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The events of the ballad are similar to, and may chronicle, an actual event: the bringing home of the Scottish queen Margaret, Maid of Norway across the North Sea in 1290 (though there is speculation that it may relate to a voyage by the princess's mother in 1281). The seven-year-old princess died on the crossing, though not in the manner of Sir Patrick in this song. However, many of the ships sent to fetch her are said to have foundered and perished.
The name "Patrick Spens" has no historical record, and, like many of the heroes of such ballads, is probably an invention, although some historians believe that he was actually Sir Patrick Vans.
Earl's Knowle on Papa Stronsay is traditionally thought to be the final resting place of Sir Patrick Spens. The history relating to the burial of Sir Patrick Spens on Earl’s Knowle on Papa Stronsay is related by William Edmonstoune Aytoun (b. Edinburgh 21 June 1813, d. 4 August 1865). He was made Sheriff and Lord Admiral of Orkney and Shetland in 1852. It was after his retirement from this position that he edited a collection of Scottish poetry in which the first poem is Sir Patrick Spens. In his foreword to the poem Aytoun writes:
The story as told in the ballad has multiple versions, but they all follow the same basic plot. The King of Scotland has called for the greatest sailor in the land to command a ship for a royal errand. The name "Sir Patrick Spens" is mentioned by a courtier, and the king despatches a letter. Sir Patrick, though honoured to receive a royal commission, is dismayed at being put to sea in the dead of winter, clearly realising this voyage could well be his last.
Versions differ somewhat at this point. Some indicate that a storm sank the ship in the initial crossing, thus ending the ballad at this point, while many have Sir Patrick safely reaching Norway. In Norway tension arises between the Norwegian lords and the Scots, who are accused of being a financial burden on the king. Sir Patrick, taking offence, leaves the following day. Nearly all versions, whether they have the wreck on the outward voyage or the return, relate the bad omen of seeing "the new mune late yestreen, with the auld mune in her airms", and modern science agrees the tides would be at maximum force at that time. The winter storms have the best of the great sailor, sending him and the Scottish lords to the bottom of the sea.
This is one of the versions:
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