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Lilliburlero – The Biggest Hit of the 17th Century

Roxburghe Ballad WoodcutIn the seventeenth and eighteenth century people of all classes listened to what we might now call folk songs. In The Spectator in 1711, Joseph Addison remarked how, for instance, the ballad of The Two Children in the Wood was not only ‘one of the darling songs of the common people’ but also ‘the delight of most Englishmen in some part of their age’ (emphasis added). Many of these songs and ballads were printed as broadsides. Sold throughout the length and breadth of England, broadside ballads were the soundtrack to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the tunes to these ballads were used interchangeably between songs; a Robin Hood ballad tune could could accompany the lyrics of another totally different ballad. But there was one tune which seems to have been a particularly big hit in the 1600s and 1700s: Lilliburlero.

The first appearance of Lilliburlero in print was in a collection of songs entitled An Antidote Against Melancholy (1661), and it does not appear to have been known before then. It was the so called Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, which saw the song’s popularity rise. The Catholic King, James II, was deposed and in his place the English invited the Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary to take the throne instead. Anti-Catholic sentiment in England was rife at the time, and Lillibulero’s popularity seemed to stem from the fact that Lord Wharton set the tune to the lyrics of an anti-Catholic ballad which he had composed:

Ho! Broder Teague, dost hear de decree?

Lilliburlero, bullen-a-la.

Dat we shall have a new deputie,

Lilliburlero, bullen-a-la.

Lero, lero, lilli burlero, lero lero, bullen-a-la,

Lero, lero, lilli burlero, lero lero, bullen-a-la,


The song depicts two Irish Catholic men discussing what would happen if a Catholic monarch were allowed to remain on the English throne. Wharton, aware that Englishmen both before and during the Glorious Revolution prized their political liberties, wrote not-so-subtle hints about what would happen in the event that the William of Orange failed to take England:

But if dispence do come from de Pope,

Lilliburlero, bullen-a-la.

We’ll hang Magna Charta and dem in a rope,

Lilliburlero, bullen-a-la.

Lero, lero, lilli burlero, lero lero, bullen-a-la,

Lero, lero, lilli burlero, lero lero, bullen-a-la.


The ballad’s message was clear. It argued that should William fail, England would fall back into Popish tyranny, an outcome that was unpalatable to liberty-loving Englishmen. The tune was so popular, and received such a wide circulation, that the eighteenth-century antiquary, Thomas Percy, said in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) that it contributed to the downfall of James II:


The following rhymes, slight and insignificant as they may now seem, had once a more powerful effect than either the Philippics of Demosthenes or Cicero; and contributed not a little towards the great revolution of 1688.


And Percy’s observation seems to have been confirmed by another contemporary commentator, Bishop Burnett, who said:


A foolish ballad was made at that time, treating the papists, and chiefly the Irish, in a very ridiculous manner, which had a burden said to be Irish words, ‘Lero, lero, liliburlero,’ that made an impression on the [king’s] army, that cannot be imagined by those that saw it not. The whole army, and at last the people both in city and country, were singing it perpetually. And perhaps never had so slight a thing so great an effect.


After this, the tune was appropriated for the lyrics of yet more topical ballads. The online English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) lists many such ballads with the tune of Lilliburlero. Many of these had a vein of anti-Catholicism running through them such as DUBLIN’S Deliverance: or, The Surrender of DROGHEDA. Shewing, King William’s Conquest over his Catholick Enemies in his Warlike Progress in Ireland (1690).

However, not every song which utilised the tune of Lilliburlero was overtly political. The City Cheat Discovered (1690) is simply mocks the way that the general public seems to believe any rubbish that is printed in a newspaper:

The Coffee-house Trade is the best in the Town;

Young sparks that have money they thither repair:

The Affairs of the Nation they have written down,

To blow up their Noddles as light as the Air.

Stories, Stories, Lies and Stories;

There’s nothing but Stories when they begin.

Pox on your News Letters, they lye both and flatters;

They are but a Trap to wheedle Men in.


The tune also accompanied the lyrics to love songs such as Faint Heart never won fair Lady: or, Good Advice to Batchelors How to Court and Obtain a Young Lass. To the Tune of, Lilli-burlero (c.1692):

You that a fair Maids heart would obtain,

eagerly Court, and Ogle and Kiss;

Whining and Sighs are all but in vain,

Courage does lead the way unto Bliss:

Touse her, tempt her, hap at a venture,

Tho’ she cry, Fie Sir, pray you be gone;

Do but you try Sir, she’ll sooner dye Sir,

Than you shall leave her wishing alone.


In time, Lillibulero infiltrated elite culture; Henry Purcell incorporated the tune into one of his works, and it also made an appearance into the first ‘jukebox musical’: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727). The tune in this play is used to satirise what Gay perceived was a back-stabbing, lying, and cheating aristocracy:

The modes of the court so common have grown,

That a true friend can hardly be met.

Friends for interest is but a loan

Which they let out for what they can get.

‘Tis true, you find

Some friends so kind

Who will give you good counsel themselves to defend.

In sorrowful ditty

They promise, they pity

But shift you, for money, from friend to friend.


It seems that everyone knew Lilliburlero, which may be partially due to the fact that it was appropriated to serve as the tune of a military march. The character of Uncle Toby in the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1767), for instance, whistles the tune Lilliburlero every time that he disagrees with somebody. In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), the highland chief Fergus Mac-Ivor is seen whistling the tune before dinner, and one of the pirates in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1882) is also seen humming the tune.

The tune is still sung today, and has made its way into movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It also forms a part of the repertoire of modern-day folk bands such as The City Waites, and more recently, Bellowhead, who have given renditions of this famous seventeenth-century tune. The version usually sung today is set to the lyrics of The Farmer’s Curst Wife which was first collected by the American Folk Song scholar Francis James Child in his multivolume work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1882 and 1898).

The odd thing about Lillibulero, of course, is that although we would class it as a folk song today, it was never originally a folk song – not, at least, according to one standard dictionary definition which claims that a folk song is:

A song originating among the people of a country or area, passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next, often existing in several versions, and marked generally by simple, modal melody and stanzaic, narrative verse.

Roxburghe Ballad Woodcut 2The above definition implies that a proper folk song needs to have existed in oral tradition first, passed from generation to generation via word of mouth, and only recorded in writing at a later date. Instead, Lilliburlero began life as a popular song, first set down in print, and only later became a ‘folk’ song when it passed into an oral tradition, when, ‘the whole army, and […] the people both in city and country, were singing it perpetually’. The tune was then adapted countless times, and many new songs bearing it appeared in print, in turn making the tune ever more widely known. Thus in the case of Lilliburlero, throughout the tune’s history there has been a dynamic interplay between print culture and vernacular traditions.

In conclusion, Lilliburlero was the tune that contributed to the downfall of the Stuart monarchy. It was pervasive, adapted to suit the lyrics of countless songs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has made appearances in several novels by eminent writers such as Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. You may have heard it in some form or another, either as a military march, in a movie, or sung by a modern-day folk band. It was such a big ‘hit song’ in the seventeenth century that it has survived in some form or another for over three hundred years.

About Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a PhD candidate at Leeds Trinity University. His thesis examines 18th- and 19th-century Robin Hood texts. His other research interests include the history of crime, in particular the offences of outlawry and highway robbery, as well as 18th- and 19th-century print culture.

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