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Researchers reveal the best-selling ‘pop’ songs of 17th century England

Researchers from Queen’s and the University of Warwick have compiled the first ever collection of hit songs from seventeenth-century England, including over 100 ballads in total.

'The Woman to the Plow' Image credit: University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Sp Coll Euing Ballads 397.

Gender relations, supernatural happenings, historical heroes, religion, politics and death are just some of the subjects featured in the collection of ballads.

The ‘100 Ballads’ research project was led by Professor Christopher Marsh from the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s and co-investigator, Dr Angela McShane from the University of Warwick. They worked in collaboration with Andy Watts and the Carnival Band, numerous invited singers from the worlds of folk and early music, and the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield University.

Singing popular songs of the time posed numerous dangers, as the content of certain songs could lead to severe consequences. For instance, in The Belgick Boar, a printer narrowly avoided execution, and additionally, singers faced the threat of punishment, including whipping or branding, if they were apprehended singing or selling their songs where they weren’t permitted.

Broadside Ballads were the pop music of the Elizabethan and Stuart era. The cheapest form of literature available at the time, they sold for a penny a piece in marketplaces, and each song – printed on one side of a piece of paper – presented to the consumer a text in verse, the name of a tune and one or more simple ‘woodcut’ pictures.

Most of the ballads are anonymous, and only a few of the better-known writers were identified on the published songs.

The researchers ranked the ballads using various criteria, including the known quantity of printed editions of each ballad and the number of editions that were published within short time periods. Recordings and sheet music are available on the ‘100 Ballads’ website.

The chart-topping ballad in the collection, The Wandring Prince of Troy, is a tragic love story, loosely based on Virgil’s classical tale of Dido and Aeneas, while another ballad recounts the fate of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was executed in 1601 for allegedly rebelling against Elizabeth I.

A song entitled The wonderful example of God describes a Scottish gentleman who was struck down for expressing his atheism while making a pass at his own sister, and The Woman to the Plow and the Man to the Hen-Roost recounts the tale of a married couple who swap roles in the household, with disastrous results.

Speaking about the project, Professor Marsh from Queen’s said: “This project carries the contemporary concept of the hit song back in time and aims to bring all these old ballads to life for new audiences.”

Dr McShane from the University of Warwick commented: “We also see the beginnings of today’s highly commercialised industry and the beginning of the popular protest song.”

The project, which was funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, recently launched a new website which includes digital images, brand new recordings and a wealth of contextual materials which showcases the history of popular music.



Media enquiries to Zara McBrearty at Queen’s Communications Office on email: or Mob: 07795676858.