John Dory is mentioned by Richard Carew (1555-1620) in his survey of Cornwall published in 1603: ” The prowess of one Nicholas, son to a widow near Foy, is descanted upon in an old three-man’s song, namely, how he fought bravely at sea, with one John Dory (a Genowey, as I conjecture), set forth by John, the French King, and after much blood shed on both sides, took and slew him,” [i]
The song appears in a collection compiled by Thomas Ravencroft called Deuteromelia in 1609.[ii] Here it is described as a “Freemen’s Song” for three voices. The song subsequently appears in many British and Cornish collections including William Sandys’ Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect 1846 [iii]and Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Songbook – Lyver Canow Kernewek 1929.[iv]
It seems to date back to at least the mid-16th century. Folk song collector and publisher William Chappell was loaned a manuscript by A Rev Alex Dyce for a play called “Crammer Gurton’s Needle” which was performed as early as 1559 but not published until 1575. In this manuscript there was a song called “I cannot eat but little meat” with instructions that it was to be sung to the tune of John Dory. [v]
The instrumental version below is played on Cornish double chanter bagpipes (Merv Davey), Gaita (John Webb) and Bombard (Frances Webb) and recorded in St Bartholomew’s Church Lostwithiel. The Cornish double chanter pipes are based on the detailed carving on a bench end at St Nonna’s Church, Altarnun which dates to 1530.
There appears to be no specific historical connection or context, but the lyrics could well have changed over time and lost their original sense. Dunstan suggests that the song “ commemorates the brave doings of sir John Nichol and his Fowey Gallants, and is said to refer to some action fought in the reign of King Edward III, though the song was probably not written until a hundred years later.” But he does not give his sources.
Ravenscroft Lyrics for John Dory 1609
|As it fell on a holy day,|
And upon a holytide:
John Dory brought him an ambling nag,
To Paris for to ride a.
And when John Dory to Paris was come,
A little before the gate;
John Dory was fitted, the porter was witted.
To let him in thereat
The first man that John Dory did meet,
Was good King John of France;
John Dory could well of his courtesie,
But fell down in a trance.
A pardon, a pardon, my Liege and my king.
For my merie men and for me:
And all the churls in merry England
I'll bring them bound to thee.
|And Nichol was then a Cornish man
A little beside Bohyde;
He manned him forth a goodly barke,
With fifty good oars on a side
Run up, my boy, into the main top,
And looke what thou cans't spy;
Who, ho; who, ho ; a good ship do I see,
I trow it be John Dory.
They hoist their sails both top and top,
The mizen and all was tried;
And every man stood to his lot,
Whatever should betide.
The roaring Cannons then were plied’
And dub-a-dub went the drum me;
The braying Trumpets lowed they cride.
To courage both all and some.
The grappling hooks were brought at length.
The brown bill and the sword:
John Dory at length, for all his strength.
Was clapt fast under board.
[i] Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall, 1602, p. 135,
[ii] Thomas Ravencroft, Deuteromelia, (London, Adams, 1609) song no.1
[iii] William Sandys, Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect Selected And Arranged By Uncle Jan Trenoodle, (London,J R Smith 1846).
[iv] Ralph Dunstan, ed. The Cornish Song Book, Lyver Canow Kernewek, (London: Reid Bros Ltd 1929),
[v] William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time (London, Cramer Beale & Chappell, 1859) pp