The Phony King of England

Disney’s Robin Hood features a song about the “Phony King of England.” That song is based on an old (and very bawdy) English folk ballad about “The Bastard King of England.”

King John, formerly Prince John
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Robin Hood is not one of Disney’s best known classics. Between the reused animation, 1970s slang (“That’s a gas, we ain’t even been arrested yet!”), and editorial trimming (where are the rest of the Merry Men?), it is more of a cult hit today. I love it – grew up watching it, warts and all, and find it consistently charming.

In the middle of Robin Hood, at a party celebrating Robin and Marian’s escape, Little John launches into a song. This song, “The Phony King of England,” mocks Prince John in several poetic and apt ways:

Too late to be known as John the First
He’s sure to be known as John the Worst
A pox on that phony king of England!

The Phony King of England

I grew up with this iconic song. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that it is actually a cover – or a rewrite – of an English folk ballad. And that folk ballad, from the early 20th century, is not family-friendly.

“The Bastard King of England” begins as follows:

Oh, the minstrels sing of an English king of many long years ago
Who ruled his land with an iron hand though his mind was weak and low.
He love to shag the royal stag that roamed the royal wood,
But better yet to lie in bed and pull the royal pud.
His only outer garment was a dirty undershirt
That managed to hide the royal pride but couldn’t hide the dirt.

The Bastard King of England

It does not get better, or cleaner, from there. (It also includes some early 20th century homophobia, so caveat emptor.) You can hear a 1956 recording – with slightly cleaned up lyrics – here:

No-one knows who wrote this ballad. Some rumours attach it to Rudyard Kipling, but that seems highly unlikely to me. But then again, Disney repurposing a ballad about bestiality, venereal disease, and international interregnal affairs seems highly unlikely too.

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