Ancient Word of the Day: Nightmarish Nursery Rhymes

The Three Blind Mice nursery rhyme

The sweet little rhymes and refrains that fills out childhoods are actually full of ghoulish and gruesome revelations. Here are some creepy examples…

The rhythmic patterns of nursery rhymes provided an ideal framework for infants and children to develop language.

mary tudor

Mary Mary quite contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row

Reading this, one can imagine a sweet old lady tending to her flowers…if only this were the case.

The Mary in this verse refers to Mary Tudor: Queen Mary I of England (born 1516). Mary was the only surviving child born to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Henry became impatient with his lack of male heir and decided that he wanted the marriage annulled so that he could try and produce the next King with another woman – Anne Boleyn.

At that time, England was a Catholic country and required the permission of the Pope for any marriage to be annulled. Pope Clement VII – denied Henry this request, which royally upset the King. He then set in train a series of events which broke England away from Rome/the Catholic Church and led to the formation of the Church of England.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and the monarchy was passed to Mary who remained a staunch Catholic and passed legislation that punished anyone who was found guilty of heresy against the Catholic faith. Her penchant for torture of protestants has given her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.

“Silver bells” was a nickname for the thumbscrews, while “cockleshells” were believed to be instruments of torture attached to the genitals. She failed to produce an heir and “How does your garden grow?” is a taunt of this. “Pretty maids all in a row” could either refer to stillborn children, or perhaps to a device called a maiden, which was used to behead people.

Mary I and her sister Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) enter London in 1553. wikimedia commons/Wanduran

Nowadays Bloody Mary is a chant or incantation which is said repeatedly into a mirror at midnight to conjure a ghost or phantom in the mirror. The apparition may be malevolent or kindly and may be wearing medieval regalia.

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 sight in your life,
As three blind mice

This is another nursery rhyme about Mary I, and this one doesn’t cast her in a good light either.

‘Three blind mice’ is thought to be a reference to influential and troublesome clergymen of the time of Mary’s 16th century reign named Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley. Mary rounded the three men up and had them burned at the stake. A plaque on Broad St in Oxford commemorates this gruesome event. Although blinding people as a form of punishment was common during this time, there is little evidence that the three men were literally blinded in real life. Instead the ‘blindness’ of the three mice may be a playful taunt about the three bishops’ Protestantism.

Oxford martyrs as the three blind mice? Wikimedia commons/Bkwillwm

Humpty dumpty

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.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1648, and the English monarchy itself was under threat. The Royalists (Cavaliers), who were loyal to Charles I, were coming under attack from the Parliamentarians (Roundheads), who fought for Oliver Cromwell against the overbearing policies of Charles.

During a siege in Colchester in eastern England, the Royalists placed a large cannon on the town’s wall. The cannon’s nickname was ‘Humpty Dumpty’. At the final battle that forced the end of the siege, the Parliamentarians attacked the wall supporting Humpty Dumpty, and the cannon fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. Legend has it that the nursery rhyme was used as a way for Crowell’s army to communicate the news around the divided nation. Humpty wasn’t always thought of as an egg – this came later in the 19th century

Was Humpty Dumpty a cannon? Wikimedia commons/Horvat

I hope you enjoyed this post, let me know what you thought of it below….

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Word of the Day: Nightmarish Nursery Rhymes

  1. The explanations of the rhymes are certainly plausible, although I would have thought that the Maidens would have referenced the famous torture device, the Iron Maiden, which had a lot to do with pain and death but not with beheading. Great fun reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

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