Friday, February 20, 2015

Sing a Song of Sixpence - A Nursery Rhyme, a King and Queen, and a novel.

Judith Arnopp

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.

There are many theories as to the origins of the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence. Some see it as an early lampoon about the extravagances of royalty, some as a representation of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon with Anne Boleyn playing the part of the maid. The blackbirds baked in the pie being the disaffected monks after the dissolution of the monasteries.

One account I stumbled across equated it with the pirate Blackbeard as ‘a coded message that evolved over several years and was used by confederates of the notorious pirate Blackbeard to recruit crew members for his prize-hunting expeditions.’
There is much more about Blackbeard here:

I tend to prefer the Tudor links to the rhyme for although Sing a Song of Sixpence was first published in the 18th century it certainly has origins in the 16th. Perhaps sixpence was the going rate for a good song during this time. There are references to singing for sixpence in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night during a drunken conversation between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew.

 “SIR ANDREW: Excellent! Why, this is the best fooling, when all is done. Now, a song.
SIR TOBY BELCH: Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song.” (Twelfth Night, Act II Sc. III)

Elizabeth of York
Of course, no Tudor banquet was complete without minstrels to play the favourite songs. One can easily imagine the king and queen seated with their court at groaning tables, dining on exotic dainties to the strains of fabulous music.

In the Tudor period (and certainly before that) extravagant dishes were created to amaze and enthrall the king. Swans and peacocks were roasted and the feathers then replaced to make it appear the birds were still living. Dishes such as dolphin and porpoise were not unheard of and, with recipes like these, one can imagine the chef’s unenviable task of thinking up new and innovative ideas to tease the royal palate. Song birds were regularly eaten, it is only one step further to serve the dish a little al dente. Why not a pie full of live birds?

It wouldn’t have been so unusual. An Italian cookbook from 1549 contains a recipe ‘to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut’. (See note 1)

A description of the wedding of Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici says, ‘The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter – when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out.’ (See note 2)

One version of the rhyme was published in Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in around 1744. Instead of four and twenty black birds it has four and twenty ‘naughty boys’ beneath the crust.    

  Sing a Song of Sixpence,
  A bag full of Rye,
  Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
  Baked in a Pye.

 What else, one wonders, would you do with twenty four disobedient children?

Eating bread and honey
Personally, I was taught as a child that the king and queen concerned were Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. (Incidentally, Elizabeth also graces the playing card and the likeness to her contemporary portraits are quite clear.) Henry Tudor is often depicted as being ‘careful’ with money and so fits quite well within his 'counting house.’ Whether this idea of kingly miserliness originates with the poem or vice versa it is not possible to say. His taxes were unpopular enough for the Cornish to rise in arms against him. (Mind you, that is not at all unusual, people never like to pay tax.) But, miserly or not, his careful control of his finances meant that at his death the royal coffers were full; he would likely have turned in his grave if he’d known how quickly and thoroughly his son, Henry VIII, was to empty them, squandering his father’s riches on war and theatrical gestures.

Elizabeth of York took no part in governing the country; her role was purely a domestic one, concerned with the children and charitable works; so again, the positioning of her in the rhyme eating bread and honey in the parlour is in keeping. 

 In my forthcoming novel A Song of Sixpence Elizabeth is not depicted scoffing bread and honey in the parlour; instead she is battling to come to terms with the loss of the primary male members of her family and preserving her surviving kin from a similar fate. Her marriage to the former enemy Henry VII is difficult and not helped by the appearance of a man claiming to be her brother, Richard of York, thought to have perished in the Tower in 1483. A man that Henry dubs Perkin Warbeck.

In literature Elizabeth is most often  presented as a daughter, wife or mother,. She has become as two dimensional

as the image on the playing card. But she was a real woman, with real emotions, who lived in very turbulent times. I wanted to put some flesh on her bones, some thoughts in her head and give her some of the credit she is due.

And the same for Henry. In both fiction and non-fiction he is either a cold calculating king or a complete monster. In A Song of Sixpence he is painted many shades of grey (no, it isn’t that sort of book). He is by no means an easy husband for Elizabeth for his years of exile have left him with insecurities and a chip on his shoulder that threatens both his marriage and his throne. His reign suffered more uprisings than any other; he can scarcely have enjoyed a quiet moment, but Elizabeth was raised to be dutiful and ultimately proves a good wife, a good queen, and an exemplary mother.


A Song of Sixpence: The story of Elizabeth of York and 'Perkin Warbeck.' 

In the years after Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England and forced to roam the courts of Europe. His sister Elizabeth, now Queen to the invader Henry Tudor, is torn between family loyalty and duty.

As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.

Set at the court of Henry VII A Song of Sixpence offers a unique perspective on the early years of Tudor rule. Elizabeth of York, often viewed as a meek and uninspiring queen, emerges as a resilient woman whose strengths lay in endurance rather than resistance.

A Song of Sixpence is available to pre-order for your UK Kindle NOW; if you are in the USA, click here.

You can read more about Judith and her work on her website:  
And purchase her books, both in paperback and on Kindle here.

Illustrations for Wikimedia commons.

1: (Giovanni de Roselli's Epulario, quale tratta del modo de cucinare ogni carne, ucelli, pesci... (1549), of which an English translation, Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, was published in 1598 (Mary Augusta Scott, Elizabethan Translations from the Italian no. 256, p. 333f.)

2: (Blow out! History's 10 greatest banquets - Features, Food & Drink - The Independent)


  1. I've always been fascinated by Henry VIII and the ensuing story, but had never read much about Henry VII and this Elizabeth. Coincidentally, I was just thinking about the nursery rhyme above this week and wondering (as I have before) what meanings were imbedded in it, so I found this post especially interesting. I love the title of your book.

  2. Thank you Elizabeth and Hunter, I am glad you enjoyed the post. Sometimes the title comes first and the book afterwards, but this time it was simultaneous :)


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