Nursery Rhymes - Kid's Songs or Religious Fanaticism?Article Published at 11:32am on Friday, 25 March 2011
We may think of nursery rhymes simply as innocent kid's songs, but the truth is much darker. Although the real origins of many nursery rhymes are lost to the depths of history, and any interpretation we care to put on them is speculative, some say the origins of many nursery rhymes go back several hundred years, to one of the bloodiest periods in British history - the years of the Protestant Reformation. Set in this context, even the most innocent of lullabies turns out to be a subversive political or religious satire.
The Protestant Reformation swept through northern Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. It was introduced to England by Henry VIII, not so much through religious conviction, but because he was looking for a way to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had given birth to a female heir to the throne, Mary Tudor, rather than the male heir that Henry wanted.
Henry believed that Catherine's inability to produce a son was due to her being the widow of his elder brother, Arthur. This violated Biblical proscription and cursed his marriage as incestuous. He also claimed that his marriage to Catherine was invalid because the papal dispensation for it was based upon Catherine's claim that she was still a virgin after Arthur's death. Henry argued that this was unbelievable, and their marriage must therefore be annulled. Henry was motivated by his desire for Anne Boleyn, one of his wife's maids-of-honour.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, formerly the Archbishop of York, and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, was known as Boy Blue. The name came from Wolsey's Blazon of Arms that featured the azure faces of four leopards instead of the traditional scarlet cardinal's robes. Wolsey was the son of an Ipswich butcher, and, as a boy, looked after his father's livestock (The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn).
Wolsey was wealthy and arrogant (prone to blowing his horn), and made himself indispensable to Henry. His aim in England was absolute monarchy with himself behind the throne (alluded to in the line where's the boy who look after the sheep?). In 1527, Wolsey was tasked with seeking a marraige annulment for Henry from the Pope, Clement VII. He made several unsuccessful attempts. By 1529, Anne Boleyn had convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately delaying the annulment (He's under the haystack fast asleep).
Old Mother Hubbard
Wolsey's attempts to secure an annulment for Henry are also the subject of Old Mother Hubbard. Wolsey (Old Mother Hubbard) went to the Catholic Church (the cupboard) to seek an annulment (a bone) for Henry (the dog).
Wolsey's downfall has been identified as the subject of Humpty Dumpty. He had been second only to the King (Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall), but following his failure to gain an annulment, Wolsey was arrested and stripped of office (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall), although he was permitted to remain Archbishop of York.
Wolsey's official residence as Archbishop was Cawood Castle, in Yorkshire, although he had never been there in his entire career. Wolsey returned to Cawood where he began plotting to have Anne Boleyn forced into exile. On discovering this, Henry had him arrested for high treason in November 1530. Travelling back to London for trial, Wolsey became ill, and died in Leicester on 29 November 1530 (All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again).
To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig
Pope Clement VII had refused to grant the annulment. Henry was advised by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to remove the Church of England from the authority of Rome, to divorce Queen Catherine and to take the treasures of the Church for himself (To market to buy a fat pig).
The Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534, making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Between 1535 and 1541, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was put into effect. England's numerous monasteries and priories owned large tracts of land. Henry dissolved them and transferred the church's wealth to new hands (The king was in his counting house counting out his money). He sealed the deeds of 24 monasteries in a box (four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie). Henry's new queen, Anne Boleyn, was living a life of luxury (The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey) while former tenants of the church were suffering. But when Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, Henry's attentions turned to Anne's Maid in Waiting, Jane Seymour, who made sure that he knew that the feelings were mutual (The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes). Anne Boleyn was eventually beheaded and Jane Seymour died following the birth of her son, Edward (When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose).
Little Jack Horner
Little Jack Horner is actually Thomas Horner, a steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with Henry (and to avoid the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey as well as to save his own skin), the abbot sealed the deeds to twelve manor houses in a box (the Christmas Pie of the nursery rhyme), and sent it with Horner to London as a gift to the King. On his way to London, and realising that the ruse would fail, Horner opened the box and removed one of the deeds (He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plumb). Whiting was subsequently arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. He was charged and convicted with preventing the crown from claiming its rightful property. Thomas Horner was a member of the jury. Whiting was hung, drawn and quartered in Glastonbury in 1539. Shortly thereafter, Horner moved into Mells Manor, where his descendants, who claim that the Manor was a gift from the King for helping to convict Whiting, have lived ever since.
By now, Catholic priests were being persecuted by zealous Protestants, and many priests went into hiding. If discovered, the Priest and those hiding them were executed, so "Priest Holes" - small hidden rooms - were constructed within sympathetic houses. The rhyme implies that a search of a house is taking place (where shall I wander? Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber) and a priest is found (There I met an old man). The priest refuses to say his prayers in English - Catholic prayers were in Latin (who wouldn't say his prayers) - so he is punished. (I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs).
Henry VIII died in 1547, and was succeeded first by his son, Edward VI, and then, in 1553, by his daughter, Mary Tudor, who is believed to be the Mary of Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. This gentlest of nursery rhyme is not as peaceful as it seems, referring instead to the persecution and torture of Protestants during Mary's forceful restoration of Catholicism which earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary". Mary even went as far as imprisoning her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
The growing gardens of the nursery rhyme allude to the graveyards which were filling up with Protestants during her short but brutal reign. The rhyme says that the garden grows with silver bells and cockle shells. These were colloquialisms for instruments of torture: the 'silver bells' were thumbscrews, and the 'cockleshells' a similar device which attached to the genitals. The pretty maids all in a row refers to the guillotines, or Maidens, which were lined up to execute the Protestants.
Three Blind Mice
Another nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice, is believed to refer to the three Oxford Martyrs - the bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had advised Mary's father Henry VIII to separate from Rome. The martyrs were tried for heresy in 1555 and subsequently burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs and teachings.
Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth sought a Protestant solution that would not offend Catholics too greatly while addressing the desires of English Protestants. As a result, the parliament of 1559 started to legislate for a church with the monarch as its head, but with many Catholic elements. Following a new Act of Supremacy on 8 May 1559, Elizabeth took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The heresy laws of Mary's reign were repealed, to avoid a repeat of the persecution of dissenters.
Elizabeth went on to reign for an unprecedented 44 years, during which Protestants and Catholics were both allowed to practice their faith without fear of persecution.
Many tens of thousands of people had died in the name of religion, but they are commemorated to this day in the nursery rhymes and songs we sing to our children.
Subscribe to TwinkleTrax articles using the button at the top of this page.