Many of the nursery rhymes that we have read to our children have their origins in British history. Rhymes were written for many different reasons. Some rhymes were written to honor a particular local event that has since been forgotten, while others were written to express feelings of love. Rhymes were also used to hide real meanings, such as when someone wanted to express displeasure toward the government or the sovereign without being executed! Another reason for rhymes is that they’re easy to remember, and therefore could be spread by word-of-mouth—an essential feature for a large population of people who could not read or write. Here are some common nursery rhymes that have interesting interpretations regarding figures and events in British history. But be warned, they are not for the faint-hearted!
Old Mother Hubbard - The Old Mother Hubbard rhyme allegedly refers to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his unsuccessful attempt to get an annulment for King Henry VIII. Old Mother Hubbard is Cardinal Wolsey. The cupboard is the Catholic Church. The doggie is Henry VIII. The bone is the annulment Henry wanted in order to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary “Mary” is referring to Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII. The Catholic queen received quite a bad reputation during her short reign for executing Protestant loyalists. The garden in the rhyme is referring to the growth of a graveyard. Silver bells and cockleshells are believed to be euphemisms for instruments of torture. The “maids” is slang for a beheading instrument called “The Maiden” that came into common use before the guillotine.
Three Blind Mice - The first written variation of Three Blind Mice dates from 1609. The three blind mice were three Protestant loyalists who were accused of plotting against Queen Mary I. The farmer’s wife refers to the queen who with her husband, King Philip of Spain, owned large estates. The three men were burned at the stake.
Ring Around A Rosy - Ring Around A Rosy is said to refer to the Great Plague of 1665. The plague caused a high fever and a rash in the form of a ring hence the name, Ring Around A Rosy. Putting herbs and spices in the pocket of an ailing person in an attempt to freshen up the stale air was a common practice, thus the “pocket full of posies”. “Ashes, Ashes” is an American variation of the English version which is “A-tishoo, A-tishoo” or someone sneezing. Plague sufferers had a fit of sneezing before they passed away or when “we all fall down”.
Little Jack Horner - The story behind this rhyme is that “Jack” is actually Thomas Horner, a steward to the abbot of Glastonbury. The abbot sent Horner to London with a Christmas pie for King Henry VIII. The deeds to twelve manor houses were hidden in the pie. The abbot did this in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the king during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. On his trip to London, Horner put his finger in the pie and pulled out the deed to Mells Manor. Shortly thereafter, Horner moved into the manor. His descendants have lived in the manor house for generations. Horner’s descendants dispute this story and claim that Horner fairly purchased the property from the king.
London Bridge - London Bridge hasa rich history and can be traced back to 1659. In fact, London Bridge is so well known that many countries have their own version Bro, Bro, Brille in Denmark, Die Magdeburger Brucke in Germany, Le Pont-Levis in France, and Le porte in Italy.
While the alleged meanings of some of these rhymes may or may not be true, it sure is a fun way to remember events in British history. It may also be used as a jumping off point to study other nursery rhymes that may contain old words that give away their British origins. For more information on the origins of nursery rhymes, you can check out these reference books, The Annotated Mother Goose and The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
You think the real estate market is treacherous today, try England in the late 1530s. That's what the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner" is really all about.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Here to explain is our London librarian Chris Roberts. He's the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme," and he's at our London bureau.
Hello again, Chris.
Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS (Author, "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown"): Hello. Hi, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: So who was Little Jack Horner?
Mr. ROBERTS: Little Jack Horner was actually Thomas Horner. The name Jack comes up in nursery rhymes a lot, usually to reflect a slightly knavish character, a bit of a ne'er-do-well. So I suspect that's why they changed his name to Jack from Thomas.
(Reading) `Little Jack Horner sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in a thumb and pulled out a plum and said, "What a good boy am I."'
Where to begin with this? This is talking about the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII taking property from the Catholic Church. Jack, as we know, is actually called Thomas Horner. Now he was a steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury during the reign of Henry VIII. This is how the story goes: He was entrusted to take some title deeds of properties to Henry VIII as a bribe so the abbot could keep the main monastery, but was prepared to give away some of the lesser properties.
Now the title deeds were held and sealed in a pie, and Jack's off to London. But instead of delivering the bribe to Henry VIII, he helps himself to the pie, puts his hand in, pulls out a plum piece of real estate--in this case, a place called Mells Manor--and thinks he's very clever for doing this. That's one version of it, that Jack is a thief and he's stealing the bribe that's intended for the king. And he...
ELLIOTT: So was this common? Is there historical evidence to support the theory that bribes were often delivered in pies?
Mr. ROBERTS: It comes up bewilderingly often in nursery rhyme. And it's--I think the pie is used as a metaphor. I think it's not necessarily what we would think of as a pie. It's just referring to a means of concealing a document, concealing anything. It could be jewels in some cases. Now the Horner family, who incidentally lived in Mells Manor until the 20th century, are quite outraged at this slander of their ancestor and understandably so.
And there are actually two rhymes that mention Mr. Horner. The first one that mentions him is: `Hopton(ph), Horner, Smith and Finn, when the abbots went out, they came in.' And a much more likely reading of what happened is that Thomas Horner, along with the other people mentioned in the previous rhyme--Hopton and Smith and Finn--were up-and-coming gentry. They were Protestant, they were local merchants doing quite well for themselves in the area around Glastonbury, and that they bought the property. You could see it as an early example of gentrification. They bought the property at the time admittedly at a knockdown rate, and admittedly the land had been stolen from the Catholic Church by Henry VIII. This seems to be what happened after the dissolution of the monasteries. The king didn't keep all the land for himself; he distributed it amongst his supporters so he then could rely on their loyalty should anything occur in the future, should there be a rebellion in the future. I suspect, though I can't prove this, that the popular `Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie' version is actually the Catholic take on proceedings there.
ELLIOTT: Chris Roberts is the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme," and he's a librarian at Lambeth College in South London.
Thank you, Chris.
Mr. ROBERTS: Thank you, Debbie.
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Heavy Words Lightly Thrown
The Reason Behind The Rhyme
by Chris Roberts