The Ingoldsby Legends, by Thomas Ingoldsby

The Brothers of Birchington: A Lay of St. Thomas À Becket.

You are all aware that

On our throne there once sat

A very great king who’d an Angevin hat,

With a great sprig of broom, which he wore as a badge in it,

Named from this circumstance, Henry Plantagenet.

Pray don’t suppose

That I’m going to prose

O’er Queen Eleanor’s wrongs, or Miss Rosamond’s woes,

With the dagger and bowl, and all that sort of thing,

Not much to the credit of Miss, Queen, or King.

The tale may be true,

But between me and you,

With the King’s escapade I’ll have nothing to do;

But shall merely select, as a theme for my rhymes,

A fact, which occurr’d to some folks in his times.

If for health, or a ‘lark,’

You should ever embark

In that best of improvements on boats since the Ark,

The steam-vessel call’d the ‘Red Rover,’ the barge

Of an excellent officer, named Captain Large,

You may see, some half way

‘Twixt the pier at Herne Bay

And Margate, the place where you’re going to stay,

A village call’d Birchington, fam’d for its ‘Rolls,’

As the fishing-bank, just in its front, is for Soles.

Well, — there stood a fane

In this Harry Broom’s reign,

On the edge of the cliff, overhanging the main,

Renown’d for its sanctity all through the nation,

And orthodox friars of the Austin persuasion.

Among them there was one,

Whom if once I begun

To describe as I ought I should never have done,

Father Richard of Birchington, so was the Friar

Yclept, whom the rest had elected their Prior.

He was tall and upright,

About six feet in height,

His complexion was what you’d denominate light,

And the tonsure had left, ‘mid his ringlets of brown,

A little bald patch on the top of his crown.

His bright sparkling eye

Was of hazel, and nigh

Rose a finely arch’d eyebrow of similar dye,

He’d a small, well-form’d mouth with the Cupidon lip,

And an aquiline nose, somewhat red at the tip.

Indoors and out

He was very devout,

With his Aves and Paters — and oh, such a knout!!

For his self flagellations! the Monks used to say

He would wear out two penn’orth of whip-cord a-day!

Then how his piety

Shows in his diet, he

Dines upon pulse, or, by way of variety,

Sand-eels or dabs; or his appetite mocks

With those small periwinkles that crawl on the rocks.

In brief, I don’t stick

To declare Father Dick —

So they call’d him, ‘for short’ — was a ‘Regular Brick,’

A metaphor taken — I have not the page aright —

Out of an ethical work by the Stagyrite.

Now Nature, ’tis said,

Is a comical jade,

And among the fantastical tricks she has play’d,

Was the making our good Father Richard a Brother,

As like him in form as one pea’s like another;

He was tall and upright,

About six feet in height,

His complexion was what you’d denominate light,

And, though he had not shorn his ringlets of brown,

He’d a little bald patch on the top of his crown.

He’d a bright sparkling eye

Of the hazel, hard by

Rose a finely-arch’d sourcil of similar dye;

He’d a small, well-shaped mouth, with a Cupidon lip,

And a good Roman nose, rather red at the tip.

But here, it’s pretended,

The parallel ended;

In fact, there’s no doubt his life might have been mended,

And people who spoke of the Prior with delight,

Shook their heads if you mention’d his brother, the Knight.

If you’d credit report,

There was nothing but sport,

And High Jinks going on night and day at ‘the court,’

Where Sir Robert, instead of devotion and charity,

Spent all his time in unseemly hilarity.

He drinks and he eats

Of choice liquors and meats,

And he goes out on We’n’sdays and Fridays to treats,

Gets tipsy whenever he dines or he sups,

And is wont to come quarrelsome home in his cups.

No Paters, to Aves;

An absolute slave he’s

To tarts, pickled salmon, and sauces, and gravies;

While as to his beads — what a shame in a Knight! —

He really don’t know the wrong end from the right!

So, though ’twas own’d then,

By nine people in ten,

That ‘Robert and Richard were two pretty men,’

Yet there the praise ceased, or, at least the good Priest

Was consider’d the ‘Beauty,’ Sir Robert the ‘Beast.’

Indeed, I’m afraid

More might have been laid

To the charge of the Knight than was openly said,

For then we’d no ‘Phiz’s,’ no ‘H. B.‘s,’ nor ‘Leeches,’

To call Roberts ‘Bobs,’ and illustrate their speeches.

’Twas whisper’d he’d rob,

Nay murder! a job

Which would stamp him no ‘brick,’ but a ‘regular snob,’

(An obsolete term, which, at this time of day,

We should probably render by mauvais sujet.)

Now if here such affairs

Get wind unawares,

They are bruited about, doubtless, much more ‘down stairs,’

Where Old Nick has a register-office, they say,

With commissioners quite of such matters au fait.

Of course, when he heard

What his people averr’d

Of Sir Robert’s proceedings in deed and in word,

He asked for the ledger, and hastened to look

At the leaves on the creditor side of this book.

’Twas with more than surprise

That he now ran his eyes

O’er the numberless items, oaths, curses, and lies,

Et cetera, set down in Sir Robert’s account,

He was quite ‘flabbergasted’ to see the amount.

‘Dear me! this is wrong!

It’s a great deal too strong,

I’d no notion this bill had been standing so long —

Send Levybub here!’ and he filled up a writ

Of ‘Ca sa,’ duly prefaced with ‘Limbo to wit.’

‘Here Levybub, quick!’

To his bailiff, said Nick,

‘I’m “ryled,” and “my dander’s up,” “Go a-head slick”

Up to Kent — not Kentuck — and at once fetch away

A snob there — I guess that’s a Mauvais Sujet.

‘One De Birchington, knight —

’Tis not clear quite

What his t’other name is — they’ve not enter’d it right,

Ralph, Robert, or Richard? they’ve not gone so far,

Our critturs have put it down merely as ‘R.’

‘But he’s tall and upright,

About six feet in height,

His complexion, I reckon, you’d calculate light,

And he’s farther “set down” having ringlets of brown,

With a little bald patch on the top of his crown.

‘Then his eye and his lip,

Hook-nose, red at tip,

Are marks your attention can’t easily slip;

Take Slomanoch with you, he’s got a good knack

Of soon grabbing his man, and be back in a crack!’

That same afternoon

Father Dick, who, as soon

Would ‘knock in’ or ‘cut chapel’ as jump oe’r the moon,

Was missing at vespers — at compline — all night!

And his monks were, of course, in a deuce of a fright.

Morning dawn’d — ’twas broad day,

Still no Prior! the tray

With his muffins and eggs, went untasted away; —

He came not to luncheon — all said, ‘it was rum of him!’

— None could conceive what on earth had become of him.

They examined his cell,

They peep’d down the well;

They went up the tow’r, and looked into the bell,

They dragg’d the great fish-pond, the little one tried,

But found nothing at all, save some carp — which they fried.

But found nothing at all, save some carp — which they fried

‘Dear me! Dear me!

Why, where can he be?

He’s fall’n over the cliff? — tumbled into the sea?’

‘Stay — he talk’d,’ exclaimed one, ‘If I recollect right,

Of making a call on his brother, the Knight!’

He turns as he speaks,

The ‘Court Lodge’ he seeks,

Which was known then, as now, by the queer name of Quekes,

But scarce half a mile on his way had he sped,

When he spied the good Prior in the paddock — stone dead!

Alas! ’twas too true!

And I need not tell you

In the convent his news made a pretty to do;

Through all its wide precincts so roomy and spacious,

Nothing was heard but ‘Bless me!’ and ‘Good Gracious!!’

They sent for the May’r

And the Doctor, a pair

Of grave men, who began to discuss the affair,

When in bounced the Coroner, foaming with fury,

‘Because,’ as he said, ”twas pooh! pooh!-ing his jury.’

Then commenced a dispute,

And so hot they went to’t,

That things seem’d to threaten a serious emeute,

When, just in the midst of the uproar and racket,

Who should walk in but St. Thomas à Becket.

Quoth his saintship, ‘How now?

Here’s a fine coil, I trow!

I should like to know, gentlemen, what’s all this row?

Mr. Wickliffe — or Wackliffe — whatever your name is —

And you, Mr. May’r, don’t you know, Sirs, what shame is?

‘Pray what’s all this clatter

About? — what’s the matter?’

Here a monk, whose teeth funk and concern made to chatter,

Sobs out, as he points to the corpse on the floor,

”Tis all dickey with poor Father Dick — he’s no more!’

‘How! — what?’ says the saint,

‘Yes he is — no he ain’t! 1

He can’t be deceased — pooh! it’s merely a faint,

Or some foolish mistake which may serve for our laughter,

“He should have died,” like the old Scotch Queen, “hereafter.”

‘His time is not out;

Some blunder no doubt,

It shall go hard but what I’ll know what it’s about —

I shan’t be surprised if that scurvy Old Nick’s

Had a hand in’t; it savours of one of his tricks.’

When a crafty old hound

Claps his nose to the ground,

Then throws it up boldly, and bays out, ‘I’ve found!’

And the pack catch the note, I’d as soon think to check it,

As dream of bamboozling St. Thomas à Becket.

Once on the scent,

To business he went,

‘You Scoundrel, come here, Sir,’ (’twas Nick that he meant,)

‘Bring your books here this instant — bestir yourself — do,

I’ve no time to waste on such fellows as you.’

Every corner and nook

In all Erebus shook,

As he struck on the pavement his pastoral crook,

All its tenements trembled from basement to roofs,

And their nigger inhabitants shook in their hoofs.

Hanging his ears,

Yet dissembling his fears,

Ledger in hand, straight ‘Auld Hornie’ appears,

With that sort of half sneaking, half-impudent look,

Bankrupts sport when cross-question’d by Cresswell or Cooke.

‘So Sir-r-r! you are here,’

Said the saint with a sneer,

‘My summons, I trust, did not much interfere

With your morning engagements — I merely desire,

At your leisure, to know what you’ve done with my Prior?

‘Now, none of your lies,

Mr. Nick! I’d advise

You to tell me the truth without any disguise,

Or-r-r!!’ The Saint, while his rosy gills seem’d to grow rosier,

Here gave another great thump with his crosier.

Like a small boy at Eton,

Who’s not quite a Crichton,

And don’t know his task but expects to be beaten,

Nick stammer’d, scarce knowing what answer to make,

‘Sir, I’m sadly afraid here has been a mistake.

‘These things will occur,

We are all apt to err,

The most cautious sometimes as you know, holy Sir;

For my own part — I’m sure I do all that I can —

But — the fact is — I fear — we have got the wrong man.’

‘Wrong man!’ roar’d the Saint —

But the scene I can’t paint,

The best colours I have are a vast deal too faint —

Nick afterwards own’d that he ne’er knew what fright meant,

Before he saw saint under so much excitement.

‘Wrong man! don’t tell me —

Pooh! — fiddle-de-dee!

What’s your right, Scamp, to any man! — come, let me see;

I’ll teach you, you thorough-paced rascal, to meddle

With church matters, come, Sirrah, out with your schedule!’

In support of his claim

The fiend turns to the name

Of ‘De Birchington’ written in letters of flame,

Below which long items stand, column on column,

Enough to have eked out a decent-sized volume!

Sins of all sorts and shapes,

From small practical japes,

Up to dicings, and drinkings, and murders, and rapes,

And then of such standing! — a merciless tick,

From an Oxford tobacconist, — let alone Nick.

The Saint in surprise

Scarce believed his own eyes,

Still he knew he’d to deal with the father of lies,

And ‘So this! — you call this!’ he exclaimed in a searching tone,

‘This!!! the account of my friend Dick de Birchington!’

‘Why,’ said Nick, with an air

Of great candour, ‘it’s there

Lies the awkwardest part of this awkward affair —

I thought all was right — see the height tallies quite,

The complexion’s what all must consider as light;

There’s the nose, and the lip, and the ringlets of brown,

And the little bald patch on the top of the crown.

‘And then the surname,

So exactly the same —

I don’t know — I can’t tell how the accident came,

But some how — I own it’s a very sad job,

But — my bailiff grabb’d Dick when he should have nabb’d Bob.

‘I am vex’d beyond bounds

You should have such good grounds

For complaint; I would rather have given five pounds,

And any apology, Sir, you may choose,

I’ll make with much pleasure, and put in the news.’

‘An apology! — pooh!

Much good that will do!

An “apology” quoth a! — and that too from you! —

Before any proposal is made of the sort,

Bring back your stol’n goods, thief! — produce them in Court!’

In a moment, so small

It seem’d no time at all,

Father Richard sat up on his what-do-ye-call —

Sur son séant — and, what was as wondrous as pleasing,

At once began coughing, and snifting, and sneezing.

While, strange to relate,

The Knight, whom the fate

Of his brother had reach’d, and who’d knock’d at the gate,

To make further enquiries, had scarce made his bow

To the Saint, ere he vanish’d, and no one knew how!

Erupit — evasit,

As Tully would phrase it,

And none could have known where to find his Hic jacet —

That sentence which man his mortality teaches —

Sir Robert had disappear’d, body and breeches!

‘Heyday! Sir, heyday!

What’s the matter now — eh?’

Quoth à Becket, observing the gen’ral dismay,

‘How, again! — ‘pon my word this is really too bad!

It would drive any saint in the calendar mad.

‘What, still at your tricking?

You will have a kicking?

I see you won’t rest till you’ve got a good licking —

Your claim, friend? — what claim? — why you show’d me before

That your old claim was cancell’d — you’ve cross’d out the score!

‘Is it that way you’d Jew one?

You’ve settled the true one;

Do you mean to tell me he has run up a new one?

Of the thousands you’ve cheated

And scurvily treated,

Name one you’ve dared charge with a bill once receipted!

In the Bankruptcy Court should you dare to presume

To attempt it, they’d soon kick you out of the room,

— Ask Commissioner Fonblanque, or ask my Lord Brougham.

‘And then to make under

So barefaced a blunder,

Your caption! — why what’s the world come to, I wonder?

My patience! it’s just like his impudence, drat him!

— Stand out of the way there, and let me get at him!’

The Saint raised his arm,

But Old Nick, in alarm,

Dash’d up through the skylight, not doing much harm,

While, quitte pour la peur, the Knight, sound on the whole,

Down the chimney came tumbling as black as a coal!

Spare we to tell

Of what after befell!

How the Saint lectured Robert de Birchington well,

Bade him alter his life, and held out as a warning

The narrow escape he’d made on that morning.

Nor need we declare

How, then and there,

The jury and Coroner blew up the May’r

For his breach of decorum as one of the quorum,

In not having Levybub brought up before ’em.

Nor will you require

Me to state how the Prior

Could never thenceforth bear the sight of a fire,

Nor ever was heard to express a desire

In cold weather to see the thermometer higher.

Nor shall I relate

The subsequent fate

Of St. Thomas à Becket, whose reverend pate

Fitzurse and De Morville, and Brito and Tracy

Shaved off, as his crown had been merely a jasey.2

Suffice it to say,

From that notable day

The ‘Twin Birchington Brothers’ together grew gray;

In the same holy convent continued to dwell,

Same food and same fastings, same habit, same cell.

No more the Knight rattles

In broils and in battles,

But sells, by De Robins, his goods and his chattels,

And counting all wealth a mere Will-o’the-wisp,

Disposes of Quekes to Sir Nicholas Crispe.

One spot alone

Of all he had known

Of his spacious domain he retain’d as his own,

In a neighbouring parish, whose name, I may say

Scarce any two people pronounce the same way.

Re-cul-ver some style it,

While others revile it

As bad, and say Re-culver — ‘tisn’t worth while, it

Would seem to dispute, when we know the result immat —

erial — I accent, myself, the penultimate.

Sages, with brains

Full of ‘Saxon remains,’

May call me a booby, perhaps, for my pains,

Still I hold, at the hazard of being thought dull by ’em,

Fast by the quantity mark’d for Regulbium.

Call’t as you will

The traveller still,

In the voyage that we talk’d about, marks on the hill

Overhanging the sea, the ‘twin towers’ raised then

By ‘Robert and Richard, those two pretty men.’

Both tall and upright,

And just equal in height;

The Trinity House talked of painting them white,

And the thing was much spoken of some time ago,

When the Duke, I believe — but I really don’t know.

Well-there the ‘Twins’ stand

On the verge of the land,

To warn mariners off from the Columbine sand,

And many a poor man have Robert and Dick

By their vow caused to ‘scape, like themselves, from Old Nick.

So, whether you’re sailors

Or Tooley-street tailors,

Broke loose from your masters, those sternest of jailers,

And, bent upon pleasure, are taking your trip

In a craft which you fondly conceive is a ship,

When you’ve pass’d by the Nore,

And you hear the winds roar

In a manner you scarce could have fancied before,

When the cordage and tackling

Are flapping and crackling,

And the boy with the bell

Thinks it useless to tell

You that ‘dinner’s on table,’ because you’re unwell;

When above you all’s ‘scud,’

And below you the flood

Looks a horrible mixture of soap-suds and mud,

When the timbers are straining,

And folks are complaining

The dead-lights are letting the spray and the rain in,

When the helm’s-man looks blue,

And Captain Large too,

And you really don’t know what on earth you shall do.

In this hubbub and row

Think where you’d be now,

Except for the Birchington boys and their vow!

And while o’er the wide wave you feel the craft pitch hard,

Praie for ye sowles of Robertte and Rychard!


It’s a subject of serious complaint in some houses,

With young married men who have elderly spouses,

That persons are seen in their figures and faces,

With very queer people in very queer places,

So like them that one for the other’s oft taken,

And conjugal confidence thereby much shaken:

Explanations too often are thought mere pretences,

And Richard gets scolded for Robert’s offences.

In a matter so nice,

If I’m ask’d my advice,

I say copy King Henry to obviate that,

And stick something remarkable up in your hat!

Next, observe, in this world where we’ve so many cheats,

How useful it is to preserve your receipts!

If you deal with a person whose truth you don’t doubt

Be particular, still, that your bill is cross’d out;

But, with any inducement to think him a scamp,

Have a formal receipt on a regular stamp!

Let every gay gallant my story who notes

Take warning, and not go on ‘sowing wild oats!’

Nor depend that some friend

Will always attend,

And by ‘making all right’ bring him off in the end,

He may be mistaken so let him beware,

St. Thomas à Beckets are now rather rare.

Last of all, may’rs and magistrates, never be rude

To juries! they are people who won’t be pooh-pooh’d!

Especially Sandwich ones — no one can say

But himself may come under their clutches one day;

They then may pay off

In kind any scoff,

And, turning their late verdict quite ‘wisey wersey,’

‘Acquit you,’ and not ‘recommend you to mercy.’3

1 Cantise for ‘is not;’ St. Thomas, it seems, had lived long enough in the country to pick up a few of its provincialisms.

2 Nec satis fuit eis sanguine sacerdotis et nece ecclesiam prophanare, nisi, corona capitis amputata, funestis gladiis jam defuncti ejicerent cerebrum. — Matt. Paris.

3 At a Quarter Sessions held at Sandwich, (some six miles from Birchington,) on Tuesday the 8th of April last, before W. F. Boteler, Esq., the recorder, Thomas Jones, mariner, aged 17, was tried for stealing a jacket, value ten shillings. The jury after a patient hearing, found him ‘not guilty,’ and ‘recommended him to mercy.’ — See the whole case reported in the ‘Kentish Observer,’ April 10, 1845.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56