Play It Again, Dom – Frank McNally on the strange echoes of a Planxty classic in Britain’s latest scandal

Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to British prime minister Boris Johnson, has told the media that he feels he acted "reasonably and legally" after driving from London to Durham despite the UK's Covid-19 restrictions.

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I cannot be the only one – surely? – who, mid-way through Dominic Cummings’s live press conference on Monday, started humming an old Planxty ballad about sex and death in Elizabethan England? Yes, I mean the one that begins: “It fell upon a holy day/As many’s in the year/Musgrave to the church did go/To see fine ladies there.”

All right, there have been no adulterous sub-plots, so far, in the Cummings lockdown scandal. But it does share a striking parallel with that song’s denouement, which as Planxty fan will recall, happens in Lord Barnard’s Castle, after which the Durham town is named.

By way of added coincidence, even if there were no churches involved this time either, Cummings’s bizarre side trip also fell upon a holy day, Sunday, April 12th.

In its own way, essentially, the ballad of Little Musgrave is about a man who breaks the social distancing rules.

Across the pews, and a feudal class system, he catches the flirty eye of Lady Barnard.   Then one thing leads to another. Before we know it, the two church-goers are exchanging the sign of peace, and other things, in the lady’s “bower”.

Alas this is witnessed by a foot-page who, with mixed feelings, alerts Lord Barnard.

Conflicting loyalties are a recurring theme in the song, because as the lord rides home with vengeance in mind, another retainer defies orders to return in silence: “He blew his horn both loud and shrill/Away Musgrave, away!”

The lovers are nonetheless surprised. Caught in flagrante, Musgrave is ordered to put his clothes on first (“It’ll not be said in this country/I slayed a naked man”).

Then Lord Barnard kills both parties, before ordering them buried together, with the lady in a higher position because “she came from better kin”.

It is a very long way from all that to the unromantic plot of this week’s events, I realise.  There were no pages involved in the latest Barnard Castle saga, for example – well, except the front one of the Daily Mirror, which raised the alarm.

And nobody would compare Dominic Cummings to the song’s doomed hero, even if he did have to put on a shirt for his execution scene. 

Also, I’m not for a moment suggesting it was the ghost of one of Lord Barnard’s men who was blowing a vuvuzela somewhere in the distance on Monday, although that was a spooky detail.

Still, the whole thing was enough to send me looking up the history of the ancient ballad again, and to be reminded that in many older versions, it had a different title, “Mattie Groves”. I was reminded too that the identity of Planxty’s protagonist may arise from a geographical misunderstanding – Little Musgrave being also the name of a village in that part of England.

There’s a Great Musgrave as well. Both are an eyesight-testing drive (about 20 miles) from Barnard Castle. So if Little Musgrave was the place of origin rather than name of the doomed lover, its prominence in the lyric may emphasise the point that, in exploring Lady Barnard’s scenery, he had made an inappropriate journey.

Another curiosity of the song is the fatal fight. Honour demands that Lord Barnard give his rival a sword and let him strike first. But unless the lyrics have edited the action severely, there are only two strikes, the lord’s turn proving fatal.

Music historians suggest that what happened here is a version of the medieval “beheading game”, as featured in the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In that, Gawain is challenged by a mysterious knight to strike him with a sword on condition that if the knight survives, he can strike back, within “a year and a day”.

So Gawain chops his head off, whereupon the green knight picks the head up and leaves. 

You might think this sounds peculiarly English (it certainly inspired Monty Python). But au contraire. There is a much older version in Irish mythology, involving Cúchulainn and a “giant churl”. There too, the hero must submit to having his head chopped off in turn eventually – he thinks – as a test of courage.

I don’t know if there is a moral in any of this for current British politics.

The Arthurian qualities of Boris Johnson appear to have ended when he won the crown by pulling a magical sword from the back of his friend Michael Gove, where he had planted it early. And the latest legend of Barnard Castle seems to have ended happily for the protagonist. 

But bearing Sir Gawain in mind, maybe Dominic Cummings should wait at least a year and a day before relaxing. 

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