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Nursery Rhymes: History & Origins

Updated on March 11, 2019
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I love everything weird and colorful in this world and I try to live a life that will make the world a little better once I'm gone.

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A Hidden History

Nursery rhymes are passed down from generation to generation. We teach our children these stories, but do we even really know what they mean?

Nursery Rhymes have historically been used to express opinions that could not be spoken freely. Some seemingly silly rhymes included political statements which if they had been spoken straightforward, would be punishable by death.

Most nursery rhymes were from Europe, particularly England, but a few came from others areas of the world - even America contributed a few.

More Nursery Rhyme History Online

If you really want to know more, the best place is the first site below, hands down. They have it ALL!

Who was Mother Goose?

"Mother Goose" currently evokes the image of a friendly old lady riding on the back of a goose, but lets look back at where she originated:

  • Old Mother Goose

    When she wanted to wander
    Would fly through the air
    On a very fine gander.

    AND

  • Mother Goose had a house;

    It stood in the wood
    Where an owl at the door
    As sentinel stood.

These rhymes actually point to Mother Goose as being a witch! She flew on a goose (rather then a broom); she lived alone in the woods. But the big tip off is the "owl at the door". An owl is a 'familiar' (like in Harry Potter). It is an animal that witches were believed to be able to take the form of.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, people were very concerned with witches, because they were unaware of why certain things occurred (storms, diseases,...) and needed to have some explanation. So, witches became a scapegoat.

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.

Two possible theories...

1 - This is a traditional English nursery rhyme and it thought to refer to Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII. She is commonly called Bloody Mary.

The garden in the rhyme refers to graveyards. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and Protestants who refused to give up the Protestant faith were often killed (growing the graveyards).

What about the silver bells and cockle shells? Well, those were instruments of torture. The 'silver bells' were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb, and 'cockle shells' were even more gruesome.

'Maids' is short for Maidens. The maiden was what we now call the guillotine!

or perhaps...

2- Mary, Mary is actually Mary Stuart known as Mary Queen of Scots. She was sent to the Court of France and raised Catholic and married the Dauphin (making her temporarily Queen Consort of France). When her husband died she returned to Scotland to claim the throne, but lowland Scotland was staunch Protestant.

Mary, Mary Quiet Contrary (she's a Cathloic Monarch in a Protestant Country)

How does your garden grow (a reference to the court she brought with her)

With Silver Bells (the Bells used during the Catholic Mass)

and Cockle Shells (she was accused of being unfaithful to her second husband (an idiot who she married only to buy favor with the Protestant lords, it was a "shell' of a marriage), to use the phrase of the day he was "cuckold" and this is a play on words).

And Pretty Maids all in a Row (a reference to "The Four Marys" that were her ladies in waiting and constant companions Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livngstone)

(This theory was emailed to me by N. Cosgrove)

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

As it happens, there actually was a Little Miss Muffet. Patience Muffet was the daughter of Dr. Muffet (1553-1604) who was a famous entomologist, who wrote the first scientific catalog of British Insects.

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!

~ OR ~

  • Humpty dumpty sat on a wall,

    Humpty dumpty had a great fall;
    Threescore men and threescore more,
    Could not place Humpty as he was before.

Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England describing someone who was obese. Humpty Dumpty somehow became an egg in the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

But the Humpty Dumpty in this rhyme is believed to be a large cannon! The cannon was used during the English Civil War (1642-1649) in the Siege of Colchester (June 13, 1648 - August 27, 1648). Colchester was strongly fortified by the Royalists and was laid to siege by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads). In 1648, the town of Colchester was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. St Mary's Church stood immediately alongside the city wall. A huge cannon, colloquially called Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary's Church.

A shot from a Parliamentary cannon damaged the wall Humpty Dumpty sat on causing the cannon to "take a great fall". The Royalists, or Cavaliers (all the King's men) attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall. They probably attempted to use horses to help lift it, hence all the kings horses and all the kings men.

They we're, as we know, unsuccessful. This had a drastic consequence for the Royalists as the strategically important town of Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a siege lasting eleven weeks.

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.

Jack and Jill is based on French history. Jack is said to be King Louis XVI, who was beheaded in 1793(lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette, Jill (who came tumbling after).

The rhyme was found in print 2 years later in 1795.

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?
    This is another rhyme about Bloody Mary!

Queen Mary I, the staunch Catholic, and her husband King Philip of Spain had massive estates (the farms). The 'three blind mice' were three Protestant noblemen who were convicted of plotting against the Queen. She did not have their tails cut off...she burned them at the stake!

Old Mother Hubbard

  • 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.

In this rhyme, Old Mother Hubbard references the most important statesman and churchman of the Tudor history period in 16th century, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Cardinal Wolsey angered King Henry VIII, by refusing to facilitate the King's divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon, his queen of many years.

King Henry VIII wished to divorce Queen Katherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn who he was in love with. King Henry (the dog) went to Cardinal Wolsey (Old Mother Hubbard) for a divorce (the bone). The cupboard refers to the Catholic Church.

In the end, King Henry did get his 'bone' but in doing so, he broke the Catholic Church. and formed the English Protestant church.

The rhyme Little Boy Blue also refers to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

There was an old woman

  • There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,

    She had so many children she didn't know what to do!
    So she gave them some broth without any bread,
    And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed!
    There are two theories of the history of this rhyme - both in English History.

The first references Queen Caroline as the 'old woman'. Caroline was the wife of King George II who had eight children.

The second theory places King George as the 'old woman'. King George was the one to begin the men's fashion of wearing white powdered wigs, thus making him the old woman. The 'children' in this theory are the members of parliament and the bed was the Houses of Parliament. The term 'whip' is still used in the English Parliament to describe a member of Parliament who is assigned to making sure that all members 'toe the party line'.

Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater

  • Peter Peter pumpkin eater,

    Had a wife and couldn't keep her!
    He put her in a pumpkin shell,
    And there he kept her very well!

The exact origin of this rhyme is not exactly know, however we can tell in general where it originated. Pumpkins are indigenous to America - not England. At the time that these rhymes came into being, the common Englishman would not be familiar with pumpkins.

Ring around the rosy - AKA Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies

  • Ring around the rosy

    A pocketful of posies
    "Ashes, Ashes"
    We all fall down!

Older version...

  • Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies

    A Pocket full of Posies
    "A-tishoo! A-tishoo!"
    We all fall Down!

Many people do actually know the roots of this rhyme.

Ring around the rosy goes back to the black plague in England, circa 1665 (or perhaps earlier in the 1300s when the bubonic plague first hit).

The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin (ring around the rosy), and violent sneezing (a-tishoo, a tishoo).

It was believed that the disease was spread by bad smells. Therefore people carried pockets and pouches of sweet smelling herbs (posies)

The death rate was over 60% (we all fall down) and the plague was only halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666 which killed the rats which carried the disease which was transmitting via water sources.

After death the bodies were cremated (Ashes Ashes).

Jack Sprat

Jack Sprat

  • Jack Sprat could eat no fat

    His wife could eat no lean
    And so betwixt the two of them
    They licked the platter clean
    Jack ate all the lean,
    Joan ate all the fat.
    The bone they picked it clean,
    Then gave it to the cat
    Jack Sprat was wheeling,
    His wife by the ditch.
    The barrow turned over,
    And in she did pitch.
    Says Jack, "She'll be drowned!"
    But Joan did reply,
    "I don't think I shall,
    For the ditch is quite dry."

Again, two theories...

1- The Jack Sprat in this English rhyme is King Charles I (1625-1649) and his Queen Henrietta Maria(1609-1669). When King Charles (Jack Sprat) declared war on Spain, parliament refused to finance him (leaving him lean). So after the angered King dissolved Parliament, his wife imposed an illegal war tax (to get some fat).

2-Another theory puts Jack Sprat as Richard the Lionheart (Richard I, 1157-1199) and his younger brother King John (1166-1216).

In 1189 John (Jack Sprat) married Joan, the ambitious and greedy daughter and heiress of the Earl of Gloucester ("Joan ate all the fat").

When King Richard went on Crusade, 1190-1194, John attempted to take the crown of England. On his return from the Crusades King Richard was taken hostage by Duke Leopold demanding a ransom of 150,000 marks. John reluctantly had to raise the ransom, leaving the country destitute for years and reducing John's inheritance (they picked it clean). The ransom was paid and Richard was released.

John was crowned King of England following the death of Richard in 1199. He had his marriage to Joan annulled (he ditched her!), she was never acknowledged as queen . She then married again to Geoffrey de Mandeville and her third husband was Hubert de Burgh.

What's on your mind?

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    • Sher Ritchie profile image

      Sher Ritchie 

      6 years ago

      I love this lens - I particularly like the way you've presented the rhyme (and a vintage illustration) followed by a commentary. And the links are great too. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      The site you gave the address to, purposed it as another theory as to why "jack and jill" came to be. It did not offer it as the absolute reason, only a less violent, more appealing alternative. Myself, given the dated documentation of this rhymes first appearance, and the context it is placed in, sounds more like it is reference to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      Re: "Ring Around the Rosie": People got the plague when they were bitten by a flea that carried the plague bacteria from an infected rodent. In rare cases one could get the disease when handling an infected animal. Ships with infected rats spread the plague via maritime trade routes. Thank you for your exposition on nursery rhymes.

    • profile image

      Geeve 

      7 years ago

      Great reading and wonderful illustrations. As an angel, participating in the Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip, I was delighted to find this lens, and pleased to be able to leave you with a Blessing. :)

    • monarch13 profile image

      monarch13 

      8 years ago

      Fascinating! Blessed!

    • mythphile profile image

      Ellen Brundige 

      8 years ago from California

      Kab!

      Oh, I love nursery rhyme history -- one learns all sorts of things from studying them, not to

      mention getting the utter heebie jeebies whenever one hears children singing about "Ring Around the Rosey" (although there is some debate that the "plague" interpretation is a modern fabrication).

      At any rate, I'm adding this to the Squidoo Museum History section!

    • sheilamarie78 profile image

      Sheilamarie 

      8 years ago from British Columbia

      Wonderful lens! I will lensroll it from my readytolearn lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      we need some cool nursery rhymes for a social studies project on the third crusade please help us.... thanx

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      :) its so nice. could you give us the list of cited works for further information ?

    • profile image

      poutine 

      10 years ago

      I so enjoyed reading those rhymes to my 2 young sons.

    • BusyQueen profile image

      BusyQueen 

      10 years ago

      Great lens. Very Informative! 5 Stars

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      10 years ago

      thx!! i really needed this for my CFS project! o ya mother goose rox!!!!!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      10 years ago

      HISTORY!!! it is disturbing . . .

    • MrsZ LM profile image

      MrsZ LM 

      10 years ago

      What an interesting lens! Thanks for sharing it!

    • profile image

      LeslieBrenner 

      11 years ago

      Enjoyed reading your historical background to the poems. 5 stars.

    • dc64 lm profile image

      dc64 lm 

      11 years ago

      Quite interesting and well done. I'm impressed. Debra

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      11 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Nice lens! I love Mother Goose Rhymes.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      11 years ago

      Uhm...just a wee but disturbing.

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