“Willie o Winsbury”


The king has been a prisoner; he returns to find his daughter looking ill. She proves to be pregnant; her lover was (Willie o Winsbury). The king orders Winsbury hanged, but upon seeing him, understands his daughter's action and allows the two to wed


Only one king of Britain since the Norman Conquest has been taken captive by a foreign power: Richard I ("the Lion-Hearted"; "Richard Yes-and-No") was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria. All told, Richard spent only six months of his ten year reign (1189-1199) in England. Unfortunately for the truth of this song, Richard (who may have been homosexual) had no children. Few other English kings have been absent from England long enough for the events here to take place.

If we transfer the story to Scotland, we find that David Bruce (reigned 1329-1370) spent much of his life in English captivity, but again had no children. The earlier William the Lion (reigned 1165-1214) also spent time in English hands, and *did* have children (including two daughters, Margaret and Isabella) -- but also had no feelings, and would never have been guilty of such a crime as forgiving someone.

This leaves king John of France (reigned 1350-1364), who was taken prisoner by the Black Prince at Poitiers (1355), as the closest thing we have to an equivalent to the king in this ballad.

In some versions of the song, the hero Willie is himself a king in disguise; there is no evidence of this ever having happened in truth, though it is common in folktale (associated especially with James V of Scotland) - RBW

A fragment, Bodleian, 2806 c.11(90), "Lord Thomas of Winsborough" ("It happen'd on a time when the proud king of France"), unknown, n.d. may be this ballad but I could not download it to verify that. - BS

Cross references


  • Anita Best and Pamela Morgan, "Johnny Barbour" (on NFABestPMorgan01)
  • Robert Cinnamond, "There Was a Lady Lived in the West" (on Voice17); "John Barlow" (on IRRCinnamond03)


  1. Child 100, "Willie o Winsbury" (9 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #22}
  2. Bronson 100, "Willie o Winsbury" (22 versions+1 in addenda, of which #2 is a Manx fragment which may not be related)
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 224-225, "Willie o Winsbury" (notes only, claiming a verse in one of their versions of "Johnny Scot" is actually a "Willie" fragment)
  4. Flanders/Olney, pp. 233-235, "Johnny Barbour" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #21}
  5. Flanders-Ancient3, pp. 57-66, "Willie o Winsbury" (3 texts plus a fragment, 3 tunes) {A=Bronson's #21, B=#20}
  6. Greenleaf/Mansfield 13, "Young Barbour" (3 texts, 3 tunes) {Bronson's #16, #13, #12}
  7. Peacock, pp. 534-536, "John Barbour" (1 text, 2 tunes)
  8. Karpeles-Newfoundland 14, "Willie o' Winsbury" (2 texts, 4 tunes) {Bronson's #17}
  9. Leach, pp. 308-309, "Willie o Winsbury" (1 text)
  10. Leach-Labrador 7, "Willie O Winsbury" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  11. Lehr/Best 62, "John Barbour" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. PBB 45, "Willie o Winsbury" (1 text)
  13. Sharp-100E 15, "Lord Thomas of Winesberry" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11}
  14. Combs/Wilgus 29, pp. 123-124, "Willie o Winsbury" (1 text)
  15. Darling-NAS, pp. 71-73, "Willie O Winsbury" (1 text)
  16. SHenry H221, pp. 490-491, "The Rich Ship Owner's Daughter" (1 text, 1 tune)
  18. Roud #64
  19. BI, C100


Alternate titles: “The Seven Sailor Boys”; “The Rich Shipowner's Daughter”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1776 (Percy MS.)
Found in: Britain(Scotland(Aber,Bord),England(West,South)) US(Ap,NE) Canada(Newf) Ireland