Threatening Male Figures in Lace Tells and Ballads

"The Fox" digs a grave for his future wife

Above: Music inspired by The Fox ballad, by Gemma Khawaja

Above: A version of Long Lankin ballad, by Gemma Khawaja

Songs sung by lacemakers (before lace became mechanised) tended to be very dark and macabre in tone. Lacemakers were mostly female (though there were some male lacemakers, though they are less common and this topic seems to be one of debate – more about that in a future post!), and therefore many of the songs are those sung from a female perspective.

I have been looking at a few ballads that were often sung by lacemakers while making lace. The term “Lace Tells”, in my understanding, refers specifically to rhymes used in lace schools in the Midlands. The purpose of these rhymes seems to have been to quicken the work, count the pins and even to help the children learn basic arithmetic.

Lace Tells were often made up of fragments of nursery rhymes, hymns and ballads, mish mashed together and adapted for the needs of the lace making process. Often they ended up making no sense unless you were a lacemaker, thus an “insider”. Lace schools were also a good place to learn a large repertoire of songs, and often whole ballads were learnt. The ballads are very dark in nature. The fact that they were chosen to be sung by lace makers also reflects the harsh conditions of working women, the lacemakers themselves, often poor, and often subject to violence. This could be sexual violence from the husband but also violence generally from the lace mistress of the schools, and also by their parents.

I have noticed that there are various motifs that often arise in ballads sung by lacemakers, for example, a threatening and violent male figure. Sometimes the female falls victim to this violent man, though other times, as in The Fox and The Outlandish Knight, explored in this post, the female protagonist tricks him with her wit, turns the tables on him and survives.

The Fox riddle (also known as The Robber Bridegroom)
“Go bring to me your dowry love
And some of your fathers gold besides,

AN ILLUSTRATION OF BLUEBEARD AND HIS WIFE BY GUSTAVE DORÉ. There are similarities between The Robber Bridegroom/The Fox and Bluebeard)

That you may ride along with me
And be made next day my lovely bride.”
She took the dowry, she took the gold,
The appointed night came very soon.
And away she’s gone to the trysting tree
By the pale light of the rising moon.
She’s come in first to the trysting tree,
Said, “In the leaves above I’ll hide
To surprise my love, so that when he comes
He will wonder where is my lovely bride.”
She waited a while as she sat hid,
She saw two men below her feet.
Her love she saw in the pale moonlight
As he dug a grave below the tree.
They waited a while but she never stirred
And at last they left their dreadful plan.
And when they both had safely gone
She slipped from the tree and home she ran.
A week went by, her love she met
At a neighbours house to pass the time.
The lads and girls they jest and played
And asked each other riddles and rhymes.
Her false love whispered, “Where were you love
The night I waited in vain for you?”
“I’ll answer that,” this girl replied,
“If you’ll answer me this puzzle true:
“One moonlit night as I lay hid,
I looked for one but two came there.
The boughs did bend and the leaves did shake
For to see the hole the fox did make.”
His colour changed and up he rose,
He saw his treachery made so plain.
Out of the doors into the night,
Never seen in those parts again.

The Outlandish Knight
The Outlandish Knight is another ballad, often sung by lacemakers, in which a threatening male figure who has offered a female protagonist marriage, gets outwitted by her.

Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), ‘May Colven’, ”Some British Ballads”, 1919

An outlandish knight came from the northlands;
And he came wooing to me;
He said he would take me to foreign lands
And he would marry me.

Go fetch me some of your father’s gold,
And some of your mother’s fee,
And two of the best nags from out of the stable,
Where there stand thirty and three.

She mounted upon her milkwhite steed,
And he on his dapple grey;
They rode till they came unto the seaside,
Three hours before it was day.

Light off, light on, thy milkwhite steed;
Deliver it up unto me;
For six pretty maidens I have drown’d here,
And thou the seventh shall be.

Doff off, doff off thy silken things,
Deliver them up unto me;
I think that they look too rich and too gay
To rot all in the salt sea.

If I must doff off my silken things,
Pray turn thy back unto me;
For it is not fitting that such a ruffian
A naked woman should see.

And cut thou away the brimbles so sharp,
The brimbles from off the brim
That they may not tangle my curly locks,
Nor scratch my lilywhite skin.

He turned around his back to her
And bent down over the brim.
She caught him around the middle so small
And bundled him into the stream.

He dropped high, he dropped low,
Until he came to the side;
Catch hold of my hand, my fair pretty maid,
And thee I will make my bride.

Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,
Lie there instead of me,
For six pretty maidens hast thou a-drowned here
The seventh hath drown-ed thee.

She mounted on her milkwhite steed,
And led the dapple-grey;
She rode till she came to her father’s house,
Three hours before it was day.

The parrot hung in the window so high,
And heard what the lady did say;
What ails thee, what ails thee, my pretty lady,
You’ve tarried so long away?

The king was up in his bed-room so high,
And heard what the parrot did say:
What ails thee, what ails thee, my pretty Polly,
You prattle so long before today?

It’s no laughing matter, the parrot did say,
That loudly I call unto thee;
For the cat has a-got in the window so high,
I fear that she will have me.

Well turn-ed, well turned, my pretty Polly;
Well turned, well turn-ed for me;
Thy cage shall be made of the glittering gold,
And the door of the best ivory.

There are other variants of this ballad, such as Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight and May Colven. In some versions, the woman drowns the knight after tricking him by telling him to avert his eyes while she gets undressed, and in others she kills him with his own sword. There is a Flemish version in which she cuts his head off and throws it into her father’s window.

Long Lankin

“Said my lord to his lady as he got on his horse.‘Take care of Long Lankin, who lives in the moss.’
Said my lord to his lady as he rode away,
‘Take care of Long Lankin who lives in the clay.
The doors are all bolted, and the windows are pinned,
There is not a hole where a mouse can creep in.’
Then he kissed his fair lady as he rode away;
For he must be in London before break of day.
The doors were all bolted, the windows all pinned,
But one little window where Lankin crept in.
‘Where’s the lord of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He is gone to fair London,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the lady of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘She’s in her high chamber,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the young heir of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He’s asleep in his cradle,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘We’ll prick him, we’ll prick him all over with a pin,
And that will make your lady come down to him.’
They pricked him, they pricked him all over with a pin,
And the false nurse held a basin for the blood to drop in.
‘O nurse! How you sleep, and O nurse how you snore!
You leave my son Johnson to cry and to roar!’
‘I’ve tried him with suck, and I’ve tried him with pap;
Come down, my fair lady, and nurse him in your lap:
I’ve tried him with apple, and I’ve tried him with pear;
Come down, my fair lady and nurse him in your chair.’
‘How can I come down, it’s so late in the night,
And there’s no fire burning, or lamp to give light?’
‘You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun;
Come down, my fair lady, all by the light of one.’
‘Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me till twelve o’clock!
You shall have as much money as you can carry on your back.
Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me one hour!
You shall have my daughter Nancy, she is a sweet flower.’
‘Where is your daughter Nancy? she may do some good;
She can hold the golden basin to catch your heart’s blood.’
Lady Nancy was sitting in her window so high,
And she saw her father as he was riding by:
‘O father! O father! don’t lay the blame on me;
It was the false nurse and Lankin who killed your lady.’
Then Lankin was hung on a gallows so high,
And the false nurse was burnt in a fire close by.”

Long Lankin seems to be a very ghoulish figure, almost like a shape shifter, who dwells in dank areas like moss and clay and who is able to creep in through small windows. In some versions, he is a disgruntled mason, in others he is a devil figure or a bogeyman.

(Above: Image found on

One major theme in the song is the murder of a child by blood letting. It was not a taboo subject in songs and ballads to talk about infant mortality and brutality towards children, as seen in nursery rhymes too. The lives of lacemakers was hard, and children as young as 5 were sent to lace schools to make money for their parents, where they worked extremely long hours. Early death was linked to child labour, and death was much more present.

It has been suggested that the False Nurse, Lankin’s accomplice, may represent the frustration of young lacemakers towards the mothers who had sent them to work in the lace schools. The retribution and punishment meted out onto the villains in the song may have allowed the lacemakers some sort of catharsis, and something on which to project their rage towards the (potentially abusive) adults in their lives.

I also find it curious that the baby in this tale is pricked all over with a pin, just as a lace pattern, or “pricking”, would be.

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