This ballad was written around 1613 in Northern England. Women were considered chattel; property of their fathers and then husbands especially among the “noble” class. I first heard the song on a Fairport Convention album in the 1980s and was riveted by it. The irony of it was not lost on me. I knew that the woman who wasn’t even named in the song was not being represented fairly and wanted to write a more probable backstory for her. I didn’t get to it at the time but lately have revisited the song. Here is my take on the story folded into the traditional English ballad.
INTO THE DARK
Fifteen. She was fifteen when he struck the bargain; her noble father with the land baron. As a child Ellen roamed the fields and forest of her father’s land; Matty Groves her playmate. They were of an age and devoted to each other. She was a curious child, adventurous and a bit bold. She was, however, her father’s daughter after her mother’s death. A loving daughter who grew more exquisitely beautiful as the years passed. Long slender neck, shapely bosom and hips, elegant hands, thick raven black hair accompanied by full ruby lips and sparkling green eyes, she was a prize to be won.
Matty Groves grew from a gangling boy with sandy-blonde hair and blue piercing eyes as keen as his intelligence into a solid handsome young man. Son to the lord’s groom, he learned the way of horses expecting nothing more.
But they grew out of childhood together, Ellen and Matty. Their roaming the backdrop for the blossoming of their youth and discovery of another aspect of their friendship; love. She was curious and Matty was willing. Soon they lay in each other’s arms after luxurious kissing whenever they could. Still, Ellen was a loving daughter and knew her father’s mind.
At fifteen Ellen was the ultimate bargaining pawn. Her father coveted a piece of land owned by the land baron, Lord Darnell. It had a priceless view, timbered forest, more game than his current holdings and running water all year long. He was accustomed to sword practice with Lord Darnell. Buckling on his sword, he called for Ellen; directing her to prepare herself in her finest clothes. Accompanied by her maid, she was to follow him after some time to meet him at Lord Darnell’s manse.
By the time she reached the manse, the sword play was finished. Her father had proposed a trade; his daughter, Ellen, in exchange for the land. The deal was done. She was fifteen. It was a year before she saw Matty again.
A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year
Lord Darnell's wife came into church, the gospel for to hear
And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves, walking in the crowd
"Come home with me, little Matty Groves, come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves, and sleep with me till light"
"Oh, I can't come home, I won't come home and sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers I can tell you are Lord Darnell's wife"
"What if I am Lord Darnell's wife? Lord Darnell's not at home
For he is out in the far cornfields bringing the yearlings home"
And a servant who was standing by and hearing what was said
He swore Lord Darnell he would know before the sun would set
He had watched her from the shadows since the day she came to Lord Darnell’s house. He wanted her for himself and being but a servant, if he could not have her, certainly no upstart groom's son, Matty Groves, deserved her!
And in his hurry to carry the news he bent his breast and ran
And when he came to the broad mill stream he took of his shoes and he swam
Little Matty Groves, he lay down and took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Darnell was standing at his feet
Saying "How do you like my feather bed? And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?"
"Oh, well I like your feather bed, and well I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep"
"Well, Get up, get up", Lord Darnell cried "Get up as quick as you can
It'll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man"
"Oh, I can't get up, I won't get up, I can't get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket-knife"
"Well it's true I have two beaten swords, and they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse"
"And you will strike the very first blow, and strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow and I'll kill you if I can
So Matty struck the very first blow and he hurt Lord Darnell sore
Lord Darnell struck the very next blow and Matty struck no more
And then Lord Darnell he took his wife and he sat her on his knee
Saying, "Who do you like the best of us, Matty Groves or me?"
And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free
"I'd rather kiss from dead Matty's lips, than you with your finery
Lord Darnell he jumped up and loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart and pinned her against the wall
"A grave, a grave!" Lord Darnell cried, "to put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin"