History of Song
“Matty Groves” is a Border ballad probably originating in Northern England that describes an adulterous tryst between a man and a woman that is ended when the woman’s husband discovers and kills them. This song exists in many textual variants and has several variant names. The song dates to at least the 17th century, and under the title Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard is one of the Child Ballads collected by 19th-century American scholar Francis James Child.
Little Musgrave (or Matty Groves, Little Matthew Grew and other variations) goes to church on a holy day either “the holy word to hear” or “to see fair ladies there”. He sees Lord Barnard’s wife, the fairest lady there, and realises she is attracted to him. She invites him to spend the night with her, and he agrees when she tells him her husband is away from home. Her page goes to find Lord Barnard (Arnel, Daniel, Arnold, Donald, Darnell, Darlington) and tells him that Musgrave is in bed with his wife. Lord Barnard promises the page a large reward if he is telling the truth and to hang him if he is lying. Lord Barnard and his men ride to his home, where he surprises the lovers in bed. Lord Barnard tells Musgrave to dress because he doesn’t want to be accused of killing a naked man. Musgrave says he dare not because he has no weapon, and Lord Barnard gives him the better of two swords. In the subsequent duel Little Musgrave wounds Lord Barnard, who then kills him. Lord Barnard then asks his wife whether she still prefers Little Musgrave to him and when she says she would prefer a kiss from the dead man’s lips to her husband and all his kin, he kills her. He then says he regrets what he has done and orders the lovers to be buried in a single grave, with the lady at the top because “she came of the better kin”. In some versions Barnard is hanged, or kills himself, or finds his own infant son dead in his wife’s body. Many versions omit one or more parts of the story.
The name Musgrave originates in Westmoreland, a former county in the north of England now part of Cumbria.
Some versions of the ballad include elements of an alba, a poetic form in which lovers part after spending a night together.