Documented as Child Ballad #100, with many variants, this border ballad has strong Scottish roots. Through my research, I found Winsbury to have been a Scottish clan name, though I could not find an actual location (like a town or castle with the name Winsbury). If you know more about the Winbsury story, I would love to hear about it!
The earliest record of the lyrics trace back to 1775, and there is some speculation that it may be connected with Scottish King James V and his courtship of Madeliene de Valois of France, but it’s entirely possible that the song is much older. The use of stock verses and repeating phrases are certainly drawn from the 15th Century border ballad tradition.
The version I learned was inspired by John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee and is included in my album “Bardic Memories.”
Willie O’ Winsbury
The king has been a prisoner,
And a pris’ner long in Spain;
And Willie of the Winsbury,
Has lain long with his daughter at home.
“What ails you, what ails you my daughter Janet,
Why you look so pale and wan.
Oh have you had any sore sickness,
Or yet been a-sleepin’ with a man?”
“Oh I have not had any sore sickness,
Nor yet been a-sleepin’ with a man;
But it was for you my father dear,
For biding so long in Spain.”
“Cast off, cast off your berry brown gown,
You stand naked upon the stone;
That I may know you by your shape,
Whether you be a maiden or no.”
And she’s cast off her berry brown gown,
She stood naked upon the stone.
Her apron was low and her haunches were round,
Her face was pale and wan.
“Oh was it with a lord or a duke or a knight,
Or a man of birth and fame?
Or was it with one of my serving men,
That’s lately come out of Spain?”
“No it wasn’t with a lord nor a duke nor a knight,
Nor a many of birth and fame;
But it was with Willie of Winsbury,
I could bide no longer a lone.”
And the king he has called on his merry men all,
By thirty and by three;
Saying “Fetch me this Willie of Winsbury,
For hanged he shall be!”
But when he was brought the king before,
He was clad all in the red silk;
His hair was like the strands of gold,
His skin was as white as the milk.
“And it is no wonder” said the king,
“That my daughter’s love you did win;
For if I was a woman as I am a man,
My bedfellow ye would have been.
“And will you marry my daughter Janet,
By the truth of your right hand?
And will you marry my daughter Janet,
I’ll make you the lord of my land.”
“Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
By the truth of my right hand.
Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
But I’ll not be the lord of your land.”
And he’s mounted her on a milk-white steed,
And himself on a dapple gray;
And he’s made her the lady of as much land,
As she could ride o’er a long summer’s day.