The story behind the song – We Be Soldiers Three

A few hundred years ago, Holland (and Belgium for that matter), were not united, but ruled by Spain. As the low countries moved to Protestantism (Spain was deeply catholic, and home of – Monty Python fans would know this – the Spanish Inquisition), they began to assert their independence. Called by historians the Dutch Revolt, although the area was known in England as the United Provinces as it, well, united.

Siege_of_Ostend_Pieter_Snayers_Public_Domain_painting_Sitio_de_OstendeAnyhoo, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, some young men from the British Isles (Guy Fawkes was one of them) went to fight against the Spanish (apologies to my Spanish friends, but hey, I didn’t go). I have taken part in historical re-enactment displays of the events though, at Ostend, Geertruidenberg and Gaasbeek Castle, but that’s for another story.

Incidentally, Elizabeth I of England was offered the sovereignty of the Netherlands, but turned it down (they offered it to the King of France as well, with the same result).

Back to the song (remember that?) It is sung as from three ‘soldiers’ home from the wars in the low countries. The first version of the words was printed in 1609 in Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia and here they are;

We be soldiers three,
Pardonnez moi, je vous en prie.
Lately come forth of the Low Country,
With never a penny of money.

Here, good fellow, I drink to thee.
Pardonnez moi, je vous en prie.
To all good fellows wherever they be.
With never a penny of money.

And he that will not pledge me this.
Pardonnez moi, je vous en prie.
Pays for the shot whatever it is.
With never a penny of money.

Charge it again, boys, charge it again.
Pardonnez moi, je vous en prie.
As long as there is any ink in thy pen.
With never a penny of money.

First, some notes on the words themselves.

The second line, repeated each verse, is French (I guess you knew that) for ‘excuse me if you please’, or more literally ‘pardon me I pray you’. The inference might be that the three soldiers were fighting in Belgium, but French was an international (and incidentally courtly) language and anyway, you just needed a bit of foreign to impress people back home. It didn’t need to be Flemish.

In the third verse, we have ‘pays for the shot’. This could be a double entendre. Literally, troops might have to pay for their ammunition. It could also be a subtle threat; ‘if you don’t agree with me, and sing along, and buy us beer, you’ll get what’s coming to you’.

The fourth verse has ‘charge it again’. You could charge a tankard (refill it with drink). You also charge a musket (the order for loading it).

Ink in thy pen could be literal; the ink to write down more debt because we can’t afford to pay, the ink to sign on to a company of soldiers. And it is also a metaphor for ‘if you are brave enough’.

I have some thoughts on the sentiments of the song as a whole as well. The easy interpretation is that it is three young lads, boasting of their bold deeds fighting abroad and asking for people to buy them drink, as they have no money but are heroes with stories of great deeds to tell.

Put another slant on it, and the underlying theme is quite sad; these young men have risked their lives fighting (or at least say they have), but have nothing but stories to show for it, nothing to come home to, and ultimately all they can do is scrounge some drinks before going back to all they know – fighting, drinking and causing trouble as soldiers away in some foreign land.

You decide.

You can find a version of the song here. It was recorded in 2013, over 400 years after it was first published, and features three pairs of trudging feet as the percussion / backdrop to the song. Weary feet.

We ‘trudged’ in boots around Robbie Duncan’s studio (also his house) to find just the right bit of floor, with just the right sound. I found it by the dish washer in the kitchen, so three of us (including Robbie) trudged in boots with microphones around us.

The ‘three’ in this version are two voices, with a ‘symphony’ style hurdy gurdy as the third voice.

Other references:
Ravenscroft music site
Ravenscroft profile
Lyrics from my favourite folk music resource: Mudcat Cafe; http://mudcat.org/Detail.CFM?messages__Message_ID=1468267

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About Nigel Parry Music

Described by a radio presenter as; 'one of the finest traditional folk artists in NZ', Nigel Parry's unique mix of singer / songwriter, traditional and early folk music relies heavily on his vocal arrangements. Hailing from the UK, he was originally a rock singer and turned to folk music through friends, historical events and real ale. Nigel now lives near Wellington and in the last 4 years has performed at folk events and music venues around New Zealand, festivals and live on radio and in the UK, France and Canada.
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