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The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest

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Frederic William Moorman: Songs of the Ridings

The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest was published by Frederic William Moorman in 1918 in his book of songs in the Yorkshire dialect. Songs of the Ridings. These are new verses to the tune of The Flowers of the Forest.

Lal and Norma Waterson sang five of Moorman’s seven verses as The Flowers of the Forest on their 1977 album A True Hearted Girl. A live recording by Waterson:Carthy at The Boatrace, Cambridge, in 1977 was included as The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest in 2004 on the Watersons’ 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. Another live recording by Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy from the Fiddlers, Bristol, is on the charity compilation Huntingdon Folk 3.

Norma Waterson introduced this song at a gig in Bristol on 13 May 1998:

We were brought up by my gran when me mam and dad died. She brought up—as well as bringing three of us up—she’d also brought up six kids of her own when my grandfather died, when he was thirty-two. He enlisted in the First World War, on the first day, went right through the trenches, went right through the fighting and everything, came out in 1918, and died about three weeks later of the Spanish Flu that absolutely swept the world, killed millions and millions of people, much more than had died in the First World War. And this is a song from about that time. It appeared in the Yorkshire dialect little booklets that they used to put out. And the song’s called The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest. Me and my sister used to sing it together and recorded it many years ago. The names of the places in the song are villages round Knaresborough, where the song, where the originator of the song obviously came from. But the basis of the song itself is a much older song, it’s a song from the Battle of Flodden.

This video is from the 2009 Open University course “Norma Waterson: English Folk Singing”. It is available for free from iTunes:


Lal & Norma Waterson sing The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest

Day time is weary, and I caw’ dusk dreary,
For lasses in missels are rakin’ the hay.
When kye come for strippin’ and ewes come for clippin’,
We think on our soldiers now gone right away.

The courtin gate’s idle, no lad flings his bridle
Over the yoke stoup and comes seekin’ may.
Wae’s heart, but we misses our lads’ softest kisses:
The flowers o’ the forest have gone right away.

At Martinmas hirin’ no ribbon, no tirin’,
Where God’s pennys earned, and the time’s come for play.
No cheapjacks, no prancin’, wi’ teamster clogs dancin’:
The flowers o’ the forest have gone right away.

Plough lads from Pannal have crossed o’er the Channel;
Shepherds from Fewston have taken King’s pay;
Thackrays from Dacre have sold every acre;
You’ll no’ find a delver from Haverah to Bray.

Many a lass now is weepin for her man that lies sleepin,
No wrap for his corpse but the cold Flanders clay.
He’ll ne’er lift his limmers, he’ll ne’er wean his gimmers:
The flowers o’ the forest have gone right away.


Martinmas: Traditionally, the hiring fairs for farmhands and servants were held at Martinmas, in mid-November. In Yorkshire, they were called the “stattis,” or statutes, after the labour-laws framed in the reign of Edward III. Lads and lasses seeking work would stand in the market place, wearing tokens (the ribbons and tirings of the song) in their hats or buttonholes; farmers and their wives would walk up and down and choose among them. On coming to terms for the year’s wages, they would seal the bargain with a fastening penny, which, by the time of the song, was half-a-crown. Then to the pleasures of the fair!

From early in the Middle Ages, Martinmas was a time of feasting and of slaughter, when all the beasts that could not be overwintered on their scant hay were slain and salted or eaten up. The feast of St. Martin, 11 November, took on a new and poignant meaning after 1918.


Many thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription of Lal and Norma Waterson’s singing and notes.