Hidden Histories of 3 Popular Nursery Rhymes

Though written for children, nursery rhymes often conceal references to historical events. Here are the hidden stories behind three popular nursery rhymes.

Humpty Dumpty

This classic nursery rhyme is also a history lesson in the English Civil War. Humpty Dumpty was not originally an egg, as immortalized by John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass published in 1871. Rather, the name referred to a cannon used by the army of Charles I in 1648 to deter the opposing army of Parliamentarians. In fact, there are two preceding verses, now mostly forgotten, that name the expert gunner, One-Eyed Thompson, and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty. The cannon was mounted on a church tower and effectively defended the town of Colchester for nearly three months. Eventually, however, the church tower was knocked down and the cannon tumbled into the marsh below, never to be found. Thus all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

London Bridge Is Falling Down

The original London Bridge was built by the Romans, though has since been replaced numerous times. This bridge, as the song details, fell down. In fact, it fell down frequently due to disrepair, a far more mundane explanation than the widely posited reason for its collapse, invasion by Viking armies. The earliest citation of the lyrics date to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, but a previous version in Henry Carey’s Namby Pamby records the line as “London Bridge is broken down.”

Ring Around the Rosie

Many have interpreted this rhyme as referring to the bubonic plague, which swept through England at the turn of the 15th century and again in the 17th century. This interpretation correlates the rosie rings with the red circular rashes that were symptoms of the plague, and the pockets full of posies with an herbal treatment to deter the terrible ailment. However, folklorists and historical linguists take issue with this interpretation because the rhyme did not appear in print until the late 1800s, hundreds of years after the plague. Also, there is no known reference tying roses to symptoms of the plague in historical texts of the time. This dark interpretation appears to be a revisionist history of a silly children’s rhyme.

What other nursery rhymes are you curious about? Have you heard any unusual origin stories of them?