The Earl of Totnes

The feast was over at Haccombe Hall
And the wassail cup had been served to all
When the Earl of Totnes rose from his place
And the chanters came in to say the grace

But scarce was ended the holy rite
When there stepped from the crowd a valiant knight
His armour bright and his visage brown
His name was Sir Arthur Champernowne

Good Earl of Totnes I’ve brought with me
My fleetest courser of Barbary
And whether good or ill betide
A wager with thee I mean for to ride

No Barbary courser do I own
But I have, quoth the earl, a Devonshire roan
And I’ll ride for a wager by land or by sea
The roan ’gainst the courser of Barbary

Tis done, said Sir Arthur, already I’ve won
And I’ll stake my manor of Dartington
’Gainst Haccombe Hall and its rich domain
So the Earl of Totnes the wager has ta’en

To horse! To horse! resounds through the hall
Each warrior’s horse is led from its stall
And with gallant train over Milburn Down
Ride the bold Carew and the Champernowne

And when they come to the Abbey of Tor
The abbot came forth from the western door
And much he prayed them to stay and dine
But the earl took nought but a goblet of wine

Sir Arthur he raised the bowl on high
And prayed to the Giver of Victory
Then drank success to himself in the course
And the sops of the wine he gave to his horse

Away they rode from the Abbey of Tor
Till they reached the inlet’s curving shore
The earl plunged first in the foaming wave
And was followed straight by Sir Arthur the brave

The wind blew hard and the waves beat high
And the horses strove for the mastery Till
Sir Arthur cried, help, thou bold Carew
Help, if thou art a Christian true

O save for the sake of that lady of mine
Good Earl of Totnes, the manor is thine
The Barbary courser must yield to the roan
And thou art the Lord of Dartington

The Earl his steed began to restrain
And he seized Sir Arthur’s horse by the rein
He cheered him by words and gave him his hand
And brought Sir Arthur safe to land

Then Sir Arthur, with sickness and grief opprest
Lay down in the abbey chambers to rest
But the earl he rode from the Abbey of Tor
Straight forward to Haccombe chapel door

And there he fell on his knees and prayed
And many an Ave Maria said
Bread and money he gave to the poor
And he nailed the roan’s shoes to the chapel door

Many people of a certain vintage will know this song from the classic 1970 LP The Rout of the Blues by Robin and Barry Dransfield. That’s where I first heard it too. They mentioned in the sleeve notes that they found the song in a 1952 book called Folk Tales of Devon by V Day Sharman, so I promptly (actually, not really promptly, say about thirty years later) bought a copy myself.

In addition to the ballad, Sharman provides three related tales in a section titled ‘Carew and Champernowne’. It’s often assumed by many that the Carew of the ballad was Sir George. Well, historically speaking that’s extremely unlikely, given that George only became the first and only Earl of Totnes in 1626, and died three years later aged 74.

I came across an academic paper, The Folklore of the Horseshoe, by Robert M Lawrence, in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 35 (Oct. – Dec., 1896). He very briefly describes the ballad, and intriguingly mentions that it was ‘supposed to have been written by a master of Exeter Grammar School’. Oh dear, that set me off again! Fortunately, Lawrence gave a reference that I was able to track down. It was an unattributed article in Belgravia: a London magazine, v4, 1868. The article is titled ‘Horse-shoes on Church Doors’. The author recounts the legend, giving the full text, but with an extra couplet after the fifth stanza, not found in Sharman’s book: ‘The land is for men of low degree / But the knight and the earl they ride by sea’. So, although not mentioned in the ballad itself, (although it is, in one of Sharman’s other tales) the wager was intended to show which horse was the best swimmer, and also how only the nobility were worthy of such feats of derring-do.

There are other details in this blog, that strongly suggest that the ballad is simply a fanciful folk tale. Nothing wrong with that.

Sharman’s book gives just the words, no tune, so I suppose that’s why the Dransfields used a new tune, composed by the late John Pearse. However, we didn’t feel constrained to use this tune, which we felt was a touch too repetitive for a 14-verse song, so I composed a new one.

The Jones Boys play highly accomplished traditional music from Ireland, England, Scotland, Brittany, Sweden, Bulgaria …

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