Saturday 31 January 2015

Francesca's Bookshelf: Percy's Reliques

Consisting of old heroic ballads, songs and other pieces of our earlier poets together with some few of later date

Francesca loves her ballads and songs, and with plenty of spare time and little else to spend her money on, she has assembled a formidable collection of old books, many of them containing ancient collections of ballads. She is pleased to find a copy of the three volume set of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a collection put together by the Rev. Thomas Percy in the 18th Century, and commonly known as Percy's Reliques. The full three volume set is hard to find, and she pays a high price for the set.

We owe Percy a lot, as the inspiration for subsequent generations of collectors and singers. Without his work, fewer of these old ballads and songs would be available to us today, and artists such as Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and many others would have had a poorer access to our traditional songs and ballads.

This collection, first published in 1765, was one of the earliest published collections of ballads, and at a time when ballads were popularly thought of as vulgar street songs, it shone a new light on the form, providing future generations with a window into the past of these wonderful gems. Indeed, his work provided inspiration for future collectors such as Child, Scott, Jamieson, Motherwell and Buchan to name but a few. Notably, the Rev. R. A Willmott produced a single “handy volume” revision of the Reliques in 1857, entitled Percy's Reliques, in which he cleared away all Percy's essays and prefaces, and added annotation of his own.

Henry B. Wheatley, edited the 1885 three volume edition photographed above (this copy is a 1927 reprint). According to Wheatley, Thomas Percy was born in 1729 in Bridgenorth in Shropshire. He matriculated at Christ Church College, Oxford in 1746 and achieved his Masters degree in 1750. In 1753, at the age of 24, he was made rector of Easton Maudit in Northampton. As a young man he came into possession of an unbound manuscript in poor condition. Of it, he said, “I saw it lying dirty on the floor, under a bureau in ye parlour: being used by the maids to light the fire …” Happily he was able to rescue the manuscript, and this, along with other collections, printed broadsides and other sources, provided the material from which he derived the Reliques. Percy's precious rescued manuscript itself was probably written shortly before 1650, and was used extensively by Child more than a hundred years later.

Percy died in 1811 at the ripe old age of 83.

On the left is Willmott's "handy volume" edition. Percy's Reliques. This copy is not dated by the publisher or printer, but the inscription in the front is as a prize, given in 1879.

This edition contains a small number of illustrations, like the one shown here.

As an interesting footnote, I should add that, although Percy titled his work "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry", the collection does not contain only English poetry! As an example, some ballads such as Sir Patrik Spence, and Edward, Edward are Scottish, as he states in the text.

I have scanned some pages from Wheatley's 3 volume set for your delight. What follows is a ballad entitled On Thomas Lord Cromwell, from the second volume. I chose this because Thomas Cromwell is currently being depicted in the media in a television dramatisation of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall. Percy prefaces the ballad with a brief essay, and this is followed by [in square brackets] Wheatley's own comments. The ballad is written in archaic language, which makes it a challenge to read if you're not used to it, but it's worth the effort. Just click on the images to enlarge them.

I hope you've enjoyed this little trip into the life of Thomas Percy.

Francesca is one of the two main characters in An Accident Of Birth, by Tony Benson