The Ballad of Chevy Chase
There are two extant English ballads known as The Ballad of Chevy Chase, both of which narrate the same story. As ballads existed within oral tradition before being written down, other versions of this once popular song also may have existed.
The ballads tell the story of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills, hence the term, Chevy Chase. The hunt is led by Percy, the English Earl of Northumberland. The Scottish Earl of Douglas had forbidden this hunt and interpreted it as an invasion of Scotland. In response he attacked, causing a bloody battle after which only 110 people survived. Both ballads were collected in Thomas Percy's Reliques and the first of the ballads in Francis James Child's Child Ballads.
The ballads are thought to have been based on the events of the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, although the account of the battle is not historically accurate and it may relate to border skirmishes up to fifty years later. Nevertheless, the first ballad includes the lines,
This was the hontynge off the Cheviat,
that tear begane this spurn;
Old men that knowen the grownde well yenoughe
call it the battell of Otterburn.
There is also a third ballad named The Battle of Otterburn (ballad), which is assuredly about this battle.
The first of the two ballads of Chevy Chase perhaps was written as early as the 1430s, but the earliest record we have of it is in The Complaynt of Scotland, one of the first printed books from Scotland. The Complaynt of Scotland was printed at approximately 1540, and in it the ballad is called The Hunting of Cheviot.
Sir Philip Sidney said of this early ballad:
- "I never Heard the old song of Percie and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet" — Defence of Poesy.
The old song of "Chevy-Chase" is the favourite ballad of the common people of England, and Ben Jonson used to say he had rather have been the author of it than of all his works. Sir Philip Sidney, in his discourse of Poetry, speaks of it in the following words: "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart more moved than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung by some blind crowder with no rougher voice than rude style, which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobweb of that uncivil age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?" For my own part, I am so professed an admirer of this antiquated song, that I shall give my reader a critique upon it without any further apology for so doing.
Apparently Addison was unaware that the ballad he then goes on to analyse in detail, was not the same work praised by Sidney and Jonson. The second of the ballads appears to have been written in modernized English shortly after Sidney's comments, perhaps around 1620, and to have become the better-known version.
Other literary references
In Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, before their relationship blossoms, Catherine Heathcliff (née Catherine Linton) scorns Hareton Earnshaw's primitive attempts at reading, saying, “I wish you would repeat Chevy Chase as you did yesterday; it was extremely funny!”
In F. Anstey's Vice Versa (1882), the boys at Dr Grimstone's boarding school are required to play a game called "chevy" (a version of "prisoners' base" or "darebase"), "so called from the engagement famed in ballad and history".
- The Works of Joseph Addison: Complete in Three Volumes: Embracing the Whole of the "Spectator," &c, Harper & Brothers, 1837, p.117
- Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights, Chapter 31 (Wikisource link)
- "North and South", Chapter 10 (Wikisource link)
- Anstey, F. (1981) . Vice Versa. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 83–4, 165.
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