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It is not often that English folk songs can be traced back to an actual event 500 years previously but this does seem to be the case with the ballad ‘Henry Martin’.
First the history: Andrew Barton (c.1466 – 1511) was a Scottish sailor, one of three brothers, who around the year 1507 was commissioned by James IV of Scotland to attack Portuguese shipping who had attacked Scottish ships. His interference with Portuguese shipping earned him the reputation in England of being a pirate. In 1511, as Barton was cruising the English coast looking for Portuguese shipping, he and his two ships were captured off Kent. Balladry has it that Barton was subsequently beheaded, despite his letter of permission from the Scottish King, although another account states that he died as a result of wounds sustained from the battle.
The story must have lingered long enough in public imagination for a ballad to appear over 100 years later with the snappy title “A True relation of the life and death of Sir Andrew Barton, a pirate and rover on the seas to the tune of, Come follow me loue.” In this ballad, Henry [VIII] is lobbied by mariners to do something about Andrew Barton who is interfering with their shipping. Lord Charles Howard volunteers to stop Barton, and Henry commands that a ship be built and that the finest archers in the land be put on board. After a fierce sea battle, Barton is slain and beheaded.
At this point the story becomes complicated. Information is lacking for the 1600s to 1700s but we can assume that the tale continued in oral tradition. In the USA, the ballad took root, with many variations on the name Barton, including Bardeen, Batan, Bergine, Marteen etc. In some of the American versions, history is turned on its head with Barton being the victor in the sea battle and sending the English ships back to England with a flea in their ear.
Meanwhile, a cut down version of the story, recounting little more than the pirate taking and sinking a rich merchant ship, much to the king’s displeasure, started to appear in the UK. The name of the hero had by then changed from Andrew Barton to Henry Martin and this is the ballad widely collected in the British Isles, even up to recent times. In this form ‘Henry Martin’ the ballad has also been collected in the USA, along with ‘Andrew Barton’. It seems evident that Henry Martin derives from the older Andrew Barton, but mercifully cut down from over 60 verses to 7 or 8.
The folklorist Frances James Child sought to distinguish between the two ballads and gave them different Child numbers but Steve Roud in his index has sensibly combined them into one Roud number.