Saturday, March 31, 2012

Child’s Play ...or is it?

Political meaning in 18th Century nursery rhymes (part one)


Nursery Rhymes are the first poems and songs children learn, generally before they go to school. They help broaden vocabulary, with learning to count, and to sharpen memory. They are nonsense and hold no more meaning than what is intended within the rhyme. Nonsense? That’s all well and good for children to believe, but we adults know better, don’t we? Or do you?

Of course they are not meaningless, nor are they nonsense (not if you are the intended target). In this post I’ll focus on three nursery rhymes from the Georgian era: Humpty Dumpty, The Grand Old Duke of York, and my all-time favorite Who Killed Cock Robin?

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!

There are several theories as to the origin of Humpty Dumpty and from my research the most popular is that Humpty Dumpty was a large canon used during the Civil War to defend the town of Colchester. A walled town with a castle and several churches, it was a Royalist stronghold. The Parliamentarians (Roundheads) aimed at the wall on which Humpty Dumpty sat and caused the Royalist cannon to fall and eventually the Royalists were beaten. The Siege of Colchester lasted for 11 weeks 13 Jun 1648–27 Aug 1648.

However, the rhyme wasn’t published until 1810 in Gammar Gurton’s Garland, where there is no mention of the King’s men or his horses:

Humpty Dumpty sate [sic] on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti [sic] had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

This first published version leads to the more obscure theory (I can’t find a reference anywhere, and I would like to claim it as my own but alas I think one of my history teachers told me) that Humpty Dumpty is not a canon at all but a specific person. I believe it refers to King George the Third and that the rhyme is about his mental illness.

Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall—this makes him higher than anyone else, alluding to his kingly status. There was no one higher in England’s Georgian society than the King. He has a great fall—George the Third had several bouts of mental illness. Threescore men and threescore more —that’s 120 men! This suggests that it made no difference to the King’s condition how many men were called to attend on him, they cannot place Humpty as he was before—the King’s mental illness cannot be cured and thus he can no longer rule as king.

Life will never be the same again, for King George or his subjects. As a consequence of the King’s mental illness, the Prince of Wales becomes Prince Regent. The date of the rhyme’s first publication, 1810, is significant, and perhaps no mere coincidence, because this was the year the Regency was established and the Prince of Wales became Prince Regent.

George the Third was not the only one in his family to be represented in a Nursery Rhyme. His second son, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany was also the subject of a rhyme that satirized his abilities as a military field commander.

The Grand old Duke of York

The Grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

Of course there are those who contend that it is not Frederick the Nursery Rhyme is about but another old Duke of York, Richard, claimant to the English throne and Protector of England during the Wars of the Roses, and the battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Richard marched his army to his castle at Sandal, built on top of the site of an old Norman motte and bailey fortress. Its massive earthworks stood 33 feet (10m) above the original ground level, and so he marched them [his soldiers] up to the top of the hill. Then, in what many scholars believe to be a moment of madness, he left his stronghold in the castle and went down to make a direct attack on the Lancastrians and so he marched them [his soldiers] down again. Richard’s army was overwhelmed and he was killed.

The theory I prefer involves Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second and favorite son of King George III and Commander-in-Chief of the British Military throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The Grand old Duke of York is said to refer to his fighting in Flanders in 1793. The Duke won a cavalry conquest at Beaumont in the April of 1794 and then was roundly defeated at Turcoing in May and recalled to England. The "hill" in the rhyme is the township of Cassel, built on a mount that rises 176 meters (about 570 feet) over the otherwise level lands of Flanders in northern France. Though he was a bad field commander, Frederick was a competent military organizer who raised the professional level of the army, playing a significant behind-the-scenes role in the Duke of Wellington's victories in the Peninsular War. The Grand old Duke of York also founded Sandhurst College.

Who killed Cock Robin?

And finally there is my all-time favorite nursery rhyme: Who Killed Cock Robin? There is no mystery here, no rhyming for the sake of it as with other children’s rhymes we would recite without really knowing what they were about. The sparrow confesses at once, and those animals gathered around poor dead Robin, offer in one way or another to help with his burial. There are versions of Who Killed Cock Robin? in German and Norwegian, and some scholars suggest that the poem is a parody on the death of William Rufus, who was killed by an arrow in the New Forest (Hampshire) in 1100. (4)

The earliest written record for this rhyme is in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, which was published c.1744, with only the first four verses being printed. Speculation is that 'Cock Robin' refers to the political downfall of Sir Robert Walpole, Robin being a diminutive of Robert. Walpole was First Lord of the Treasury and England’s first Prime Minister and his government was toppled in 1742. Walpole had many enemies and Who Killed Cock Robin? was a taunt to his downfall.

The extended edition wasn’t printed until 1770 and it’s this extension of the poem that has lead to speculation that Who Killed Cock Robin? in its entirety was written to inform the eighteenth century child as to what occurs after someone dies, so that they are familiar with the burial process. After all, at this time, most burials occurred at night when most people, particularly children, were in their beds so that there was no fear of the spread of disease as the body was transported to the graveyard.

"Who killed Cock Robin?"
"I," said the Sparrow, "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
"Who saw him die?"
"I," said the Fly, "With my little eye, I saw him die."
"Who caught his blood?"
"I," said the Fish, "With my little dish, I caught his blood."
"Who'll make the shroud?"
"I," said the Beetle, "With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."
"Who'll dig his grave?"
"I," said the Owl, "With my little trowel, I'll dig his grave."
"Who'll be the parson?"
"I," said the Rook, "With my little book, I'll be the parson."
"Who'll be the clerk?"
"I," said the Lark, "If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."
"Who'll carry the link?"
"I," said the Linnet, "I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."
"Who'll be chief mourner?"
"I," said the Dove, "I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."
"Who'll carry the coffin?"
"I," said the Kite, "If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."
"Who'll bear the pall?
"We," said the Wren, "Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."
"Who'll sing a psalm?"
"I," said the Thrush, "As she sat on a bush, I'll sing a psalm."
"Who'll toll the bell?"
"I," said the bull, "Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

And on that cheerful note, I’ll be uncovering the meaning behind a few more favorite Nursery Rhymes in my next post but until then, next time you recite a Nursery Rhyme, look for the hidden meaning!


Alchin, L.K. (Nursery Rhymes lyrics and Origins) Retrieved March 2012 from Harrowven, J. The origins of rhymes, songs and sayings (Kaye & Ward, 1977), p. 92.

Cock Robin

The Grand Old Duke of York

The Real Meaning of Nursery Rhymes

Smith, A. Grand Old Duke: The greatest scandal never told, The Independent


  1. A Fantabulous post. I want more. My favourite rhyme is three men or is it women in a sieve and another is Hey diddle, diddle and finally Old Woman in a Shoe!

    1. Thanks, Carol. Pleased you enjoyed it! I haven't heard of the three men/women in a sieve, so will definitely check that one out. Old Woman in a Shoe is also a fav.

  2. Wonderful. I have the Oxford Book of Childrens Nursery Rhymes and it helps explain some of the origins, well as the person who collected them sees it. Very interesting.

    1. Thanks, Jel! And for reminding me that I have the Oxford Book of Children's Nursery Rhymes too - but it's in an unmarked box ready to be unpacked from our move across the Tasman. It's a great book and possibly where I read the theory of Humpty Dumpty being about George the Third. I will have to locate and investigate - and also useful for part two! : - )

    2. The Opie's book is part of my collection too! I use the tale of cock robin to explain to people that the drear standard typed letters they circulate to all and sundry at Christmas are not Round Robins! They are circulars. A Round Robin is a letter or document signed by all signatories in a circle so that there is no ringleader and all are equally culpable.

  3. Thinking about how very politicised everything was in the early 19th century (politicised and *radical*) I completely agree with you about the first two. Though the Regency Act was only passed in 1811, not 1810--though the concept was certainly under discussion (did they talk about anything else?) both in Parliament and privately in the year of the verse's publication.

    Very cool stuff this. Funny how we've taken the political satire of 200 years ago and turn it into nonsense for children. How did we make that leap?

    1. Thanks, M.M. And for supplying the date for the Regency Act as 1811. And, yes, I've no doubt people were talking about it for years before the Act itself was passed. : - )

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post! I've wondered about some of the rhymes and their true origins.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Margaret. Pleased you enjoyed the post. More to come. : - )

  5. Just my sort of thing, really enjoyed this post.
    A reprise please!

  6. Interesting. The OED does not list the cannon reference to Humpty Dumpty but does list the drink of the same name: 1. A drink made with ‘ale boiled with brandy’ (B.E. Dict. Cant. Crew, a1700).
    1698 W. King Journey to London 35 He answer'd me that he had a thousand such sort of Liquors, as Humtie Dumtie, Three Threads.

    What is the source for the cannon? Just curious.

    I've also heard there is a connection to Richard III, but I have a feeling that is spurious.

  7. We're using you as a reference in a sports piece we're writing. Great work


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