Whenever parents are singing nursery rhymes to their babies, toddlers or young school-aged kids, they probably don’t even think about the origins of those innocent-sounding songs. Additionally, preschool and kindergarten teachers are singing nursery rhymes to their very young students as well. You probably remember your parents and teachers singing them to you as well when you were little!
However, if you are a parent and/or a teacher who has been singing nursery rhymes to your small children and/or students- would you still be singing them if you knew how dark the origins of these so-called innocent nursery rhymes really are? Actually, let’s rephrase that question. Would you be singing songs to your little kids that had to do with being burned at the stake, rotting corpses, the plague or prostitution? Hopefully not! But the fact of the matter is, the origins of nursery rhymes are all incredibly morbid!
Now, let’s talk about how morbid and twisted they are! In fact, we are going to look at the top 10 of people’s favourite nursery rhymes and examine them the same way you would be performing an autopsy- which is taking a good look at each one and talk about them in detail.
The Twisted Stories Behind the Top 10 Nursery Rhymes
Jack and Jill
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.
Whenever a young child hears this particular nursery rhyme, they probably just think of two kids running up the hill to get a bucket of water. And then, the little boy, Jack who wore a crown fell down and broke it. Then the little girl, Jill fell down as well. That just sounds like two kids playing and ended up having a minor accident by falling.
However, the origin of Jack and Jill is a lot more ominous than that! Jack was actually France’s Louis XVI, and Jill was his wife, Marie Antoinette. They were convicted of treason during the French Revolution, which was also known as the Reign of Terror. Therefore, both Jack and Jill were beheaded. Jack’s turn was first, which is what they meant when they said he lost his crown. And Jill was beheaded shortly after, which is what they meant when they said she came tumbling after- her head that is!
However, there is another interpretation of this grisly nursery rhyme. Apparently, this one was about a couple that really did exist in the late 17th century. They used to sneak up to the top of the hill for some adulterous activities. Then Jill got pregnant, then Jack ended up falling on a rock and cracked his skull. In the end, Jill came down tumbling after by dying from childbirth! How lovely is that?
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?
Actually, this particular nursery rhyme sounds creepy enough without even knowing the meaning. But here are goods on where this bone-chilling nursery rhyme came from. The farmer’s wife represented Queen Mary I who was also referred to as Bloody Mary. Since she forced Catholicism on the citizens of England, anyone who went against her plan had to face dire consequences. Therefore, three noblemen did that by sticking to their Protestant faith. So instead of her chopping their tails off, she ended up burning them to the stake- which really is not any better when you think about it!
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row
Whenever you think of this nursery rhyme from a kids’ perspective, they may just imagine a garden with silver bells and cockleshells, with pretty maids in a row along the garden. That sounds innocent, right? Well, the origin of this nursery rhyme is far from innocent!
In fact, it has to do with the lovely Bloody Mary once again. It was bad enough that she burned three noblemen who insisted on being Protestant to the stake. But they were not the only ones who she killed that went against her rules. The garden in this nursery rhyme represents the graveyard that was filled with corpses of her victims- who were tortured. Silver bells were thumb screws that were torture devices. Cockle shells were genital torture devices as well, and the pretty maids in a row represented the people who were lined up to be executed by the guillotine! Yikes!
Ring Around The Rosie
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Don’t you remember being in the first grade and holding your friends’ hands and you were all in a circle dancing to this song? That was until you had gotten to the we all fall down line, then you literally fell! Well, this nursery rhyme had nothing to do with dancing around some rose bush. It had to do with the bubonic plague that killed about 200 million people in the 14th century! The ring around the rosie represented the rash that was a symptom of the plague which looked like a ring on the skin. The pocket full of posies were the sweet smelling flowers people carried to mask the stench of death all around them. And the ashes part was due to the fact that those who had the plague were decomposing alive, and then they all fell down, meaning they died!
London Bridge Is Falling Down
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Whenever you heard this song when you were a child, you probably pictured a bridge in London breaking off and falling, which is not a great image for a child to have to begin with. However, even that sounds a lot more innocent than the real meaning of this nursery rhyme. In fact, there are several horrific interpretations.
One interpretation is that it was basically about child sacrifice. That meant how children basically had to be inserted into the bridge’s foundation in order to prevent it from falling. Another theory was that it had to do with the attack of the Vikings. Olaf II of Norway in the 11th century had destroyed the London Bridge. Therefore, it is possible that this grisly nursery rhyme originated from that!
However, it is the most likely that the real interpretation of this nursery rhyme is that it represented Anne Boleyn, who was the second wife of English King Henry VIII that rose to power but fell quickly. That is when she was accused of adultery and incest, and her punishment was her being beheaded!
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.
There are a few theories behind this particular nursery rhyme. Many people think that Humpty Dumpty was referenced to how the average village drunkards fell, and some fell to their deaths.
Another interpretation of this one was that the cannon that was used during the English Civil War was what represented Humpty Dumpty. The story behind that one was that the cannon was destroyed by cannonballs, and it fell into a marshland. Therefore, it couldn’t be repaired.
However, it is quite likely that the story behind this nursery rhyme was about King Richard III of England. It was speculated that he had a humpback. However, the story is likely from the fact that King Richard III went to war at the Battle of Bosworth. That is when he fell off his horse, which was referenced as the wall, and ended up being chopped into pieces by his enemies! That is likely where this nursery rhyme came from! How lovely is that?
Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well
This particular nursery rhyme was different from the others because it originated in America instead of England. When this particular one originated which was centuries ago, views on divorce were much different than they are today! And even though infidelity is still completely wrong on so many levels, back then the consequences were worse.
In this case, it is believed that Peter’s wife was a harlot, and the only way Peter could fix the situation was to kill her. Then he placed her corpse inside of giant pumpkin shell to hide the body. But the question is, how long could the corpse be hidden in a pumpkin shell. Both the pumpkin and the corpse would be emitting the stench of decay and be moving around due to billions of maggots. Hmm!
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa baa black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the Master,
One for the Dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.
This particular one is not gruesome per se, but it is about taxes! Therefore, the other nursery rhymes were about the first guarantee in life- and this one is about the other! King Edward, I realized that he could make a lot of money by taxing sheep farmers in the 13th century. After the new tax laws came in, one-third of the cost of wool went to the church, one third went to the King, and the farmer received the last third. Therefore, the shepherd received nothing who represented the boy crying down the lane. More than anything, this nursery rhyme represents woe and misery.
Ladybird ladybird fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one called Anne
For she has crept under the frying pan.
The ladybird represents a Catholic in England in the 16th century whereas the country was Protestant. In fact, ladybird comes from Our Lady which is a Catholic term. Back then, it was illegal for Catholics to practice their religion. Additionally, if anyone did not attend the mandatory Protestant services, they would be facing dire consequences. Catholics would end up practicing their faith in secret. If they were caught, they were burned to death. The fire probably represented the Catholics priests that were burned at the stake!
Three men in a tub,
And how do you think they got there?
The butcher, the baker, and candlestick maker,
It was enough to make a man stare.
This nursery rhyme is quite tame compared to the other nine listed. Rub-a-dub-dub
is likely about a gay peep show, and there was such a thing centuries ago- especially for the royalty and nobility. It is also quite possible that the working class also had clandestine man-on-man entertainment of their own.
However, this nursery rhyme has had different versions to it as Three men in a tub had replaced at one time Three maids in a tub.
This version was the the heterosexual version. It represented three naked women in a tub who were watched by men. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were the three men who wanted to join them.
Now that you know the dark and disturbing stories behind these nursery rhymes, are you shocked or not at all surprised? Will you continue singing them to your kids and/or students? If these kids ever ask you the meaning behind these grisly nursery rhymes, what will you tell them- or will you tell them? Just remember that they will eventually find out the meanings of these gruesome nursery rhymes on their own! And, we can only hope they don’t until they are much older.