Staffordshire Collection

‘o god what a world’ by Richard Sheale, Minstrel of Tamworth

The Ashmolean manuscripts were among the rarities bequeathed to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole, antiquary, at his death in 1692. They formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. In 1860 the manuscripts were transferred to the Bodleian Library.

The volume in which this remarkable ballad occurs, Ashmole 48, is placed apparently randomly among the collection of Ashmolean manuscripts. Black’s Catalogue, pp 83–90, preserves gaps in the numerical sequence of manuscripts, indicating that the numbering of items preceded the catalogue, and may have been by Elias Ashmole himself. Ashmole 48 is titled ‘A Collection of miscellaneous pieces of old English Minstrelsy’ and contains eighty-two items (the actual number of items does not correspond to the numbering system; not all are ballads – consider, for example, no. 69, ‘A circular table called “Spera furti,” with a rule to discover theft,’ which might provide a stronger example of the full diversity of the contents), some of them anonymous and others ascribed to various writers including Richard Sheale. The contents are remarkably diverse, reminding one of the pack of ballads brought by Autolycus and sold at the sheep-shearing feast in The Winter’s Tale (William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed) (Oxford, 1996), 4.3.257–89). We find, for example, current scandals retold, as in no. 19, which describes ‘the murder of Lewes and Edmond West, two gentlemen of Aitton….’ There is plentiful misogyny conveyed by, for examples, ‘On the vices of women’ (no. 26) and ‘Advice to a cuckold’ (no. 76). And there are other examples of the ballad of lament, such as ‘A clown consoling himself on his mistress becoming the vicar’s wife’ (no. 77), which would seem to strike the same mournful note as ‘o god what a world.’

Richard Sheale’s ballad/lament is included here because many of its details are corroborated by other evidence recently unearthed. Andrew Taylor’s comprehensive study, The Songs and Travels of a Tudor Minstrel: Richard Sheale of Tamworth (2012), shows that Sheale was, as he claims, working under Stanley patronage as a minstrel. In many of its details, the story related by Sheale seems to be completely implausible. Chiefly, the actual value, in modern terms, of the sum of money that Sheale claims to have been carrying (£60) seems a figment of wildest fantasy – in terms of purchasing power for an average family in 2015 this sum is equal to £21,400, and in terms of its equivalency in wage rates, £247,800 (These comparative values are taken from, ‘Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,’ (accessed 29 May 2016, It seems utterly incredible that Sheale would possess such a sum, and that he would carry it in gold, on his person, unattended, while travelling on horseback from Tamworth to London. (Usually such large sums would be conveyed by letter-of-credit, the ancestor of the cheque.) Yet such an amount is claimed by Sheale, who interestingly goes into considerable detail over how he came to have such a sum (some of it being his wife’s earnings), defending himself against the charge of lying, of making the whole story up. Sheale claims that the thieves had privy notice of his departure from Tamworth, and lay in wait for him on Dunsmore Heath, a ten-hour ride from Tamworth. Again, this seems implausible – why did the four thieves not strike sooner? And, having committed this capital crime, why did they let the victim escape? One would hang for armed robbery as easily as for murder.

It all makes a good fantastic story, and we see that this is the point when Sheale begins the main part of his lament, his pitch for generosity from his listeners. He relates how some neighbours helped him with barley to brew drink for a church ale, and it is likely that Sheale used the occasion of this ale, as well as other occasions, to sing this ballad as a request for donations from his audiences. Indeed, the ballad would have little point if it were not to be sung to audiences for this purpose of exciting charity amongst listeners, as it claims at the conclusion: 'Desyryng youe all to bear this tayle In mynde/ that I among your pursis nowe sum frendshipe may fynd/ euery man a lyttell wold satisfye my nede/ to helpe a posor man owt of dett it ys a gracious dede.'

The text of the ballad is undated; it is in a hand of the mid-sixteenth century. The number that precedes the poem is clearly later than the seventeenth century; the title is probably written by a second contemporary hand, rather than the hand of the text. In Brydges and Haslewood, British Bibliographer, pp 99–100, 104–5, an anonymous correspondent, 'C,' discusses this manuscript and conjecturally dates one of Sheale's poems to 1558/9 (pp 97–8). We have therefore dated this poem c 1550, on the assumption that Sheale flourished in this period.

Bodl.: MS Ashmole 48

ff 95–8



°o god what a world°

o god what a world ys this now to se
ther ys no man content with his degre
I can cum in no company be nyght nor be day
but all men lacke mony me thinkes I her them say
Whiche thinges for to hear makys my nears weary
for with owt mony men cannot be myrry
for wher the haue no mony In store
ytes tyme for ye mynstrell to gete owt ath dore
the day hathe ben I haue ben myrry ande glade
and nowe to se the worlde yt makys me as sade
& why I am sade I shall mak declaracion
as well as I can aftar a Rude facion |
for to tell youe the trewthe nowe I wyll not lete
be ye occasion off a Robbery I am fallen In greate dete
whiche thing doth trobble my hede very sore
hit hathe grevide me moche but shall grive me no mor
after my Robbery my memory was so decayde
yat I colde neathar syng nore talke my wyttes wer so dismayd
my awdacitie was gone & all my myrry tawke
yer ys sum hear haue sene me as myrry as a hawke
but nowe I am so trublyde with phansis In my mynde
yat I cannote play the myrry knave accordyng to my kynd
yet to tak thought I perseve ys not the next waye
to bryng me owt of det my creditors to paye
I may well say that I hade but Ivell hape
for to losse above threskore pownde at a clp clape
the losse off my mony dyde not greve me so sore
but the talke of the pyple dyd greve me moch mor
sum sayde I was not Robde I was but a lyeng knave
yt was not possyble for a mynstrell so moch money to haue
In dede to say the truthe yt ys Ryght well knowene
that I neuer hade so moche mony off my nowene
but I hade frenddes In london whos namys I can declare
that at all tymys wolde lende me xx ldes worth off ware
and with sum agayn suche frendshipe I fownde
that ye wold lend me In mony a nyn or tene pownd
ye occacion why I cam In dete I shall make Relacion
my wyff In dede ys a sylke woman be her occupacion |
& lynen clothe most cheffly was here greatyste trayd
& at fearis & markyttes she solde sale war that she made
as sheattes smockys partlyttes hede clotthes & othar thingges
as sylk thred & eggynges shurte banddes and also stringes
at lychfelde markyte and addarston good costomars she fownde
& also in tamworth wher I dwell she took many a j l.
& in dede when I hade gett my mony togethar my dettes to ‸⸢haue payd⸣
this sadden mischance on me dyd fall yt cannote be denayde
I thought to haue payde all my dettes & to haue set me cler
& then what yvell dyde ensewe ye shall her after hear
becaus my carryage shulde be lyght I put my mony ynt ‸⸢golde⸣
& with owt company I Ryde alone thus was I folisshe bold
I thought beth Reason off my harpe no man wold me ⸢susspect⸣
for minstres offt with mony the be not moche Infecte
iiij theves for they ye lay In wayt not far from donsmor hethe
Wher many a man for las mony hath ofte tymys com Ih to ‸⸢hys⸣ deth
I skapyd wythe my lyffe but In dede I lost my purs
& seyng yt was my chance I thank god yt was no wors
for mony may be gotten & lyff cannote be bought
yet yf good consell hade not ben I hade kyld my selffe with ‸⸢thoughte⸣
hit ge‸⸢r⸣evyde me so sor yt well nyghe kylde my harte
be caus hit was my fortune to play so folissh a part
ther ys a nold proverbe had ye wyste commis euer to lat
thus throughe my nowene neclygence I am brought to por ‸⸢estate⸣
after this my Robbery ye truth as I youe tell
I tooke my hors and Ryde home to tamworth wher I dwell |
when I cam vnto my wyffe my sorrowe dyd Incresse
so se her mak suche lamentacion I cold do no lesse
I sent toth balys off the towne In all the hast I myght
desyrynge them to make serche whoo lay yth towne yat nyght
for ye iiij thevis yat Robde me playnly to me dyd say
yat I had one my bottes Ready to Ryd by ix a clock yat daye
& yt was seven a clock at nyght or euer I cam thethar
so vppone ther saynges thus moch I dyd gethare
yat owt of tamworth off me the had some prevye gyde
wha knewe off all my gold and which way yat I wold ryde
but hethar to be no shifte that euer I cold make
I cold neuer prove what the war yat my pors from me did tak
therfor with my losses I muste nedis be contente
for now yt ys to lat for me to Repente
ther ys no man lyvyng yat In this world doth dwell
but mysfortune on him may fall thoughe he gyd him neuer so well
many a man hath ben on don for speakyng of a worde
& som hath lost yer lyffe for ye strock off a sworde
som hathe ben ondon be ye cassaltye of fyare
& sum both hors & man hath perishid In ye myare
& su<.>m throughe surtishipe hath brought yem selvis In ba<..>
& sum throughe gamnynge hath lost both howsse & lande
I am not the first yat hath hade a nofull daye
for sum be Robde ath land and sum be Robd ath seaye
sum be Robde In ther howses In placis wher the dwell
& sum hath bene Robde In yer yns as I haue hard men tell
ye chamberlayne or ostelare when ye haue a bowgyt spyede
may gyve knowleg to fals knavis whiche way yer gest wyll Ryde |
& he himselffe wyll byd at hom & his office still a plye
many a man thus hathe be Robde & so I think was I
sum fals knave dyd me betray & made my Iornay knowene
yt wold neuer haue grevyed me so moch yf ye mony had ben my ⸢nown⸣
but nowe I am In det whiche ys a dedly payne
I trust to god In this powar state I shall not long Remean
I hade frendes yenowe tyll I fell In this thrall
but nowe In my povertye the be Ron from me all
exsept yt be thos that be suar In the hafte
Whiche In all my nessessitie the neuer me Lafte
my creditors I thank god it ys not vn knowen
hathe geven me Resonable dayes for to pay yem yer owen
the whiche causithe me as natur doth bynde
ernestly to go a bowte sum honest meanes to fynd
that the may be payd as Reasone ys and skyll
concience compels me to put to my goode wyll
& I haue no othar mean but even be supplycacion
to beg hit a browde a mong the congrigacion
truth oft tymys a mong sum may be blamde
but I am sur & sartayne it can neuer be shamde
all men yat lovis truthe owght to be commendyde
all thoughe sum wickede persons ther at be offendyde
I thank god my good lord & mastar whom I sal sarve
In my greatist povertie from me dyd neuer swarve
but dyd wryt for me frendly aftar a lovying facion
& my lord strang also on me dyde tak compassion |
for whos sakys I thank god I haue ben well Regardyde
& a mong ther lovyng frenddes I haue ben well rewardyde
yer goodnes showyde to me I cannot worthely prayse
but I am det bownden to pray for them all my lyff days
throughe yer goodnes yff the worlde mend I am In no disspar
but I shall pay all my dettes and set my selffe clear
the occasion off thes wars hath hindred me very sor
but yet sum thing I haue gotten & I trust to get mor
my lovyng neabors off the towne off tamworth wh<.>r I dwell
dyd lyberally Rewarde me this ys trewe yat I youe tell
which kyndnes off them hath Ryght well provyde
yat a mang all my neabors I am well belovyde
for lyberally with me yer mony the dyd spende
& those yat came not yem<.>sels ther mony ye dyd sende
my neabors dyd caus me to mayk a pot of ale
& I thank god off his goodnes I had very good sale
for a busshell of malt I do put youe owt off dowte
I had fyv pownd off mony or nyghe ther a bowte
how be hit sum of my neabors ther at wear offendyde
& sayd the mony myght moch better haue ben spendyde
but the that so sayd them selvis wear at no coste
for yf ye had I perseve ye wold haue thought hit loste
but the worlde nowe a days ys so full of hat & spyte
yat to speak yle off all thinges sum haue a great delyte
but god I do thank him of his goodnes and grace
that senddes me good loock wher I cum in euery place |
yt ys god that senddes me so well for to spede
wha puttes ynt good mens mynddes to helpe me at my nede
whom gode wolde haue holpe he shall neuer wannte
but he shall fynde Relyff thoughe thinges be neuer so skante
god saue my good lord for ⸢whos⸣ sayk I fynd frenddes
that helppes me euery whar and thus my tall enddes
Desyryng youe all to bear this tayle In mynde
that I among your pursis nowe sum frendshipe may fynd
euery man a lyttell wold satisfye my nede
to helpe a posor man owt of dett it ys a gracious dede
expliceth quoth Rychard Sheale


  • Footnotes
    • at lychfelde ... j l.: 2 lines joined by brace in left margin
    • donsmor hethe: Dunsmore Heath, Warwickshire
    • so: for to (?)
    • ba<..>: letters lost in gutter
    • shamde: d written over b
  • Document Description

    Record title: The Ballad of Richard Sheale
    Repository: Bodl.
    Shelfmark: MS Ashmole 48
    Repository location: Oxford

    16th century; English; paper; i + 141 + 1; 190mm x 140mm; modern pencil and (inaccurate) ink foliation; bound in marbled boards with leather spine and corners, title on spine: 'Ash 48.'

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