The Ballad of Bewsey
Oh listen to my roundelay,
Oh listen a while to me,
And I'll tell ye of a deadly feud
That fell out in the north countrie.
The summer leaves were fresh and green
When Earl Derby forth would ride;
For King Henry and his company
To Lathom briskly hied.
A bridge he had builded fair and strong,
With wondrous cost and pain,
O'er Mersey's stream, by Warrington,
For to meet that royal train.
And lord, and knight, and baron bold,
That dwelt in this fair countrie,
With the Derby train a-riding were,
Save Sir John of proud Bewsey.
"Now foul befa' that scornfu' knight,"
Cried Stanley in his pride;
"For he hath my just and honest suit
"Such hatred of our high estate,
This traitor sore shall rue;
I'll be avenged, or this good sword
Shall rot the scabbard through!"
He swore a furious oath, I trow,
And clenched his iron hand,
As he rode forth to meet his son,
The monarch of merry England.
The summer leaves were over and gone,
But the ivy and yew were green,
When to Bewsey hall came a jovial crew
On the merry Christmas e'en.
It was mirth and feasting in hall and bower
On that blessed and holy tide,
But ere the morning light arose,
There was darkness on all their pride!
Dark wonne the night, and the revellers gay
From the laughing halls are gone;
The clock from the turret, old and grey,
With solemn tongue tolled one.
The blast was moaning down the glen,
Through the pitch-like gloom it came,
Like a spirit borne upon demon wings
To the pit of gnawing flame!
But Sir John was at rest, with his lady love,
In a pleasant sleep they lay;
Nor felt the sooning, shuddering wind
Round the grim, wide welkin play.
Their little babe, unconscious now,
Lay slumbering hard by;
And he smiled as the loud, loud tempest rocked
His cradle wondrously.
There comes a gleam on the billowy moat
Like a death-light on its wave,
It streams from the ivied lattice, where
Sits a grim false-hearted knave.
He saw it on the soft white snow,
And across the moat it passed:
"'Tis well," said that false and grim porter,
And a fearsome look he cast.
A look he cast so wild and grim,
And he uttered a deadly vow;
"For thy dool and thy doom this light shall be,
Thy foes are hastening now!
"Sleep on, sleep on, thou art weary, Sir John;
Thy last sleep shall it be:
Sleep on, sleep on, with thy next good sleep
Thou shalt rest eternally!"
The traitor watched the waters dance,
In the taper's treacherous gleam;
And they hissed, and they rose, by the tempest tossed
Through that pale and lonely beam.
What hideous thing comes swift and dark
Athwart that flickering wave?
A spectre boat there seems to glide,
With many an uplift glaive.
The bolts are unslid by that grim porter,
And a gladsome man was he,
When three foemen fierce strode up the stair,
All trim and cautiously.
"Now who be ye," cried the chamberlain,
"That come with stealth and staur?"
"We come to bid thy lord good den,
So open to us the door."
"Ere I will open to thieves like ye,
My limbs ye shall hew and hack.
Awake, Sir John! awake and flee;
These blood-hounds are on thy track!"
"We'll stop thy crowing, pretty bird!
Now flutter thy wings again:"
With that they laid him a ghastly corpse,
And the red blood ran amain.
"Oh help!" the lady shrieked aloud;
"Arise, Sir John, and flee;
Oh heard you not yon cry of pain
Like some mortal agony?"
"I hear it not," Sir John replied,
For his sleep was wondrous strong;
"But see yon flashing weapons, sure
To foemen they belong!"
The knight from his bed leaped forth to flee,
But they've pierced his body through;
And with wicked hands, and weapons keen,
Him piteously they slew!
But that porter grim, strict watch he kept,
Beside the stair sate he;
When lo! comes tripping down a page,
With a basket defterly.
"Now whither away, thou little page,
Now whither away so fast?"
"They have slain Sir John," said the little page,
"And his head in this wicker cast."
"And whither goest thou with that grisly head?"
Cried the grim porter again,
"To Warrington Bridge they bade me run,
And set it up amain."
"There may it hang," cried that loathly knave,
"And grin till its teeth be dry;
While every day with jeer and taunt
Will I mock it till I die!"
The porter opened the wicket straight,
And the messenger went his way,
For he little guessed of the head that now
In that basket of wicker lay.
"We've killed the bird, but where's the egg?"
Then cried those ruffians three.
"Where is thy child?" The lady moaned,
But never a word spake she.
But, swift as an arrow, to his bed
The lady in terror sprung;
When, oh! a sorrowful dame was she,
And her hands she madly wrung.
"The babe is gone! Oh, spare my child,
And strike my heart in twain!"
To those ruthless men the lady knelt,
But her piteous suit was vain.
"Traitor!" they cried to that grim porter,
"Whom hast thou suffered forth?
If thou to us art false, good lack,
Thy life is little worth!"
"There's nought gone forth from this wicket yet,"
Said that grim and grisly knave,
"But a little foot-page, with his master's head,
That ye to his charges gave."
"Thou liest, thou grim and fause traitor!"
Cried out those murderers three;
"The head is on his carcase yet,
As thou mayest plainly see!"
When the lady heard this angry speech,
Her heart waxed wondrous fain;
For she knew the page was a trusty child,
And her babe in his arms had lain.
"Where is the gowd?" said that grim porter,
"The gowd ye sware unto me?"
"We'll give thee all thine hire," said they;
"We play not false like thee!"
They counted down the red, red gold,
And the porter laughed outright:
"Now we have paid thy service well,
For thy master's blood this night;
"For thy master's blood thou hast betrayed,
We've paid thee thy desire;
But for thy treachery unto us,
Thou hast not had thine hire."
They've ta'en a cord, both stiff and strong,
And they sought a goodly tree;
And from its boughs the traitor swung;--
So hang all knaves like he!
But the lady found her pretty babe;--
Ere the morning light was nigh,
To the hermit's cell that little page
Had borne him craftily.
And the mass was said, and the requiem sung,
And the priests, with book and stole,
The body bore to its cold still bed,
"Gramercy on his soul!"
'The Ballad of Bewsey' first appeared in an 1872 book by John Roby entitled 'Traditions of Lancashire). It tells of the murder of Sir John Butler (Boteler) of Bewsey Old Hall, Warrington, in the 15th century. The story has been captured in prose on at least four different occasions and this version is my personal favourite. For further information on this and other works inspired by Sir John's murder, plus a little background information on the murder itself, see The Bewsey Ballads.
For more Warrington poetry visit the poetry section of All Things Warrington.