Thursday, 21 February 2013

A rhyme in time

Nursery rhymes are a key part of everyone's childhood and many have their origins and meaning affiliated with the 16th century. Children tend to take them at face value so they enjoy the rhyme and characters but they don't know the deeper meaning behind the rhyme, which is probably a good thing in many cases due to their often sinister origins. Rhymes were used as ways of criticising or heralding figures and as ways of expressing political/religious opinions in a way that was more discreet than open discussion. The characters in the rhymes are often meant to represent well known Tudor figures so I'll categorise rhymes by the figure featuring in them.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and 'The grand old Duke of York' 

Oh 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. 

This rhyme was published in the 17th century and it mockingly refers to the defeat of the Duke of York in the 15th century English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York was an incredibly rich and powerful man but he was often excluded from court due to the favourite nobles of King Henry VI. This unfair exclusion led to York's resentment of the king's 'evil councilors' and it came to a climax in the 1455 Battle of St Albans. At that point York was not looking to take the throne for himself, he was just planning to take control of Henry VI and act as his adviser. But York's resentments grew as he was continually slighted and in 1460 York claimed the throne for himself, this was possible as his mother was the great-granddaughter of Edward III's second son. York's claim was not well received by the nobility so he was unable to set himself up as king. 
York was killed in battle in December 1460 at the battle of Wakefield, he had been sheltering in Sandal Castle with a small force of men when he saw the Lancastrian army, which he mistakenly thought to be a foraging party. Unfortunately for York it was the main Lancastrian army so his force was overpowered and crushed. York had not been very popular with the nobility due to his overbearing arrogance and this may reflect on the treatment of his body. After his death he was stripped and his head was cut off, it was the stuck on a spike on the gates of the city of York and mockingly dressed with a paper crown. 

Henry VII and 'Sing a song of sixpence' 

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.  

The rhyme was published in the 18th century but the meaning/characters lead back to the 16th century. In this rhyme the king is often thought to be Henry VII as he gained a reputation as a miser in the later years of his reign so it seems appropriate for him to be found in a counting house. A counting house is quite literally the room or building where financial accounts and documents would have been kept and used. As Henry VII is often perceived to be the king in the rhyme, his wife Elizabeth of York is seen as the queen. The practice of putting live birds in a pie so that they would fly out when it was cut was popular in the 16th century due to the surprise and entertainment that such a dish provided, a recipe for this type of pie has been found in a 1549 Italian cook book. 
It has also been suggested that the characters in the rhyme are representations of Henry VIII and his love triangle with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Where Henry is the king, Katherine the queen and Anne the maid. This interpretation then suggests that the blackbirds represent the disaffected monks who had been affected by the dissolution of the monasteries. 

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and '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. 

Published in the 18th century there are many versions of the rhyme and many interpretations of its meaning, and one interpretation is that Humpty Dumpty represents Thomas Wolsey. The phrase 'humpty dumpty' was never originally associated with an egg as in the 16th century it was used as an insulting name for an overweight person. Therefore there is good ground for assuming that Wolsey is Humpty Dumpty as he became quite overweight and he was unpopular with many people due to his humble origins so he would have been insulted by many people (mostly behind his back).

The meaning behind the rhyme then leads us to the village of Cawood in Yorkshire, as in 1530 Wolsey lived at Cawood Castle for nine months. It is said that while at Cawood Wolsey developed the habit of walking the castle walls and he would sit on the high tower wall in order to admire the view. So we have our Humpty sitting on a wall, but where does the fall come into it? The fall is not a literal fall, so Wolsey never took a tumble from his seat on the wall, but he did fall from power. He fell from power and the king's favour when he failed to secure a divorce for Henry VIII, so he was stripped of many of his titles and sent north to his bishopric of York.

'All the king's horses and all the king's men' were then sent to arrest Wolsey on a charge of treason, and they began to escort him down to London. But they 'couldn't put Humpty together again' as Wolsey took ill on the journey and died aged 60 at Leicester on the 29th November 1530. Wolsey's body was then buried in Leicester Abbey.

Katherine of Aragon and 'I had a little nut tree' 

I had a little nut tree, 
nothing would it bear 
but a silver nutmeg, 
and a golden pear, 
the King of Spain's daughter 
came to visit me, 
and all for the sake 
of my little nut tree. 
Her dress was made of crimson, 
golden was her hair, 
she asked me for my nut tree 
and my golden pear. 
I said, "So fair a princess 
never did I see, 
I'll give you all the fruit 
from my little nut tree. 

Published in the 18th century this rhyme may have been written to herald the marriage of Katherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur. The couple were betrothed when they were just toddlers and actually married when they were 16 so the people of England knew that a great princess would be coming to England, so the rhyme may have been written in lieu of that. The King of Spain referenced in the rhyme is Ferdinand of Aragon, Katherine's father, although technically it could mean Isabella of Castile, Katherine's mother, as she was a queen regnant so was sometimes called 'King of Castile'. In her youth Katherine was famed for her beauty so this corresponds with the rhyme calling her a 'fair princess' and she is known to have had golden hair, which did not match with the 16th century view that Spanish women had dark hair and sallow complexions.

Queen Mary I and 'Mary, Mary quite contrary' 

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

Published in the 18th century this rhyme alludes to Mary I and there are two common ways of interpreting the rhyme. The first way interprets the 'Mary' as being Mary I and it treats the rhyme as an allegory to Catholicism where the bells represent the sanctus bells, the cockle shells represent the badges of pilgrims to the shrine of St James and the maids represent nuns. 

The second interpretation is altogether more sinister as again the 'Mary' is seen as Mary I, but in this instance she is viewed more as the traditional image of 'Bloody Mary'. This interpretation suggests that she is 'quite contrary' as her reign launched the counter-reformation which changed the measures brought in under the two previous monarchs. As a jab at the queen 'how does your garden grow?' can be taken to refer to Mary's lack of an heir as she had suffered two phantom pregnancies. The meaning then grows more sinister as the 'silver bells' and 'cockle shells' are colloquial terms for instruments of torture, the former being thumbscrews and the latter being a device that was attached to a man's genitals. The 'pretty maids' are either viewed as a reference to Mary's husband, Philip II of Spain, having mistresses or as an early form of the guillotine, known as the maiden, which was used in some executions. 
Queen Elizabeth I and 'Rain rain go away' 

Rain, rain go away, 
come again another day. 
Little Johnny wants to play; 
Rain, rain go to Spain, 
never show your face again!  

Published in the 17th century this rhyme refers to the Philip II's attempted invasion of England in 1588 with the Spanish Armada. The invasion failed partially due to the small fast English ships which outmaneuvered the more cumbersome Spanish ships and due to the stormy conditions. During the storm the English were lucky to have the wind blowing out towards the Spaniards so they were able to sail fireships out into the Spanish fleet, causing it to break formation. The Spanish ships then tried to retreat but many were ship wrecked by the storm so only 67 of the original 151 ships made it back to Spain. Therefore the line 'rain, rain go to Spain' is a clear call for the Spaniards to take the storm away with them. 

Queen Mary I and 'Three blind mice' 

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? 

Published in the 19th century this rhyme is thought to refer to Mary I and the persecution of Protestants in her brief reign. In the rhyme the farmer's wife represents Mary, the significance of her being a 'farmer's wife' could be that she was reconciling England with Rome so she was herding her flock back to their spiritual shepherd. The 'farmer' who is only alluded to could be a reference to Philip II of Spain, Mary's husband, as he was a notable Catholic monarch who was determined to help Mary in her quest to salvage England's soul. The 'three blind mice' are thought to represent three Protestant bishops who refused to comply with Mary's religious policies so they were persecuted; their blindness may be a reference, from a Catholic viewpoint, to the bishops' blindness to the 'true religion'. 
Although there is a clear mention of decapitation in the rhyme it is unlikely that Protestant bishops would have suffered this, if they refused to recant their beliefs they would have been imprisoned and then they may have faced a heretic's death by burning. 

There are more rhymes with Tudor connections so if you know of some or would like to know about a particular rhyme, leave a comment and I'll add it in if  I can find some information on it.


  1. Interesting stuff! How about three blind mice? That's a violent one so its probably got a good historical meaning behind it, something to do with Henry VIII or Bloody Mary maybe?

    1. Hi,
      I think you're right and that it does have something to do with Mary, I'll look in to it and add it in when I get the chance. Thanks for commenting!

  2. And Mary, Mary Quite Contrary is also thought to be about Mary, Queen of Scots.

    1. You're right, no one's entirely sure which Mary it is about but Mary Queen of Scots and Mary I of England are usually suggested. Thanks for commenting!