Clerk Saunders


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Sir Walter Scott included “Clerk Saunders” in the first edition of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border of 1802, and he published it in the second volume. He made some alterations to the text, which he presented in the 1803 edition. He added three concluding verses, noting that he was “informed by the reciter, that it was usual to separate from the rest, that part of the ballad which follows the death of the lovers, as belonging to another story. For this, however, there seems no necessity, as other authorities give the whole as a complete tale.”


Literary Traditons Surrounding Clerks

“Clerk Saunders” is both a murder tale and a ghost story. Saunders is murdered by his true love’s brother, and then visits her from the grave.

There is no historical individual or event which is connected with this ballad. However, Clerk Saunders’ character – that of the seducing clerk – had been well established in poetry by the 19th Century. A clerk may be a member of the clergy, or he may simply be an educated man – someone who could perhaps read and write when most people were not able to do so.

The are numerous examples of clerks seducing girls throughout the mediaeval and early modern society. However, there are also examples of clerks being loyal to their true love. Some aspects of Margaret’s arguments against Saunders’ staying in her bower appear in a mediaeval poem from the late 13th or early 14th Century, where a girl opposes a cleric’s advances:

Yef thou in my bowre art take,
Shame thee may betide.
Thee is bettere on fote gon
Then wicked hors to ride.’

‘Be stille, thou fol –I calle thee right–
Cost thou never blinne?
Thou art waited day and night
With fader and all my kinne.
Be thou in my bowr itake
Lete they, for no sinne,
Me to holde and thee to slon,
The deth so thou maht winne.’

(Davies, R. T., Medieval English Lyrics, Faber & Faber: London 1988, p. 60)

 The Ballad Dead

The dead of the ballads are presented as revenants, rather than ghosts. They have a physical presence, can only walk abroad during the hours of night, and return to their graves. Remarks regarding the taste of clay on lips, paleness, and coldness of skin indicates that these are the walking dead, affected by their dead state, rather than ghosts. They should not be associated with the draugr or haugbui of Scandinavian sagas and tradition, nor the revenants discussed in Mediaeval chronicles, such as those included in the Historia rerum Anglicarum, composed by William of Newburgh (NB: this link requires access to ODNB).

You can read William of Newburgh's chronicle here. You can read an English translation here.

Ballad revenants  are not usually violent against their family. They generally return to converse with the living because they need the living to do something for them, whether this is to stop excessive grieving, or  as in this case, to return a love troth. The three revenant sons in “The Wife of Usher's Well” however, appear to return as the result of some kind of curse or invocation, rather than simply the grief of their mother.

There are exceptions, as in the case of the infanticide in “The Cruel Mother” where the revenant children provide the voice of conscience and in some versions provide a warning for their murderous mother.

 The 1803 Additional Verses

The three verses which Scott added to the 1802 version are given below. They do not alter the presentation of the dead Saunders, but emphasise that his care for his true-love continues beyond the grave:

But plait a wand o' bonnie birk,
  And lay it on my breast ;
And shed a tear upon my grave,
    And wish my saul gude rest.

"And fair Marg'ret, and rare Marg'ret,
  And Marg'ret o' veritie,
Gin ere ye love anothei man,
  Ne'er love him as ye did me."

Then up and crew the milk-white cock,
  And up and crew the gray ;
Her lover vanish'd in the air,
  And she gaed weeping away.


“But plait a wand o' bonnie birk”

Scott noted that the “custom of binding the new-laid sod of the church-yard, with osiers, or other saplings, prevailed both in England and Scotland, and served to protect the turf from injury by cattle or otherwise. It is alluded to by Gay, in the What d'ye call it

Stay, let me pledge, 'tis my last earthly liquor,
When I am dead you'll bind my grave with wicker.

In the Shepherd's Week, the same custom is alluded to, and the cause explained :


With wicker rods we fenced her tomb around,
To ward, from man and beast, the hallowed ground,
Lest her new grave the parson's cattle raze,
For both his horse and cow the church-yard graze.
Fifth Pastoral. (MSB (1803) 43)


It should also be noted that birk is the tree from which the hats of the revenant sons are made in “The Wife of Usher's Well”.

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