Most scholarship has been concerned with the original authorship of ‘Spens’ and whether it has basis in historic events. The most recent and thorough work on this subject has been by William Bowman Piper who shows that Percy crafted the Scottish ballad by editing words and verses and adding his own elements. Piper (‘The Composition of “Sir Patrick Spence”‘, 2002) supports and advances T.F. Henderson’s theory that the ballad was most likely based on the voyage in 1589.
From Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Ed. T.F. Henderson):
Sir Patrick Spence, or Spens, of the ballad may have been Sir Patrick Vans of Barnbarroch, the original ambassador sent to negotiate the marriage between James VI. and Anne of Denmark, and that the ballad may have voiced the rumour of disaster to the expedition of James VI. when in company with Sir Patrick Vans he set out during tempestuous weather in October 1589 to bring home his bride, who had been driven back by stormy weather to the coast of Norway. But whatever the origin of the ballad, the theory of its unique antiquity rests on a mere inference of Scott, which there are no sufficient facts to warrant. More than this, the ballad could not have been preserved from so remote a period, in any near resemblance to its present literary form; and the absence of any references to it in the older writers is almost proof positive that it had no existence until towards the close of the sixteenth century.
adapted from Child
Margaret, daughter of Alexander III, was married to Eric, King of Norway. She was conducted to her husband, ‘brought home’, in August of that year, by many knights and nobles. Many of these were drowned on the return voyage.
Margaret, Eric’s queen, dies leaving a newly born daughter.
Alexander III is killed by being thrown from his horse and the crown goes to the granddaughter. A match was proposed between the infant Margaret, called the Maid of Norway, and the eldest son of Edward I of England.
A deputation is sent to bring the Princess Margaret over, but she dies on the way before reaching Scotland.
Expedition of King James VI. In company with Sir Patrick Vans, he set out during tempestuous weather in October 1589 to bring home his bride, who had been driven back, by stormy weather to the coast of Norway.