The Meanings Behind Classic Nursery Rhymes

Most of us are introduced to poetry in our childhood through lullabies and nursery rhymes. While all parents recite and sing nursery rhymes to soothe their children and rock them to a peaceful slumber, not many pay attention to the dark origin stories behind the seemingly innocuous lyrics. Have you ever wondered why Humpty Dumpty could not be put together? Or how Jack fell and broke his crown? The answers are more sinister than you could have imagined. Below, we have uncovered the hidden meanings behind five classic nursery rhymes. 

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?

Though it might sound like this classic rhyme tells the straightforward tale of an ill-fated trio of mice, it is actually an ode to Bloody Mary’s reign. Queen Mary I was the sociopathic queen of England who burned hundreds of Protestants at stake and earned the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

The farmer’s wife in the story is Queen Mary, while the three blind mice are three Protestant bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and Thomas Cranmer – who conspired to overthrow the queen. Queen Mary had them burned alive at stake for their treachery. Critics suggest that the blindness in the rhyme is a metaphor for the steadfast religious beliefs of the Oxford Martyrs who refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs for Catholic ones. 

Humpty Dumpty

An illustration of 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.

Originally, Humpty Dumpty was a riddle, so there have been several theories about its meaning. The modern-day version of this rhyme that we all know by heart was first published in the early nineteenth century.

According to one theory, the character of Humpty Dumpty refers to the humpbacked King of England: Richard III. The story goes that King Richard III went to war at the Bosworth Field in 1485, where he fell off his horse from the wall and onto the ground. Once on the ground, he was unable to stand back up and thus, was chopped into pieces by his enemies.

Another popular theory suggests that Humpty Dumpty was not a person but a colossal siege cannon used by the Royalist defenders in the English Civil War. During the siege of Colchester in 1648, Humpty Dumpty – the cannon – was placed on the tower of St Mary-at-the-Wall church. For eleven weeks, Humpty blew up the attacking Parliamentarian troops while sitting on the wall. Eventually, a Parliamentary cannon shot the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty, which caused the great cannon to tumble from the church tower and fall onto the ground. The Royalists (King’s men) tried to haul Humpty onto another wall, but the cannon was so heavy and deeply buried in the marshland that even all the King’s horses and men could not put Humpty back again. 

Baa Baa Black Sheep

An illustration of the rhyme 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.

Unsurprisingly, this classic nursery rhyme really is about sheep and their importance in medieval England. The wool trade was such a big business in those times that a person’s wealth was determined by the number of sheep they owned. Most scholars believe that the infamous Great Custom, a tax on wool trade imposed in 1275 by King Edward I, forms the background of this rhyme. Under the Great Custom, the price of each sack of wool was divided into three parts: one-third went to the King (the master), one-third to the church (the dame), and the last third to the farmer. Therefore, the poor little shepherd boys who had tirelessly tended to the flock were left empty-handed. The original rhyme followed the same story as its final verse was “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” By the late 16th century, the final line was swapped with the current version to make the rhyme more cheerful and suitable for children. 

Although scholars believe that this rhyme is about sheep, it recently attracted controversy due to the sinister connotations behind its verses and connection to the slave trade. Many assume that the use of words like master and black carries a racial message at its core. Due to its political incorrectness, some schools have banned the rhyme from classrooms altogether, while others have tried to replace the offensive terms with politically correct ones. 

Jack and JillAn image showing a postcard of the rhyme 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.

This nursery rhyme might seem silly at face value, but upon pondering, Jack and Jill does not seem as simple as water is usually at the bottom of a hill instead of the top. Various theories concerning the origin of the rhyme have risen, making one wonder if there is a deeper meaning behind this simple-looking rhyme.

One popular theory suggests that Jack and Jill represent Louis XVI of France and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. The couple was a greedy one who carelessly squandered all their money on a lavish lifestyle. Not only were they gluttonous, but they also plotted against the kingdom. In 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded after being found guilty of treason – a metaphor for Jack losing his crown. Shortly after, his wife, Marie Antoinette, was also beheaded (came tumbling after). However, since Jack and Jill was written in 1765, this theory postdates the first publication of the rhyme. 

A more likely possibility is that the rhyme satirized the attempt by King Charles I of England to reform the tax on liquid measures. King Charles I reduced the volume of a Jack without changing the tax to raise revenue. However, as an unfortunate consequence, the Gill (a quarter pint in liquid measure) also went down in value, referring to Gill tumbling after in the rhyme. 

Ring Around the Rosie

An illustration showing children playing the game.

Ring around the rosie

Pocket full of posies,

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down!

Ring Around the Rosie is a famous folk song and nursery rhyme that first appeared in print in 1881. Of all the alleged nursery rhyme backstories, the one behind this quatrain is the most confounding. 

Interpreters have associated the rhyme with the 1665 Great Plague of England. Foul-smelling red-colored rashes would appear on the body of the sufferers of the bubonic plague – Rosie was a metaphor for those rosy rashes. As the dead bodies started piling up everywhere, the stench became so unbearable that people had to stuff herbs and flowers into their pockets to dispel the awful smell – this refers to Pocket Full of Poises. At one point, the number of dead bodies was so large that there was no space left for burial, so people started burning the bodies – the Ashes Ashes in the rhyme refers to the cremation of dead bodies. The line We All Fall Down is a haunting allegory of the devastation caused by the Black Death which wiped out over twenty percent of the world’s whole population. 

The Takeaway

Most nursery rhymes and lullabies we sing to our children have their roots lying deep in history, as evidenced by the sinister origins of these five classic nursery rhymes. They have been passed from parents to children for several generations. Maybe it is about time we invented new rhyming ditties for our children with more cheerful backstories that do not include public execution or catastrophic plagues.