Heritage: The story of the blind beggar ballad

The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel

The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel is named after the legend of Henry de Montfort - Credit: Google

In the fourth part of his series about stories from Romford Road, historian Andy Grant explores a historic ballad about the blind beggar of Bethnal Green.

There is an interesting old ballad, thought be based on fact, that dates from around the reign of Elizabeth I.

It tells a tale of the Romford Road and the town is featured heavily within its verses.

The story became popular during the Tudor era and the earliest version of the ballad is thought to date from 1672, when it appeared as a broadside, but it was subsequently revived within Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a collection of old English ballads and popular songs published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765.

The ballad is most likely an allegorical tale and there are numerous different versions that exit, some having been adapted for different locations.

It is historical fact that Simon de Montfort, sixth Earl of Leicester and his son, Henry, both fell at the Battle of Evesham on August 4 1265.

Accounts of the battle intimate that Henry was the first nobleman to die in the battle, “split by a sword” in view of his father.

Simon lost his horse but continued fighting until he was killed by a lance through his neck.

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His body was subsequently mutilated and his severed head paraded around on a pole.

However, the ballad relates that Henry de Montfort was not slain on the battlefield, but “was felled by a blow he received in the fight, a blow that forever deprived him of sight”.

As he lay amongst the slain corpses on the field of battle, a baron’s daughter came across him and removed him to a place of safety.

After she had nursed him back to health, they were married and he would sit at the crossroads begging from passers-by.

Although a wealthy baron, he concealed himself as "the silly blind beggar of Bethnal Green".

The couple subsequently had a daughter, who they named Bessee.

When she had grown up, she was said to be of stunning beauty and was persistently pestered by low-born suitors.

In the course of time she asked her father’s permission to seek her fortune and with his consent she set out that night for Stratford.

Travelling on to Romford the next day, Bessee sought employment at the King’s Arms in the Market Place.

Whilst working there, it was not long before her comely looks and beguiling charm attracted a number of suitors.

These included the innkeeper’s son, a wealthy merchant
from London, a squire and a 'knightly youth'.

With all four competing for her affections and offering great riches, she tells them all that they must seek her father's approval first, to which they readily accede.

However, upon being told that she was the daughter of a blind beggar from Bethnal Green and unlikely to receive a substantial dowry, all but the ‘knightly youth’ lost their interest in her.

The remaining suitor travels to Bethnal Green to meet her father, who tells him that he will match the knight’s offer of gold.

The knight is surprised that his own offer of £1500 is more
than matched by a sum of double that amount from the blind beggar.

A wedding was subsequently arranged and during the celebrations, the blind beggar arrives finely dressed and serenades the crowd with a song about his life, accompanied by a lute.

From this the groom and guests learn that his beautiful bride was the heiress to the house of de Montfort.

The Blind Beggar public house was built in 1894 on the site of an older inn, which had been established before 1654 and named after the legend of Henry de Montfort.

The blind beggar was also depicted on the head of the beadle's staff from 1690 onwards.

The pub achieved notoriety for its connection to the Kray twins.

On March 9 1966, Ronnie Kray shot and murdered George Cornell, an associate of the rival Richardson gang, as he was
sitting at the bar.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group.