Within moments of reading the first few words, we’re immediately transported back to our childhoods. “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…” The nostalgia! Yes, nursery rhymes have continued to hold a special place in people’s hearts for centuries now. But your opinion of the catchy ditties could change dramatically when you learn about their sinister origins.
According to the BBC, nursery rhymes date back to around the 1300s. Though it adds that their so-called “golden age” wouldn’t begin for another 400 years. And at that point, several of our favorite songs finally came into being.
It wasn’t until the publication of Tommy Thumb’s Song Book in Britain in the 1740s that nursery rhymes really ingrained into our collective psyches. But why are they so important? Well, the verses are said to help the mental skills of youngsters, and that’s not all.
Seth Lerer – who’s a dean of humanities and arts at the University of California in San Diego – told the BBC that nursery rhymes aid language development and build bonds. But do their words have a deeper meaning? Well, to answer that question, we’ve taken a closer look at 12 beloved examples. And you’ll be shocked by what we found.
12. ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’
Thanks to its name, parents might believe that “Goosey Goosey Gander” is an innocent nursery rhyme for their kids to enjoy. And to be honest, the first few lines don’t ring any alarm bells either. It’s just a goose walking around a house, right? Well, that soon changes when the titular character enters their “lady’s chamber.”
Then, things take a turn. “There, I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers, so I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.” That’s pretty violent! As it turns out, this nursery rhyme is actually detailing the treatment of Catholic priests while King Henry VIII sat on the throne. He was a Protestant, you see.
So, if the priests continued to stick to their Catholic teachings, Henry would sentence them to die. The Sun newspaper reported that one particular practice involved the use of a flight of stairs – hence the nursery rhyme’s grim conclusion. Yet what about the name? Back then, goose was another word to describe a prostitute. In turn, it was seen as a way to insult the church.
11. ‘Little Bo Peep’
Unlike some other well-known nursery rhymes, “Little Bo Peep” is already pretty dark on the surface. Yes, it starts with our titular character losing her flock of sheep. But the horror is dialled up to the max by the end. “She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed, for they left their tails behind them.”
In the story, Little Bo Peep discovers the sheeps’ tails hanging from a tree. Yep, that visual is sure to give any child nightmares. The rhyme itself emerged in the 1800s – before appearing in The Nursery Parnassus publication in 1810. Does it have a deeper meaning, though? Well, an English lecturer at Loughborough University called Dr. Oliver Tearle connected the verse to an old game.
Writing for the website Interesting Literature in 2018, Tearle explained, “There is a possible game-link. The children’s game ‘Bo-Peep’ – a game played with babies in which a handkerchief is thrown over their head, with the adult calling out boldly, ‘Bo,’ then lifting up a corner and saying, ‘Peep!’ This game is also known as peekaboo. The idea of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t is certainly relevant to Little Bo Peep’s lost sheep.”
10. ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’
The opening lines to “London Bridge is Falling Down” are pretty memorable, right? But beyond that, the verse is pretty lengthy – going through the various building materials that hold the structure up. Mind you, if you look a little deeper, the origins of this nursery rhyme are sure to leave you gobsmacked.
While the “Old London Bridge” was constructed back in the 13th century, the rhyme itself didn’t emerge until the 1800s. Anyway, The Sun claims that it’s referencing the deaths of hungry youngsters who were apparently entombed within the old structure. We told you it was a shocker! Why would something like that happen, though?
As per the British newspaper, it was a deliberate action called “immurement.” Simply put, those poor people were meant to keep constructions from collapsing. Yet there is some potential light at the end of this tunnel. According to HuffPost, no one’s uncovered proof of this practice near the old bridge in London, England.
9. ‘There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe’
Compared to some of the longer nursery rhymes, “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is nice and simple. Then again, it doesn’t end on that happiest of notes for her kids. “She gave them some broth without any bread, then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.” Ouch!
Now, there are two different explanations behind the origins of this verse. The first relates to King George II and Queen Caroline. As reported by the website allnurseryrhymes.com, some believed that the U.K. monarchs were combined to create the titular character. They were parents to eight kids – with each one joining Parliament.
So using that as a base, the shoe was meant to be Parliament, as George apparently struggled to keep a handle on things there. As for the alternative origin, it’s a bit… steamier. The Sun claimed that it was actually detailing the story of a “very fertile woman.” You see, during the 1790s the term “shoe” referenced the ability to conceive.
8. ‘Three Blind Mice’
When it comes to catchy nursery rhymes, you can’t beat “Three Blind Mice.” This verse has gone through some changes down the years after it originally emerged in 1609. But since the 1800s, its words have remained the same. So what does it mean? And is there a message in there?
You bet there is! The key line is this one, “They all ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife.” The lady in question was meant to be Queen Mary I – otherwise known as Bloody Mary. As for the mice, they represented three bishops who practiced Protestantism.
Those men were burned alive by Mary, who was a devout Catholic. And according to HuffPost, the blindness refers to their choice of faith. It takes some of the fun out of the rhyme, right?! Then again, slicing the tail off a metaphorical mouse is a little more palatable for kids than the true meaning.
7. ‘Little Miss Muffet’
Not only is “Little Miss Muffet” an enjoyable nursery rhyme, but it’s also relatable to arachnophobes. It goes, “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider, who sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away.”
But is there a deeper message to the rhyme if you look at it closely? Truthfully, no one seems to know – even though “Little Miss Muffet” has been around for hundreds of years. Mind you, the website Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose offered up an intriguing explanation regarding its origins.
You see, the website claimed that a man named Dr. Thomas Muffet penned the verse. As a naturalist, he took a keen interest in bugs. But his stepdaughter wasn’t a fan of the creepy-crawlies. So it’s believed that she was scared by a spider one day, which prompted Muffet to get to work. We’re sure that she was delighted by the results!
6. ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’
When it was first written, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” apparently had a slightly different opening. It actually began “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” Anyway, this is yet another example of a seemingly innocent nursery rhyme that harbors a bone-chilling meaning. But its origins can’t be pinpointed to one specific source.
According to the BBC Culture website, the verse could be attributed to Queen Mary I. Unlike her dad King Henry VIII, she was very much against the Protestants – dispatching those who aligned themselves to the faith. So, the growing “garden” is said to represent the cemeteries from her reign. How cheerful!
But it just gets worse. Remember the line “with silver bells, and cockleshells”? Well, they’re reportedly both torture devices. The former was a thumbscrew, and the latter attacked a person’s private parts. It’s enough to make you wince! Meanwhile, The Sun suggested that Mary, Queen of Scots was the rhyme’s focus, as she was just as brutal.
5. ‘Jack and Jill’
You all know the words to “Jack and Jill” right? It’s a classic, after all. But if you’re drawing a blank, it goes like this, “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.” Some other lines have been put into the verse as time’s gone on, but that’s the version most of us remember.
So what does the rhyme mean? Is it merely a story about two people falling down a hill? Well, as you can probably guess, there’s more to it than that. The Sun reported that the ditty might have something to do with King Charles I, who was particularly interested in “liquid measures” and their taxation.
Quite simply, Charles wanted to boost the tax, which led him to downsize the existing alcoholic measurements. After that, half and quarter glasses – or “crowns” and “jills” – were slashed. So yes, that beloved nursery rhyme may very well be about tumbling beer servings. You’ll never see it the same way again!
4. ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’
If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance that you sang “Rock-a-bye Baby” to your kids at some point. After all, it’s one of the most recognizable nursery rhymes out there. But did you know that the famous ditty has two very different origin stories? The first relates to King James II and his newborn son.
As per BBC Culture, stories circulated that James’ son might’ve been swapped with another baby after he was born. And that latter child was said to be Roman Catholic. Meanwhile, the “when the wind blows, the cradle will rock” line supposedly represents the Protestants pushing in on the royal family. Literature students would have a field day breaking this down!
Yet the second origin story is far more grisly. You see, back in the 1600s a ritual existed for grieving parents. If their young babies died, the bodies would be tied to the branches of a tree in an attempt to revive them. Instead, the wood normally buckled under the weight, which ties into the rhyme’s last line. Pretty haunting, right?
3. ‘Humpty Dumpty’
“Humpty Dumpty” is another iconic nursery rhyme that many of us should be able to recite in seconds. It’s also one of the easiest to visualize, as the character has taken on a recognizable form since the verse made its bow in the early 1800s. Yes, he’s essentially a giant egg.
But is the rhyme actually based on anything? Well, HuffPost reported that its origins were tied to the English Civil War. This series of conflicts spanned nine years between 1642 and 1651, as the nation’s Royalist and Parliamentary armies clashed. Anyway, the key moment in Humpty Dumpty’s development came in 1648.
At that time, Royalist men were stationed in Colchester, England, defending the area with a wall-mounted cannon. In the end, the opposing army attacked the structure, which caused the weapon to plummet and take damage. They tried to fix it, but “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
2. ‘Little Jack Horner’
While “Little Jack Horner” might not have the name recognition of other more famous nursery rhymes, it’s still a very catchy ditty. If you don’t know it, it goes like this, “Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating a Christmas pie. He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said, ‘What a good boy am I!’”
The rhyme has been in print since the 1760s – entertaining youngsters everywhere. But the deeper meaning behind it isn’t quite as cheerful. As per HuffPost, its origins can be traced back to King Henry VIII’s reign, at around the time that he washed his hands of Catholicism. So one of the bishops from the church looked to buy Henry off to save his life.
Richard Whiting apparently placed 12 deeds inside a single pie, and he asked his steward to get it to Henry. The steward’s name? One Jack Horner. Yet the plan didn’t work in the end, and it led to the bishop’s execution. Here’s the kicker, though. While Horner’s family deny it, there’s been a long-held suggestion that he’d taken one of the houses on offer. Just like the plum!
1. ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’
Since it made its debut back in 1881, “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” has become one of the most famous nursery rhymes in the English-speaking world. It’s short, sweet and boasts a dance that any child can take part in. Just clasp someone’s hand and get your groove on up to the final line, “a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down.”
Now for the longest time, it’s been speculated that this joyful verse harbors an incredibly dark origin. Specifically, the rhyme is said to detail the effects of the bubonic plague. You might know it better as the Black Death. As per HuffPost, the condition wiped out 100,000 Londoners in 1665 – 25 percent of the city’s population at the time.
And if you take a closer look at the words, it all seems to come together. For instance, the ring was meant to represent the welts that formed near a person’s mouth. As for the final line, that obviously signaled death. It’s not the nicest thing in the world to dance about, is it?!