Three Nursery Rhymes With Surreptitiously Sinister Origins

Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes

Who could have imagined that the harmless, nonsensical nursery rhymes generations of children have grown up innocently singing, as they turned the pages of their colourful picture books, could possibly hold anything as unthinkable as sinister dark origins? But according to studies, that is exactly what the majority of them do!

For example, “Ring around the Rosie” is a song describing the grim signs of the Black Death; the “rosies” being the rash, and the “pocketful of poses” the herbs carried as (ineffectual) air fresheners, when after the double “atishoo”, we “all fall down”!

“Jack and Jill” refers to the gruesome beheading of the last king and queen of France during the French Revolution.

“Humpty Dumpty” comes from the English Civil War in the 17th century, when the royalists’ cannon mounted upon a wall during the siege of Colchester, England, came crashing down (a great fall) caused by the parliamentarians shooting the wall beneath it with their own cannon; this resulted in the surrender of the royalists, who could not “put it together again”.

“London Bridge”, perhaps the oldest nursery rhyme of all, was composed in memory of the Viking attacks, when their war ships sailed up the river Thames and burned down London’s wooden bridge.

Most disturbing of all for Catholics, are the various nursery rhymes that originated at the time of the English Reformation when Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself the head of the church.

Here are just three examples, with a H/T to our commentator johnkonnor who drew our attention to them.

ladybird, ladybird, fly away home

ladybird, ladybird, fly away home

Ladybird, ladybird,                                                                                 

Fly away home,

Your house is on fire,

And your children all gone,

All except one,

And that’s little Anne,

For she crept under the frying pan.

The Ladybird in question is the Virgin Mary. During the Protestant persecution of Catholics in the 16th century when Henry VIII broke from Rome, devotion towards the Blessed Virgin became discouraged, until it was gradually rooted out altogether.

The first line of the rhyme signifies the feeling of Protestants against Catholics, as they desired the Catholic faith to flee back “home” to Rome ‘from where it had come’.

Line two refers to the recusants or the priests and faithful who were put to tortuous deaths, and symbolised in the burning down of the spiritual body as well as the temporal body of the Catholic Church. There was an implied gloat too, of the many who were complying with Protestantism to save their skins, and were therefore “gone” from the Catholic faith…. Except for ‘Anne’, who is in hiding…. But they know where, and will duly hunt her out!

goosey goosey gander

goosey goosey gander

                                                          Goosey, Goosey Gander,

Whither shall I wander?

Upstairs, downstairs,

In my lady’s chamber.

There I met an old man

Who would not say his prayers;

I took him by the left leg,

                                                   And threw him down the stairs.

Goosey Goosey gander is a Protestant rhyme referring to the persecution of priests in England during the 16th century. A goose was slang for a prostitute, and so a “goosey gander” was a man who frequented prostitutes.

The “lady’s chamber” was a woman’s bedroom. Since during that time men and women did not share bedrooms, it was common practice that some pious Catholic ladies would hide priests in priest holes accessible from their “chambers” in the hope that they would be safe from searches there. The Protestant insinuations are that they hid them there for other purposes.

After the priest had been discovered, the method of execution was often tying him up by the legs and throwing him down a flight of stairs (thus the last line in the rhyme). Unless he would begin to “say his prayers” in English rather than Latin…. or so they said.

mary, mary, quite contrary

mary, mary, quite contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row.

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary” sounds like a harmless poem about a girl in a pretty English garden. In fact, it is a poem against Queen Mary Tudor, who was known as “Bloody Mary” by the Protestants by the end of her short reign, for the 283 Protestants who were burned at the stake. The ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ are metaphors for the supposed tortures they were subjected to.

After looking into the origins of some of our best loved nursery rhymes, we might think twice before singing or reciting these seemingly whimsical poems to our little ones.

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17 Responses to Three Nursery Rhymes With Surreptitiously Sinister Origins

  1. Toadspitttle says:

    “After looking into the origins of some of our best loved nursery rhymes, we might think twice before singing or reciting these seemingly whimsical poems to our little ones.”

    In which case, the most sensible thing is not to look into their origins, but just cheerfully go on singing them to the nippers.
    Because, if they have lost, or obscured, their original meanings over the centuries, these verses have now no other meanings than those we ascribe to them.
    This goes for many things. Like certain words such as, “awful,” “terrible,” “impertinent,” “chauffeur,” etc., and very likely including large swathes of the Bible.
    I seem to recall, “Little Jack Horner… who pulled out a plum, etc.,” refers to the loss of the American colonies. If that is, in fact, so – well, so what? Who cares now?

    “The ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ are metaphors for the supposed tortures they were subjected to.”
    In fact they are very much more likely to be metaphors for pilgrimage – the latter certainly.
    What is the significance of it, in that case?
    To us – today – nothing. So, if it amuses us, we ought to go on saying it.
    It will do no harm.,_Mary,_Quite_Contrary


  2. kathleen says:

    Well Toad, I suppose it depends which source you are relying on. I found three or four sources that gave a version roughly the same as the brief one given in the article above, and none (except yours) that says the rhyme refers to Mary Queen of Scots.

    It’s all very unpleasant, but in answer to your question about the “shells”, there is this explanation:
    The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The ‘silver bells’ were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The ‘cockleshells’ were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!


  3. GC says:

    And what do you think of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, kathleen? Do you think it was a “Catholic catechism song”, as Fr Hal Stockert did? I think we have to admit that all the “gifts’ appear to have no reason or rhyme to them, except that “tree” rhymes with “me”. If there is any deeper sense in the song, then presumably the gifts have to refer to a coherent set of 12 distinct things. Or would believing that make us all terrible old “grinches”?


  4. kathleen says:

    Beat you to it dear GC! 😉
    I wrote this post on that old carol a couple of years ago:

    Edit: Having just read your above link, I must admit that it is a great explanation, with far more detail, on this interesting topic than my amateur effort.
    Yeah, let’s all be old “grinches”! 🙂


  5. Toadspitttle says:

    Ouch, Kathleen. Now my eyes are watering, and I fully accept that what you said was accurate.
    And will view cockleshells in a whole new, dimmer, light from now on.


  6. Mimi says:

    I have to agree with Toad. When I was told the meaning of ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ many years ago, we were told that the ‘silver bells’ referred to the bells rung during Mass (at the Consecration, for example), the cockle shells were pilgrim badges and the ‘pretty maids all in a row’ referred to nuns, as the queen tried to re-establish religious orders. This makes a lot more sense to me — that they would mock Catholic features such as the Mass, pilgrimages and nuns — than the far-fetched and convoluted “instruments of torture” explanation, which I have never come across anywhere before in all my historical reading.


  7. GC says:

    So you did, kathleen, and I remember it now. Time to seek out new roots and herbs in the Chinese medicine shop for a failing memory, I think.

    There’s a good article linked in a comment on that earlier post of yours. It seems quite convincing and says the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is indeed just a silly song for Christmas to encourage “public mirth”. No hidden meanings in the song, kathleen, and thus we are rescued from being grinches.

    The writer of that article also appears to have views on the meanings of nursery rhymes. Might be worth checking out.


  8. GC says:

    Here’s another thing I noticed in the article about the Christmas song on

    The state’s toleration of Catholicism waxed and waned with the political exigencies of the times, and during some periods Catholics were treated more leniently than others.

    I have no idea why statements like that seem to be popping up in front of me all the time these days.

    Lot’s of amusing and interesting things on that site. Check the categories on the left-hand side of the page.


  9. Toadspitttle says:

    The point is, even when they were first “written” (for want of a better word) the meanings of these rhymes must have been practically as ambiguous and obscure as they are now.
    So the idea of not repeating them to children, or whatever, for fear of what – blasphemy – brain damage – libel? – is patently absurd.
    “Who could have imagined that the harmless, nonsensical nursery rhymes generations of children have grown up innocently singing, as they turned the pages of their colourful picture books, could possibly hold anything as unthinkable as sinister dark origins?” …Well, Kathleen could, for a start.


  10. kathleen says:

    Yes Toad, thanks to johnkonnor’s alert to us. I had no idea nursery rhymes had such “sinister dark origins” before.

    GC, not so sure how reliable this Mr. Snopes is, but have only had time to skim his article so far. Seems he could be one of the writers of the accusative letters that the authors of the “Catholic Culture” blog mention on the link you gave, perhaps?

    Hi Mimi,
    Oh, I much prefer your explanation of the “silver bells and cockleshells” in the “Mary, Mary…” rhyme. I agree that it somehow rings more true that this should be a sort of mockery of Catholic practices, rather than a metaphor for any unverified tortures on Protestants.
    But Toad was wrong saying that the rhyme was referring to Mary Queen of Scots; it was certainly Mary Tudor.


  11. Toadspitttle says:

    Toad said no such thing.
    (He vaguely thought they were the same person, actually. That’s how ignorant he is.)


  12. Mimi says:

    Oh yes, it was definitely Mary Tudor, because she was “contrary” — trying to reverse the Protestantism imposed under Henry VIII and Edward VI.


  13. Ian in England says:

    Yes, I rather think the silver bells are the bells rung at Mass and the cockleshells the pilgrim’s badge. I always thought the “pretty maids” was mocking the Priests in their vestments, though. As for Little Jack Horner, there is a tradition that this refers to an ancestor of the Horner family and the acquisition of property of the Abbot of Glastonbury by Henry VIII:
    Humpty Dumpty, surely, is the martyred King Charles I, whom “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” couldn’t resurrect after his murder by Cromwell and Co.
    Otherwise, a most interesting article.


  14. GC says:

    Toad vaguely thought they (Mary of Scots and Mary Tudor) were the same person, actually. That’s how ignorant he is.

    Do try and keep up, Toad (smiley face).


  15. kathleen says:

    Interesting link GC – thank you. (But I still think Mimi’s explanation on the meaning of “silver bells” and “cockle shells” in the Mary, Mary etc. rhyme, is much more feasible!)
    What a truly gruesome history these banal rhymes seem to have!

    Can’t help wondering where the Catholic nursery rhymes might be, that would portray some of the centuries of martyrdom, suffering and harassment they underwent. Perhaps our ancestors were just too preoccupied with staying alive to busy themselves with composing nursery rhymes. 😉


  16. GC says:

    Yes, kathleen, that youtube collection was particularly gruesome. It makes you suspect that they made it so in order to encourage sales?


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