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The Famous Flower of Serving-Men

The Famous Flower of Serving-Men or The Lady turned Serving-Man is Child Ballad number 106[1] and a murder ballad. Child considered it as closely related to the ballad The Lament Of The Border Widow or The Border Widow's Lament.[2]


A woman's husband and child are killed by agents of her mother (or, sometimes, stepmother). The woman buries them, cuts her hair, changes her name from "Fair Elise" or "Fair Elinor" to "Sweet William", and goes to the king's court to become his servant. She serves him well enough to become his chamberlain.

The song variants split, sharply, at this point. The common variant has the king going to hunt and being led into the forest by a white hind. The king reaches a clearing and the hind vanishes. A bird, the personification of the woman's dead husband, then appears and laments what has happened to his love. The king asks, and the bird tells the story. The king returns and kisses his chamberlain, still dressed as a man, to the shock of the assembled court. In many versions the woman's mother/stepmother is then executed, possibly by burning, and usually the king marries the woman.

In some versions the king goes hunting, and the woman laments her fate, but is overheard; when the king is told it, he marries her.

In The Border Widow's Lament, the woman laments, in very similar verses, the murder of her husband by the king; she buries him and declares she will never love another.


For his 1972 album Shearwater, Martin Carthy took the fragments and reworked the ballad, drawing on lines from other ballads. He set it to a tune used by Hedy West for the Maid of Colchester. The song was featured twice on the BBC Radio 1 John Peel show - first on 14 August 1973 and again on 28 April 1975.[3] In 2005 Carthy won the award for Best Traditional Track for "Famous Flower of Serving Men" at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Ellen Kushner's novel Thomas the Rhymer includes elements of the song.


  1. ^ Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "The Famous Flower of Serving Men"
  2. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 429, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  3. ^ "On AirĀ : 1970s" at

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