The Disturbing Origins of Beloved Nursery Rhymes

How wars and plagues were immortalized in... nursery rhymes.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Nursery rhymes are fun to sing. They’re easy to learn. And they’re for kids—right? Not exactly. It might sound cynical—even fairytales don’t seem to be the most child-friendly—but there’s some truth to it. Many of the most beloved nursery rhymes actually have some dark stories behind them. From plagues to wars, the disturbing origins of these nursery rhymes are not so safe for kids. 

1| Jack and Jill

This famous children’s song might seem like a simple story of waters and hills. But it’s rooted in an old English tale that takes place in the humble village of Kilmersdon. Times were different in the 15th century, especially for the real Jack and Jill themselves. Being a young, unmarried couple at the time meant that certain types of contact would be deemed as inappropriate. That also meant that a nearby hill would be the only place where they could carry on their affair without the judgment of society. As such, Jill became pregnant not long after they started the tryst. Unfortunately, before their love child was born, Jack died when a rock from the hill fell on him—presumably where the line, “Jack fell down and broke his crown” came from. And just as the line “Jill came tumbling after” goes, Jill passed away as well while giving birth.

An illustration depicting Jack & Jill
Photo by W.W. Denslow.
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2| Baa Baa Black Sheep

Political undertones are not the first thing that one would think of when it comes to children’s rhymes. That’s why it might be surprising to find that Baa Baa Black Sheep is based on a wool tax implemented by King Edward I. The 13th century tax, also known as the Great Custom, was considered harsh. The bags of wool were divided into three, just as the “three bags full” line goes. One-third of the wool, as the rhyme says, goes to the “Master” or the king. The “Dame” refers to the church, while the “little boy” refers to the farmers. There was actually a version of the song that states that there was none for the little boy. One could only imagine the kind of line that separated the rich and the poor. While the scenario of the olden days has been simplified in a rhyme, it’s a wonder how such a theme found its way to a children’s song.  

3| Humpty Dumpty

The Humpty Dumpty character has been depicted in many versions as an egg, although there isn’t much in the rhyme itself that actually proves that it’s the popular breakfast item. Perhaps it was the analogy of an egg cracking once dropped from a great fall. Or maybe it was just an easier picture to paint for children. Either way, Humpty Dumpty wasn’t an egg at all. It wasn’t even a person. In fact, it was a cannon used during the English Civil War—again, probably not a concept that kids should be thinking about. The Royalists, also known as the King’s men, set the weapon on top of a church tower. It had fired away for eleven weeks as its duty dictated. But the church tower eventually got blown up, which was what caused Humpty Dumpty’s great fall. And as great a weapon as it was, the cannon could not be fixed. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men were then defeated in the end. It’s probably a good thing that the last part of the story wasn’t included in the nursery rhyme. 

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An illustration depicting Humpty Dumpty
Photo by W.W. Denslow.

4| Ring Around the Rosie

Ring Around the Rosie has grown beyond the usual musical status of nursery rhymes—it’s also a game. Children form a circle as they hold hands, singing the song, and then proceeding to drop down as the last line dictates. It’s almost hard to believe that the same rhyme that causes fits of giggles and laughter is the same one rooted in one of the more depressing parts of history. Some believe that the song is about the Great Plague of London. It seems quite disturbing that the bubonic plague which killed millions of Britain’s population is now immortalized in a children’s game. The “rosie” mentioned likely talks about the rash brought about the plague. There was also a strong odor that came with it, creating a need for the “pocket full of posies.” And the last line, supposedly the fun part of the game, happens to be the most disturbing part. The “all fall down” phrase refers to people dying from the disease. However, some have refuted the entire origin due to the different versions of the song. It’s hard to say, but the lyrical connections are nonetheless eerie. 

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5| Rock A Bye Baby

It’s a beloved lullabye—and yet it’s also another song rooted in political unrest. It was never supposed to be a children's rhyme as it was said to have been written during the 15th century just before the Glorious Revolution in Britain. The baby in the song likely refers to the son of King James II of England. This son was thought to be a child of another man, ushered in to assure the public that the royals were able to produce a Roman Catholic heir. The “wind” that the rhyme mentions is thought to be the Protestants from the Netherlands, while the “cradle” refers to the royals themselves. The darkest part is possibly the fact that the song actually wishes for the young heir to die, as the lyrics say, “...and down will come baby, cradle and all.” Whoever wrote it likely wanted King James II’s reign to end as soon as possible. Still, to wish such a thing on an infant can only mean that the political situation at the time was in shambles.

 

A musical piece for Hush-A-By Baby
Photo by Walter Crane.
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6| Three Blind Mice 

Another seemingly unarmed nursery rhyme is Three Blind Mice. It was said to be based on the three Protestant bishops  who supposedly tried to overthrow the reign of Queen Mary I—also famously known as Queen Mary I, aka Bloody Mary. The “farmer’s wife” in the rhyme most likely refers to the queen herself. However, history had other plans for the bishops, whose unfortunate plight was to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. It is not too far from the fate of the mice in the song, who had their tails cut off in the end. But why exactly were they called blind? Some say it was due to the bishops’ firm obedience to their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, it appears to be another nursery rhyme that ends in death.

It’s interesting to see how some of the most dark and chilling moments of history have engraved places for themselves in the seemingly innocent songs made for children. One can only imagine how it happened in the first place. Perhaps people wanted to put a more positive spin on the lyrics. Or maybe the tunes just seemed like they were simple enough to be sung for children. Who knows? One thing’s for certain, however—it would be good to think twice about the songs and rhymes to be introduced to impressionable children.

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Teresa Marasigan
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