King John and the Abbot of Canterbury

by Thomas Percy

An ancient story I'll tell you anon
Of a notable prince, that was called King John;
And he ruled England with main and with might,
For 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 post for him to fair London town.
An hundred men, the king did hear 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," quoth the Abbot, "I would it were known
I never spend nothing but what is my own;
And I trust your Grace will do me no deere
For spending of my own true gotten geere."

 

"Yes, yes, father Abbot, thy fault it is high,
And now for the same thou needest must die;
For except thou canst answer me questions three,
Thy head shall be smitten from thy bodie.
"And first," quoth the king, "when I'm in this stead,
With my crown of gold so fair on my head,
Among all my liegemen so noble of birth,
Thou must tell me to one penny what I am worth.
 
"Secondly tell me, without any doubt,
How soon I may ride the whole world about;
And at the third question thou must not shrink,
But tell me here truly what I do think."
"O these are hard questions for my shallow wit,
Nor I cannot answer your Grace as yet;
But if you will give me but three weeks' space,
I'll do my endeavor to answer your Grace."
"Now three weeks' space to thee will I give,
And that is the longest time thou hast to live;
For if thou dost not answer my questions three,
Thy land and thy livings are forfeit to me."
Away rode the Abbot all sad at that word,
And he rode to Cambridge and Oxenford;
But never a doctor there was so wise,
That could with his learning an answer devise.
Then home rode the Abbot of comfort so cold,
And he met his shepherd a-going to fold:
"How now, my lord Abbot, you are welcome home;
What news do you bring us from good King John?"
"Sad news, sad news, shepherd, I must give,
That I have but three days more to live;
For if I do not answer him questions three,
My head will be smitten from my bodie.
"The first is to tell him there in that stead,
With his crown of gold so fair on his head,
Among all his liegemen so noble of birth,
To within one penny of what he is worth.
 
"The second to tell him without any doubt,
How soon he may ride this whole world about;
And at the third question I must not shrink,
But tell him there truly what he does think."
"Now cheer up, sir Abbot, did you never hear yet
That a fool he may learn a wise man wit?
Lend me horse, and serving men, and your apparel,
And I'll ride to London to answer your quarrel.
"Nay, frown not, if it hath been told unto me,
I am like your lordship as ever may be;
And if you will but lend me your gown
There is none shall know us in fair London town."
"Now horses and serving men thou shalt have,
With sumptuous array most gallant and brave,
With crozier, and miter, and rochet, and cope,
Fit to appear 'fore our father the Pope."
"Now welcome, sir Abbot," the king he did say,
"'Tis well thou'rt come back to keep thy day:
For and if thou canst answer my questions three,
Thy life and thy living both saved shall be.
"And first, when thou seest me here in this stead,
With my crown of gold so fair on my head,
Among all my liegemen so noble of birth,
Tell me to one penny what I am worth."
"For thirty pence our Savior was sold
Among the false Jews, as I have been told:
And twenty-nine is the worth of thee,
For I think thou art one penny worser than he."
 
The King he laughed, and swore by St. Bittel,
"I did not think I had been worth so little!
Now secondly tell me, without any doubt,
How soon I may ride this whole 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 not make any doubt
But in twenty-four hours you'll ride it about."
The King he laughed, and swore by St. Jone,
"I did not think it could be gone so soon.
Now from the third question thou must not shrink,
But tell me here 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!"
"Nay, nay, my liege, be not in such speed,
For alack, I can neither write nor read."
"Four nobles a week, then, I will give thee,
For this merry jest thou hast shown unto me;
And tell the old Abbot, when thou com'st home,
Thou hast brought him a pardon from good King John."