Walking through London in the 1600s, you would be greeted by a cacophony of sound. Church bells, cart wheels, and perhaps even an outdoor sermon or two – the early-modern period was certainly a noisy one, and of this raucous soundscape none occupied a space quite like the broadside ballad.
Stemming from the minstrelsy of the medieval period, broadside ballads were popular songs that disseminated throughout the public, often with a narrative quality. With the invention of the printing press in 1440, songs could be printed and distributed with ease on paper called ‘broadsides’, affording these ballads their name.
Music was a powerful part of 17th century life. Some revered it as a way to praise God or relieve sadness, while others saw it as a doorway to wantonness and sin. Milkmaids would sing to their cows to produce a greater yield of milk, while weddings, funerals and feasts would ring through with songs imbued with meaning.
Balladry in particular was a key means by which ideas were exchanged, and allows an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the everyday person, as well as the events of the time.
1. ‘A brave warlike song’, c.1626
The 17th century began with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and the subsequent ascension of James I to the throne. Popular memory of Elizabeth’s reign focused on a golden era of prosperity, naval strength and the cultivation of the arts, and lingered for many years.
Early ballads of the period were thus keen to praise England’s newfound strength on the European stage, and hail its historical heroes.
‘A brave war-like song’ relays the chivalrous deeds of ‘seven Champions of Christendom’, including Henry V and King Arthur, and aligns them with other ‘Nine Worthies of the world’, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
The singer ties the revered ancient world to that of their own, naming notable men of Elizabeth’s reign who brought renown to England:
‘Cumberland and Essex,
Norris and brave Drake,
I’th reign of Queen Elizabeth
Did many battles make,
Adventurous Martin Frobisher,
With Hawkins and some more,
From sea did bring great riches
Unto our English shore.’
Ballads often instilled nationalist rhetoric, here mentioning four of Elizabeth’s best military officers, including Francis Drake, alongside explorers Martin Frobisher and John Hawkins to further the idea of England’s strength on the world stage.
Written in 1626, a mere year into Charles I’s reign however, such songs praising the country’s strength could not have preempted that it would soon be at war with itself.
2. ‘A He-Devil’, 1630
While brave men of history were praised in balladry, the reality of 17th century life for women was also revealed. In ‘A He-Devil’, a miserable wife laments her suffering at the hands of her drunkard husband, who spends her money and beats her.
Young women were often encouraged into marriage at a young age, and entered into it full of hope of love and affection, as the singer of the ballad had. What usually ensued however was subservience and a loss of all agency, being required to forfeit her name, freedom and any monetary possessions over to him.
‘I like a servile bond-slave,
doe wipe his boots and shoes,
And yet the domineering knave,
so basely doth me use.
That if one spot on them he find,
about my head he’ll beat them,
And if with words I show my mind,
I were as good to eat them’
Domestic abuse was common in the early-modern period, and would be considered a husband’s ‘right’ well into the 20th century.
Should a woman attempt to take her husband to court on abuse charges, and in the unlikely event that he be prosecuted, his punishment would probably be a fine of 12d – the equivalent of 5p today. He would then be returned to the marital home. Women were thus at the mercy of their husband’s affections – or lack thereof.
3. ‘A Royal Health to the Rising Sun’, 1649
The English Civil War, which broke out in 1642 between Parliament and King Charles I, is perhaps the defining characteristic of the 17th century, however often the voices that rise from this conflict are generals, MPs and royals.
Balladeers found ways to turn this political strife to music, and with the weakened government less focused on censorship, an increasing freedom of speech – or song – was enjoyed.
‘A Royal Health to the Rising Sun’, written in 1649 following the king’s execution, lays out the troubles suffered by the English people over the course of the wars.
‘As I was walking forth one day,
I heard distressed people say,
Our Peace and Plenty now is gone,
And we poor people quite undone’
The ballad tells of the hunger, poverty and grief suffered over the war years, and Charles I’s execution became the most frequently mentioned event in English writing well into the 18th century.
Despite their shortcomings, the singer bravely predicts a more hopeful future in which the monarchy may return:
‘The Father of our Kingdom’s dead,
His Royal Sun from England’s fled
Gallant English Spirits,
do not thus complain;
The Sun that sets
may after rise again.’
The ‘Royal Sun’ is a clever play on words in reference to the future Charles II, who was forced into exile following his father’s death. Many Royalists awaited his return to reclaim the throne, so that the Stuart dynasty may ‘rise again’.
4. ‘A Jolly Company OF Jovial Blades’, 1663-1674
Like today, people in the early modern period loved a good knees-up. ‘A Jolly Company of Jovial Blades’ describes just that, and reminds us that the 17th century was not just a solemn decade of political strife. Written in the years following the Restoration of Charles II, it gives an insight into the celebratory culture of the everyday person. The singer relays:
‘It was my late and happy fate,
To meet with a jovial crew,
Of merry Blades and lively Lads,
Who drank til the sky looked blue’
Drinking culture in the 17th century was a widespread and heavy affair, in which friends would join in pubs and taverns to drink and be merry. Taxes had raised the price of alcohol to fund the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent Interregnum had infamously banned a number of pleasure pursuits. The biggest of these was the celebration of Christmas with drinking and feasts, on claims that this incited ‘liberty to carnal and sensual delights’!
In the following years thus, people undoubtedly revelled in the freedom to drink as they pleased.
‘Being void of care, no money they spare,
But all with free consent
Drank wine good store, and then called for more,
So merrily they were bent.’
The introduction of sparkling wine, glass bottling techniques and the increase of gin and brandy production in England meant that a whole new drinking culture was erupting. By the 1680s however, beer was the choice beverage, with the alehouse at the centre of the working man’s life. In 1689, beer consumption hit its peak of 832 pints per person per year – it was after all, safer to drink beer than water at that time!
5. ‘A Ballad Upon the Popish Plot’, 1679
While the political turmoil of the Civil War was at rest, the religious strife it ignited lived on. Protestants and Catholics remained at odds, with the monarch’s religious leanings a hotly observed topic.
The Popish Plot of 1678 was the culmination of such tensions, in which a fictitious plot was invented, framing Catholics for plotting against King Charles II.
‘A Ballad Upon the Popish Plot’, reportedly written by a ‘Lady of Quality’, details the Royalist belief in the plot.
‘Whether you will like my song or like it not,
It is the down-fall of the Popish Plot;
With Characters of Plotters here I sing,
Who would destroy our good and gracious King;
Whom God preserve, and give us cause to hope
His Foes will be rewarded with a Rope’
The ballad’s fierce language indicated the witch-hunt that ensued surrounding the plot, and the call for the supposed assailants’ execution. Though it was entirely fictitious, 22 men were hanged in the whole ordeal.
The intense anti-Catholic sentiment it incited would pave the way for the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, in which Charles II’s brother and heir James II would be barred from the throne on account of his Catholic beliefs.
The Glorious Revolution would follow, in which James’ Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited to begin a joint-rule of the country. In 1701, the Act of Settlement was passed barring Catholics from the throne and establishing an acceptable Protestant line of succession, with Queen Anne’s ascension in 1702 attracting much popularity.
A century of political and religious strife was brought to a close.