Origin of Some Popular Nursery Rhymes

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.

I have done research on the origin of some popular nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes are harmless, right? But more likely than not, the actual stories behind them are shockingly morbid and not really something you’d expect to be a rhyme for kids. And a lot of nursery rhymes came from historical events or situations. Some of the most popular ones came from British politics and were invented as a way of spreading gossip about royalty. The aforementioned nursery rhyme up
there sounds like it’s about a fat guy sitting on a wall, right? But actually, it was a cannon, commonly called Humpty Dumpty, used during the English Civil War. It was strategically placed on a wall of St. Mary’s Church in Colchester in East England by the Cavaliers, the Knights of Charles I of England. Colchester was laid to siege by the Parliament. A shot from a Parliamentary cannon succeeded in destroying the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty and caused it to tumble to the ground. The Cavaliers or ‘All the king’s men’ attempted to raise Humpty to another wall but it was so heavy that ‘All the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again’ and the town of Colchester fell to the Parliament after an 11-week siege. Another version of this rhyme is:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.
Threescore men and threescore more,
Couldn’t put Humpty as he was before.



Here’s another:
Mary, Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

‘Mary’ is referring to Mary the first, 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 or a graveyard. Silver bells and cockle shells are believed to be euphemisms for instruments of torture. The ‘maids’ are slang for a beheading instrument called ‘The Maiden’ that came into common use before the guillotine.

Here’s another interesting one:
Ring around the roses
A pocketful of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down.

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. Putting herbs in the pockets of an ailing person in an attempt to freshen up the stale air was a common practice, thus the ‘pocketful of posies’. ‘Ashes, ashes’ is an American variation of the English version which is ‘Atishoo, atishoo’ or someone sneezing. Another version says it comes from the mass cremations that were done due to a number of bodies. Plague sufferers had a sneezing fit before they passed away, when ‘we all fall down’.

An innocent one is:
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.

Jackals Jill, skipping up a hill, what could be more harmless than that? You’d never guess what this rhyme is really about. This nursery rhyme was started in France. Jack and Jill are said to be King Louis the 16th and Queen Marie Antoinette, a couple beheaded during the Reign of Terror in 1793.

This rhyme is surprisingly innocent:
Rock a bye baby on the treetop,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.
When the branch breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all.

The correct name for this is actually Hush-a-bye baby. It comes from a Pilgrim boy in America witnessing Native American mothers suspending birch bark cradles from a tree thus allowing the wind to rock the baby to sleep.
(Honestly, I thought this rhyme had some malicious intent but I guess not.)

Doing this research was so interesting but there are so many nursery rhymes! But my main point is, we should be very careful of what we say and sing to our children because we never know what hidden meanings of these century-old nursery rhymes could be.