The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green was in fact Henry de Montford, the son of Simon de Montford. He inherited the mansion known as Montford House, a large red brick building in the street now known as Victoria Park Square. He was wounded, and also lost his sight at the battle of Evesham in the year 1265
After his recovery, aided by a baroness, he was for some reason left dressed in beggars clothes. During his recovery period he also managed to get the baroness pregnant. The resulting baby girl was named Besse.
Besse had many male admirers when she reached adulthood, including a knight. Of these possible suitors, the knight was the only one who would lower himself to approach a poor old beggar for permission to marry his daughter. Henry the supposedly 'poor old beggar' gave his permission, as well as a hundred pounds to be spent on a wedding dress.
The blind beggar appears on the Bethnal Green crest. The pub, The Blind Beggar, where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell dead, was named after him. There is also the famous Ballad of Bethnal Green (below), which was written in Tudor times. A bronze sculpture of the Blind Beggar by the late Dame Elizabeth Frink can be seen on the Cranbrook Estate on Roman Road.
This song's of a beggar who long lost his sight,
And had a fair daughter, most pleasant and bright,
And many a gallant brave suitor had she,
And none was so comely as pretty Bessee.
And though she was of complexion most fair,
And seeing she was but a beggar his heir,
Of ancient housekeepers despised was she,
Whose sons came as suitors to pretty Bessee.
Wherefore in great sorrow fair Bessee did say:
Good father and mother, let me now go away,
To seek out my fortune, whatever it be.
This suit then was granted to pretty Bessee.
This Bessee, that was of a beauty most bright,
They clad in grey russet; and late in the night
From father and mother alone parted she,
Who sighed and sobbed for pretty Bessee.
She went till she came to Stratford-
Then she know not whither or which way to go,
With tears she lamented her sad destiny;
So sad and so heavy was pretty Bessee.
She kept on her journey until it was day,
And went unto Rumford, along the highway;
And at the King's Arms entertained was she,
So fair and well favoured was pretty Bessee.
She had not been there one month at an end,
But master and mistress and all was her friend:
And every brave gallant that once did her see,
Was straightway in love with pretty Bessee.
Great gifts they did send her of silver and gold,
And in their songs daily her love they extolled:
Her beauty was blazed in every decree,
So fair and so comely was pretty Bessee.
The young men of Rumford in her had their joy,
She showed herself courteous, but never too coy,
And at their commandment still she would be,
So fair and so comely was pretty Bessee.
Four suitors at once unto her did go,
They craved her favour, but still she said no;
I would not have gentlemen marry with me!
Yet ever they honoured pretty Bessee.
Now one of them was a gallant young knight,
And he came unto her disguised in the night;
The second, a gentleman of high degree,
Who wooed and sued for pretty Bessee.
A merchant of London, whose wealth was not small,
Was then the third suitor, and proper withal;
Her master's own son the fourth man must be,
Who swore he would die for pretty Bessee.
'If that thou wilt marry with me,' quoth the knight,
'I'll make thee a lady with joy and delight;
My heart is enthralled in thy fair beauty,
Then grant me thy favour, my pretty Bessee.'
The gentleman said, 'Come marry with me,
In silks and in velvet my Bessee shall be;
My heart lies distracted, oh! hear me,' quoth he,
'And grant me thy love, my dear pretty Bessee.'
‘Let me be thy husband,' the merchant did say,
'Thou shalt live in London most gallant and gay;
My ships shall bring home rich jewels for thee,
And I will for ever love pretty Bessee.'
Then Bessee she sighed and thus she did say:
'My father and mother I mean to obey;
First get their good will, and be faithful to me,
And you shall enjoy your dear pretty Bessee.'
To every one of them that answer she made,
Therefore unto her they joyfully said:
'This thing to fulfil we all now agree,
But where dwells thy father, my pretty Bessee?'
'My father,' quoth she, 'is soon to be seen:
The silly blind beggar of Bednall Green,
That daily sits begging for charity,
He is the kind father of pretty Bessee.
'His marks and his token are knowen full well,
He always is led by a dog and a bell;
A poor silly old man, God knoweth, is he,
Yet he's the true father of pretty Bessee.'
'Nay, nay,' quoth the merchant, 'thou art not for me.'
'She,' quoth the innholder, 'my wife shall not be.'
'I loathe,' said the gentleman, 'a beggar's degree,
Therefore, now farewell, my pretty Bessee.'
'Why then,' quoth the knight, 'hap better or worse,
I weigh not true love by the weight of the purse,
And beauty is beauty in every degree,
Then welcome to me, my dear pretty Bessee.
'With thee to thy father forthwith I will go.'
'Nay, forbear,' quoth his kinsman, 'it must not be so:
A poor beggar's daughter a lady shan't be;
Then take thy adieu of thy pretty Bessee.'
As soon then as it was break of the day,
The knight had from Rumford stole Bessee away;
The young men of Rumford, so sick as may be,
Rode after to fetch again pretty Bessee.
As swift as the wind to ride they were seen,
Until they came near unto Bednall Green,
And as the knight lighted most courteously,
They fought against him for pretty Bessee.
But rescue came presently over the plain,
Or else the knight there for his love had been slain;
The fray being ended, they straightway did see
His kinsman come railing at pretty Bessee.
Then bespoke the blind beggar, 'Although I be poor,
Rail not against my child at my own door,
Though she be not decked in velvet and pearl,
Yet I will drop angels with thee for my girl;
'And then if my gold should better her birth,
And equal the gold you lay on the earth,
Then neither rail you, nor grudge you to see
The blind beggar's daughter a lady to be.
'But first, I will hear, and have it well known,
The gold that you drop it shall be all your own.'
With that they replied, 'Contented we be!'
'Then here's,' quoth the beggar, 'for pretty Bessee!'
With that an angel he dropped on the ground,
And dropped, in angels, full three thousand pound;
And oftentimes it proved most plain,
For the gentleman's one, the beggar dropped twain;
So that the whole place wherein they did sit,
With gold was covered every whit.
The gentleman having dropped all his store,
Said, 'Beggar! your hand hold, for I have no more.'
'Thou hast fulfilled thy promise aright,
Then marry my girl,' quoth he to the knight;
'And then,' quoth he, 'I will throw you down,
An hundred pound more to buy her a gown.'
The gentlemen all, who his treasure had seen,
Admired the beggar of Bednall Green;
And those that had been her suitors before,
Their tender flesh for anger they tore.
Thus was the fair Bessee matched to a knight,
And made a lady in other's despite.
A fairer lady there never was seen
Than the blind beggar's daughter of Bednall Green.
But of her sumptuous marriage and feast,
And what fine lords and ladies there prest,
The second part shall set forth to your sight,
With marvellous pleasure and wished-
Of a blind beggar's daughter so bright,
That late was betrothed to a young knight,
All the whole discourse therefore you may see;
But now comes the wedding of pretty Bessee.
It was in a gallant palace most brave,
Adorned with all the cost they could have,
This wedding it was kept most sumptuously,
And all for the love of pretty Bessee.
And all kind of dainties and delicates sweet,
Was brought to their banquet, as it was thought meet,
Partridge, and plover, and venison most free,
Against the brave wedding of pretty Bessee.
The wedding through England was spread by report,
So that a great number thereto did resort
Of nobles and gentles of every degree,
And all for the fame of pretty Bessee.
To church then away went this gallant young knight,
His bride followed after, an angel most bright,
With troops of ladies, the like was ne'er seen,
As went with sweet Bessee of Bednall Green.
This wedding being solemnized then,
With music performed by skilfullest men,
The nobles and gentlemen down at the side,
Each one beholding the beautiful bride.
But after the sumptuous dinner was done,
To talk and to reason a number begun,
And of the blind beggar's daughter most bright;
And what with his daughter he gave to the knight.
Then spoke the nobles, 'Much marvel have we
This jolly blind beggar we cannot yet see!'
'My lords,' quoth the bride, 'my father so base
Is loth with his presence these states to disgrace.'
'The praise of a woman in question to bring,
Before her own face is a flattering thing;
But we think thy father's baseness,' quoth they,
'Might by thy beauty be clean put away.'
They no sooner this pleasant word spoke,
But in comes the beggar in a silken cloak,
A velvet cap and a feather had he,
And now a musician, forsooth, he would be.
And being led in from catching of harm,
He had a dainty lute under his arm,
Said, 'Please you to hear any music of me,
A song I will sing you of pretty Bessee.'
With that his lute he twanged straightway,
And thereon began most sweetly to play,
And after a lesson was played two or three,
He strained out this song most delicately:-
'A beggar's daughter did dwell on a green,
Who for her beauty may well be a queen,
A blithe bonny lass, and dainty was she,
And many one called her pretty Bessee.
'Her father he had no goods nor no lands,
But begged for a penny all day with his hands,
And yet for her marriage gave thousands three,
Yet still he hath somewhat for pretty Bessee.
'And here if any one do her disdain,
Her father is ready with might and with main
To prove she is come of noble degree,
Therefore let none flout at my pretty Bessee.'
With that the lords and the company round
With a hearty laughter were ready to swound;
At last said the lords, 'Full well we may see,
The bride and the bridegroom's beholden to thee.'
With that the fair bride all blushing did rise,
With crystal water all in her bright eyes,
'Pardon my father, brave nobles,' quoth she,
'That through blind affection thus doats upon me.'
'If this be thy father,' the nobles did say,
'Well may he be proud of this happy day,
Yet by his countenance well may we see,
His birth with his fortune could never agree;
And therefore, blind beggar, we pray thee bewray,
And look to us then the truth thou dost say,
Thy birth and thy parentage what it may be,
E'en for the love thou bearest pretty Bessee.'
'Then give me leave, ye gentles each one,
A song more to sing and then I'll begone,
And if that I do not win good report,
Then do not give me one groat for my sport:-
'When first our king his fame did advance,
And sought his title in delicate France,
In many places great perils passed he;
But then was not born my pretty Bessee.
'And at those wars went over to fight,
Many a brave duke, a lord, and a knight,
And with them young Monford of courage so free;
But then was not born my pretty Bessee.
'And there did young Monford with a blow on the face
Lose both his eyes in a very short space;
His life had been gone away with his sight,
Had not a young woman gone forth in the night.
'Among the said men, her fancy did move,
To search and to seek for her own true love,
Who seeing young Monford there gasping to die,
She saved his life through her charity.
'And then all our victuals in beggar's attire,
At the hands of good people we then did require;
At last into England, as now it is seen,
We came, and remained in Bednall Green.
'And thus we have lived in Fortune's despite,
Though poor, yet contented with humble delight,
And in my old years, a comfort to me,
God sent me a daughter called pretty Bessee.
And thus, ye nobles, my song I do end,
Hoping by the same no man to offend;
Full forty long winters thus I have been,
A silly blind beggar of Bednall Green.'
Now when the company every one,
Did hear the strange tale he told in his song,
They were amazed, as well they might be,
Both at the blind beggar and pretty Bessee.
With that the fair bride they all did embrace,
Saying, 'You are come of an honourable race,
Thy father likewise is of high degree,
And thou art right worthy a lady to be.'
Thus was the feast ended with joy and delight,
A happy bridegroom was made the young knight,
Who lived in great joy and felicity,
With his fair lady dear pretty Bessee.
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