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The Ballad of Chevy Chase

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Title: The Ballad of Chevy Chase  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Cheviot Hills, Child Ballads, Folk music of England, Chevy Chase (disambiguation), Music of Northumbria
Collection: Border Ballads, Cheviot Hills, Child Ballads
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Ballad of Chevy Chase

Copperplate illustration for 1790 edition

There are two extant English ballads known as "The Ballad of Chevy Chase", both of which narrate the same story. As ballads existed within oral tradition before being written down, other versions of this once popular song also may have existed. Moreover, many ballads continued to use the Chevy Chase tune without necessarily referring to the "The Ballad of Chevy Chase."


  • Synopsis 1
  • Historical basis 2
  • First ballad 3
  • Second ballad 4
  • Other Literary References 5
  • Further Reading 6
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8


Earl Percy Hunting in Chevy Chase. Illustration by F. Tayler.
Earl Douglas Advancing with His Men. Illustration by F. Tayler.
The death of Earl Douglas. Illustration by F. Tayler.

The ballads tell the story of a large hunting party upon a parcel of hunting land (or chase) in the Cheviot Hills, hence the term, Chevy Chase. The hunt is led by Percy, the English Earl of Northumberland. The Scottish Earl of Douglas had forbidden this hunt and interpreted it as an invasion of Scotland. In response he attacked, causing a bloody battle after which only 110 people survived. Both ballads were collected in Thomas Percy's Reliques and the first of the ballads in Francis James Child's Child Ballads.

Historical basis

Scholar Francis J. Child as well as Thomas Percy noted similarities between this ballad and the older The Battle of Otterburn (ballad), which refers to the historical Battle of Otterburn in 1388. although neither set of lyrics are completely historically accurate[1] and may relate to border skirmishes up to fifty years later. Versions of either ballad often contain parallel biographical and historical information; nonetheless, the differences led Child to believe that they did not originally refer to the same occurrence.[2]

Simpson suggests that the music of Chevy Chase was identical to the tune of Flying Flame,in which the former superseded the latter by the beginning of the seventeenth century.[3]

Versions of "The Ballad of Chevy Chase" exist in several ballad collections like: the Roxburghe Ballads, the Pepys Library, the Huntington Library Miscellaneous, the Glasgow University Library, and the Crawford Collection at the National Library of Scotland. The ballads in these collections were printed with variations between 1623 and 1760.[4] Online facsimiles of the ballad are also available for public consumption at sites like the English Broadside Ballad Archive.

First ballad

The first of the two ballads of Chevy Chase perhaps was written as early as the 1430s, but the earliest record we have of it is in The Complaynt of Scotland, one of the first printed books from Scotland. The Complaynt of Scotland was printed at approximately 1540, and in it the ballad is called The Hunting of Cheviot. In the seventeenth century, the tune was licensed in 1624 and again in 1675.[5]

Sir Philip Sidney said of this early ballad:

"I never Heard the old song of Percie and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet" — Defence of Poesy.

Second ballad

In 1711 Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator,

The old song of "Chevy-Chase" is the favourite ballad of the common people of England, and Pindar?" For my own part, I am so professed an admirer of this antiquated song, that I shall give my reader a critique upon it without any further apology for so doing.[6]

Apparently Addison was unaware that the ballad he then goes on to analyse in detail, was not the same work praised by Sidney and Jonson.[6] The second of the ballads appears to have been written in modernized English shortly after Sidney's comments, perhaps around 1620, and to have become the better-known version.

Other Literary References

In Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, before their relationship blossoms, Catherine Heathcliff (née Catherine Linton) scorns Hareton Earnshaw's primitive attempts at reading, saying, “I wish you would repeat Chevy Chase as you did yesterday; it was extremely funny!”[7]

In Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, on hearing the conversation between Mr. Thornton and her father, Margaret Hale wonders, “How in the world had they got from cog-wheels to Chevy Chase?”[8]

In F. Anstey's Vice Versa (1882), the boys at Dr Grimstone's boarding school are required to play a game called "chevy" (a version of "prisoners' base" or "darebase"), "so called from the engagement famed in ballad and history".[9]

In Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy the main character Frank upon seeing the trophies on the walls of Osbaldistone hall, imagines them being from the Chevy chase.

Further Reading

  • William Chappell (1859). Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Cramer, Beale, & Chappell.
  • Quiller-Couch, Arthur (1955). The Oxford Book of Ballads. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  • Watt, Tessa (1991). Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


  1. ^ Child 1962, p. 289-93.
  2. ^ Child, Francis James (1962). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New York: Cooper Square Publishers. pp. 303–7. 
  3. ^ Simpson, Claude (1966). The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 97. 
  4. ^ "English Broadside Ballad Archive". University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  5. ^ Simpson, Claude (1966). The English Broadside Ballad and its Music. Rutgers University Press. p. 99. 
  6. ^ a b The Works of Joseph Addison: Complete in Three Volumes: Embracing the Whole of the "Spectator," &c, Harper & Brothers, 1837, p.117
  7. ^ Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights, Chapter 31 (Wikisource link)
  8. ^ "North and South", Chapter 10 (Wikisource link)
  9. ^  

External links

  • Straight Dope Staff Report: Who or what is Chevy Chase?
  • Ballad lyrics and MIDI
  • Copies of Chevy Chase Ballads at the English Broadside Ballad Archive of UC,Santa Barbara
  • Chevy Chase Sheet Music [1]
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