1 November 2018 Susannah

Poem of the Month, November 2018 – Nursery Rhymes

Arabella reading a book

I have been reciting nursery rhymes to my gorgeous granddaughter, Arabella (this is her above, enjoying a book), and it’s made me think about the intriguing origins of some of them. So instead of one poem this month, I am going to tell you about some of these often rather disturbing rhymes so familiar from childhood.

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

This is about Catholic Queen Mary I, often known as ‘Bloody Mary’ because of all the executions in her reign – hence the heads in a row. Silver bells and cockle shells were instruments of torture. So it is a rhyme about a murderous queen, not a polite query about gardening.

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 also refers to the reign of Mary I and the three Protestant bishops she had burned at the stake – Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley.

Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes sir,
Three bags full
One for the master
And one for the dame
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

This rhyme dates from 1731 and probably refers to a 13thC Great Customs tax on wool which was introduced into England. In more recent times it has been seen as politically incorrect because of the use of the word ‘black’ and in some kindergartens is now sung as ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’.

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
A tissue, a tissue
We all fall down.

Famously this rhyme relates to the plague. The ‘rosie’ is the red rash which often gave first sign of the disease, the posies are the dried flowers people carried to ward off the smell and hopefully also the infection, and the sneezing is a sign of illness, before they all fall down – DEAD.

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
And so the poor doggie had none.

Mother Hubbard was actually Cardinal Wolsey who displeased King Henry VIII by refusing to facilitate his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. King Henry is the dog, and the bone is the divorce he longs for, while the cupboard relates to the Catholic Church.

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 is believed to have been a great cannon used in the siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. When the Roundheads attacked the walls, the cannon fell and was destroyed, so the King’s men were forced to surrender.

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake, and drummed them out of town.

When Queen Elizabeth I died, her successor was James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. Scotland’s coat of arms depicted two unicorns, while England’s had two lions. The union of the two countries required a new coat of arms – as a compromise it featured one lion and one unicorn.

Has this taken you back to your childhood? Some rhymes are rather gruesome, but perhaps it’s a way of teaching children history? Arabella certainly seems to enjoy them! Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Arabella reading a book. Susannah Fullerton.

Comments (12)

  1. Anne Williams

    Loved the explanation of rhymes we used to chant as children. It’s such a sad state in our society now that a black sheep of which we have plenty roaming our pastures need to be referred to as rainbow sheep, ridiculous actually Anne

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree that it is ridiculous – political correctness gone mad! But I am glad you enjoyed the explanations of the rhymes.

  2. Philip Holberton

    I grew up in the little Devonshire village of Yealmpton just outside Plymouth. Mother Hubbard’s picturesque thatched cottage is still to be seen there.
    The website https://allnurseryrhymes.com/old-mother-hubbard/ identifies her as a real historical person and gives a name for the author of the rhyme and its date of composition –1804, which makes any connection with Cardinal Wolsey very unlikely. Also the full rhyme runs to 15 verses – a prolonged shaggy dog tale and not political commentary.
    Most of your other interpretations I find similarly improbable.
    “Ring around the rosie” is, as you say, “famously” connected with the plague, but has the verse been traced back to the times when plague was rife? And when plague was a very deadly threat, would anyone have made a joke of it?
    Why should anyone compose “Baa Baa black sheep” in 1731 to refer to a 13th century tax?
    In “Mistress Mary, quite contrary”, what is the evidence that cockle shells and silver bells were instruments of torture? A cockle shell is commonly the badge of a pilgrim. And how do “pretty maids all in a row” become executed heads? Anyway “Bloody Mary” typically executed heretics by burning them at the stake.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I didn’t know there was a Mother Hubbard House, so it does sound as if other interpretations have been hijacked on to the original rhyme.
      People often made jokes about the plague – you only need to read Pepys to see that. Humour is often a way of surviving grisly situations.
      There are many different meanings behind nursery rhymes, and it is often hard to be certain. We clearly differ on some of them

  3. Penelope Nash

    Dear Susannah,
    I have been looking for a nursery rhyme book, with lots of good pictures, without success.
    Do you have any suggestions please? Penny

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I wish I did, Penny. I am on the look out for a nice one for Arabella. Let me know if you find one.

  4. Barbara

    Hi Susannah, Love this post.
    I’ve often wondered about ‘Nellie Bligh caught a fly, tied it to a string. Let it go a little way & pulled it back again. Oh Nellie, oh Nellie, how could you be so cruel, to stay at home & tease the fly instead of going to school.

    My mother’s favourite hand clapping rhyme was:
    My mother said I never should play with the gypsies in the wood. If I did she would say ‘naughty girl to disobey’
    Cheers Barbara Mortimer

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have never heard either of those ones, Barbara, so thanks for introducing me to them.

  5. William Sharpe

    Best poetry book for all ages( I veg bought all my 6 grandchildren copies from a young age) Untermeyer best poetry book , not sure of title and only available from US now but lots of children’s stuff, Lear, Milligan, . Not in UK now so no reference.
    Will Sharpe

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for that recommendation. I will have to do a search on-line for a copy, as it sounds like the perfect present for grandchildren.

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