The first published version of the tune was in 1802 in "The Bardic Museum". The book was written by Edward Jones. Jones (March 1752 – April 18, 1824) was a Welsh harpist, bard, performer, composer, arranger, and collector of music. He was commonly known by the bardic name of "Bardd y Brenin", which he took in 1820, when King George IV, his patron, came to the throne. He first came to London in 1775, and was patronized by prominent Welshmen and by Charles Burney. He became harp tutor to several wealthy families, and in about 1790 was made official harpist to the Prince of Wales. In 1805 he moved into St James's Palace.
It tells of a sailor's love for "Gwen of Llwyn". The tune might be much older, as a similar tune appears in "The Beggar's Opera" by John Gay (1728), in the song "Cease Your Funning". In 1922 , however Kidson claimed that John Gay's tune derives from the morris dance tune "Constant Billy", which is first known in Playford's "Dancing Master".
The tune of "The Ash Grove" is used for the hymn "Let All Things Now Living" in 1939 by composer Katherine K. Davis. Around 1962 another song called "The Irish Free State" was written to this tune. "The Ash Grove" featured in the 1980 BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice.