Nowadays, nursery rhymes are no longer as important to very young children as they were when I was a child.
Yet they are part of a long history of folk literature, and many of them hold coded messages of rebellion.
They are rooted in social unrest, from times when it was dangerous for a commoner to express criticism of those in authority.
In more repressed times, people were not always allowed to express themselves freely, for
fear of persecution.
Gossiping about the aristocracy, criticizing the government and even talking about current events were often punishable by death.
In order to communicate at will, clever rhymes were constructed and passed around to parody public figures and events.
The first nursery rhymes can be traced back to the fourteenth century.
While the Bubonic Plaque ravaged England, peasants used a rhyme to spread the word about equality.
The "Adam and Eve" rhyme allowed peasants to assert their importance to the economy, and contributed to the Peasants Revolt of 1381.
Under the guise of children's entertainment, many rhymes that were encoded with secret messages throughout history have endured the test of time and are still with us today.
Other nursery rhymes don't seem to carry a particular message at all, but many convey a macabre sense of humour.
They have been so ingrained in us since childhood that we hardly notice that babies are falling from trees, women are held captive or live animals are being cooked.
It's only when you stop and absorb the actual words of these catchy, sing-song rhymes that the darkness and absurdity is realized.
A handful do not reference historical events at all, but instead seem to convey warnings or common sense wisdom.
Nursery rhymes are certainly a "mixed bunch."
The oldest of all?
"When Adam delved, and Eve span
Who was then a gentleman?"
This rhyme is one of the oldest known English rhymes, and can be dated to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381.
At this time the English had suffered horrifically due to the deadly Black Death ( Bubonic Plague) during which as many as the third of the population had died.
Bottom of Society's heap, peasants were aware that they were a vital element of society.
This seemingly innocent rhyme was muttered by the peasants of the land.
Like many political rhymes, it was easy to remember and makes use of the simple riddle.
The seeds of an English Revolution had been sown.
The peasants felt oppressed and called for the abolition of feudal obligations - serfdom.
They wanted freedom from from servitude, controlled wages, and unfair taxes.
During this period England was ruled by the young Plantagenet King Richard II who gained the throne, 4 years before in 1377.
The peasants were loyal to the King and their hatred was centred on his arrogant uncle, the rich and powerful John of Gaunt.
The Kentish leaders of the Revolt were Robert Cave, Abel Ker, Jack Straw, Thomas Farringdon, and Wat Tyler, and the rebellion soon spread to Essex and London.
A priest called John Ball stirred the flame of revolution even higher by preaching to the peasants and encouraging them to call for justice.
The peasants marched on London whilst the boy-King Richard II and his Court including the Earl of Derby (the future Henry IV), John of Gaunt's son, Sir Thomas Percy (admiral), and Sir Thomas Walworth (Lord Mayor of London) had fled to the Tower of London for safety.
King Richard met the rebels at Blackheath and agreed to their demands - many of the peasants peacefully returned to their homes.
The remaining peasants led by Wat Tyler met with the King again at Smithfield.
Wat Tyler was wounded and captured - he was later beheaded by Mayor Walworth and his men.
John Ball met an even more horrific fate and was hung, drawn and quartered.
The King had won the day and the rebellion was crushed.
But the rhyme which sparked the 'English Revolution' is still remembered today!
Let's take a look at some of the best-known nursery rhymes, and what historians have made of them.
Best to remember that there are several different "explanations," and conjecture plays a large part in most of them...
1 Humpty Dumpty
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.
According to some historians,the real Humpty Dumpty was not a person but a powerful cannon used by the Royalist forces during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651.
Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle led the King's men and overpowered the Parliament stronghold of Colchester early in 1648.
They grimly held on while the Parliamentarians, led by Thomas Fairfax, encircled and besieged the town.
The supporters of Charles I almost won the day - all thanks to his most powerful defender, Humpty Dumpty. In pole position, as it were, on top of the church tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls (Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall) their gunners managed to blast away
at the attacking Roundhead troops for 11 weeks.
Eventually, though, the top of the church tower was blown away, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground, where it buried itself in deep marshland (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall).
The king's cavalry (the horses) and the infantry (the men) hurried to retrieve the cannon, but they couldn't put Humpty together again - and without their weapon of mass destruction they were soon overrun by Fairfax and his soldiers.
2 Ring-a-ring of Roses
Ring-a-ring of Roses,
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
This rhyme dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665.
The symptoms of bubonic plague included a rosy red ring-shaped rash, which inspired the first line.
It was believed that the disease was carried by bad smells, so people frequently carried pockets full of fresh herbs, or "posies," bunches of sweet-smelling herbs and cottage flowers.
The sneezing line and "falling down" refers to the development of the disease.
This is the Queen on Maundy Thursday, carrying a traditional posy, the idea of which dates from Tudor times.
3 Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
"Baa Baa Black Sheep" references the importance of the wool industry to the economy from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.
The rhyme is thought to be a political satire of the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275 under the rule of King Edward I.
The tax was for the benefit of the King first, the merchant next and last ( and least ) of all for the poor working man.
4 Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row
This rhyme is thought to refer to Bloody Mary.
The garden may refer to growing cemeteries, as she filled them with Protestants; some say it refers to her womb, since she struggled to bear a child.
One explanation is that the "silver bells and cockle shells" were instruments of torture and the "maiden" was a device used to behead people, but these lines could equally refer to the "smells and bells" of High Church services, and the cockle shell which was worn as a sign by a pilgrim on his journey.
Here is St. James, with the pilgrim's cockleshell on his hat.
5 Goosey, Goosey Gander
Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Upstairs and 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
In the 16th century, in the days of persecution of Catholics, if a priest in hiding was discovered, he would be forced to pray "properly" in English, and if he could not or would not consent would be hog-tied and thrown to his death.
6 Rock-a-Bye, Baby
In the tree top.
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will come baby,
Cradle and all.
The American roots of this odd rhyme reputedly come from a young pilgrim who saw Native American mothers hanging cradles in trees.
When the wind blew, the cradles would rock and the babies in them would sleep.
7 Sing a Song of Sixpence
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?
This rhyme most certainly originated long ago.
It was possibly based on a spoof by a court jester who thought it would be hilarious to trick the king by putting live birds into a pie shell.
At the time, cooked blackbirds were considered a delicacy and would have been served to the king.
It is possible even today to buy china blackbirds which hold up your pastry, and poke a head out of the pie!
8 Jack and Jill
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.
This poem originated in France.
The characters refer to King Louis XVI, Jack, and his Queen Marie Antoinette, Jill.
Jack was beheaded (lost his crown) first, then Jill came tumbling after during the Reign of Terror in 1793.
However,a small village in Somerset has also laid claim to the origin of the rhyme.
The story told in Kilmersdon is that during 1697 the village was home to a young unmarried couple who did a lot of their courting up on a hill, away from the prying eyes of the local gossips.
Consequently Jill became pregnant, but just before the baby was born Jack was killed by a rock that fell off the hill and landed on his head.
Only days later, Jill also died in childbirth.
The rhyme is today depicted on a series of tablet stones along the path to the hill.
9 London Bridge
London Bridge is falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady
Take a key and lock her up,
Lock her up, lock her up,
Take a key and lock her up,
My fair lady.
There are a number of verses attributed to this nursery rhyme, which is thought by some to refer to the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England; she was accused of adultery and incest and was ultimately executed for treason.
She is buried in the Chapel at the Tower of London.
Every year, on the anniversary of her death, someone unknown puts red roses on her tomb.
10' Old Mother Hubbard
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone;
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
And so the poor dog had none.
There are many verses to this rhyme, which is reputedly about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
Wolsey refused to facilitate a divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon for King Henry VIII.
The King wanted a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
The doggie and the bone in the rhyme refer to the divorce, the cupboard is a reference to the Catholic Church and Wolsey is Old Mother Hubbard.
The divorce was later arranged by Thomas Cramner and resulted in the break with Rome and the formation of the English Protestant church.
11 Little Miss Muffet
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away
Little Miss Muffet was written in the sixteenth century by Dr. Muffet, the stepfather of a small girl named Patience Muffet.
Dr. Muffet was an entomologist famous for writing the first scientific catalogue of British insects.
Perhaps one of his specimens escaped while Patience was at her breakfast?
12 Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
And your children have gone.
All except one, and her name is Ann,
And she jumped into the frying pan.
Farmers have long known the beneficial qualities of ladybirds as a natural predator of destructive insects.
After harvests and before the fields were burned, this rhyme would be chanted in hopes of the ladybirds surviving and coming back the following year.
There is also speculation that this rhyme originated from the Great Fire of London in 1666.
When I was a little girl, we used to gently put a ladybird on our hands, say the rhyme and blow until she flew away to save her children!
13 Three Blind Mice
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 ?
The vicious farmer's wife in this rhyme is believed to refer to Queen Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII.
Mary, a staunch Catholic, was so well known for her persecution of Protestants that she was given the nickname "Bloody Mary."
When three Protestant bishops were convicted of plotting against Mary, she had them burnt at the stake.
However, it was mistakenly believed that she had them blinded and dismembered, as is inferred in the rhyme.
14 Pop Goes the Weasel!
Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle;
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.
Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.
To "pop" something used to be to pawn it.
There has been much debate over the years about the meaning of Pop Goes The Weasel.
A hugely popular music-hall song, its memorable and seemingly nonsensical lyrics spread like wildfire throughout Victorian London.
This cockney rhyme dates back to the 1700s
But is there more to the rhyme than meets the eye?
In the 1680s, the poor and immigrants lived outside the walls of the City of London in Spitalfields, Hoxton and Shoreditch and slaved away in London's textile industry, which was based there.
Packed with sweatshops, it was also the site of many music halls and theatres.
One theory suggests that Pop Goes The Weasel was an attempt to turn the grim reality of local people's lives into a hit song.
Certainly, it tells of the hand-to-mouth existence of the common folk.
Many families only managed to eat by pawning, or "popping" some of their belongings until the following week.
In the textile industry, a spinner's weasel was a mechanical thread-measuring device in the shape of a spoked wheel, that accurately measured out yarn by making a popping sound to indicate the correct length had been reached.
The mind-numbing and repetitive nature of the work is captured in the final line of each verse, indicating that whatever you were doing, or wherever your mind had wandered to, reality was never far away with the weasel to pop you alert again.
There is another "weasel" explanation, which I prefer.
You can choose for yourself!
The Cockney community developed a slang all their own because they mistrusted strangers and police.
"Pop goes the weasel" was actually slang for "pawn your coat" (cockney slang; weasel/stoat, coat ) and the Eagle refers to a pub, said to have been frequented by Charles Dickens.
The pub was bought by the Salvation Army in 1883 and all drinking and music stopped.
This is the Eagle today.
15 Georgie Porgie
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away.
This rhyme may well refer to a gay sex scandal involving King Charles I.
Georgie Porgie is thought to be a caricature of George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham.
He was rumoured to be a lover to Anne of Austria, the Queen Consort of France who was notorious for just about everything except for being pretty.
Or really looking like a woman at all.
More like a man.
So after having a fling with the somewhat masculine Anne, it was a pretty smooth transition for Villiers to move on and up; the man He chose to woo just happened to be King Charles I.
Through the king, Villiers was able to become very powerful and influential, and was even knighted as a "Gentleman of the Bedchamber."
Eventually, Parliament got sick of him and cut off the relationship.
Villiers gave in without a fight; thus the reference "When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away."
There is another, completely different, candidate for Georgie Porgie, the Prince Regent George IV.
He was self-indulgent and extremely fat (Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie), and his corset-wearing was the source of constant ridicule and satirical cartoons.
By 1797, his weight had reached 17.5 stone and by 1824 his corsets were being made for a waist of 50 inches.
George had a reputation for lechery, and his chequered love life involved several mistresses, illegitimate children and even bigamy.
He had a wife, Caroline of Brunswick, whom he detested so much he banned her from his coronation, and a mistress, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (a Roman Catholic and a commoner whom he would never be allowed to marry) - and he managed to make both women miserable (He kissed the girls and made them cry).
In addition, although George loved watching prize-fighting ( bareknuckle boxing, which was illegal), his own physical and emotional cowardice was legendary.
This is illustrated by a story of the most infamous prize-fight of the day, when one contestant died of his injuries.
George was present, but when the fighter died, the Prince - terrified of being implicated - ran away (when the boys come out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away).
You have a choice!
16 Mary Had a Little Lamb
Mary had a little lamb.
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
That lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.
This was an original poem by Sarah Josepha Hale, inspired by an actual incident.
In America in 1830, a girl, Mary Sawyer (later Mrs. Mary Tyler) kept a pet lamb, which she took to school one day at the suggestion of her brother.
A commotion naturally ensued.
“Visiting school that morning was a young man by the name of John Roulstone, a nephew of the Reverend Lemuel Capen, who was then settled in Sterling.
It was the custom then for students to prepare for college with ministers, and for this purpose Mr. Roulstone was studying with his uncle.
The young man was very much pleased with the incident of the lamb; and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written upon it the three original stanzas of the poem…”
This is a portrait of Sarah Hale.
17 Ride a Cock Horse
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.
Some argue that only one historic figure could inspire such a rhyme; Lady Godiva, England's favourite naked horsewoman.
During the 11th century, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, tried to impose heavy taxes on his countrymen, provoking outrage and near riots.
Leofric's wife, Godgifu (changed over time to Godiva), sympathised with the common people and urged her husband to lower the new taxes he had levied.
Now, Leofric was obviously a man with a sense of humour, because he told his wife he would lower taxes only after she had ridden naked through the streets of Coventry.
But he hadn't reckoned upon Godiva's spirit and, much to his surprise, she agreed to the challenge.
The delighted people of Coventry, as a show of respect and to spare her blushes, all agreed to stay indoors, close their shutters and face the other way as the lady passed by.
She rode through the streets on her beloved white horse, completely naked apart from her wedding ring (rings on her fingers), and with bells attached to her toes to remind the people of Coventry not to look out of their windows.
All the citizens kept their word, except for Tom the tailor, who couldn't help himself and peeped out through the shutters - hence the expression 'Peeping Tom'.
According to legend, Tom was then struck blind.
18 Little Jack Horner
Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating his christmas pie;
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum,
And said, "What a good boy am I!"
The first recorded version of Little Jack Horner comes from the eighteenth-century, but it is most likely to have been known since the seventeenth.
In the nineteenth century the story began to gain currency that the rhyme is actually about Thomas Horner, who was steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey before the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII of England.
The story is reported that, prior to the abbey’s destruction, the abbot sent Horner to London with a huge Christmas pie which had the deeds to a dozen manors hidden within it and that during the journey Horner opened the pie and extracted the deeds of the manor of Mells in Somerset.
It is further suggested that, since the manor properties included lead mines in the Mendip Hills, the plum is a pun on the Latin plumbum, for lead.
The current owners of Mells Manor have stated that they doubt this interpretation.
But I quite like the explanation!
I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed researching it!