Most of us have grown up with nursery rhymes, such as Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Georgie Peorgie or Baa Baa Black Sheep, and all the others. Although singing with kids we add effects and movements to make them cute and fun, most of these rhymes have historical connotations behind them some of which are downright sinister.
We still recite these stories without knowing the colorful history or gossip behind them as these rumors and stories do not affect us. The story may have disappeared but the music is still repeated each time we sing along with kids. So I thought why not create a post and try to re-create the past hidden in these inconspicuous sounding rhymes. So I did a bit of research and compiled a few nursery rhymes and the meanings that were supposed to be behind them.
Most of the popular ones came from British politics, in fact they were invented as a way of spreading gossip about royalty. Almost every nursery rhyme has a story behind it. Baa Baa Black Sheep was about taxation, The Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.
This one is the one I called sinister, its about the black plague- the symptom of which included circles around the eyes (ring around the rosies), and coughing up dried blood from the lungs, resembling ashes. The pocket full of posies was a medieval belief that posies held some curative measures against the plague, so carrying around that flower would keep you safe. Finally, the last line spells out the unavoidable ending to the story, of everyone falling down, dead.
Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642-49). It was mounted on top of the St. Mary's at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it was captured by the Royalists who held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending "Humpty" tumbling to the ground. Naturally the King's men* tried to mend him but in vain. * The "men" would have been infantry, and "horses" the cavalry troops.
- From the East Anglia Tourist Board in England
Naughty "Georgie Porgie"of the Stuart era!
The origins of the lyrics to "Georgie Porgie" are English and refer to the courtier George Villiers, 1st duke of Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628). King James I took Villiers as his lover and nicknamed him "Steenie" (a reference to St. Stephen whom in the Bible describes as having the "face of an angel"). Villier's good looks also appealed to the ladies and his highly suspect morals were much in question!
Affair with the married lady - the Queen of France!
Villiers most notorious affair was with his liaison with Anne of Austria, (1601–1666) who was the Queen of France and married to the French King Louis XIII badly injured both of their reputations. This, however, was overlooked due to his great friendship with the English King, James I (1586 - 1625). He was disliked by both courtiers and commoners, not least for helping to arrange the marriage of King James' son to the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria (1609-1669) - he later became King Charles I (1600-1649).
George Villiers ( Georgie Porgie )exercised great influence over the King who allowed him many liberties. Villiers private liaisons and political scheming were questioned and Parliament who finally lost patience and stopped the King intervening on behalf of "Georgie Porgie". The romantic elements of of George Villiers and Anne of Austria are featured in the novel 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexander Dumas.
A picture of a French Revolution execution Scene during the Reign of Terror
The roots of the story, or poem, of Jack and Jill are in France. Jack and Jill referred to are said to be King Louis XVI - Jack -who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette - Jill - (who came tumbling after). The words and lyrics to the Jack and Jill poem were made more acceptable as a story for children by providing a happy ending! The actual beheadings occurred in during the Reign of Terror in 1793. The first publication date for the lyrics of Jack and Jill rhyme is 1795 - which ties-in with the history and origins.
The author of this well-loved lullaby was reportedly a pilgrim who sailed on the Mayflower. The Wampanoag Indians, who befriended the colonists, carried their infants in cradleboards on their backs. In temperate weather, they suspended the cradles from tree limbs so that passing breezes could rock the babies while their mothers tended the maize and beans. With typical motherly indulgence, the cradles were decorated with shells, beads and porcupine quills. For sober-minded puritans, the sight of a birch tree festooned with such cradles must have been very memorable indeed.
The Mary alluded to in this traditional English nursery rhyme is reputed to be Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who was the daughter of King Henry VIII. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the garden referred to is an allusion to graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith - Protestant martyrs.
Instruments of Torture!
The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The 'silver bells' were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The 'cockleshells' were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!
The " Maids" or Maiden was the original guillotine!
The 'maids' were a device to behead people called the Maiden. Beheading a victim was fraught with problems. It could take up to 11 blows to actually sever the head, the victim often resisted and had to be chased around the scaffold. Margaret Pole (1473 - 1541), Countess of Salisbury did not go willingly to her death and had to be chased and hacked at by the Executioner. These problems led to the invention of a mechanical instrument (now known as the guillotine) called the Maiden - shortened to Maids in the Mary Mary Nursery Rhyme.
This drawing was created by the talented Scottish artist Shona Penny - was inspired by the origins of the 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary' Nursery Rhyme.
Goosey, Goosey Gander is a Rhyme with Historical undertones - an attention grabber for a nursery rhyme which uses alliteration in the lyrics designed to intrigue any child. The 'lady's chamber' was a room that once upon a time a high born lady would have her own chamber, (also referred to as a solar). The origins of the nursery rhyme are believed to date back to the 16th century and refer to necessity for Catholic priests to hide in 'Priest Holes' ( very small secret rooms once found in many great houses in England) to avoid persecution from zealous Protestants who were totally against the old Catholic religion. If caught both the priest and members of any family found harbouring them were executed. The moral in Goosey Goosey Gander's lyrics imply that something unpleasant would surely happen to anyone failing to say their prayers correctly - meaning the Protestant Prayers, said in English as opposed to Catholic prayers which were said in Latin!
ALTERNATE VERSION: The rhyme possibly could also refer to Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. The first line is a reference to "goose-stepping" Roundheads who would search houses for Royalists. Anyone who refused to accept Puritan ways was arrested and thrown in jail.
There are many who will possibly have different interpretations to each and some who will even refute that this is actually what they mean, but still it's fun to read the stories and rumours circulating behind some of our favorite memories of oft-repeated rhymes from our childhood which we undoubtedly want to pass on to our kids.