History isn’t only what we read in textbooks. There are alternative histories, darker, bleaker histories, that get told by means other than books. Some stories make their way through the ages by word of mouth, some take on the avatar of a song. Some stories get lost in translation, while others get distorted beyond recognition, like in a game of Chinese Whispers.
If you thought this one’s a nice little rhyme about there being enough wool for everyone, you’re dead wrong! Baa Baa Black Sheep is about a wool tax imposed by King Edward which caused little or none of the wool to be left for the farmers.
This one is based on a real-life event in which a young girl named Mary Sawyer took her pet lamb to school.
This nursery rhyme has a doubly dark history. Back when it was written, the word “goose” was a slang term for prostitute. And the old man being thrown down the stairs probably refers to Catholic priests being punished by Henry VIII. Either way, this one’s got sinister-sounding roots!
This old favorite is an insult that British soldiers directed at American colonists. The idea was to mock the Americans for thinking that sticking a feather in your cap makes you stylish enough to hang with London socialites.
It’s believed to be an account of King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he made sure that the volume was reduced on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills.
In this rhyme, Jack represents Thomas Horner, a steward to Henry the VIII. Horner was rumored to have stolen one of several deeds to lavish manors that were being smuggled to the King inside a pie.
Geaorgie Porgie probably refers to Prince Regent George, a fat, greedy man who loved the ladies. It could also be about a nobleman in King James I’s court who loved seducing other noblemen’s wives, sometimes without their consent. Not the best role model for kids, this guy!
The story behind this one is as dark as it is sad. Abandoned by her father, Henry VIII, because he wanted a male heir, Mary was Elizabeth I’s half sister. As Henry VIII’s firstborn, Mary ascended the throne upon his death and wanted to undo her father’s decision and make England Catholic again. A decision that did not sit well with the public. She then ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of Protestants.
Humpty was a cannon owned by the supporters of King Charles I. It fell into marshland and was damaged beyond repair during the English Civil War. The idea of Humpty Dumpty as an egg-shaped man comes from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and has nothing to do with the nursery rhyme.
This merry little earworm is believed to have been a popular chant at Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.
Oranges and Lemons follows a condemned man en route to his execution. Certainly not kid-friendly stuff, this!