“Six Dukes Went a-Fishing”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1690 (broadside)
Keywords: death burial nobility corpse funeral
Found in: Britain(England(Lond,South)) US(NE)


(Six dukes) go fishing and find the body of the (some Duke). His body is brought (home/to London); the embalming is described in rather gory detail. His burial is described in language reminiscent of "The Death of Queen Jane"

Supplemental text

Six Dukes Went a-Fishing
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

Two Dukes

From Helen Hartness Flanders & George Brown, Vermont Folk-Songs
& Ballads, p. 219. Collected from Mrs. Ralph Harrington,
Bennington, Vermont, September 13, 1930.

Two dukes were a-walking down by the seaside.
They found a dead body washed away by the tide.

Great illustrations and thus they did say,
"It's the great Duke of Cotton has now cast away."

(4 additional stanzas)


The person referred to in this ballad is hard to determine. One text refers to the Duke as the "Duke of Grantham." There were three barons of Grantham (died 1770, 1786, and 1859; the third Baron was made earl in 1833), but their circumstances do not seem to fit the ballad. In any case, they were not dukes. - AS, RBW

In another text, the Duke is lord of Grafton. Grafton was a very temporary dukedom; Henry Fitzroy (the illegitimate son of Charles II) briefly held the title. Grafton is notable only for leading a Guards regiment during the Glorious Revolution, when he abandoned James II to support William and Mary. (There is, however, a broadside, BBI ZN2703, "Unwelcome Tydings over spreads the Land," entitled "Englands Tribute of Tears.. Death..Duke of Grafton.. 9th. of October, 1690.") A later Duke, the third, was Prime Minister 1767-1770, and partly responsible for the colonial problems leading to the American revolution, but this is obviously too late.

If we ignore the names and look at the internal evidence of the song, perhaps the least

implausible candidate is William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was widely regarded in England as having sold Normandy back to the French. King Henry ordered his exile in 1450 (to spare his life), but the ship he was sailing on was intercepted and Suffolk taken off. He was beheaded and his body thrown on the shore (May 2, 1450).

Rumor (probably false) had him linked romantically with Queen Margaret of Anjou, which would partly explain the line "royal Queen Mary went weeping away" in the "Grafton" text.

Another possibility, which as far as I know is original to me, is that the reference is actually to Richard Woodville, first Earl Rivers. Rivers was never a Duke -- indeed, he was only briefly an earl, and not a landed one. But he was the father of Queen Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV), which made him a sort of vague member of the royal family, which might cause him to be called a duke. Plus, he lived in Grafton. Rivers was executed in 1469 by members of the Neville (anti-Edward) faction.

Another difficulty is that, until relatively recently, England almost never had more than eight active Dukedoms (Buckingham, Clarence, Exeter, Gloucester, Lancaster, Norfolk, Suffolk, York), and usually fewer (e.g. the only Duke of Lancaster who was not also King was John of Gaunt). England, until the eighteenth century, had a limited peerage; the first three Georges nearly doubled the number of peers, creating the first significant class of landless Lords; the purposes, of course, were political.

I guess it's safe to conclude that this story is badly garbled. - RBW

To these possibilities, Sharp's _100 English Folksongs_ adds the son of the fourth Duke of Bedford, killed by a fall from his horse in 1767. - PJS

(Which, of course, appears to be later than the earliest broadside texts. At least Bedford was a real dukedom, attested to in some versions of the text, so the song might have been adjusted. - RBW)

See also Mary Rowland, 'Which Noble Duke?', _FMJ_ 1965 - RBW, following WBO

Cross references


  1. Bronson (170), 2 versions in Appendix B to "The Death of Queen Jane," though these are not all the versions of the song known to Bronson
  2. Flanders/Brown, p. 219, "Two Dukes" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #12}
  3. Flanders/Olney, pp. 78-79, "Two Dukes" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Flanders-Ancient3, pp. 159-160, "The Duke of Bedford" (2 texts, 2 tunes) {A=Bronson's #12}
  5. PBB 48, "The Duke of Grafton" (1 text)
  6. Sharp-100E 21, "The Duke of Bedford" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11}
  7. Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, p. 97, "Six Dukes Went a-Fishing" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Hodgart, p. 150, "Six Dukes went a-fishing" (1 text)
  9. BBI, ZN316, "As two men were a walking, down by the sea side"
  10. ST FO078 (Partial)
  11. Roud #78
  12. BI, FO078