Dating back hundreds of years, nursery rhymes have long played a huge part in our early development. They help to introduce us to language, they support reading skills, in many cases they give children their first taste of music.
But behind their light and fluffy exterior, many tell dark tales of death, disease, violence and religious persecution. Here is our guide to some of the darkest nursery rhymes of all time.
10 darkest nursery rhymes of all time
Oranges and Lemons
What is that ‘chopper to chop off your head’ all about? Some say it’s Henry VIII’s marital issues, and the way he went about solving them. However, it seems that those last three lines of the rhyme 'oranges and lemons' weren’t originally in the nursery rhyme, so it’s more likely that they’re referring to events at Newgate Prison, which once stood on the current site of the Old Bailey, next to St Sepulchre’s Church (hence ‘the bells of Old Bailey’ in the rhyme).
Prisoners here would be visited the night before their hangings by the bell man of St Sepulchre’s, who would hold a candle in one hand and ring the execution bell in the other. He would then recite a poem:
‘All you that in the hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die,
Examine all yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent,
And when St Sepulchre’s bell in the morning tolls,
The lord above have mercy on your souls.’
Ring around a Rosies
Scholars have long maintained that this cryptic rhyme is about the deadly plague that killed millions of people in Medieval Europe.
They believe that the ‘ring-a-round the rosie’ is a coded reference to the red circular rash common in certain forms of plague, and that the ‘posies’ were the flowers that people carried around to fend off the illness. As for the ‘a-tishoo’ and ‘we all fall down’, it doesn’t take long to figure out what that might mean.
Not all modern folklorists are convinced by the plague-origin theory, with some suggesting the rhyme 'Ring around a Rosies' is actually about the ban on dancing among Protestants, and the way that people went about circumnavigating it. Still, it’s certainly the spookiest interpretation, so for the purposes of this article, let’s go with it.
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
The rhyme 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary' might be about Bloody Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, and her murder of Protestants. Some say that the ‘garden’ is a reference to the graveyards that were filling with martyred Protestants under her reign, while the ‘silver bells’ represent thumbscrews and ‘cockleshells’ are instruments of torture attached to male genitals. And those pretty maids? They could be the people lined up to be executed. Food for thought.
Goosey Goosey Gander
How could anything with the word ‘goosey’ in it be described as sinister? Well one version of this popular rhyme had some very disturbing lines in it, reflecting a time when Catholic priests had to say their forbidden Latin prayers in secret: ‘There I met an old man, who wouldn’t say his prayers, so I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.’
Three Blind Mice
Behind that chirpy melody of 'Three blind mice' is a tale about a vicious, knife-wielding farmer’s wife. But was she really a farmer’s wife? And were her helpless victims really mice?
One theory holds that they represent three Protestant loyalists who were accused of plotting against the Catholic Queen Mary in the 16th century. She didn’t cut off their tales, though. Instead she burnt them at the stake.
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London Bridge is Falling Down
The meaning of 'London Bridge is Falling Down' has long been debated. Many believe that it refers to the state of disrepair into which London Bridge fell after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
But some experts argue quite convincingly that it refers to an alleged Viking invasion in 1014, during which London Bridge was pulled down.
Though the attack has never been proven, a collection of Old Norse poems written in 1230 contains a verse that sounds much like the nursery rhyme, translating as ‘London Bridge is broken down. Gold is won, and bright renown.’ So maybe…
Jack and Jill
Among the various interpreters of 'Jack and Jill', some claim that it’s about a young couple in Somerset who would sneak up a hill to do more than fetch a pail of water. According to the story, the girl died in childbirth, and, apparently, the local surname of Gilson is thought to derive from Gill’s son.
Although many of us imagine Humpty Dumpty as a smiley, egg-like character, some have argued that it represented a massive cannon that was hauled to the top of a wall and used by Royalists against Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.
The story goes that a shot from a Parliamentary cannon succeeded in damaging the wall beneath ‘Humpty Dumpty’, causing it to tumble to the ground. And despite the Royalists (‘all the King’s men’) attempting to raise Humpty Dumpty back up again, it was so heavy that they ‘couldn’t put Humpty together again.’
Even at face value, this rhyme about a falling baby hardly comes across as upbeat. But some say it is really about King James II of England, who, in a bid to produce a Catholic heir and resist the ‘wind’ blowing from Protestantism, supposedly smuggled another man’s child into the birthing chamber. If he did, the plan didn’t work: like the cradle, the House of Stuart was doomed to fall.
Here we go round the Mulberry Bush
Apparently 'Here we go round the Mulberry Bush' is actually about Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire, commemorating the walks around the prison yard that the female prisoners and their children would take every day. Some insist that the titular mulberry bush is the same one that continued to grow in the prison grounds until 2017, when it died of a beetle infestation and canker, a year after it was shortlisted for the Tree of the Year prize. Whether or not that’s true, the prison, which dates back to 1594, has chosen a Mulberry Bush as its emblem. Which seems appropriate.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.