Sir Patrick Spens

Posted: July 21, 2006 in Literature
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“Sir Patrick Spens” is apre-Elizabethan poetry with the anonymously-authored ballad, which pertains to an event said to have taken place in the 14th Century. This old work is important in helping us compare the different styles of poetry and make them clearer in regard to the transition of Middle English to Early Modern English the language of Spenser, Shakespeare and others, that was in use by the 15th Century. Sir Patrick Spens is not the only anonymous work found in English literature of the Middle Ages, but also it is a good example of a story having been poetized. It is generally considered to have been a popular, oral account, handed down from generation to generation and published first in 1765.

The ballad unfolds into two pieces: the sailing and the return. It recounts a dramatic and very interesting story about a supposed Scottish hero, Sir Patrick Spens, and it ends in a tragedy. This tragedy is not based on Aristotles three principles of drama (Opening/head, Middle/body, and Ending) however, because the work was intended to be a poem more than a story. The principal purpose of a ballad was the relating of some important deed, tragic incident, etc., that comes to a sudden and abrupt end. There exist today, both, a long and a short version of this ballad.

Motherwell was the first to suggest a historical foundation for the ballad. Margaret, the daughter of Alexander III, was married to Eric, King of Norway, in 1281. That August several knights and nobles drowned in the return voyage. When Alexander died in 1286, Margaret’s infant daughter, (also named Margaret) called “The Maid of Norway,” was heir to the Scottish throne. Edward I of England proposed a match between his son and the Maid of Norway. Princess Margaret died on the voyage. The ballad takes elements from both events.

Another connection between Scotland and Norway is the fact that James III married the daughter of the King of Norway in 1469, but it is believed that this has less material for a ballad that either of the above cases. In the ballad Sir Patrick objects to sailing. This may have been due to the time of the year, but according to Percy there was also a law in the reign of James III which forbid ships to travel with goods out of the realm from the feast of Simon and Jude and Candlemas (October 28-February 2). The name of Spens occurs in five charters during David II’s reign (between 1329 and 1370). A Patrick Spens was a shipmaster who was lost off Aberdour in the late 16th century. Sir Andrew Wood was an admiral, though he was born two centuries after the events related above. Given the lack of historical record, it is not does not considered the ballad historical.

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