Handed Down

Willy O' Winsbury - The Princess and Johnny Foreigner

November 03, 2022 Season 3 Episode 4
Handed Down
Willy O' Winsbury - The Princess and Johnny Foreigner
Show Notes Transcript

You don't find many traditional songs where the woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock and yet it all turns our wonderfully. But then Willy O' Winsbury is not your run of the mill folk song. King’s daughter Janet knew what she wanted… and it seems that her father wanted it too. Once he’d established that Willy wasn’t too foreign that is. He especially noticed his blond hair and milky white skin… oh dear.

As well as picking up on some of these themes, the episode looks at the twists and turns of this song’s journey over time and the real events that may (or may not) have prompted it. There’s also a review of medieval virginity tests and musings on why a light scorching of the nether regions might actually be a good outcome, all things considered. 



L’Homme Armé (Anon) Medieval popular song

De moi doleros vos chant (Gillebert de Berneville) 13th Century song


Lord Thomas of Winesberrie (Kinloch – Ancient Scottish Ballads – see below)


Instrumental: Fair Margaret and Sweet William (ballad from the Percy/Parsons correspondence) 1770s – though the tune may be more recent


Johnny Barbary (tune from Bertrand Harris Bronson – see below)


Fause Foodrage 


Willie O’Winsbury



Mainly Norfolk have an excellent overview of the song and its recorded versions: https://mainlynorfolk.info/anne.briggs/songs/willieowinsbury.html 


Kinloch, George Richie (1827) Ancient Scottish Ballads: https://archive.org/details/ancientscottishb00kin/page/90/mode/2up 


Karpeles, Maud (1934) Folk Songs From Newfoundland


Fresno State University’s Traditional Ballad Index:  https://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/C100.html


Child, Francis James (between 1882-98) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads v2 (Child 100) https://archive.org/details/englishscottishp21chilrich/mode/2up 


Bronson B H (1976) The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads https://archive.org/details/singingtradition0000bron/page/n5/mode/2up 


Bronson B H (1959) The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads


http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT7/CP25(1)/CP25_1_194_8-10/IMG_0334.htm A legal document relating to the lease of property by Thomas, son of William de Winsbury


Cartwright, Jane (2003) Virginity and Chastity Tests in Medieval Welsh Prose in Bernau A, Evans R and Salih S (2003) Medieval Virginities University of Toronto Press.









 Tales of seduction are common in the folk tradition, and I’m sure this reflected the realities of both rural and urban life. I only have to go back a hundred years or so in my own family tree to see the quick marriages, the early babies, and in one tragic case the illegitimate child who was born and died in the workhouse to a teenage mother.

On the surface of it, today’s song tells a classic story of seduction, but it does have some unusual features. The King returns from Spain to find that his daughter Janet is with child by an unknown man. At first she denies it, but after submitting to a virginity test, which involves standing naked on a stone, she confesses that she was lonely and that she has, after all, been lying with a man – the devastatingly handsome Willy of Winsbury. 

The King summons the young man and is ready to hang him. But when Willy arrives at the court the King is quite honestly bowled over. He expresses his own lust for the young man, and immediately forgives his daughter.

The two are set to live happily ever after, but there’s one further twist. Turning down any kind of honour or dowry, Willy takes his new bride away to his own vast kingdom.

So there’s a lot to unpack here.

One of the pivotal moments in the story is the King’s attempts to work out who this unknown man is, that’s got his daughter pregnant. Where’s he from, the King asks his daughter. Is he a noble man, someone acceptable as a husband, or is he one of the Spanish servants - some unknown foreigner, someone of low class. 

It’s a crucial question because it determines the man’s fate, and Janet’s too. When the unknown Willy of Winsbury is named, the King’s immediate response is that he must be hanged. Janet’s baby will have no father.

[Music: L’homme arme]

The quest to identify Willy of Winsbury goes beyond the song itself. There’ve been several attempts to link the song to historical people – and some of them are quite convincing.

Deep in the Shropshire countryside, in the Welsh Marches, you can still find Winsbury Farm. It’s all that remains of the old settlement of Winsbury, and it covers the site of a castle motte. In the 14th Century it was the home of William de Winsbury and his family. Now we do know that he and his brother Thomas travelled to Scotland in the thirteen thirties.

The king of Scotland at that time was David the second, son of Robert the Bruce. At the time William of Winsbury was in Scotland King David was an exile in France, returning in 1341.

We don’t know what William got up to in Scotland, but we do know that King David didn’t have a daughter. He had no children with either of his two wives or his mistresses so there was no King’s daughter for William to seduce.

Perhaps the name Willy of Winsbury was passed down in Scotland, and linked in some way to an absent King. The song does seem to have its origins in Scotland, though the earliest version on record is over four centuries later, around the mid 1770s. I think it’s interesting, though, that some versions give the young man’s name as Lord Thomas of Winsbury, the name of the historic William’s brother.

[Music: Lord Thomas of Winesbury]

In some versions, Lord Thomas is the King’s chamberlain and a Scottish landowner, but as you’ve just heard this version sets the story in France, and both the King and his daughter are of the French royal family. Found in George Kinlock’s Ancient Scottish Ballads, it seems to have given rise to the tradition that the song is based on a historical romance between a delicate young princess and a Scottish King.

[Music: De moi doleros vos chant]

James the fifth of Scotland was looking to strengthen the Auld Alliance, an alliance made between Scotland and France in 1295 against England. He planned to do this by the traditional royal strategy of marriage – he had his sights on a French princess. He came over to France to claim the hand of Mary of Bourbon, but met and fell deeply in love with another fair rose of France – the daughter of the King himself.

Madeleine de Valois was the third daughter of King Francis the first. A sickly child from birth, she spent her infancy in the warm and pleasant countryside of the Loire valley, together with her aunt and one of her sisters. It was only at the age of ten that she rejoined her father, together with his new Queen, in Paris.

This much we know for certain. But the sixteenth century chronicler Robert Lindsey has more details for us. James went in disguise as a servant to take a look at his betrothed, Mary of Bourbon. But although they had some kind of flirtation – exchanging love letters – something went wrong and he quickly moved on. 

He went to visit King Francis and his family, meeting them out in the countryside while they were out on a hunt. We don’t know what happened, and we don’t even know if he was still disguised as a servant, but the result was that Madeleine fell so deeply in love with him that she insisted she could marry no-one else. James, who must have revealed himself at this point, spoke to her father and the marriage was arranged. The match wasn’t without its risks though: due to her delicate state of health, her doctors predicted that if she left France she would not have long to live.

So says Robert Lindsey in his chronical, and it’s on the historical record that James did fall deeply in love with Madeleine, although by that time she was very ill with tuberculosis. Nonetheless she was equally enthusiastic about the marriage. They were wed and when her health allowed they returned to Scotland only for her to die six months later, a month before her 17th birthday. She became known as the Summer Queen, and her death set in train the events that would lead to the unification of the English and Scottish thrones and, eventually, the English Civil War.

Is this the origin of Willy O Winsbury? It has a great person in disguise, a King and his daughter, and a link to Scotland. There may even have been a pregnancy scare if you read between the lines. It’s a good contender and a great story, but I’m not entirely convinced.

[Music: De moi doleros vos chant]

The earliest version of the song that we have on record gives the young man a different name altogether. Like Willie of Winsbury he’s an outlander, and he’s called Johnny Barbary.

 The Barbary Coast is an old name for the coast of North Africa, named after the indigenous people – The Berbers. So calling him Johnny Barbary was a way of saying Johnny Foreigner. We have our original copy of this version thanks to a correspondence between a Parson called Parsons and a Parson called Percy. 


One day in the 1760s, the Reverend Philip Parsons of Wye in Kent bought a copy of the book Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, written by fellow parson Thomas Percy – later to become Bishop Percy. 

Inspired by the book, Parson Parsons began to collect songs from his own parishioners and sent them to Percy in a series of extremely polite and in fact somewhat obsequious letters. One of these ballads was the first written record of Johnny Barbary, and it includes many familiar phrases.

'Oh is it by some nobleman?
 Or by some man of fame?
 Or is it by Johnny Barbary,
 That's lately come from Spain?'

[Music: Johnny Barbary - Tune from Bronson]

This version has also travelled - it was popular in Newfoundland. But the tune you’ve just heard was one of several published by Bertrand Harris Bronson, author of The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads and The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads. He was also the source for the tune to Lord Thomas of Winsbury that you heard earlier.

But the tune most often used for Willie O’ Winsbury in the British and Irish tradition comes from a different song altogether. It’s a song called Fause Foodrage, another Scottish ballad which tells the story of a rivalry between two kings. It involves a hired assassin, a resourceful queen, a bit of baby swapping and eventual revenge. There’s loads going on in this ballad and its lots of fun.

But the pairing of its tune with Willie O’Winsbury was first made by Andy Irvine, who recorded it with Sweeney’s Men in 1968. He says it happened by accident, that he turned over the page in his book of Child Ballads and learned the wrong tune. If it was a mistake it was a good one, and the tune stuck through many recordings since. On the other hand, Fause Foodrage is rarely sung – which is quite a shame as it’s a powerful story. But maybe it will have its day, eventually.

The Eastmuir king and the Westmuir king
 And the king of Honorie
 They’ve courted of a fair young maid
 All from the North country

King Eastmuir’s courted her for gold
 King Westmuir for her fee
 But the King of Honor’s won her heart
 His bride all for to be

Since Sweeney’s Men recorded the song, it’s had a long and full life in the folk tradition through the seventies, and found popularity again in the nineties and up to present times. It’s hard to pick out favourites, but I do like the classic Pentangle version and, more recently the version by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Harmer. 


Whether it’s a retelling of an unorthodox royal courtship or just a fantasy, we can’t know. On the one hand it’s a classic is a song of seduction, but on the other hand it does turn out surprisingly well for the woman involved and that makes it unusual. Janet’s a powerful woman in her own right and she’s chosen to sleep with Willie – or Johnny – or whatever he may be called. Just like the Jolly Beggar, he reveals himself to be of noble birth at the end of the song, but unlike the hero of that song he has a noble and beautiful appearance. So much so, in fact, that the King himself is attracted to him.

A same-sex attraction is just one of the ways the song surprises us, another being the rather shocking virginity test that Janet must go through – the one point in the song where she doesn’t have a choice.

She’s made to stand naked before the King – and possibly others – which reveals her pregnancy.

But why does she have to stand on the stone? I’ve been looking into that and I’ll tell you more after the song.


Now about that stone. Bertrand Harris Bronson suggested that the stone was used in a ritualistic way, as a method of testing virginity. I wanted to find out more about this, but I’ve not found any sources that don’t draw on the song itself as proof of such a ritual.

However I have found reference to a Medieval Welsh ritual in which a piece of jet stone is set on fire, somehow, and used to fumigate the woman’s nether regions. If she could smell the smoke, she was considered not to be a virgin. This virginity test, like all the others, is brought to you by bad women’s anatomy. 

I had to Google “does jet go on fire” which was to be honest the least concerning part of my search history that day. But apparently it does, and it burns with a sooty flame and a coal-like smell.

Pretty much everything that happened to women in Medieval times was problematic. But if there has to be a virginity test then this is probably the best one to have because, assuming your lady party remain unscorched, all you have do is lie.

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