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Sir Patrick Spens Ballad Summary

by Litinbox

Sir Patrick Spens is an ancient Scottish folk ballad by an anonymous author, dating back to 13th century. It was first documented in Sir Bishop Thomas Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” (1765), in which it consisted of 11 stanzas. Still it continues in oral tradition and there is no one definitive version of this ballad.

The central theme of Sir Patrick Spens is “mortality“, emphasizing the mortal nature of human beings and the reality that all must face death at the end.

Additionally, along with this major theme of mortality, Sir Patrick Spens also explores some minor themes such as destiny, class inequality, and so on.

What is a ballad?

A ballad is a poem which narrates a story and usually set to music traditionally. It’s passed down orally from generation to generation.

It’s written in simple but rhythmic language. English ballads are usually 4 line stanzas (quatrains).

Plot: Sir Patrick Spens

Sir Patrick Spens is a maritime ballad in which a king is in search of the finest sailor in his kingdom for an impossible voyage. An unnamed knight attending the king pronounces the name of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, assuring that he is the world’s best sailor.

Sir Patrick Spens receives a letter from the king informing him about the journey he has to undertake. At first Sir Patrick Spens considers it a fake but when he further reads the letter, he understands that it is serious.

“Sir Patrick Spens” has a strong historical connection with the fate of Alexander III of Scotland who travelled across the river Fife at midnight during a bad and unfriendly weather, for his new bride waiting there. The next morning, he was found dead with his neck broken. No one witnessed what had really happened.

Sir Patrick Spens Detailed Summary

THE king sits in Dunfermline toun,

Drinking the blude-red wine;

‘Oh whare will I get gude sailor,

To sail this ship o’ mine?’


Up and spake an eldern knight

Sat at the king’s right knee;

‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor,

That ever sail’d the sea.’

Sir Patrick Spens begins with the introduction of the king. The king is sitting in Dunfermline, Scotland, drinking a blood-red wine. He asks the people where he would find a good sailor to sail his ship.

An unnamed knight (who is sitting at the king’s right knee) stands up and says that Sir Patrick Spens is the most skilled sailor to ever traverse the vast expanse of the sea.

The king has written a braid letter,

And sign’d it wi’ his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,

Was walking on the strand


‘To Noroway, to Noroway,

To Noroway o’er the farm;

The king’s daughter of Noroway,

‘Tis thou maun bring her hame.’

The king has written a letter and signed it with his hand to show it is authentic. The letter is sent to Sir Patrick Spens, who was walking on the seashore.

The letter instructs Sir Patrick Spens to undertake a dangerous voyage to Noroway (Norway) and bring back home the king’s daughter in Noroway.

The first line that Sir Patrick read,

A loud laugh laughed he;

The neist line that Sir Patrick read,

The tear blinded his ee.


‘O wha is this has done this deed,

And tauld the king o’ me,

To send us out at this time o’ the year,

To sail upon the sea?’

Sir Patrick Spens reads the first line of the letter and laughs loudly because he thinks that the letter is a joke. But, when he reads the next line, he understands that the letter is really from the king and his eyes are filled with tears.

The weather is unfriendly and he thinks it is impossible to undertake a journey at sea during this dangerous time of the year. Sir Patrick wonders who would have told the king about him and why he is being sent on this dangerous voyage. He thinks that his fate is sealed because it’s impossible to return successful from this dangerous journey at sea.

‘Be’t wind, be it weet, be’t hail, be it sleet,

Our ship must sail the faem,

The king’s daughter of Noroway,

‘Tis we must fetch her hame.’


They hoysed their sails on Monenday morn, Wi’ a’ the speed they may;

And they hae landed in Noroway,

Upon & Wodensday.

Though the journey is dangerous, Sir Patrick must hurry with his men because it is an order from the king, despite any weather, whether it is windy, rainy, or stormy. Their mission is to fetch the king’s daughter from Noroway.

Sir Patrick, along with his men, started his journey as quickly as possible on Monday morning and landed in Noroway on Wednesday.

They hadna been a week, a week,

In Noroway, but twae,

When that the lords o’ Noroway

Began aloud to say,


‘Ye Scottishmen spend a’ our king’s goud, And a’ our queenis fee!’

‘Ye lee, ye lee, ye hars loud!

Fu’ loud I hear ye lie!

Sir Patrick Spens and his men have not been a week in Noroway, but just two days. Within this short time, the lords of Noroway begin to accuse the Scottish people of spending all of their king’s gold and queen’s money.

Sir Patrick Spens angrily denies the accusations, saying the Norwegians are lying loudly.

‘For I brought as much white monie,

As gane my men and me,

And I brought a half-fou o’ gude red goud, Out o’er the sea wi’ me.


‘Make ready, make ready, my merrymen a’! Our gude ship sails the morn.’

‘Now, ever alake, my master dear,

I fear a deadly storm!

Sir Patrick defends himself and his men against the false accusations of Norwegian lords, saying that he has brought with him enough white money (silver) and a half-bushel of good red gold.

Sir Patrick instructs his men to get ready because they will depart the next morning, ‘Our good ship sails the morn’. One among his men expresses his concern, predicting a deadly storm ahead.

I saw the new moon, late yestreen,

Wi’ the auld moon in her arm;

And if we gang to sea, master,

I fear we’ll come to harm!’


They hadna sail’d a league, a league,

A league but barely three,

When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud, and gurly grew the sea.

The man continues that he saw a new moon yesterday evening with the old moon in her arm. He’s worried because he thinks it is an ill-omen. If they take on their journey at sea, he fears, they will be harmed.

Inspite of the warnings, they have started their journey. They haven’t sailed long, but barely three leagues (about 9 miles), when the sky darkens, the wind picks up, and the sea becomes rough and turbulent.

The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap,

It was sic a deadly storm;

And the waves came o’er the broken ship, Till a’ her sides were torn.


‘O where will I get a gude sailor,

To take my helm in hand,

Till I get up to the tall topmast,

To see if I can spy land?’

The ankers (anchors) broke, and the topmasts collapsed because of the deadly and fierce storm. The storm caused the ship to break apart, and the waves crashing over it, tearing its sides.

Now, Sir Patrick is looking for a skilled sailor to take control of the helm while Sir Patrick has to climb up the tall topmast to look for a land.

‘O here am I, a sailor gude,

To take the helm in hand,

Till you go up to the tall topmast,

But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.’


He hadna gane a step, a step,

A step but barely ane,

When a bout flew out of our goodly ship,

And the salt sea it came in.

Another sailor offers to take control of the helm and Sir Patrick Spens climbs up the topmast. The sailor expresses his concern that they will never find a land.

Sir Patrick haven’t climbed a step, barely one step, a fierce storm hits the ship, causing the salt sea water flood in.

‘Gae, fetch a web o’ the silken claith,

Another o’ the twine,

And wap them into our ships’ side,

And let na the sea come in.’


They fetch’d a web o’ the silken claith,

Another o’ the twine,

And they wapp’d them round the gude ship’s side, But still the sea came in.

Sir Patrick instructs the crew to fetch a silken cloth and another of twine to wrap up the ship to prevent the sea water coming in. But, this idea does not work and the sea water continues to flood in.

O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords

To weet their cork-heeled shoon!

But lang or a’ the play was play’d,

They wat their hats aboon.


And mony was the feather-bed

That flattered on the faem;

And mony was the gude lord’s son

That never mair cam hame.

At the beginning, the Scottish lords are reluctant to get their cork-heeled shoes wet. But, before long, they have to abandon their concern and end up wetting their hats even.

Many luxurious beds were washed away in the waves and many sons of noble lords never returned home.

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,

The maidens tore their hair,

A’ for the sake of their true loves;

For them they’ll see na mair.


O lang, lang may the ladyes sit,

Wi’ their fans into their hand,

Before they see Sir Patrick Spens

Come sailing to the strand!

The women at home clenched their fingers tightly, grieving that they would never see their true love again. They wished they could wait forever with their fans in hand, hoping against hope that Sir Patrick Spens would return home safely, bringing his crew along.

And lang, lang may the maidens sit,

Wi’ the goud kaims in their hair,

A’ waiting for their ain dear loves!

For them they’ll see nae mair.


O forty miles off Aberdeen,

‘Tis fifty fathom deep,

And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens

Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.

And the maidens too waiting long for their beloved ones with the gold combs in their hair. It is very sad that they too would never see their beloved ones again.

Around 40 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, the sea is fifty fathom deep (very deep), where the perished Sir Patrick Spens rests with the Scottish lords at his feet.

FAQs: People Also Ask

Q: How does Sir Patrick react to the first line of the summons?

Sir Patrick Spens laughs loudly when he reads the first line of the summon because he thinks it’s a joke played on him. But, when he continues reading the letter, he realises that it is serious that the letter has been sent to him by the king.

Q: What problem does the king face at the beginning of the ballad?

At the beginning the ballad, the king is looking for a skilled sailor to sail his ship. He wants to fetch his daughter how from Noroway. The weather is very bad. So, he needs a skilled sailor to sail his ship to Noroway and bring back his daughter home safely.

Q: Who wrote the poem “Sir Patrick Spens”?

‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a Scottish traditional ballad whose author is unknown. It was first documented in Sir Bishop Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ in 1765. But, the origin of the ballad is dating back to 13th century.

Q: What is Spens’ fate at the end of the poem?

Sir Patrick Spens dies at the end caught up in the fierce storm. No one in the ship escapes the storm and the women and maidens at home waiting for their return, hoping against hope.

Q: What kind of ballad is Sir Patrick Spens?

‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a maritime ballad, narrating the story of a disaster at sea. Sir Patrick and his men are caught in a fierce storm in the sea and they never returned home.

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