Plagues, murder, human sacrifice – this is hardly the stuff of children’s literature…or is it? Once you hear the dark messages behind nursery rhymes that you thought you knew, you’ll have to agree that Mother Goose has earned a place alongside the world’s greatest horror writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, and Stephen King.
Nursery rhymes may seem harmless or downright cute to us today, but when you learn about the dark history behind some of the most famous and enduring nursery rhymes, they sound less like adorable children’s songs and more like gruesome horror stories.
8. The Great Plague of London
From evil monarchs to public executions, deadly plagues to brutal murders, nursery rhymes are more than just background music for fun children’s games – they are a living record of some of the darkest moments in history.
Ring around the rosie
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
This catchy nursery rhyme from 1881 brings to mind images of adorable children holding hands, singing and dancing in a circle until they “all fall down”. It may seem like a harmless game, but this fun children’s song actually has a very dark story behind it.
The memorable rhyme is actually about the great plague that hit London in 1665 and killed up to 15% of the entire population of the city. The rosie refers to the painful and highly visible rash that was the hallmark symptom of the plague.
Death and disease were so rampant in the crowded city that citizens took to filling their pockets with sweet-smelling flowers, like posies, to cover up the stench of death that was everywhere.
And the mention of ashes is a reference to the thousands of bodies of plague victims that were unceremoniously burned in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease and to clear the city of the piles of bodies of victims. There’s definitely more to this children’s song and game than it first appears!
7. London Bridge
The often brutal reality of life in London has inspired more than one dark poem, and it’s not just plagues that provided dark foder for nursery rhymes.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Don’t let the catchy tune of this classic nursery rhyme fool you – there’s an incredibly dark history behind London Bridge’s sweet melody. The rhyme was penned in 1744, and was allegedly written about a Viking attack on London in the early 1000s.
According to legend, a group of Vikings under King Olaf the Second of Norway stormed the city and destroyed the iconic bridge, but there is much debate among scholars over whether this attack ever actually happened. Even if the story of a violent Viking attack turns out to be nothing but legend, there is more darkness behind London Bridge that might be even more brutal than a Viking invasion.
The real dark message behind the London Bridge nursery rhyme is actually one of human sacrifice. At the time of the bridge’s construction, it was widely believed that burying bodies in the foundations of buildings was a surefire way to keep the structure standing.
The bodies were thought to add strength to the structure, and the spirits of the dead would also watch over the bridge in death. Even worse, the sacrificed people – many of them children – were rumored to have been immured in the walls, meaning they were entombed within the foundations while they were alive, and slowly died from lack of food and water after the walls had been bricked up.
This brings a whole new level of darkness to the children’s game that often accompanies the rhyme. Two children will form an arch with their arms to represent the bridge, while others will take turns walking under the bridge – when the song ends, the bridge falls and the children drop their arms – the last person to walk under the bridge finds themselves trapped within the walls, just like the human sacrifices of the legend.
6. Bloody Mary
Human sacrifice is certainly dark, but one family had so much darkness in their history that they inspired multiple dark nursery rhymes.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
This sweet and harmless sounding rhyme from 1744 is actually about a very dark subject – Mary the First of England, also known to history as Bloody Mary. She was the first woman to rule England in her own right, and though her reign was short, it was brutal and bloody.
Mary’s father, King Henry the 8th, had split with the Catholic Church over the Church’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Mary’s mother, Catherine – the first of his eventual 6 wives. A staunch Catholic herself, when Mary took the throne she set about reversing her father’s religious reforms, and exacting her revenge for his horrific treatment of her mother.
During her short reign, Mary made it illegal to practice a different religion than the monarch, and brutally tortured anyone who refused to convert to Catholicism. Under Mary’s rule, hundreds of heretics were burned alive at the stake for their religious beliefs.
The silver bells and cockleshells in the rhyme may sound like beautiful flowers or harmless gardening instruments, but in reality they were actually medieval torture devices rumored to have been used on heretics under Mary’s orders.
Bloody Mary’s reign was so brutal that it inspired more than one dark nursery rhyme, including this one from 1805:
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?
The 3 mice in the rhyme were thought to be 3 prominent Protestant bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. These formerly powerful men not only refused to convert to Catholicism under Mary’s brutal rule, but they also actively plotted to overthrow her.
Their plot was discovered and the 3 religious men were charged with treason and burned alive at the stake. Their executions were some of the most high-profile of the many, many brutal executions doled out during Mary’s reign.
For years after their killings, rumors swirled that Mary had also had the men dismembered and blinded before death, and though that was later proven to be false, the legend stuck and the men would be forever known as the 3 blind mice.
5. King Henry VIII
If you thought Mary was bad, you only have to look at her family tree to see where she got it from. Another popular nursery rhyme from 1805 was based on the dark deeds of Mary’s own father’s.
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.
This rhyme may seem benign and wholesome, but it’s actually a potent example of the terrible wrath of King Henry the 8th. Apparently, Old Mother Hubbard wasn’t a woman at all – the character was actually a mockery of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Catholic priest who refused to help King Henry get an annulment from his first wife, Mary’s mother, so that he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.
Wolsey’s refusal to help Henry get the annulment he so desperately wanted led to Wolsey’s political downfall and Henry’s eventual split from the Catholic Church, forever changing religious life in England and around the world.
The story is especially dark when you realize that Henry went to all this trouble only to have his marriage to Anne last for a mere 3 years before he had her beheaded for treason so that he could marry the 3rd of his 6 wives.
Mary’s brutal persecution of heretics is legendary, but here too she took a page out of her father’s books. This 1784 rhyme paints a disturbing picture of how Catholics were treated under her father, King Henry. There’s no denying that Mary certainly learned a thing or two from him in her later persecution of Protestants.
Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg,
And threw him down the stairs
Henry’s rage over the Catholic Church’s refusal to grant him a divorce played out in a brutal, bloody war on the devout Catholics still living in England at the time of its split from the Catholic Church.
With persecution of Catholics at an all-time high, many devout Catholics took to creating “priest’s holes” in their homes, small hidden rooms no bigger than a closet where they could hide to have their priests perform Catholic mass and say their Latin prayers. If caught, they could face torture or even death for their heresy.
The narrator in the poem meets an old man who won’t say his prayers, which is probably a reference to discovering a hidden Catholic priest who refused to pray in English. The narrator brags about throwing the man down the stairs, a colloquial term for having someone put to death.
4. George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham
Henry and Mary are far from the only monarchs to have inspired nursery rhymes with their lurid and sometimes dark deeds.
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
The Georgie from this silly-sounding rhyme from 1841 is thought to be a reference to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham and a beloved friend of King James the 1st. The two men were so close, in fact, that Villiers was rumored to actually be James’ long-time lover.
While there’s no hard proof of their romantic relationship, it was certainly no secret that James favored Villiers, and showered him with land, titles and money during his reign.
This, combined with Villers’ reputation as a ladies man who had frequent dalliances with married women – sometimes against their will – earned him the hatred of the other men at court, and eventually led to him being stabbed to death in a local pub, which earned him his own spot in one of the nursery rhymes.
3. King Charles I and Marie Antoinette
Naughty royals certainly make good fodder for dark nursery rhymes, but sometimes the real story behind a gruesome rhyme is actually less dark than the rumors that surround it.
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 rhyme has long been rumored to be about France’s King Louis the 16th and his wife Marie Antoinette, who lost their crowns – and their heads – in the French Revolution of 1793.
But the rhyme, written in 1765, actually predates their executions by a good 30 years. Scholars agree that it’s more likely about King Charles the 1st’s attempt to reform the tax on liquids. When Parliament rejected his proposal, he retaliated by reducing the volume of half pints, known as Jacks, and quarter pints, commonly called Gills.
2. King James II and Mary of Modena
In yet another royal-inspired nursery rhyme, lurid rumors about two English monarchs have been passed on from generation to generation.
Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
And down will come Baby, cradle and all.
This sweet song is no wholesome lullaby. It’s actually rumored to be about King James the 2nd of England and his wife, Mary of Modena. In 1630, they announced the long-awaited birth of their son Charles.
After years of difficult pregnancies and the death of at least 5 of their infant children, England at last had a Catholic heir to the throne. The trouble was, it was widely believed that the boy was not actually their son at all.
Rumors spread far and wide that the boy who was now a Prince had not been born of James and his wife, but had actually been snuck into the birthing room and passed off as their own son.
Whatever the truth of his birth, Charles went on to become one of England’s most popular kings, earning himself the nickname of the Merry Monarch for his lively and indulgent court life.
1. Wakefield prison mulberry tree
Many nursery rhymes are not what they seem, but the story of the origin of this rhyme will certainly come as a surprise.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.
This simple rhyme is often part of an amusing game for children, but it actually has dark, sinister roots. According to a former governor of England’s notorious 420-year-old Wakefield prison, the song should not be credited to Mother Goose – rather, it was created by the prison’s female prisoners in the 1840s.
The prisoners took their daily exercise outside under strict supervision, walking round and round a mulberry tree in the prison yard, and they invented the song to liven up their monotonous routine.
Nursery rhymes are truly more than just child’s play – now that you know the dark messages behind nursery rhymes, these merry songs will never be the same!