‘The Abbot of Canterbury’ is a title of the ballad that is taught in Intermediate classes in Pakistan. In it, the poet tells the story of abbot who was living in the splendid style of a great prince nearby London. He was very famous by his hospitality. He had fifty men who were wearing gold chains around him for his order. His name and fame was spread far and wide. When it was heard by the king John, who was ruling over England with main and might, he suspected the smell of treachery. He was very strange because he used to spend too much money for little benefit.
The abbot was summoned at his court and was told his crime. His crime was his earned wealth and reputation which the king suspected as treason against his kingdom. The abbot replied that he had honestly obtained property and never thought of any treason against his crown. The king was not satisfied by his answer and called it a major crime deserving a major punishment. Then he put before him a condition that if he answered his three questions, he would be forgiven. His property would be confiscated until he answered the questions. It means that if he failed to answer the questions, he would be beheaded and his property would be taken away.
The abbot was innocent and unknown to such difficulties. He asked his three questions. The kind told him the following three questions:
01 When I am on the throne and crown is on my head amid the noble persons, what is my exact value in one penny?
02 How much time I will take to journey the whole world?
03 What am I thinking now?
The abbot heard his questions and requested that the questions were out of his knowledge and wisdom and for their answers, he needed a time. The king gave him a time of three weeks for finding their answers; otherwise none would save him from the fixed punishment.
In dejection, he started his journey to search the answers. His intention was to meet the sages and discuss about the questions. He went to Oxford and Cambridge universities and discussed with the professors and the scholars but they failed to answer the questions. At last, he returned to face the cruel king and his punishment. On the way, he met his shepherd who welcomed him and asked happy news. The abbot told him bad news that made the shepherd sad. The shepherd asked him the three questions given by the king John. He assured him that he would answer the King John instead of him and would save him from the punishment.
The shepherd wore the ceremonial attire of his master and took other required things. He looked like the abbot of Canterbury and went to King John to answer him. He was welcomed there and asked about the answers of three questions. The shepherd replied that he had come to answer the questions. In response to the first question, he told that the price of the king would be twenty nine pence because the prophet Christ was sold among the Jews for thirty pence. So, his worth would be one penny less. Such answer astonished the king and there was no chance to object. He answered the second question that if the king got up early in the morning and ran with the speed of the sun, he would complete his journey around the world in twenty four hours. For the third question, he said that the king had thought that he was the abbot, but it was not so. He was the poor shepherd of the abbot.
King John was much pleased with his answers and announced for him a stipend of four nobles a weak. Apart from it, he was offered the post of abbot on his master’s place, but he refused because he was illiterate. The king forgave him and his master.
Something about the ballad:
It is an old ballad of the south of England. It tells a story in a simple and traditional verse form. It consists of twenty seven stanzas. Each stanza is rhymed in same manner. The first line is rhymed with the second, and the third with the fourth. The ballads of the north are known best. They are composed in a dialect but they are hard to be understood. They contain some magnificent poetry and the moving stories. They are usually harsh and tragic. Ballads from the south of England are similar in form, but they are very different in spirit. The stories are mostly amusing and end happily.
This poem is anonymous because its authorship is unknown. It is not known who wrote the early ballads, nor is it easy to tell when they were first composed. Perhaps it was the product of a traveling entertainer who composed lovely songs and poems having put lovely stock in verse form. This ballad is a great poetry because its simplicity and crudeness adds to it a certain charm. The story is no more than a popular legend. King John who reigned from 1199 to 1216 was a very unpleasant man and a thoroughly bad king, but there is no historical evidence that anything like this happened. This ballad is only one of many which refer to his misdeeds and they make one thing clear that common people hated him and after his death, so many things were attached to him. The early ballads are simple and artless but they give some fascinating glimpses into the soul of common folk of England living centuries before us.
The ballad possesses a good place in English literature and reveals the inclination of the people of its age to poetry, and how they used to convey their problems to others.