Spooky investigates the weirdness of “Boys of Bedlam”: Part I

In Chapter Fifteen of The Spooky Perambulator, oblique references are made to several  folk songs: one of these is ‘Boys Of Bedlam’. In what follows, Spooky explores this particular song, creating as usual a weird web of connections and strange synchronicities. 

Listen to “Boys of Bedlam” here

The canon of folk music originating from these islands is littered with strange artefacts. Sometimes the strangeness is conferred by the music, sometimes by the lyric – occasionally both align to create something strange beyond the sum of its strange parts. Such a strange and auspicious alignment occurs on ‘Boys of Bedlam’, a track on the second Steeleye Span album Please to See the King, released on 1/3/1971.

On first hearing it in my teenage years, the eldritch nature of the track appealed greatly to me. On repeated playing certain phrases stood out: “Satan’s kitchen”/ “staff has murdered giants”/ “howl no demon louder”/ and the absolute clincher in the strangeness stakes – “to cut mince pies from children’s thighs, with which to feed the faeries”. I tried unsuccessfully to unravel the narrative, to figure out not only who was telling the story, but also what was the story  and what were these “bonnie Boys of Bedlam” and exactly why did they “all go bare and they live by the air, and want no drink or money”? 

Some artefacts bear an initial surface strangeness which does not stand up to a deeper examination. This was not the case with Boys of Bedlam. In fact, the closer I studied it, the deeper I rummaged through its history and the myriad connections which branch out from it like hissing serpents on the Medusa’s head, the stranger it all became.

So, let us insert our spooky loupe and direct our attention towards the many facets of this jewel in the crown of Steeleye Span’s King.

The Bedlam of the title refers, of course, to the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, also known as St Mary Bethlehem or Bedlam. Originating on a site in the parish of St Boltoph in Bishopgate London in 1247, the hospital moved several times: to Moorfields in 1676, St George’s Fields in Southwark in 1815, and finally to its current location in Monks Orchard in 1930. The locals shortened the name to Bethlem, which they pronounced Bedlam. As the understanding of mental illness developed, so treatments gradually and relatively became more humane and the conditions at the hospital improved. However, for many years, centuries in fact, it exhibited the worst extremes and excesses of the asylum system – some idea of how bad conditions were is revealed by the adoption of the word ‘bedlam’ to mean a scene of uproar and confusion. This is the backdrop against which our scene is played out.

It is commonly assumed that the original title of Boys of Bedlam was  ‘Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom of Bedlam’. However, a quick examination of the earliest record of the lyric and accompanying music as it occurs in Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in 1720, reveals that the title preceding the lyric was ‘Mad MAUDLIN, to find out Tom of BEDLAM’. To add further confusion the listing on the contents page makes no not mention of Mad Maudlin; it reads ‘To find my Tom of Bedlam’. I will return to this pleasing web of possible deceit presently.


It does seem rather strange that d’Urfey included a song about madness as one of his ‘pills’ for the melancholic. However, the rightful equivalence of mental and physical illness established in the later years of the twentieth century, and its wide acceptance today, has been rather late in the coming. In the early seventeenth century the term ‘melancholia’ referred to a raft of mental and physical disorders; this was fully explored by Robert Burton in his incredible book The Anatomy of Melancholy. By turns serious and satirical in tone, Burton’s book uses the many aspects of melancholia, as it was understood at that time, as a launchpad into deep inner space via a stream of consciousness narrative that pulls together many seemingly disparate things including (as designated on the Contents page): 

  • Of the Soul and her Faculties
  • Of Witches and Magicians, how they cause Melancholy
  • Stars a cause. Signs from Physiognomy, Metoposcopy, Chiromancy
  • Bad Air, a Cause of Melancholy
  • Scoffs, Calumnies, bitter Jests, how they cause Melancholy
  • Music a remedy
  • Waking and terrible Dreams rectified

[The Anatomy is well worth a peruse as it is both, as indicated above, darkly entertaining and enlightening.]

As implied by the title, by the time d’Urfey collected together the several volumes of his Pills to Purge Melancholy, the spread of mental disorders contained within the term melancholia had been significantly reduced and was moving more towards where our interpretation of the term would lie, that is “the most fearful despondency, a profound dejection or even despair”. This sense of dejection or despair connects directly to the adjectival form of ‘maudlin’ which today tends to mean “ a tearful and effusive stage of drunkenness”. But in the sixteenth century it referred to an individual who was “tearful, weeping”; this in turn is linked to the Middle English female proper name Maudelen (early 14c.), which in turn links to the Old French name Magdalene.  This brings us to the most famous Magdalene, Mary, who, in the Gospels, was prominent amongst the followers of Jesus. 


It was as late as the Middle Ages that Mary Magdalene was connected to the repentant sinner forgiven by Jesus in Luke vii.37

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat.
 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

The journey of the Magdalene, or more accurately of her reputation, and the reason for it, was explored by James Carroll in Who Was Mary Magdalene?, an extended essay published in The Smithsonian Magazine in June 2006:

From the New Testament, one can conclude that Mary of Magdala (her hometown, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee) was a leading figure among those attracted to Jesus. When the men in that company abandoned him at the hour of mortal danger, Mary of Magdala was one of the women who stayed with him, even to the Crucifixion. She was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to preach the “Good News” of that miracle. These are among the few specific assertions made about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. From other texts of the early Christian era, it seems that her status as an “apostle,” in the years after Jesus’ death, rivaled even that of Peter. This prominence derived from the intimacy of her relationship with Jesus, which, according to some accounts, had a physical aspect that included kissing. Beginning with the threads of these few statements in the earliest Christian records, dating to the first through third centuries, an elaborate tapestry was woven, leading to a portrait of St. Mary Magdalene in which the most consequential note—that she was a repentant prostitute—is almost certainly untrue. On that false note hangs the dual use to which her legend has been put ever since: discrediting sexuality in general and disempowering women in particular.

Painting of Mary Magdalene, meditating on a skull by Jan Boeckhorst. [The Walters Art Museum]

In the earliest paintings of the Magdalene, which are generally based on the above passage from the Gospel of St Luke, she is most often shown weeping in penitence. Presumably this was when the connection was made between weeping and the word maudlin. As a further tangling of the connections, a bit like the Magdalene’s hair, when we return to the original title of “Boys of Bedlam”, that is “Mad MAUDLIN, to find out Tom of BEDLAM”, our attention is drawn, intentionally I suspect, to the capitalized words MAUDLIN and BEDLAM. We know that Bedlam was the asylum of St Mary Bethlehem, but what of Maudlin? At first glance we can identify a Magdalen Hospital in Whitechapel London “for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes”. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically in London, the term ‘Maudlin’ was used to refer to a reformed prostitute. So was our Mad Maudlin who goes ‘to find out Tom of Bedlam’ a reformed, penitent prostitute? Quite possibly. Unfortunately we cannot make a physical link to the Magdalen Hospital as it was founded in late 1758, some thirty eight years after the publication of the lyric by Thomas d’Urfey.

Returning now to the lyric which commences with a seeming straightforward statement of intent and commitment by Mad Maudlin, emphasising to what lengths she is prepared to go to find ‘Mad Tom’. Tom is mentioned directly in the first line, and it should be noted that no possessive pronoun is applied to his name – she would seem to have no personal connection to “mad Tom of Bedlam”. This is backed up by both the title of the song and the following lines of the lyric: all “Bedlam boys are bonnie” in her opinion. The implied relationship between Maudlin and Tom seems to be created by the subsequent change to the title: ‘Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom of Bedlam’; I say ‘seems’ because we cannot be sure that this was not the original title and it was reinterpreted by d’Urfey when he adds the song to his published collection – this possibility is hinted at in the contents listing page where he refers to it as ‘To find my Tom of Bedlam’, with no mention of Mad Maudlin. The water is further muddied by d’Urfey in the title which he uses to head the lyric where he states that it is Maudlin’s intention to “find out” Tom of Bedlam; this perhaps suggests that Maudlin feels that there is something false about Tom, and she wants to ‘find’ him out. Of course, this reading is based on the assumption that the meaning of the term ‘find out’ has remained unchanged in the last three hundred years. To check this I ran the term through an online concordance of Shakespeare which revealed that the term was used a total of nineteen times in all of the plays: in eighteen of those occurrences the meaning was either ‘find’ or ‘discover’. The one instance where the meaning differed just happens to be the one which has the most direct connection to our discussion here, and is to be found in King Lear.


Gloucester, the Fool, Lear, Kent and Poor Tom. King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4 by Benjamin West / British Library, Public Domain

Part of the subplot of this particular play involves Edmund, bastard son of the Duke of Gloucester, and his attempt to sever his father’s affections from Edgar, Gloucester’s other, legitimate, and favourite, son. When Edmund reveals to his father the letter he has faked from Edgar, which seems to reveal a patricidal plot, Gloucester’s immediate reaction is to confront him. However, Edmund, wishing to maintain the deceit which would be undermined if Gloucester and Edgar meet, instructs his father to “suspend your indignation[…] till you can derive from him better testimony of his intent”. He further twists the deceit by suggesting that Edmund’s intent is to “feel my affection to your honour and no other pretence of danger.” Gloucester is conflicted and gradually talks himself into doubting Edgar:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there's son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing; do it carefully.
                                                                                                                            King Lear Act 1 Scene 2

Here Shakespeare uses the term in its most negative connotation: to find out the hidden character and intentions of an individual with focus on the sinful, the immoral and the illegal aspects: Lear was written sometime between 1605 and 1606, so we can say that when d’Ufrey entitles the lyric “Mad MAUDLIN, to find out Tom of BEDLAM”, there is at very least the possibility that he is employing the same negative connotation.

It is here that the connection becomes spookily synchronous. As Edgar approaches, Edmund says:

Pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam. –O, these eclipses do portend these divisions. Fa, sol, la, mi.
                                                                                                                            King Lear Act 1 Scene 2

So, when Edmund introduces the idea of the Tom o’ Bedlam character immediately following the instruction from his father to “find out this villain”, he does so in a line which also refers to melancholy. It is indeed a strange synchronicity, regarding our exploration, when these three elements align. Edgar subsequently adopts the persona of Poor Tom when he is forced to flee from his father’s misdirected wrath:

 My face I’ll grime with filth
 Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots,
 And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
 Of Bedlam beggars, who with roaring voices
 Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms
 Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary...
                                                                          King Lear Act 2 Scene 2

At this point in our investigation let us turn our attention to Tom of Bedlam to see if he can aid us in our search for the meaning contained in “Boys of Bedlam” aka “Mad MAUDLIN, to find out Tom of BEDLAM”, if any meaning there exists. The term Tom o’ Bedlam referred to an individual discharged from St Mary Bethlehem and forced to survive by begging – an early modern version of care in the community! It was said that they wore an armilla, or arm bracelet, made from brass which identified them as under treatment in Bedlam. It seems doubtful that this was ever the case as in 1675 the governors of Bedlam resorted to an announcement in The London Gazette as follows:

"Whereas several vagrant persons do wander about … pretending themselves to be lunatics under cure in the Hospital of Bethlem commonly called Bedlam, with brass plates about their arms and inscriptions thereon: These are to give notice that there is no such liberty given to any patients kept in the said Hospital for their cure, neither is any such plate as a distinction or mark put upon any lunatic during their being there, or when discharged thence. And that the same is a false pretence, to colour their wandering and begging, and to deceive the people."

The groundlings who crowded into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre would have been very familiar with the name and the character as several folk songs apparently referred to him. The earliest extant example, and by good fortune one of superior quality, referred to by Harold Bloom, the esteemed literary critic in his book How to Read and Why, as  “the greatest anonymous lyric in the [English] language,” is “Tom o’ Bedlam”.


At this point, as it is getting late – I can hear the lamplighter on his rounds outside my open six panelled sash – we will suspend our investigation: join me next time for Boys Of Bedlam Part II when we will be interrogating the strange conversation between Mad Maudlin and Tom o’ Bedlam and performing a forensic examination of Steeleye Span’s musical accompaniment to discover what makes it as weird as the lyric.

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