A Book of Old English Ballads
Illustrations by George Wharton Edwards
This collection of ballads contains some of the best known English folk lyrics. It is nowhere near as comprehensive as other books, such as the massive Child ballad collection. However, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the selection is excellent. It should be noted that 'Old English' in this case doesn't mean 'Anglo-Saxon'; strictly speaking these are written in late Middle or early Modern English. This makes them accessible, even enjoyable, for a modern audience.
Many of these are from the Scottish border, and deal with clashes between the English and Scots in historical times. Others are set in an idealized 'Old England', including three ballads of Robin Hood. The ballads surprisingly feature well-constructed female characters, who are participants in the action, not just part of the backdrop. These lyrics give some insights, often grim in nature, into the culture and mindset of the middle ages, particularly one (Hugh of Lincoln) with a regrettable anti-Semitic theme.
Some of these ballads go on for dozens of verses, and form complete short stories. If your only experience of these ballads is through modern folk-song renditions, you owe it to yourself to sit down and get the whole story.