My father gave me a beautifully illustrated book of rhymes for my sixth birthday that I loved dearly. It stayed in the family for years, its delicate pages turned by many after me till the worn and tattered pages broke free from the binding and collected in haphazard piles all around our home.
The book is all but gone now but its lovely sing-song rhymes are still vivid in my memory and roll off my tongue easily to this day.
However as an adult, I’ve wondered at the peculiar stories of those rhymes. Some were downright violent and others unfolded like disjointed events in a dream. Imagine my fascination when I learned that rhymes were used as a sort of satire on royal and political events many centuries ago, since to criticise openly usually meant death. Here are six of the most common with rather outlandish historical backgrounds.
Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silverbells and cockleshells
and pretty maids all in a row
Now this one is pretty gruesome. Far from the beautiful maiden I see in my mind’s eye surrounded by beautiful blossoms in her garden, the Mary referred to here is believed to be Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII. She was also known as ‘Bloody Mary’, the staunch Catholic Queen of England who tortured Protestants with instruments like cockleshells and thumbscrews. The ‘garden’ is believed to be the mass graveyard she buried them in when they died. Some have attributed the line ‘How does your garden grow?’ as a sarcastic reference to her being barren while ‘pretty maids all in a row’ refer to the many virgins ready to take her place and give the king an heir. Either way, it does not a pretty picture make.
Ring a Ring O’ Rosies, a pocket full o’ posies
Atishoo, atishoo we all fall down
This nursery rhyme is sad and tells of a dismal time in London when the Great Bubonic Plague killed almost half the population in 1665. The ‘ring of roses’ refers to a body rash in the shape of a ring that people contracted while ‘pocket full o’ posies’ were the herbs people shoved into their pockets in hopes to ward off the infection. ‘Atishoo’ references the sneezing the infection brought on and ‘all fall down’ unfortunately refers to the death they eventually succumbed to.
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
Probably the most memorable of nursery rhymes but just as dark as the ones before. French historians say Jack most likely refers to King Louis XVI who was beheaded during the infamous Reign of Terror, hence he ‘lost his crown’. ‘Jill came tumbling after’ speaks of his Queen, Marie Antoinette who suffered the same fate at the guillotine later.
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?
Kids learn this tune in school when playing the recorder or piano but oh, what a gruesome story lurks behind it. The ‘farmer’s wife’ is thought to be Queen Mary (yes, Bloody Mary the staunch Catholic). She pops up again in this rhyme where her status as ‘farmer’s wife’ refers to the massive estates she and husband King Philip of Spain owned. The ‘three blind mice’ were three Protestant noblemen who were convicted for plotting against her. But as history goes, she did not dismember them as in the rhyme. Worse – she burnt them at the stake.
Humpty Dumpty sat on wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
So I grew up thinking he was an egg – turns out Humpty Dumpty was the name given to a great cannon that protected St. Mary’s Church. This was during the English Civil War of 1642-1649. Perched on a high wall within the church grounds, Humpty Dumpty was blown off its perch by invading forces during an attack. The soldiers scrambled desperately to lift the hefty cannon back up, but this was difficult as it was so heavy and they were being slaughtered by the dozens. Finally the weary soldiers had to surrender, having failed in getting Humpty Dumpty working again.
I, for one, am relieved that I only know of these stories now. I cannot imagine how my little innocent head would have taken to these tales of horror had I known them as a child. Cliché as it is, sometimes ignorance is bliss!