King John and the Abbot of Canterbury – English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

In the reign of King John there lived an Abbot of Canterbury who kept up grand state in his Abbey.

A hundred of the Abbot’s men dined each day with him in his refectory, and fifty knights in velvet coats and gold chains waited upon him daily. Well, King John, as you know, was a very bad king, and he couldn’t brook the idea of any one in his kingdom, however holy he might be, being honoured more than he. So he summoned the Abbot of Canterbury to his presence.

The Abbot came with a goodly retinue, with his fifty knights-at-arms in velvet cloaks and gold chains. The King went to meet him, and said to him, “How now, father Abbot? I hear it of thee, thou keepest far greater state than I. This becomes not our royal dignity, and savours of treason in thee.”

“My liege,” quoth the Abbot, bending low, “I beg to say that all I spend has been freely given to the Abbey out of the piety of the folk. I trust your Grace will not take it ill that I spend for the Abbey’s sake what is the Abbey’s.”

“Nay, proud prelate,” answered the King, “all that is in this fair realm of England is our own, and thou hast no right to put me to shame by holding such state. However, of my clemency I will spare thee thy life and thy property if you can answer me but three questions.”

“I will do so, my liege,” said the Abbot, “so far as my poor wit can extend.”

“Well, then,” said the King, “tell me where is the centre of all the world round; then let me know how soon can I ride the whole world about; and, lastly, tell me what I think.”

“Your Majesty jesteth,” stammered the Abbot.

“Thou wilt find it no jest,” said the King. “Unless thou canst answer me these questions three before a week is out, thy head will leave thy body;” and he turned away.

Well, the Abbot rode off in fear and trembling, and first he went to Oxford to see if any learned doctor could tell him the answer to those questions three; but none could help him, and he took his way to Canterbury, sad and sorrowful, to take leave of his monks. But on his way he met his shepherd as he was going to the fold.

“Welcome home, Lord Abbot,” quoth the shepherd; “what news from good King John?”

“Sad news, sad news, my shepherd,” said the Abbot, and told him all that had happened.

“Now, cheer up, Sir Abbot,” said the shepherd. “A fool may perhaps answer what a wise man knows not. I will go to London in your stead; grant me only your apparel and your retinue of knights. At the least I can die in your place.”

“Nay, shepherd, not so,” said the Abbot; “I must meet the danger in my own person. And to that, thou canst not pass for me.”

“But I can and I will, Sir Abbot. In a cowl, who will know me for what I am?”

So at last the Abbot consented, and sent him to London in his most splendid array, and he approached King John with all his retinue as before, but dressed in his simple monk’s dress and his cowl over his face.
“…I am but his poor shepherd…”

“Now welcome, Sir Abbot,” said King John; “thou art prepared for thy doom, I see.”

“I am ready to answer your Majesty,” said he.

“Well, then, question first—where is the centre of the round earth?” said the King.

“Here,” said the shepherd Abbot, planting his crozier in the ground; “an’ your Majesty believe me not, go measure it and see.”


“By St. Botolph,” said the King, “a merry answer and a shrewd; so to question the second. How soon may I ride this round world about?”

“If your Majesty will graciously rise with the sun, and ride along with him until the next morning he rise, your Grace will surely have ridden it round.”

“By St. John,” laughed King John, “I did not think it could be done so soon. But let that pass, and tell me question third and last, and that is—What do I think?”

“That is easy, your Grace,” said he. “Your Majesty thinks I am my lord the Abbot of Canterbury; but as you may see,” and here he raised his cowl, “I am but his poor shepherd, that am come to ask your pardon for him and for me.”

Loud laughed the King. “Well caught. Thou hast more wit than thy lord, and thou shalt be Abbot in his place.”

“Nay, that cannot be,” quoth the shepherd; “I know not to write nor to read.”

“Well, then, four nobles a week thou shalt have for the ready wit. And tell the Abbot from me that he has my pardon.” And with that King John sent away the shepherd with a right royal present, besides his pension.



Source.—”Prosed” from the well-known ballad in Percy. I have changed the first query: What am I worth? Answer: Twenty-nine pence—one less, I ween, than the Lord. This would have sounded somewhat bold in prose.

Parallels.—Vincent of Beauvais has the story, but the English version comes from the German Joe Miller, Pauli’s Schimpf und Ernst, No. lv., p. 46, ed. Oesterley, where see his notes. The question I have omitted exists there, and cannot have “independently arisen.” Pauli was a fifteenth century worthy or unworthy.

Remarks.—Riddles were once on a time serious things to meddle with, as witness Samson and the Sphynx, and other instances duly noted with his customary erudition by Prof. Child in his comments on the ballad, English and Scotch Ballads, i, 403-14.

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