The ancient fear of what dwells without is invoked in this ballad, together with the dread of home invasion. Horrifyingly, the fear turns into reality as the bog-dwelling Lankin and the treacherous nurse combine to harm those inside the castle.
Long Lankin, the stonemason, builds Lord Wearie’s castle high and strong. But when Lankin asks the Lord for the payment due, Wearie will not give him money.
‘I have nothing for you’, he says, ‘unless I sell my lands, and that I will never do.’
‘You will rue the day you did not pay my fee’, threatens Lankin darkly as he shuffles off to his home in the moss bog.
The next day, Lord Wearie leaves for London, trusting his lady and newborn son to the safety of his fine stone castle and the care of a nurse and the maid. As he mounts his horse, he tells his Lady: ‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.’ He gives instructions to bolt the doors and pin the windows ‘And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.’ Then he kisses his fair lady and rides away, content that his house is protected from evil.
But it is not. The mason has built one little window into an out-of-the-way part of the castle, so small that everyone has forgotten it is there. But not Lankin. And not the false nurse, who was secretly in league with the mason. She makes sure the shutters on the window are unbolted. That night, Lankin creeps up close to the dark castle walls. The window is just large enough for him to slither through. Once inside the castle he speaks with the ‘false nurse’.
‘Where’s the Lord of this house?
The nurse tells him that the Lord is away in London.
‘Where’s the Lady of this house?’ he demands.
‘Asleep in her chamber.’
Knowing he now has command of the situation, Lankin hisses: ‘Where’s the little heir of this house?’
‘Asleep in his cradle’, the nurse is quick to tell him. But it is not fear or love that makes her betray her mistress. She has her own reasons for colluding with the creature.
‘Fetch the baby’, Lankin orders the nurse. ‘We’ll prick it with a pin until its cries bring the Lady downstairs’.
The false nurse gives the mason a large pin and Lankin pierces the helpless baby. The false nurse holds a basin ‘for the blood to flow in.’ The Lady hears her child screaming and calls out:
O nurse, how you slumber, O nurse how you snore,
You leave my poor baby to cry and to roar.
The nurse calls back, saying she has tried to comfort the child with an apple, a pear and:
I’ve tried him with milk and I’ve tried him with pap,
Come down, my fair lady, and rock him in your lap.
The Lady replies that she dare not come down in the dead of night without a fire kindled and no candle light. The false nurse calls back, her voice thick with envy of her mistresses’ beauty, wealth and finery:
You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun,
Come downstairs, my lady, all by the light of one.
Reluctantly, the Lady at last comes down the stairs. In the darkness at the bottom of the staircase, Lankin lies in wait. She reaches the bottom stair and suddenly:
There’s blood in the kitchen. There’s blood in the hall,
There’s blood in the parlour where the lady did fall.
Hearing these dreadful deeds from her own sleeping quarters, the Lady’s maid fearfully locks herself in the tower. As the grey light of dawn streaks the morning sky, she sees the Lord returning from London. She cries out the dreadful news of what Lankin and the false nurse have done:
O master, O master, don’t lay the blame on me,
‘Twas the false nurse and Lankin that killed your lady.
And now, although too late for the Lady and the child, justice must be done and order restored. The murderous mason is taken and hanged by the neck while the false nurse is burned to death ‘in a fire close by.’
Based mainly on a version collected from Sister Emma Clewer, Berks., 1909 by Cecil Sharp.
First print version Bishop Percy, 1775 (from Kent, England).
This ballad is widespread in Britain and America.
Recorded by, among others, Steeleye Span on Commoner’s Crown and by Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick on But Two Came By.
KEYWORDS: Long Lankin, Child ballads, folksong