I ran into the tale again while skimming my collection of Francis Child Ballads and was again intrigued. There is something different about this ballad than most folk ballads that deal with infidelity. I had a sense of what it was but could not put a finger on it.
About a month ago, my husband and I went to see a production of the musical "Camelot." I had never seen it before and was quite struck by Arthur's vacillation in the case of Guinevere and Lancelot's adultery. In the musical's portrayal, Arthur not only acknowledges his knowledge of the affair without interfering in any way, but actually wishes to warn the 'lovers' of surprise by another party. When the pair are exposed and Guinevere is condemned by the court, Arthur cannot seem to find any way of reconciling his respect for the judicial system and his love for his wife except by encouraging his rival to engage Arthur's own knights in a bloody battle to rescue her. In the end, Arthur forgives his wife, but seems to adopt almost an "you couldn't help being in love" attitude toward the pair.
I myself couldn't help feeling a little disgusted with the Arthur of Camelot. As a husband, he failed his wife. Before the affair even began, Arthur allowed his wife to flout his authority when he believed she was acting foolishly. He saw the attraction between Guinevere and Lancelot begin, but did nothing to separate them or address inappropriate behavior. If he had believed that adultery was mortal sin, surely he had a responsibility to prevent his wife and the knight he admired from imperiling their souls. Instead, he essentially sheltered them from any consequences. Then, when their affair was exposed, he again relinquished his responsibility to act. Being king, Arthur had the authority to pardon his wife or commute the sentence of death to something like enforced convent entry, since he did not have the will to see her die. But he couldn't seem to figure out how to use that authority. Rather he failed not only his wife, but his people in encouraging the attacker and failing to support his knights.
To me this whole mess seems to spring from the Camelot Arthur's skewed sense of justice and mercy. To him, the merciful and "civilized" thing to do is not to punish (separate) Guinevere and Lancelot for something they couldn't help (falling in love). To him, justice is played out when he allows the sentence of the courts to stand, but encourages a foreigner to violate his boundaries and by much slaughter prevent that sentence from occurring. Merlin's education obviously did not include a course in logic.
But back to Musgrave.
When I saw "Camelot" I realized that Lord Bernard is what Arthur should have been. The "Ballad of Little Musgrave" is how "Camelot" should have ended.
( Click on the links above to hear the song or see the Child Ballad variations)
Not a verse into the ballad,we know there's gonna be trouble when "Musgrave to the church did go to see fine ladies there." Our suspicions are confirmed when Lord Bernard's wife invites Musgrave to a special bower of her own in Bucklesfordberry, unbeknownst to Lord Bernard.
So far, these two would be lovers have all the favorable circumstances, but Lady Bernard's footpage happens to overhear. In some versions of the ballad, he is offered gold to keep the secret, in some not, but in any case, the foot page considers his allegiance to Lord Bernard primary, and spurns reward and danger to carry the news to his master.
Lord Bernard is shocked and promises the footpage great rewards (versions vary as to what the reward is) if his tale is true, but certain hanging if he has lied and maligned his wife. Lord Bernard rides for Bucklesfordberry, forbidding his men to wind horns, for fear Musgrave will take flight.
But just as the adulterous couple were betrayed by the footpage's higher (and proper) allegiance to Lord Bernard, Lord Bernard is betrayed by the friendship (and improper allegiance)] of one of his men with Little Musgrave. This man "blew his horn both loud and shrill: 'away, Musgrave, away'."
Unfortunately for the pair, Lady Bernard convinces her lover that the horn is a shepherd lad and Musgrave wakes up to find my lord at the foot of the bed.
Lord Bernard confronts Musgrave with the evidence of his current position and orders him to "rise up," dress, and fight him, offering Musgrave his best sword. Musgrave wounds Lord Bernard, but is promptly killed. Lord Bernard then confronts his lady who bitterly denies any obligation to her husband and essentially defies him. Hearing this, Lord Bernard deals death to her also.
At the heart of this ballad is the question of fidelity and of honor. In these matters, Lord Bernard is set against Lady Bernard, but so also is the little footpage set against Lord Bernard's unnamed knight. The foot page recognizes his duty to my lady, but acknowledges that first and foremost his duty is to my lord. The unnamed knight ignores his duty to Bernard for the sake of his friendship with the guilty Musgrave.
Lady Bernard cares naught for her obligations as a wife, nor for the honor of her husband, nor for the honor of her lover. She makes this very clear. Lord Bernard is conscious of his responsibility to his wife, and of his responsibility as the local justice. He threatens to punish the page severely if he has falsely accused Lady Bernard, thereby indicating that her honor is dear to him. When he finds Lady Bernard's adultery, he gives her a chance at repentance. When she shows no remorse, he deals the judgment he is authorized to give. Even in her death he acknowledges her station by having her placed uppermost in the grave and mourning her death. He does similarly with Little Musgrave, refraining from striking him down where he lay, bidding him to dress and determine the matter with a sword.
Lord Bernard has a few things to teach King Arthur about duty and fidelity. He knows that the honor of a knight is tied up in carrying justice forward, and not in allowing unfaithfulness to run unchecked. He does this in such a way as allows the lovers each a chance in turn. Unlike Arthur, Bernard does not sacrifice the difficult course of action for the sake of love of his lady and finest knight. In the end, Lord Bernard acknowledges the lovers as the best night and fairest lady in the realm, but that does not stop him from dealing justice.