Nursery rhymes are a lovely way to teach children to speak, to sing, to rhyme and have rhythm, and to develop memory skills.
You have probably heard that ring-a-ring-a-rosy is a reference to the Black (Bubonic) Plague. Turns out not to be so – the rhyme did not appear until many centuries after Bubonic Plague decimated Europe. Sorry to disillusion you. However many others seem to have dark and morbid antecedents that we would love to believe……
Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.
This refers to the persecution of Catholics in 16th Century England. Priests were often secreted in “priest-holes” secret nooks built into the thick walls of private rooms in wealthy houses – for instance the lady’s chamber (bedroom). The old man who wouldn’t say his prayers probably did – but Catholic prayers in Latin, not protestant prayers in English. Being a Catholic – or ‘left-footer” in the vernacular of the time, he was thrown down the stairs – in all likelihood put to death for his beliefs, as would the family of the house who would have been considered traitors in Tudor England.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
This rather gruesome tale apparently refers to the execution of Jack (King Louis XVI of France) and Jill (Queen Marie-Antoinette). The last section refers to the treatment of the head after beheading, where it was held aloft for the crowd to see then thrown in a bag or basket.
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Mary in this rhyme was Bloody Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII of England and half-sister to the future Queen Elizabeth I. A staunch Catholic, she persecuted Protestants. The gardens were the graveyards of people she had put to death, the silver bells were thumb screws, cockle-shells were another instrument of torture used on genitals, and the maids was a slang terms for the guillotine.
Three blind mice
Three blind mice
See how they run
See how they run
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
as three blind mice
Again this refers to Bloody Mary (the farmer’s wife) executing three noblemen who had plotted to kill her to end her reign of terror. They weren’t blind, and they were actually burned at the stake rather than beheaded or having their tails cut off!
The grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
and he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up
they were neither up nor down.
The grand old Duke of York was Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in the War of the Roses in 1455. He built a fortress on earthworks where he marched his army (to the top of the hill), enabling them to have an excellent viewpoint to spot any army approaching army. However, he then marched them down again – leaving the fortress and tackling the opposing army on the plains – and was killed.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
Humpty Dumpty was a cannon – a very large heavy cannon that was installed on the walls of St Mary’s Church in Colchester during the English Civil War. A shot from a parliamentary cannon damaged the wall Humpty was sitting on and he did indeed tumble down and break. because of the immense weight of the cannon, all the King’s men and all the King’s horses could not get Humpty back atop the wall (possibly because of damage sustained to the wall as well).
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.
Old Mother Hubbard was Cardinal Wolsey, beloved of Blackadder aficionados, but a real person as well. Cardinal Wolsey was the man that Henry VIII (the doggie) wanted to get him a divorce (a bone) from his longtime (and first) Queen, Katharine of Aragorn. Cardinal Wolsey approached Rome, base for the Catholic Church (the cupboard) and was given the “no” answer. And on this was the basis of the Church of England born.