King John[1] and
the Abbot
[2] of Canterbury

Anonymous (England, before 1695)



an ancient story I'll tell you anon,

Of a notable prince, that was called King John;

He ruled over England with main and might,

But he did great wrong, and maintained little right.

And I'll tell you a story, a story so merry,

Concerning the Abbot of Canterbury;

How for his housekeeping and high renown,

They rode[3] post to bring him to London town.


A hundred men, as the King heard say,

The Abbot kept in his house every day;

And fifty gold chains, without any doubt,

In velvet coats waited the Abbot about.


"How now, Father Abbot? I hear it of thee,

Thou keepest a far better house than me;

And for thy housekeeping and high renown,

I fear thou work'st treason against my crown."


"My liege,[4]" quoth the Abbot, "I would it were known,

I am spending nothing but what is my own;

And I trust your grace will not put me in fear,

For spending my own true‑gotten gear."


"Yes, yes, Father Abbot, thy fault is high,

And now for the same thou needest must die;

And except thou canst answer me questions three,

Thy head struck off from thy body shall be."


"Now first," quo' the King, "as I sit here,

With my crown of gold on my head so fair,

Among all my liegemen of noble birth,

Thou must tell to one penny what I am worth."


"Secondly, tell me, beyond all doubt,

How quickly I may ride the whole world about;

And at the third question thou must not shrink,

But tell me here truly, what do I think?"



"O, these are deep questions for my shallow wit,

And I cannot answer your Grace as yet;

But if you will give me a fortnight's space,

I'll do my endeavor to answer your Grace."


"Now a fortnight's space to thee will I give,

And that is the longest thou hast to live;

For unless thou answer my questions three,

Thy life and thy lands are forfeit to me."


Away rode the Abbot all sad at this word;

He rode to Cambridge and Oxenford;

But never a doctor there was so wise,

That could by his learning an answer devise.


Then home rode the Abbot, with comfort so cold,

And he met his shepherd, a‑going to fold:

"Now, good Lord Abbot, you are welcome home;

What news do you bring us from great King John?"


"Sad news, sad news, Shepherd, I must give;

That I have but three days more to live.

I must answer the King his questions three,

Or my head struck off from my body shall be."


"The first is to tell him, as he sits there,

With his crown of gold on his head so fair

Among all his liegemen of noble birth,

To within one penny, what he is worth."


"The second, to tell him, beyond all doubt,

How quickly he may ride this whole world about;

And at question the third, I must not shrink,

But tell him there truly, what does he think?"


"O, cheer up, my lord; did you never hear yet

That a fool may teach a wise man wit?

Lend me your serving‑men, horse, and apparel,

And I'll ride to London to answer your quarrel."


"With your pardon, it oft has been told to me

That I'm like[5] your lordship as ever can be:

And if you will but lend me your gown,

There is none shall know us at London town."


"Now horses and serving‑men thou shalt have,

With sumptuous raiment gallant and brave;

With crosier[6], and mitre,[7] and rochet,[8] and cope,[9]

Fit to draw near to our father, the pope."[10]


"Now welcome, Sir Abbot," the King he did say,

"Tis well thou'rt come back to keep thy day;

For if thou canst answer my questions three,

Thy life and thy living both saved shall be."


"And first, as thou seest me sitting here,

With my crown of gold on my head so fair,

Among my liegemen of noble birth,

Tell to one penny what I am worth."


"For thirty pence our Saviour was sold[11]

Among the false Jews as I have been told;

And twenty‑nine is the worth of thee;

For I think thou are one penny worse than he."


The King, he laughed, and swore by St.  Bittle,

"I did not think I was worth so little!

Now secondly tell me, beyond all doubt,

How quickly I may ride this world about."


"You must rise with the sun, and ride with the same,

Until the next morning he riseth again;

And then your Grace need never doubt

But in twenty‑four hours you'll ride it about."


The King he laughed, and swore by St. Jone,

"I did not think I could do it so soon!

Now from question the third thou must not shrink,

But tell me truly, what do I think?"


"Yea, that I shall do, and make your Grace merry:

You think I'm the Abbot of Canterbury.

But I'm his poor shepherd, as plain you may see,

That am come to beg pardon for him and for me."


The King he laughed, and swore by the mass,

"I'll make thee Lord Abbot this day in his place!"

"Now nay, my Liege, be not in such speed;

For alas!  I can neither write nor read."


"Four nobles[12] a week, then I'll give to thee,

For this merry jest thou has shown to me;

And tell the old Abbot, when thou gettest home,

Thou has brought a free pardon from good King John."


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[1]    King John (1166-1216) reigned in England in the years 1199-1216.  He is the evil monarch portrayed in The Legend of Robin Hood and he plays an even more central role in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.  He was involved in a long dispute with the Pope, a dispute that foreshadows Henry VIII’s more successful revolt against papal authority over England (that is why most English people today are Anglican, not Catholic).  However, lovers of freedom remember King John with mixed feelings, for his unscrupulousness, unpopularity, sexual transgressions, and defeats in war led, in 1915, to the Great Charter (Magna Carta), an important milestone on the Western road to a system of checks and balances.  Winston Churchill wisely said:  "When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns."

[2]     Abbot: Head of monastery.  Nowadays, the archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican church.

[3] Ride post:  Carry messages on horseback.  Since such riders were fast, “to ride post” meant to do something quickly and expeditiously.

[4] Liege: high-ranking individual in feudal England.

[5]      Like: The shepherd and the abbot look alike

[6]      Crozier: A staff (walking stick) carried by bishops and abbots as a symbol of office.

[7]       Mitre: A headdress worn by bishops and abbots

[8]       Rochet: A white linen ceremonial robe with close-fitting sleeves worn especially by bishops

[9]       Cope: Robe worn by church officials

[10]     Pope: In the 13th Century, England was still subservient to Rome

[11]     Sold: Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles were Jews, living in what is now the states of Israel and Palestine.  Jesus was betrayed, for thirty shekels, by one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot.

[12] Noble: an old English gold coin.