Fair Margaret and Sweet William

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"Fair Margaret and Sweet William" (Child 74, Roud 253) is a traditional English ballad which tells of two lovers, of whom either one or both die from heartbreak.[1] Thomas Percy included it in his folio and said that it was quoted as early as 1611 in the Knight of the Burning Pestle.[2] In the United States, variations of Fair Margaret have been regarded as folk song as early as 1823.[3]


Fair Margaret espies the marriage procession of her lover Sweet William and another woman from her high chamber window. Depending on the variation, Margaret either commits suicide or dies of a broken heart. Her ghost then appears before Sweet William to ask him if he loves his new bride more than herself, and William replies he loves Margaret better. In the morning, William commences to search for Margaret. Upon arriving at her estate, Margaret's family shows William the corpse. In some versions, Sweet William dies of heartbreak as well, and they are buried beside each other.

Variations and related ballads[edit]

Regional and printed variations of the ballad are known by many titles, including "Lady Margaret and Sweet William", "Pretty Polly and Sweet William", "Sweet William's Bride", "Lady Margaret's Ghost",[4] "Fair Margaret's Misfortune", and "William and Margaret", among others.[1] Numerous variations on this basic structure can be found in folk songs throughout the British Isles and United States. Helen Hartness Flanders collected several versions of the song throughout New England during the mid-20th century, which she heard performed to five different melodies.[5] Renowned folklorist Francis James Child identified three different versions of the lyrics.[1]

Cecil Sharp collected numerous other variants, considering "Sweet William's Ghost" to be a slight variation on the basic plot.[citation needed] Arrangements of Fair Margaret sometimes end with a "rose-briar motif" of several stanzas describing floral growth on the lovers' neighboring graves. This motif is occasionally featured in other ballads, including "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet", "Lord Lovel", and "Barbara Allen".[4][5] Fair Margaret also shares some mid-song stanzas with the murder ballad "Matty Groves" (Child ballad 81, Roud 52)[6].[7][8]


  1. ^ a b c Child, Francis James (1965). English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 2. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 199–203.
  2. ^ Lesley Nelson-Burns, "Fair Margaret and Sweet William: Version 2"
  3. ^ Flanders, Helen Hartness; Brown, George (1968). Vermont Folk-Songs & Ballads. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, Inc. pp. 240–1.
  4. ^ a b Tristram P. Coffin (1950). The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society. pp. 76–9, 87–90, .
  5. ^ a b Flanders, Helen Hartness (1961). Ancient Ballads: Traditionally Sung in New England. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 122–147.
  6. ^ "Matty Groves". vwml.org. English Folk Dance and Song Society / Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  7. ^ Keefer, Jane (2011). "Fair Margaret and Sweet William". Ibiblio. Retrieved January 16, 2013.
  8. ^ Niles, John Jacob (1961). The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles. Bramhall House, New York. pp. 159–161, 194–197. |access-date= requires |url= (help)

External links[edit]