nancy Belle I'll come and see.”
He's passed down through Capelton's church
And doon through Mary's ha,
And the ladies were all weeping for,
And the ladies all weeping for.
“Who is dead?” Lord Lovat he said,
“Come promise, tell me true.”
“Lady Nancy Belle died for her true lover's sake,
An Lord Lovat was his name,
An Lord Lovat was his name.”
Peter Bellamy sings Lord Lovel
Lord Lovel he stood at his own castle gate
Combing his milk-white steed,
And by came Lady Nancy Belle
To bid Lord Lovel Godspeed, Godspeed.
To bid Lord Lovel Godspeed.
“And where are you going, Lord Lovel?”, she said,
“And where are you going?”, said she.
“I'm leaving, my Lady Nancy Belle,
Strange countries for to see, to see,
Strange countries for to see.”
“Well, how long you'll be gone Lord Lovel?”, she said,
How long you'll be gone?”, said she.
“In a year or two, or three at the most,
I'll return to my Lady Nancy, Nancy,
Return to my Lady Nancy.”
But he'd not been gone for a year and a day,
Strange countries for to see,
When a sudden thought it came into his mind,
He'd return to his Lady Nancy, Nancy,
He'd return to his Lady Nancy.
So he rode and he rode on his milk-white steed
Until he came to London Town;
And there he heard them church bells ring
And the people in mourning around, around,
The people in mourning around.
“Ah! who is dead?”, Lord Lovel he cried,
“Ah! who is dead?”, said he.
“Well, a lady is dead,” an old woman said,
And they call her the Lady Nancy, Nancy,
They call her the Lady Nancy.”
Well he ordered the coffin to be opened wide
And the shroud to be cast'd around;
And there he kissed her clay-cold cheeks
While tears came trickling down, down, down,
While tears came trickling down.
Now Lady Nancy, she died as it might be today,
And Lord Lovel died as tomorrow.
Lady Nancy died of a broken heart,
Lord Lovel he died from sorrow, from sorrow,
Lord Lovel he died from sorrow.
And they buried Lady Nancy in the higher chancel,
They buried Lord Lovel the lower,
And out of her bosom there grew a red rose,
And out of Lord Lovel sweet briar, sweet briar,
And out of Lord Lovel sweet briar.
And out of her bosom there grew a red rose,
And out of Lord Lovel sweet briar,
And they growed and they growed to the top of the church
Till they could not grow no higher, no higher,
Till they could not grow no higher.
Yes they growed and they growed to the top of the church
Until they could not grow no higher.
And it's there they entwined in a true lover's knot
For true lovers all to admire, admire,
For true lovers all to admire.
Betsy Renals sings Lord Lovell
“Where are you going Lord Lovell?” she said,
“Where are you going?” said she,
“I’m going my Lady Nancy Bella,
Strange country for to see.”
“When will you be back, Lord Lovell?” she said,
“When will you be back?” said she.
“In a year or two, or three at the most,
I’ll return to my Lady Nancy.”
He hadn’t been gone but a year and a day,
Strange country for to see,
When a sounding thought came to his mind,
Lady Nancy Bella did see.
He rode and he rode his milk white steed,
And he came through London Town,
And there he heard St Peter’s bells,
And the people all mourning round.
“Oh what is the matter?” Lord Lovell said,
“Oh what is the matter?” said he,
“A lady is dead,” a woman replied,
“Some calls her Lady Nancy.”
Lady Nancy she died as it may be today,
Lord Loval he died tomorrow,
Lady Nancy was buried at the lower church yard,
And he was buried at the tower.
And on one’s grave grew a red rose bud,
And the other was leaves and flowers,
That red rose tree it grew so high,
It grew to the church yard tower,
And on the top of the true love’s knot,
That all true love’s admired.
Jimmy Hutchison sings Lord Lovel
Lord Lovel he stood at his stable door,
He was clapping his milk-white steed,
And by there cam Lady Nancy Belle,
A-wishing her lover Godspeed,
A-wishing her lover Godspeed.
“Oh whaur are ye gaun Lord Lovel?" she said,
“Oh whaur are ye goin?" said she.
“I'm goin awa tae fair England,
Fair countries for tae see,
Fair countries for tae see."
“When will ye come back Lord Lovel," she said,
“When will ye come back tae me?"
“In a year or twa or three at the maist,
I'll return tae you Nancy,
I'll return tae you Nancy."
But he hadna been gane a year or a day,
Strange countries for tae see;
When languishing thochts come intae his mind,
Lady Nancy Belle tae see,
Lady Nancy Belle tae see.
So he's turned aroond his high horse heid,
And he's rade tae fair London town,
And in aside St Pancras churchyaird,
The people were standing round,
The people were standing round.
“Oh what is the matter?” Lord Lovel he said,
“h what is the matter?” cried he.
“Oh a lady has died,” an old woman replied,
“And they called he Lady Nancy,
Aye, they called her Lady Nancy.”
Lady Nancy she died as it had been the day,
Lord Lovel he died as tomorrow,
Lady Nancy she died o pure, pure grief,
Lord Lovel he died o sorrow,
Lord Lovel he died o sorrow.
Lady Nancy was laid in the auld churchyaird,
Lord Lovel was laid in the choir,
And oot o her breist there grew a red rose,
And oot o his a briar,
Aye, and oot o his a briar.
Noo they grew and they grew tae the auld steeple top
Till they could grow no higher,
And there they entwined in a true-love's knot,
The rose among the briar,
The rose among the briar.
See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Lord Lovel (Child #75).