“Captain Ward and the Rainbow”


Captain Ward asks the king to grant him a place to rest. The king will not grant a place to any pirate (though Ward claims never to have attacked an English ship), and commissions the (Rainbow) to deal with Ward. Ward defeats the Rainbow

Supplemental text

Captain Ward and the Rainbow [Child 287]
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

As printed by W. H. Logan, The Pedlar's Pack of Ballads and Songs,
pp. 7-10. Based on a broadside "printed and sold by J. Pitts,
14 Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials, circa 1821. It has been
collated with two other copies" with their variant readings
reproduced in Logan's margin.

Strike up, ye lust gallants,
  With music beat of drum,
For we have got a rover,
  Upon the sea is come.

His name is Captain Ward,
  Right well it now appears,
There hath not been such a rover
  Found out these thousand years.

For he hath sent unto the king,
  The sixth of January,
Desiring that he might come in
  With all his company.

And if the king will let me come
  Till I my tale have told;
I will bestow, for my ransom,
  Full thirty ton of gold.

"O nay, O nay," then said the king,
  "O nay, this must not be,
To yield to such a rover
  Myself will not agree.

"He hath deceived the Frenchman,
  Likewise the King of Spain;
Then how can he be true to me,
  Who has been false to twain?"

With that our king provided
  A ship of worthy fame;
The Rainbow she is called,
  If you would know her name.

And now the gallant Rainbow
  She rolls, upon the sea,
Five hundred gallant seamen
  To keep her company.

The Dutchman and the Spaniard
  She made them for to flee,
Also the bonny Frenchman
  An she met them on the sea.

When as the gallant Rainbow
  Did come where he did lye;
"Where is the captain of that ship?"
  The Rainbow she did cry.

"O! that I am," said Captain Ward,
  "There's no man bids me lie,
And if thou art the king's fair ship,
  Thou art welcome unto me."

"I'll tell you what," said the Rainbow,
  "Our king is in great grief,
That thou shouldst lie upon the seas,
  And play the arrant thief.

"You will not let our merchantmen
  Pass as they did before;
Such tidings to our king is come
  Which grieves his heart full sore."

With that the gallant Rainbow
  She shot, out of her pride,
Full fifty gallant brass pieces,
  Charged on every side.

And yet these gallant shooters
  Prevailed not a pin;
Though they were brass on the outside,
  Brave Ward was steel within.

"Shoot on, shoot on," said Captain Ward,
  "Your sport well pleaseth me,
And he that first gives over
  Shall yield unto the sea.

"I never wronged an English ship,
  But Turk and King of Spain,
Likewise the blackguard Dutchman,
  Which I met on the main.

"If I had known your king
  But two or three days before,
I would have saved Lord Essex' life,
  Whose death doth grieve me sore.

"Go tell the King of England,
  Go tell him this from me,
If he reigns king of all the land,
  I will reign king at sea."

With that the gallant Rainbow shot,
  And shot and shot in vain,
Then left the rover's company,
  And home returned again.

"Oh! Royal King of England,
  Your ship's returned again;
For Captain Ward he is so strong,
  He never will be ta'en."

"Oh, everlasting," said the king,
  "I have lost jewels three,
Which would have gone unto the seas,
  And brought proud Ward to me.

"The first was Lord de Clifford,
  Great Earl of Cumberland,
The second was the Lord Mountjoy,
  As you may understand.

"The third was brave Lord Essex,
  From foe would never flee,
Who would have gone unto the seas,
  And brought proud Ward to me."


Compare with this broadside for a different ballad on the same subject: Bodleian, Wood 402(39), "The Seamans Song of Captain Ward, the Famous Pyrate of the World, and an English[man] Born" ("Gallants you must understand"), F. Coles (London), 1655-1658; also Douce Ballads 2(199a), Wood 401(79), "The Seamans Song of Captain Ward, the Famous Pyrate of the world and an English Man Born" - BS

Although the "historical" Captain Ward was active during the reign of Britain's King James I, the context sounds more like that in the time of Charles I. The religious and political situation, as well as financial interests, dictated that Charles should have been allied with the Protestants of the Netherlands and Germany against Spain -- but instead Charles implicitly supported Spain while quarreling with the Dutch about herring fishing.

The result was an undeclared war between many of Charles's sailors and Spain. And many of the fighters, like Ward or the later Captain Kidd, thought right was on their side. Indeed, the Earl of Warwick was creating a group of pirates who were carefully trained according to Calvinist principles -- Puritan raiders (see Arthur Herman, _Tp Rule the Waves_, p. 157f.)

This would also explain why the king was trying to crack down: Piracy had gotten completely out of hand in his father's reign. Robert C. Ritchie, _Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates_ (Harvard, 1986), p. 140, writes, "Only the most inept pirates ended their lives on the gallows during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The nadir of English concern and ability to control piracy came during the reign of James I. Taking no special price in the Royal Navy and abhorring the expenses generated by the fleet, James sold some of his ships and let most of the others rot at the docks. The resulting growth of piracy in and around English waters caused the Dutch to request permission to send their ships into English waters to attack the brigands. Bereft of means to do the jobs, James acquiesed."

Barry et al, however, try to relate the whole thing to the politics of James I -- and to the opposition to that king. Of course, Charles I generated even more opposition, and talking about events in his father's reign might make the discussion slightly safer.

The Wordsworth _Dictionary of Pirates_ (I'm not kidding, there is such a thing) gives Ward's dates as 1553-1623; he was imprisoned for piracy in England in 1602, impressed in 1603, turned pirate, and took to the Mediterranean. In 1606, he took service with the ruler of Tunis. In 1607, his fleet suffered a series of setbacks. He may have tried to buy a pardon from the King of England, but the idea failed. He turned to Islam and lived more or less happily ever after.

If we accept that Ward was active at the very start of the reign of James I, that gives us still another scenario, which ties in with the death of Elizabeth I and the accession of James I. Elizabeth of course spent much of her reign at war with Spain; famous incidents in this war were the voyage of the Spanish Armada and Drake's circumnavigation of the globe. Semi-official piracy was one of Elizabeth's key weapons against the Spanish; her ships captured Spanish treasure ships and interfered with Spain's attempts to build a stronger navy.

But all wars come to an end. Ritchie, p. 13, notes that peace was made with Spain in 1603, the year James I succeeded to the English throne. And suddenly English privateers who had been attacking the Spanish had to become either unlicensed pirates or join someone else's service. If Ward kept raiding the Spanish after peace was made, that might explain the King's attitude toward him.

The comment about the captain being king upon the sea does date to the reign of James I -- but, according to N. A. M. Rodger's _The Safeguard of the Seas_, p. 349 (see also Herman, p. 144), it was not made by Ward but by one Peter Easton (or Eston). Easton, who took over the pirate fleet of Richard Bishop in 1611, did so much damage that he was offered a pardon in 1612, refused it, saying, "I am, in a way, a king myself." The next year, he was offered a lordship in Spain, which he took. - RBW

Historical references

  • c. 1604-c. 1609 - Career of Captain John Ward. A fisherman from Kent, Ward's first notable act was his capture of a royal vessel in 1604.

Same tune

  • Captain Ward (per broadside Bodleian Douce Ballads 1(80b))
  • The Wild Rover (per broadside Bodleian Firth c.12(6))

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Douce Ballads 1(80b), "A Famous Sea-Fight Between Captain Ward and the Rainbow" ("Strike up ye lusty gallants)", T. Norris (London), 1711-1732; also Harding B 4(107), "A Famous Sea-Fight Between Captain Ward and the Rainbow"; Harding B 4(108), "A Famous Sea Fight Between Captain Ward and the Rainbow"; Firth c.12(8), "Famous Sea Fight Between Capt. Ward and the Gallant Rainbow"; Harding B 11(831), "Capt. Ward and the Rainbow" ("Come all you English seamen with courage beat your drums"); Firth c.12(6), "Captain Ward"; 2806 c.16(334), Harding B 11(4034), Firth c.12(7), "Ward the Pirate[!]"


  1. Child 287, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 287, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (11 versions)
  3. Ranson, pp. 49-50, "Saucy Ward" (1 text)
  4. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 347-363, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (2 texts plus a fragment and a version from the Forget-me-not Songster and a possibly-rewritten broadside, 2 tunes, plus extensive notes on British naval policy) {Bronson's #9, #10}
  5. Flanders/Olney, pp. 204-206, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11}
  6. Flanders/Brown, pp. 242-244, "Captain Ward and the Rain-Bow" (1 text from the Green Mountain Songster)
  7. Flanders-Ancient4, pp. 264-270 "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (2 texts, 1 tune, the first text being the Green Mountain Songster version)
  8. Gardner/Chickering 83, "Captain Ward" (1 text)
  9. Peacock, pp. 840-841, "Captain Ward" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Chappell-FSRA 22, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text)
  11. Leach, pp. 670-673, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text)
  12. Friedman, p. 362, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text)
  13. Logan, pp. 1-10, "Captain Ward" (1 text)
  14. BBI, ZN949, "Gallants you must understand"; ZN2410, "Strike up you lusty Gallants"
  15. DT 287, WRDRNBOW* WRDNBW2*
  16. ADDITIONAL: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 30, "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (1 text)
  17. ST C287 (Full)
  18. Roud #224
  19. BI, C287


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1733 (broadside, Bodleian Douce Ballads 1(80b))
Found in: Britain(England(West),Scotland(Aber)) Canada(Mar,Newf) US(MW,NE,SE) Ireland