Sir Patrick Spens

Sir Patrick Spens

"Sir Patrick Spens" is one of the most popular of the Child Ballads (No. 58), and is primarily of Scottish origin. [Francis James Child, "English and Scottish Popular Ballads", [ "Sir Patrick Spens"] ] The events of the ballad are similar to, and may chronicle, an actual event: the bringing home of the Scottish princess The Maid of Norway across the North Sea in 1290 (though there is speculation that it may relate to a voyage by the princess's mother in 1281). The princess, who was merely seven years old at the time, died on the crossing, though not in the manner of Sir Patrick in this song. However, many of the ships sent to fetch her are said to have foundered and perished. The name "Patrick Spens" has no historical record, and, like many of the heroes of such ballads, is probably an invention. [Francis James Child, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads", v 2, p 19, Dover Publications, New York 1965]

The story as told in the ballad has multiple versions, but they all follow the same basic plot. The King of Scotland has called for the greatest sailor in the land to command a ship for a royal errand. The name "Sir Patrick Spens" is mentioned by a courtier, and the king despatches a letter. Sir Patrick, though honoured to receive a royal commission, is dismayed at being put to sea in the dead of winter, clearly realising this voyage could well be his last. Versions differ somewhat at this point. Some indicate that a storm sank the ship in the initial crossing, thus ending the ballad at this point, while many have Sir Patrick safely reaching Norway. In Norway tension arises between the Norwegian lords and the Scots, who are accused of being a financial burden on the king. Sir Patrick, taking offense, leaves the following day. Nearly all versions, whether they have the wreck on the outward voyage or the return, relate the bad omen of seeing "the new moon late yestreen, with the auld moon in her arms", and modern science agrees the tides would be at maximum force at that time. The winter storms have the best of the great sailor, sending him and the Scottish lords to the bottom of the sea.


Fairport Convention included this song on their 1970 album, "Full House"

Nic Jones recorded this song on his 1970 album, "Ballads and Songs"

Jackie Leven recorded this song on his 1997 album "Fairytales For Hard Men"

Martin Carthy recorded this song on his 1998 album "Signs of Life"

June Tabor recorded this song in 2003 for her album "An Echo of Hooves"

James Yorkston recorded this song on his 2005 mini-album, "Hoopoe"


External Links

* [] Lyrics, summery and moral for 'Dave's Angle' on the song

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