The Three Heads Of The Well

: Popular Rhymes And Nursery Tales

[This story is abridged from the old chap-book of the Three Kings of

Colchester. The incident of the heads rising out of the well is very

similar to one introduced in Peele's Old Wives Tale, 1595, and the verse

is also of a similar character.]

Long before Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, there reigned in

the eastern part of England a king who kept his court at Colchester. He

was witty, strong, a
d valiant, by which means he subdued his enemies

abroad, and secured peace among his subjects at home. Nevertheless, in

the midst of his glory, his queen died, leaving behind her an only

daughter, about fifteen years of age. This lady, from her courtly

carriage, beauty, and affability, was the wonder of all that knew her;

but, as covetousness is said to be the root of all evil, so it happened

in this instance. The king hearing of a lady who had likewise an only

daughter, for the sake of her riches had a mind to marry; though she was

old, ugly, hook-nosed, and humpbacked, yet all this could not deter him

from marrying her. Her daughter, also, was a yellow dowdy, full of envy

and ill-nature; and, in short, was much of the same mould as her mother.

This signified nothing, for in a few weeks the king, attended by the

nobility and gentry, brought his intended bride to his palace, where the

marriage rites were performed. They had not been long in the court

before they set the king against his own beautiful daughter, which was

done by false reports and accusations. The young princess, having lost

her father's love, grew weary of the court, and one day meeting with

her father in the garden, she desired him, with tears in her eyes, to

give her a small subsistence, and she would go and seek her fortune; to

which the king consented, and ordered her mother-in-law to make up a

small sum according to her discretion. She went to the queen, who gave

her a canvass bag of brown bread and hard cheese, with a bottle of beer;

though this was but a very pitiful dowry for a king's daughter. She took

it, returned thanks, and proceeded on her journey, passing through

groves, woods, and valleys, till at length she saw an old man sitting on

a stone at the mouth of a cave, who said, "Good morrow, fair maiden,

whither away so fast?" "Aged father," says she, "I am going to seek my

fortune." "What has thou in thy bag and bottle?" "In my bag I have got

bread and cheese, and in my bottle good small beer; will you please to

partake of either?" "Yes," said he, "with all my heart." With that the

lady pulled out her provisions, and bid him eat and welcome. He did so,

and gave her many thanks, saying thus: "There is a thick thorny hedge

before you, which will appear impassable, but take this wand in your

hand, strike three times, and say, 'Pray, hedge, let me come through,'

and it will open immediately; then, a little further, you will find a

well; sit down on the brink of it, and there will come up three golden

heads, which will speak: pray do whatever they require." Promising she

would follow his directions, she took her leave of him. Arriving at the

hedge, and pursuing the old man's directions, it divided, and gave her a

passage; then, going to the well, she had no sooner sat down than a

golden head came up singing--

Wash me, and comb me,

And lay me down softly,

And lay me on a bank to dry,

That I may look pretty,

When somebody comes by.

"Yes," said she, and putting forth her hand, with a silver comb

performed the office, placing it upon a primrose bank. Then came up a

second and a third head, making the same request, which she complied

with. She then pulled out her provisions and ate her dinner. Then said

the heads one to another, "What shall we do for this lady who hath used

us so kindly?" The first said, "I will cause such addition to her beauty

as shall charm the most powerful prince in the world." The second said,

"I will endow her with such perfume, both in body and breath, as shall

far exceed the sweetest flowers." The third said, "My gift shall be none

of the least, for, as she is a king's daughter, I'll make her so

fortunate that she shall become queen to the greatest prince that

reigns." This done, at their request she let them down into the well

again, and so proceeded on her journey. She had not travelled long

before she saw a king hunting in the park with his nobles; she would

have avoided him, but the king having caught a sight of her, approached,

and what with her beauty and perfumed breath, was so powerfully smitten,

that he was not able to subdue his passion, but commenced his courtship

immediately, and was so successful that he gained her love, and,

conducting her to his palace, he caused her to be clothed in the most

magnificent manner.

This being ended, and the king finding that she was the king of

Colchester's daughter, ordered some chariots to be got ready, that he

might pay the king a visit. The chariot in which the king and queen rode

was adorned with rich ornamental gems of gold. The king, her father, was

at first astonished that his daughter had been so fortunate as she was,

till the young king made him sensible of all that happened. Great was

the joy at court amongst all, with the exception of the queen and her

club-footed daughter, who were ready to burst with malice, and envied

her happiness; and the greater was their madness because she was now

above them all. Great rejoicings, with feasting and dancing, continued

many days. Then at length, with the dowry her father gave her they

returned home.

The deformed daughter perceiving that her sister had been so happy in

seeking her fortune, would needs do the same; so disclosing her mind to

her mother, all preparations were made, and she was furnished not only

with rich apparel, but sweetmeats, sugar, almonds, &c., in great

quantities, and a large bottle of Malaga sack. Thus provided, she went

the same road as her sister, and coming near the cave, the old man said,

"Young woman, whither so fast?" "What is that to you," said she. "Then,"

said he, "what have you in your bag and bottle?" She answered, "Good

things, which you shall not be troubled with." "Won't you give me some?"

said he. "No, not a bit, nor a drop, unless it would choke you." The old

man frowned, saying, "Evil fortune attend thee." Going on, she came to

the hedge, through which she espied a gap, and thought to pass through

it, but, going in, the hedge closed, and the thorns run into her flesh,

so that it was with great difficulty that she got out. Being now in a

painful condition, she searched for water to wash herself, and, looking

round, she saw the well; she sat down on the brink of it, and one of the

heads came up, saying, "Wash me, comb me, and lay me down softly, &c."

but she banged it with her bottle, saying, "Take this for your washing."

So the second and third heads came up, and met with no better treatment

than the first; whereupon the heads consulted among themselves what

evils to plague her with for such usage. The first said, "Let her be

struck with leprosy in her face." The second, "Let an additional smell

be added to her breath." The third bestowed on her a husband, though but

a poor country cobler. This done, she goes on till she came to a town,

and it being market day, the people looked at her, and seeing such an

evil face fled out of her sight, all but a poor cobler (who not long

before had mended the shoes of an old hermit, who having no money, gave

him a box of ointment for the cure of the leprosy, and a bottle of

spirits for a stinking breath). Now the cobler having a mind to do an

act of charity, was induced to go up to her and ask her who she was. "I

am," said she, "the king of Colchester's daughter-in-law." "Well," said

the cobler, "if I restore you to your natural complexion, and make a

sound cure both in face and breath, will you in reward take me for a

husband?" "Yes, friend," replied she, "with all my heart." With this the

cobler applied the remedies, and they worked the effect in a few weeks,

and then they were married, and after a few days they set forward for

the court at Colchester. When the queen understood she had married a

poor cobler, she fell into distraction, and hanged herself for vexation.

The death of the queen was not a source of sorrow to the king, who had

only married her for her fortune, and bore her no affection; and shortly

afterwards he gave the cobler a hundred pounds to take the daughter to a

remote part of the kingdom, where he lived many years mending shoes,

while his wife assisted the housekeeping by spinning, and selling the

results of her labours at the country market.