25th October 2014

The Dark Meanings of Nursery Rhymes

We listen to nursery rhymes quite a lot in our house, mainly because it’s one of the few things that can immediately halt a toddler tantrum or silence a grumbling baby. But over the years (bored out of my brain, it seems), I have started to listen to the lyrics and imagine the darker meanings. And after doing some digging, I’ve realised it’s true – I really am singing along to songs about terminal illnesses, executions, and men slipping into comas and dying. So I thought you may like to be enlightened too, so here goes…


1 – Jack and Jill

There are several theories about where this charming rhyme comes from, which tells the tale of Jack and Jill falling down a hill and having to wrap their heads with vinegar and brown paper (which was used in the olden days to draw out bruises). My favourite, however, is that it alludes to Louis XVI of France, who was deposed and beheaded in 1793 (losing his crown) and his Queen Marie Antoinette (who came tumbling after).

Ring-a-ring o' Roses love to sing2 – Ring a Ring o’ Roses

I remember singing this as a child in the playground, swinging round my friends in a circle – but little did I know that the song is widely believed to be about the Great Plague of 1665. The sneezing, the falling down, the rosy rash, and the posies of herbs that were used to ward off the plague – it all makes sense now. The end of the rhyme  “Atishoo atishoo we all fall down” is particularly lovely, given that sneezing and coughing were the final symptoms of the fatal condition.


244703 – Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

It’s not about gardens after all… Shock! The most popular theory is that the rhyme is about Queen Mary I of England (Bloody Mary). A fierce believer in Catholicism, her reign was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. (Silver bells and cockle shells are torture devices, by the way, not features of a garden).


4 – Three Blind Mice

Always imagined three blind mice running across the counter top? Yep, me too. But this is another charming reference to Bloody Mary, with the trio believed to be a group of Protestant bishops called Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The three men unsuccessfully conspired to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake for their heresy. Delightful!

here-we-go-round-the-mulberry-bush3 – Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush

Oh how lovely! Children dancing around a mulberry bush! What a picture of innocence! Wrong. This nursery rhyme is widely believed to be about the centuries old tradition of female prisoners being exercised around a mulberry bush.



itsrainingitssnoring6 – It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

My son has just started singing this one and we merrily sing the lyrics in the car when it starts spitting. But this medieval nursery rhyme, written at a time when it rained non-stop, is believed to be a medical warning about slipping, banging your head, and not ever waking up again. Which I’ll remember next time we’re in the car.

men-in-a-tub7 – Rub a Dub Dub

Sing this one to your kids in the bath? Yep, me too. The oldest known version of this rhyme, however, goes ‘rub a dub dub, three maids in a tub’ and alludes to the fact that peep shows were a common practice at fairs in the 14th century – and our friends, the butcher, the baker, and the candle-stick maker had gone along to get a naughty peak. Nice.

oranges and lemons8 – Oranges and Lemons

Doesn’t this rhyme start off nicely, with the bells of St. Clement’s and St Martin’s ringing out over London? But just like all our other favourite odes, it descends into a darker meaning as the lyrics continue: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chip chop chip chop. The last man’s dead!” It turns out that this lovely rhyme is all about the days of public executions, when the condemned were led along the street to the accompaniment of the tolling of bells.

Sweet dreams all!