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The Real Meaning of Baa Baa Black Sheep

Updated on November 24, 2014

The Story Behind Baa Baa Black Sheep

So many nursery rhymes appear to be quite innocent and carry moral meanings with messages of good citizenship, behind them we often hear of Kings and Queens of England, bloodshed and tears. Baa Baa Black Sheep is no exception.

For generations, parents have sat with their children and read nursery rhymes as a night-time ritual to ease their children into sleep. If we knew that we were in fact reciting a horror story, disguised as something innocent, would we still continue this tradition?

The real story behind Baa Baa Black Sheep is based on the British wool industry and involve King Edward I with a later addition when King Edward II became ruler of England. Not quite as bad as other horrific tales but still has a far deeper meaning that we might first believe.

Baa Baa Black Sheep from Amazon

Real Meaning of Baa Baa Black Sheep.

King Edward I was the Plantagenet King (17 June 1239 – 7 July 1307), he was also known as Edward The Longshanks (because of his very long legs) and The Hammer of the Scots.

Like many of his forefathers, the kings of England before him, he spent a lot of his time defending and developing his kingdom, being involved in battles, sieges and even hostage situations. Edward didn't fight wars from a desk and it certainly wasn't a quiet life by any means.

During a long battle torn return journey back to England from the crusades in 1272 he was informed of the sad news that his father had died, as a consequence of his father's death he was crowned King at Westminster Abbey on the 19th August of that year.

The crusades had accomplished very little in reality but cost vast amounts of money and Edward was now King of England with a very big bill and needed to pay for his part in the crusades.

Kings had a way of raising quick money in those days

They taxed the poor!

The Egyptian Pharaohs taxed the use of cooking oil
Emperor Vespasian of Rome levied a Urine Tax
Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, put a tax on 'souls' and another on beards among many others.

King William III created window tax

Prime Minister of Britain William Pitt the Younger taxed hats

Not to mention the Boston Tea Party

Baa Baa Blaksheep and other Nursery Rhymes

What can the King of England tax?

At the time of King Edward's reign when he surveyed his kingdom he saw more than more sheep than people. Even a poor farmer might have a flock of 8000 spread over tenanted land and would need over a dozen shepherds to to heard the flock.

There's the answer, tax sheep – actually, there is a better method of collecting even more money, simply tax their wool, then the king will pull in revenue every time the sheep are shorn.

So what's all this got to do with Baa Baa Black Sheep?

Contrary to modern popular belief Baa Baa Black Sheep is not a racist poem, it has nothing to do with slavery but is a genuine nursery rhyme intended to teach babies the sound that sheep make.Onomatopoeia are words that sound exactly like their meaning and baa baa in "Baa, baa black sheep" is a perfect example.

So, the nursery rhyme itself is fairly innocent until we look at the original line at the end.

The original Baa Baa Black Sheep reads like this:

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 Cries Down The Lane

The last line was changed to make it more appealing; it now reads “Who Lives Down The Lane”.

Who was the little boy and why did he cry down the lane?

The little boy represents the poor farmer who wasn't happy at paying the king's 66% tax on his wool.

The three bags of wool represented the three lots of one third.

One for the master – King Edward I

One for the Dame – The Church

And one for the little boy who cries down the lane.

Nursery Rhymes From Amazon


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Nice interpretation..I learned a huge from it,thanks for all of you..

    • profile image

      Ben Pearmain 

      4 years ago

      Has anyone else picked up on the fact that the poem also suggests that when it is asked whether the sheep has any wool, the response is basically; "Yes, but none for you".

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      It's really interesting

    • The Ghostwriter profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Yexley 

      5 years ago from UK

      Thank you Cheryl, I am pleased you found it interesting

    • profile image

      Cheryl Scott 

      6 years ago

      Wow,this was GOOD information I never knew that nursery rhymes went so far into history and this was very much needed to no information now I wonder what are the history behind all of the nursery rhymes.

    • The Ghostwriter profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Yexley 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thank you for your comment, I'm sure you will forever think of taxes when you sing it again.

    • KidsPartyFavors profile image


      8 years ago

      I've been singing this for ages, just recently know the meaning of it!

    • The Ghostwriter profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Yexley 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thank you Jacqui, I really appreciate your comments!

    • jacqui2011 profile image


      8 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Very interesting hub. I often sang this to my children when they were small and never realised the story behind it. Voted up.

    • The Ghostwriter profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Yexley 

      8 years ago from UK

      Thank you; I thing vanity, grief and greed really did change him.

      I wonder if 'black sheep' related to his wigs or even a black market for wool that 'slipped' away from the tax collectors?

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Another really interesting hub. I think everyone of us as children must have either said this rhyme or had it said to us, without having a clue what it was all about.

      It is interesting how Edward I comes into this rhyme as well, this is new facts for me. Not that I particularly like him - being Scottish - but it has always interested me how this great man changed so drastically after his wife died. I think prior to her death he was, even by a Scottish viewpoint, a really good king. Shame how grief can so change a person.


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