“The Cruel Mother”


A woman is (preparing to be wed, but is) pregnant (by another man). When her child(ren) is/are born, she kills him/them. As she proceeds to the church to be wed, the child(ren) appear to her to condemn her for her act.


Although this has not been linked with any historical incident, there are a number of cases in history which are at least vaguely similar. One which struck me was the case of Will Darrell, reportedly from 1575 (as told in Peter Underwood's _Gazetteer of British, Scottish & Irish Ghosts, pp. 123-124_).

Darnell, having gotten one of his sundry mistresses pregnant, brought in a midwife (blindfolding her to conceal the place) to help the mother, then killed the child. The midwife left a deathbed testament, but Darnell was acquitted at trial. Later, when riding a horse, he saw the ghost of the dead baby; his horse bolted and he was killed.

You can believe as much of that as you like; I don't believe much. But it shows that stories like this were circulating.

Some versions, including Creighton's from Nova Scotia, have a secondary folklore motif: The unremovable stain (in this case, of blood on the knife). This is most famous for Shakespeare's application to Lady MacBeth (Macbeth V.i, a part of the play which is more Shakkespeare than Holinshed), but it is common in folklore: Compare Asbjornson and Moe's "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," I seem to recall also a story of three drops of blood arranging for their own revenge, though I can't recall the source.

Dixon's version (Child's F, taken from Buchan) ends with the mother's suicide, something rare in other versions. The form appears to have been influenced by "The Twa Sisters." I wonder a little if there has not been some rewriting involved. - RBW

Also collected and sung by David Hammond, "All Round the Loney-O" (on David Hammond, "I Am the Wee Falorie Man: Folk Songs of Ireland," Tradition TCD1052 CD (1997) reissue of Tradition LP TLP 1028 (1959)) The Hammond versions have the common form for this ballad of rhyming couplet interspersed with "All round the Loney-O" and "Down by the greenwood side-O." According to Sean O Boyle's notes to the album the version "has been localized by Belfast singers, who identify the Loney with a street called The Pound Loney. The Castle Pound in old Belfast stood here by a boundary river among the trees of the Falls (Hedge) Road; thus giving all features of the song a local habitation." The version survives stripped of all supernatural references as both the (suicidal?) mother and murdered baby "sleep" in the river. - BS


  • A. L. Lloyd, "The Cruel Mother" (ESFB1, ESFB2)
  • Lizzie Higgins, "The Cruel Mother" (on Voice03)
  • Thomas Moran, "The Cruel Mother" (on FSB4)
  • Duncan Burke, Cecilia Costello, Thomas Moran [composite] "The Cruel Mother" (on FSBBAL1) {cf. Bronson's #19.1 in addenda}
  • Lucy Stewart, "Down by the Greenwood Sidie O" (on LStewart1)


  1. Child 20, "The Cruel Mother" (17 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #5}
  2. Bronson 20, "The Cruel Mother" (56 versions plus 1 in addenda)
  3. Dixon VI, pp. 46-49, "The Cruel Mother"; VII, pp. 50-52, "The Minister's Dochter o' Newarke" (2 texts)
  4. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 80-93, "The Cruel Mother" (6 texts plus a fragment, 1 tune) {Bronson's #6}
  5. Flanders/Olney, pp. 66-67, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #21}
  6. Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 230-238, "The Cruel Mother" (3 texts (all missing parts of the plot) plus 3 fragments probably of this; 3 tunes) {A=Bronson's #21, B=#34}
  7. Eddy 7, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #14}
  8. Randolph 8, "Down by the Greenwood Side" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #54}
  9. Davis-Ballads 9, "The Cruel Mother" (4 texts plus a fragment, 4 tunes) Bronson's #35, #48, #43, #44}
  10. Davis-More 12, pp. 81-83, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 167-169, "(The Cruel Mother)" (1 text, from Randolph; tune on p. 403) {Bronson's #54}
  12. Creighton/Senior, pp. 17-20, "The Cruel Mother" (2 texts plus 2 fragments and1 excerpt, 4 tunes) {Bronson's pp. #18, #45, #13, #20}
  13. Creighton-NovaScotia 2, "Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #37}
  14. Greenleaf/Mansfield 6, "Fair Flowers of Helio" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #28}
  15. Peacock, pp. 804-805, "The Babes in the Greenwood" (1 text, 2 tunes)
  16. Karpeles-Newfoundland 5, "The Cruel Mother" (5 texts, 7 tunes) {Bronson's #26}
  17. Mackenzie 3, "The Greenwood Siding" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #19}
  18. Manny/Wilson 56, "There Was a Girl Her Name Was Young (Down by the Greenwood Side-I-O) (The Cruel Mother)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  19. Leach, pp. 103-106, "The Cruel Mother" (3 texts)
  20. OBB 22, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text)
  21. Friedman, p. 181, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text+1 fragment)
  22. FSCatskills 68, "Down by the Greenwood Shady" (1 text, 1 tune)
  23. PBB 27, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text)
  24. SharpAp 10 "The Cruel Mother" (13 texts, 13 tunes){Bronson's #51, #55, #42, #44, #17, #32, #46, #40, #11, #10, #52, #30, #41}
  25. Sharp-100E 13, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #31}
  26. Ord, pp. 459-460, "Hey Wi' the Rose and the Lindsay, O" (1 text)
  27. Niles 20, "The Cruel Mother" (2 texts, 2 tunes); also possibly Niles 15, "The Maid and the Palmer" (1 text, which Niles identifies with Child 21, but the fragment is so short that it could equally be part of Child 20)
  28. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 9, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune -- a composite version) {Bronson's #42}
  29. Hammond-Belfast, p. 54, "All Round the Loney-O" (1 text, 1 tune)
  30. Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, p. 28, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #16}
  31. Hodgart, p. 36, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text)
  32. JHCox 5, "The Cruel Mother" (3 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #7}
  33. Silber-FSWB, p. 222, "The Cruel Mother" (1 text)
  34. BBI, ZN2495, "There was a Duke's Daughter Lived in York"
  36. Roud #9
  37. BI, C020


Alternate titles: “Fine Flowers in the Valley”; “Three Little Babies”; “The Lady of York”; “Greenwood Siding”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1776 (Herd)
Found in: Britain(England,Scotland(High,Aber)) Ireland US(Ap,MA,MW,NE,SE,So) Canada(Mar,Newf)