Sir Hugh

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The "Jew's daughter" lures Hugh into her garden. Illustration to Sir Hugh by George Wharton Edwards (1896)

Sir Hugh is a traditional British folk song, Child ballad # 155, Roud # 73, a folkloric example of a blood libel.


Some boys are playing with a ball, in Lincoln. They accidentally throw it over the wall of a Jew's house (or castle). The daughter of the Jew comes out, dressed in green, and beckons to a boy to come in to fetch it. He replies that cannot do this without his playmates. She entices him in with fruit and a gold ring. Once he has sat down on a throne, she stabs him in the heart "like a sheep". There is much blood.

When the boy fails to come home, his mother concludes that he is skylarking. She sets out to find him, with a rod to beat him. From beyond the grave, the boy asks his mother to prepare a funeral winding sheet, and that he is "asleep". In some versions he asks that if his father calls for him, the father is to be told that he is "dead." In some versions the boy's corpse shines "like gold". In some versions the Jew's daughter catches the blood in a basin and puts a prayerbook at his head and a bible at his feet.


The song has been found in England, Scotland, Canada, the US and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.[1] It was still popular in the early nineteenth century. The title "Sir Hugh" or more commonly "Little Sir Hugh" should actually be called "Little Saint Hugh" since this is based on the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln; the "little" is used to stop confusion with another saint of the same name, Saint Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln. Whilst it would appear that Hugh had merely fallen down a well whilst searching for his ball, because the well was located on Jewish property, stories of ritual killing soon developed and 70 Jews were arrested, 18 were hanged for refusing to take part in the trial, the remainder were pardoned.

In medieval times such anti-Semitic tales were common. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and did not return until 1658. It seems unlikely that crude propaganda would be deliberately concocted and spread in the late 17th century, since Britain had become a refuge for persecuted religious minorities. There is a tale that in 1255 a boy was kidnapped by Jews, and crucified.[2] His body was apparently found in a well, and a blood libel was built around this and used to lynch and murder many Jews in medieval Lincoln, as part of one of the first pogroms in recorded history. The story appears in Annals of Waverley.

According to Roud and Bishop,

The subject matter, however, is disturbing, and reminds us that folklore is not always nice and cosy. Indeed, racists, xenophobes, political zealots and religious fundamentalists have always used legends, rumours, songs, jokes and other lore to support and spread their beliefs and to indoctrinate their young, and in particular to denigrate and stereotype outsiders and the victims of their bigotry.[1]

The artist and poet Matthew Paris (fl. c 1217 - 1259) has a Latin fragment of this ballad in his Chronicle. Thomas Percy's Reliques (1783) has a version from Scotland. David Herd (1776) had a version, and so did Robert Jameison (1806).

The idea of a corpse speaking (sending thoughts) to the living occurs in the ballad The Murder of Maria Marten, The Cruel Mother (Child 20) and in The Unquiet Grave (Child 78). Gruesome killings are quite common in Child ballads.[3]

Textual variants[edit]

Several Scottish versions have the boys playing with a ball in Scotland, and suddenly (and inexplicably) transferred to Lincoln later in the song.[citation needed] A version from Northamptonshire says the boy was killed "like a swine".[citation needed] A version from Northumberland sets the events at Easter.[citation needed] An American version of the early 20th century, by Nelstone's Hawaiians, collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, replaces the Jewish villainess with "a Gypsy lady, all dressed in yellow and green."

There is an Anglo-Norman version (medieval French)[citation needed] and a fragment in Latin (Matthew Paris's "Chronicles").


Early collectors were surprised to find evidence of a ballad featuring a blood libel, and they wrote entire books on the subject. James Orchard Halliwell wrote Ballads and Poems Respecting Hugh of Lincoln in 1849. In the same year, and unknown to Halliwell, Abraham Hume wrote the book Sir Hugh of Lincoln, or, an Examination of a Curious Tradition respecting the Jews, with a notice of the Popular Poetry connected with it.

One of the earliest professional recordings of the song was by A. L. Lloyd on "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Vol 2" in 1956, produced by Kenneth Goldstein, himself a Jew. Another interpreter of the song, Ewan MacColl, described the ballad as "the barbaric functioning of medieval thinking".[3]


There was no printed tune for the ballad until Edward Francis Rimbault's "Musical Illustrations of Bishob Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry" (1850).[citation needed]


Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
Fatal Flower Garden (Victor Records, 78 rpm) Nelstone's Hawaiians 1930 Fatal Flower Garden The earliest known professional recording; re-issued in 1952 on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads vol 3 A. L. Lloyd 1956 Sir Hugh
The Max Hunter Folksong Collection Mrs. Allie Long Parker 1958 The Jew's Garden
Southern Journey, Vol. 7: Ozark Frontier Ollie Gilbert 1959 It Rained a Mist
The Max Hunter Folksong Collection Fran Majors 1959 The Jew's Garden
The Folksongs Of Britain: The Chid Ballads Vol. 2 Cecilia Costello 1961 The Jew's Garden Reissue: Rounder CD Classic Ballads Of Britain & Ireland: Folk Songs Of England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales Vol. 2
The Long Harvest Vol 5 Ewan MacColl 1967 Sir Hugh Four variants of the ballad: one English (Sir Hugh) and three American (The Fatal Flower Garden, Little Saloo, It Rained a Mist)
The Cock Doth Craw Ian Campbell 1968 Little Sir Hugh
Commoners Crown Steeleye Span 1975 Little Sir Hugh
The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition 5) Margaret Stewart 1975 Sir Hugh & the Jew's Daughter
Shreds and Patches John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris 1977 Little Sir William
Lost Lady Found Vikki Clayton 1997 Sir Hugh of Lincoln
The Swimming Hour Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire 2001 Fatal Flower Garden
Heading for Home Peggy Seeger 2003 Fatal Flower Garden
Benjamin Britten: Folk Song Arrangements Philip Langridge, Tenor,
with Graham Johnson, Piano.
2005 Little Sir William
The Harry Smith Project Gavin Friday 2006 Fatal Flower Garden Cover of the 1930 version by Nelstone's Hawaiians, as re-issued on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music
The Elixir That'll Fix 'Er The Black Strap Molasses Family 2008 Fatal Flower Garden
Deus Ignotus Andrew King 2011 Sir Hugh
Ground of its Own Sam Lee 2012 The Jew's Garden


  1. ^ a b Roud, Steve; Julia, Bishop, eds. (2012). The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs. Penguin. p. 482. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5. This song was collected in England and Scotland and was even more common in North America, but less well known in Ireland. 
  2. ^ The Jewish Virtual Library gives a version of the story.
  3. ^ a b Ewan MacColl, in the notes to the song Child Owlet on the album Blood And Roses Vol. 2, 1981, ESB 80.

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