10 Violent nursery rhymes and their equally violent background stories

Every night, like many other parents out there, I read my son nursery rhymes. Some of them I am familiar with, while others I have faint memories of. But one thing that struck me is how violent most of them are.

With Goosey Gander, for example, a man gets taken by the leg and thrown down the stairs for not saying his prayers. A silly egg named Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall and could not be repaired as he shattered all over the place.

The King of Hearts beats the Knave of Hearts for stealing some tarts from the Queen. Little Tommy Stout abuses a cat by putting it in a well and different species of bird all mourn Cock Robin after the Sparrow kills him with his bow and arrow.

Jack falls down a hill and breaks his crown – and why oh why are boys made of snails and puppy dog’s tails and girls are made of nice stuff – hardly fair! I think my three-year-old was quite offended by that (or I was offended for him).

Anyway, I digress – what you may or may not know is that some of these nursery rhymes have some equally violent origins, some of which I list down below:

  1. Goosey, Goosey Gander: Apparently a lot of historians believe that this rhyme refers to priest holes, which were hiding places for Catholic priests during the persecutions under King Henry VIII and later under Oliver Cromwell. If the priests were discovered they would be forcibly removed (thrown down stairs) and treated badly.
  2. Baa Baa Black Sheep: You might think that this nursery rhyme is just about a cute fluffy sheep offering up his wool to keep some people happy, but it’s not. Some theorise that it actually refers to the heavy taxes that people would have to pay back in feudal times. One third would be taken for the king/nobility, another for the church and the farmers would be left with very little. Earlier versions end with “But none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” Pleasant, eh?
  3. Rub-a-dub-dub: Yeah, there were three people in the tub alright but they were apparently women who were part of a sideshow at a fair and being ogled at by ‘respectable’ gentlemen. Let’s keep to the version where there was a male butcher, baker and candlestick maker – shall we?
  4. Three blind mice: It’s a story about an abusive farmer’s wife that basically dismembers some cute (but mischievous) blind mice. Some believe it refers to Queen Mary I of Scotland blinding and executing three Protestant bishops.
  5. London Bridge is falling down: Some think it relates to the supposed destruction of London Bridge by Olaf II of Norway in 1014. However, a more sinister theory ‘the child sacrifice theory’ refers to the burying (perhaps alive) of children in foundations of the bridge. This was based on a belief that a bridge would fall down unless there was a human sacrifice.
  6. Ring a Ring o’Roses: Urban legend theorists would have us believe that this rhyme was referring to the Great Plague or the Black Death. Either way, sneezing back in the early days was never a good thing…people did fall down, usually forever.
  7. Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater: Some theorise this ditty is about a woman who was unfaithful and a husband who kills her for it…Nice (not).
  8. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary: You guessed it – this rhyme could also be referencing that evil Queen Mary I of England and her murderous ways. The “pretty maids in a row” was thought to either refer to her miscarriages or her execution of Lady Jane Grey. “Rows and Rows” is thought to be linked to her executions of Protestants.
  9. Georgie Porgie: Apparently this rhyme was meant to refer to George Villiers who was a bisexual nobleman. While he was having an affair with King James I, he was also known as a womanizer who had sexual relationships with the wives and daughters of English nobleman. “Kissed the girls and made them cry…” indeed!
  10. Oranges and lemons: Some believe it wasn’t about fruit but about child sacrifice, public executions or Henry VIII’s marital difficulties. However, the last two lines which talks about chopping off heads was only added later so the theories could be complete hogwash too.

There are so many more violent nursery rhymes. Some may reference violence and suffering that happened historically, but not all of this has been categorically proven. There’s just a lot of theory and supposition around it. Others are just plain violent on their own. Some are gibberish and others just fantastic.

My belief is if they give your baby or toddler a good giggle then I guess there’s no harm in reading it to them. There’s also no need to tell them the sinister meanings and theories behind them. A lot of them also have morals and lessons so if you feel guilty focus on those and ensure that your children get the good out of the ditties, rather than the bad. If you are really worried, just skip over the gory ones!

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One thought on “10 Violent nursery rhymes and their equally violent background stories

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