Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
Humorous Poems: II. Miscellaneous
King John and the Abbot of Canterbury
From “Percy’s Reliques”

AN ANCIENT story I ’ll tell you anon
Of a notable prince that was called King John;
And he ruled England with main and with might,
For he did great wrong, and maintained little right.
And I ’ll tell you a story, a story so merry,        5
Concerning the Abbot of Canterbury;
How for his house-keeping and high renowne,
They rode poste for him to fair London towne.
An hundred men the king did heare say,
The abbot kept in his house every day;        10
And fifty golde chaynes without any doubt,
In velvet coates waited the abbot about.
“How now, father abbot, I hear it of thee,
Thou keepest a farre better house than mee;
And for thy house-keeping and high renowne,        15
I feare thou work’st treason against my crowne.”
“My liege,” quo’ the abbot, “I would it were knowne
I never spend nothing, but what is my owne;
And I trust your grace will doe me no deere,
For spending of my owne true-gotten geere.”        20
“Yes, yes, father abbot, thy fault it is highe,
And now for the same thou needest must dye;
For except thou canst answer me questions three,
Thy head shall be smitten from thy bodie.
“And first,” quo’ the king, “when I ’m in this stead,        25
With my crowne of golde so faire on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,
Thou must tell me to one penny what I am worthe.
“Secondly, tell me, without any doubt,
How soone I may ride the whole world about;        30
And at the third question thou must not shrink,
But tell me here truly what I do think.”
“O these are hard questions for my shallow witt,
Nor I cannot answer your grace as yet:
But if you will give me but three weeks’ space,        35
Ile do my endeavor to answer your grace.”
“Now three weeks’ space to thee will I give,
And that is the longest time thou hast to live;
For if thou dost not answer my questions three,
Thy lands and the livings are forfeit to mee.”        40
Away rode the abbot all sad at that word,
And he rode to Cambridge, and Oxenford;
But never a doctor there was so wise,
That could with his learning an answer devise.
Then home rode the abbot of comfort so cold,        45
And he met his shepheard a-going to fold:
“How now, my lord abbot, you are welcome home;
What news do you bring us from good King John?”
“Sad news, sad news, shepheard, I must give,
That I have but three days more to live;        50
For if I do not answer him questions three,
My head will be smitten from my bodie.
“The first is to tell him, there in that stead,
With his crowne of golde so fair on his head,
Among all his liege-men so noble of birth,        55
To within one penny of what he is worth.
“The seconde, to tell him without any doubt,
How soone he may ride this whole world about;
And at the third question I must not shrinke,
But tell him there truly what he does thinke.”        60
“Now cheare up, sire abbot, did you never hear yet,
That a fool he may learne a wise man witt?
Lend me horse, and serving-men, and your apparel,
And Ile ride to London to answere youre quarrel.
“Nay, frowne not, if it hath bin told unto me,        65
I am like your lordship, as ever may be;
And if you will but lend me your gowne,
There is none shall know us at fair London towne.”
“Now horses and serving-men thou shalt have,
With sumptuous array most gallant and brave,        70
With crozier, and mitre, and rochet, and cope,
Fit to appear ’fore our fader the pope.”
“Now welcome, sire abbot,” the king he did say,
“’T is well thou ’rt come back to keepe thy day:
For and if thou canst answer my questions three,        75
Thy life and thy living both savèd shall be.
“And first, when thou seest me here in this stead,
With my crowne of golde so fair on my head,
Among all my liege-men so noble of birthe,
Tell me to one penny what I am worthe.”        80
“For thirty pence our Saviour was sold
Among the false Jews, as I have bin told,
And twenty-nine is the worth of thee,
For I thinke thou art one penny worser than he.”
The king he laughed, and swore by Saint Bittel,        85
“I did not think I had been worth so littel!
—Now secondly tell me, without any doubt,
How soone I may ride this whole world about.”
“You must rise with the sun, and ride with the same
Until the next morning he riseth againe;        90
And then your grace need not make any doubt
But in twenty-four hours you ’ll ride it about.”
The king he laughed, and swore by Saint Jone,
“I did not think it could be gone so soone!
—Now from the third question thou must not shrinke,        95
But tell me here truly what I do thinke.”
“Yea, that shall I do, and make your grace merry;
You thinke I ’m the Abbot of Canterbury;
But I ’m his poor shepheard, as plain you may see,
That am come to beg pardon for him and for me.”        100
The king he laughed, and swore by the Masse,
“Ile make thee lord abbot this day in his place!”
“Now naye, my liege, be not in such speede,
For alacke I can neither write ne reade.”
“Four nobles a week then I will give thee,        105
For this merry jest thou hast showne unto me;
And tell the old abbot when thou comest home,
Thou hast brought him a pardon from good King John.”

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