Children in the Woods

Anonymous, 1595

Who were the characters in the story? What were their motives? What kind of person was each of them?

What does this song suggest about family life in the 1600s—life expectancy, marriage, children, inheritance (primogeniture, dowries, etc.)?

Why did the mother and father probably die at the same time? Epidemic.

Why did the son inherit more than the daughter? What is "primogeniture"? Eldest sons inherited everything. Where was it practiced?

What was the daughter to inherit? What happened to a woman’s property when she married? What was the father doing with that “which should not be controlled”? Making sure she controlled some money after she married. Did fathers typically do this?

By today’s standards, how fair was the property settlement? By standards of the 1600s, how fair was it?

Do similar abuses happen today? What has changed? What has not? What similar crimes happen today? What systems have we put in place to protect children? Would they have made a difference in this case? Why?

How typical was this family’s financial situation? How might this story have unfolded in a more typical family? Rewrite the song lyrics to tell that story.

“Children in the Woods” performed by Paula Purnell. All rights reserved. © 2004.

Accompanied by a simple guitar, this recording contains only 14 of the original 39 verses. Ballads like this were often sung as entertainment, an early version of radio or television, providing diversion during the evening.

View the music and lyrics for “Children in the Woods.”

View an early broadside for Children in the Woods.

The short introduction to this song on a seventeenth-century broadside reads,

  "Being a true relation of the inhuman Murder of two Children of a deceased Gentleman in Norfolk, whom he left to the Care of his Brother: but this wicked Uncle, in order to get the Children's Estate, contrived to have them destroyed by two Ruffians whom he hired for that Purpose; with an Account of the heavy Judgments of God which befell him for this inhuman Deed, and of the untimely End of the two bloody Ruffians."
Babes in the Wood title page

Two babes in the wood, or, The Norfolk gentleman's last will and testament, National Library of Scotland.

This ballad was first registered under the title “The Norfolk Gent, his Will and Testament” on October 15, 1595, by Thomas Millington and may have been based on an old play. Later titled “Children in the Woods,” copies of this ballad appear in major song collections of the early seventeenth century. It was so popular that at least ten editions of the song were published in New England.

This song gives us a glimpse of how children were regarded in the 1600s. In a time when death at a young age was common, children were often left orphaned and their value became monetary. The tune to which it is set takes its title from the first line, “Now ponder well,” which is similar to the tune “Chevy Chase.” A version of this song currently survives in oral tradition, particularly in Southern Appalachia, in a much shorter version titled “Babes in the Wood.”

Write a single event in each block in the order it occurs. Add as many blocks as needed to include the whole story.



Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at