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Image: public domain(?)

Image: public domain(?)

We all grow up learning nursery rhymes but how many of us know of the darker, underlying meanings behind some of our most popular and seemingly innocent poems. I remember asking my mother to sing “Seesaw Margery Daw, Johnny shall have a new master, He shall earn but a penny a day, Because he can’t work any faster” not knowing that we were actually laughing about child slave labour in workhouses[1].

Nowadays we have only to open up a newspaper or turn on the television to be confronted with images or articles on social inequality, religious intolerance or political discontent but go back six hundred years and it was a whole different ballgame. It is nearly impossible to stop people from venting their grievances especially when faced with deep injustice but fear of the consequences did shape how they expressed them. One such way was through the composition of punchy verses which on the surface seemed nonsensical but which often contained hidden or barely veiled criticism of prominent figures or institutions which if expressed openly could have had serious repercussions for the teller such as loss of status, property, goods, freedom or life.

Nursery rhymes also served another purpose, the catchy tunes were easy to remember and enabled a largely illiterate population to learn and pass on stories from generation to generation creating and expanding an important oral tradition.

ballad sellers

Ballad singer. image source unknown.

The meanings of some nursery rhymes were ascribed in the nineteenth century; others have verified historical roots whilst the origins of many have been lost due to the passage of time. Despite the disputed background of some of the rhymes, what is not in doubt is that nursery rhymes are one of the most fascinating but neglected body of work in the English language.

Sinister undertones: A look at four nursery rhymes

Ba Ba Black Sheep

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool?
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my Master,
One for my Dame,
One for the Little Boy
That lives in the lane

(First written version known from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c.1744)

Dorothy-m-wheeler-baa-baa-black-sheep-1916

Image by Dorothy M Wheeler 1916. Via Wikimedia.

This popular nursery rhyme has suffered a bit of a black lash in recent times. In the 80s and 90s the rhyme was under attack by critics who accused it of having racist connotations. Despite the rhyme’s supporters calling it political correctness gone mad, many groups jumped on the bandwagon insisting that the word ‘black’ should be replaced with other adjectives such as little, big, hopping, pink and happy[2].

In actual fact the poem has no connections with racism at all but is believed to refer to the Great Wool Tax of 1275 which saw the crown for the first time implement a taxation system on what had been up to that point free trade. Wool was probably the most important commodity exported in England at that time and the tax would have dealt a serious financial blow to the small tenant farmers and merchants. The tax per sack of exported wool was set at 6s 8d and the property confiscated of anyone found evading the charge[3].

Illustration for the rhyme from Mother Goose's Melody, first published c. 1765

Illustration for the rhyme from Mother Goose’s Melody, first published c. 1765

In the rhyme ‘master’ refers to the tax given to the king and ‘dame’ to the church. Experts disagree with whether ‘black’ wool was a positive or negative term, as on one hand black wool could not be dyed and so limited its market but on the other hand it had value as it could be made into made into clothing or furnishings immediately without the need for the lengthy dyeing process. The last line refers to the small amount of money (i.e. about 1/3 of the overall profits) that was left for the farmers or shepherds. Interestingly in the second edition of the book the line changes with the message showing even more clearly how dire the situation was for the small cottage industries at that time “But none for the little boy who cries in the lane”[4].

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.

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Queen Mary I

Although the precise meanings of some of the lines are disputed it is generally accepted that the rhyme is about Mary Tudor, Queen of England and her reign, which left a trail of blood and fear throughout England. Some experts believe that ‘quite contrary’ is an allusion to her reversal of the political and religious changes brought in by her father and brother whilst ‘pretty maids’ is a reference to the execution of Lady Jane Grey. ‘How does your garden grow?’ is either a mocking reference to Mary’s inability to have children or else alludes to the graveyards ‘garden’ full of murdered Protestants. Given the subject matter of the next line, the latter interpretation seems more likely as ‘silver bells’ is a pretty way of describing thumbscrews whilst ‘cockle shells’ are instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals[5].

Lucy Locket

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

Lucy Locket.  Image source unknown.

The rhyme refers to a famous argument between two 18th century prostitutes whose spat became the talk of the town and added to Kitty Fisher’s notoriety as one of the most popular, beautiful, desirable and wealthy courtesans in London society[6].

Lucy Locket worked as a barmaid/prostitute in London and on finding out that her lover ‘pocket had lost all his money, dropped him. Despite having been the one to end the relationship, Lucy became incensed on finding out that the popular courtesan Kitty Fisher had taken up with him despite his reduced circumstances. Kitty claimed that she had found him with a ribbon tied around him which was a serious jibe at Lucy since prostitutes kept their money tied around their thigh with a ribbon. Lucy’s anger may have been largely to do with jealous. Kitty being able to take a poor lover was showing London and other women in her profession how financially secure she had become as now she could choose lovers based on her own inclination rather than money.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia.

Kitty Fisher (born Catherine Marie Fischer) had a number of influential suitors, was a leader of fashion and was painted several times by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1766 she married John Norris, the son of the MP for Rye and moved to his house in Hemsted. Unfortunately she died only four months later, aged 25 from either from smallpox, consumption or poisoning from lead based makeup[7].

Jack and Jill

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.

Jack and Jill. Source unknown.

Jack and Jill. Source unknown.

The small village of Kilmersdon in Somerset claims to be the site of the true story of Jack and Jill.  According to local legend in 1697 a young unmarried woman ‘Jill’ fell pregnant. The father of the baby ‘Jack’ was soon after killed by a rock from Badstone Quarry and ‘Jill’ died not long after she gave birth to her son[8]. The phrase ‘a pail of water’ is an old idiom meaning to have sex. The village to commemorate the story has introduced an annual race whereby contestants must run up to the top of the local hill with an empty bucket of water, fill it up and run back down to the school. The winner is the contestant which has the maximum amount of water still left in their bucket[9].

Even though I would love this story to be true, it is generally agreed that the Jack and Jill in the rhyme are King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette who were beheaded during the French revolution in 1793.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (or perhaps it's Sue Perkins and Giles Coren)

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (or perhaps it’s Sue Perkins and Giles Coren)

To make the rhyme more suitable for children another verse was added ‘Up got Jack, and home did trot, As fast as he could caper, He went to bed and bound his head, With vinegar and brown paper’.

Little Jack Horner, a coffin pie and the dissolution of the monasteries

One of the most fascinating nursery rhymes in my opinion is that of Little Jack Horner. Who was Jack Horner? Why was he sitting in the corner? And what is so exciting about pulling out a plum?

Little Jack Horner. Source: Pinterest.

Little Jack Horner. Source: Pinterest.

The ridicule of Ambrose Philips

In 1725, the satirical poet Henry Carey published the following version of Little Jack Horner in his Namby Pamby ballads.

“Now he sings of Jackey Horner
Sitting in the Chimney-Corner
Eating of a Christmas pye,

Putting in his thumb, Oh fie!
Putting in, Oh fie! his Thumb
Pulling out, Oh strange! a Plum[10]

Alexander Pope by Johnathan Richardson (public domain?)

Alexander Pope by Johnathan Richardson (public domain?)

The ‘Little Jack Horner’ that Carey is mockingly referring to is Ambrose Philips, a popular poet and Whig politician. Philips born in 1674 in Shrewsbury spent most of his early career as a fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge before his poems collectively called the ‘Pastorals’ were published in 1710[11]. High praise of Philips’ work and comparisons to Edmund Spenser angered other leading poets of the time in particular Alexander Pope who believed that Philips’ success was due to his obsequious behavior towards his wealthy patrons rather than to talent. The war of words which erupted between Pope and Philips reached such heights that Philips threatened to hit Pope with a rod he kept hung in Button’s Coffee House. Samuel Johnson described relations between the two men as ‘perpetual reciprocation of malevolence’[12].

The use of a nursery rhyme with which to ridicule Philips was particular apt as Philips’ was well-known for composing childish verses to flatter and please his sponsors’ children. The fact that Carey italicized the original words clearly indicates that people were already very familiar with the rhyme. So the question remains if ‘Jack Horner’ was not Ambrose Philips then who was he?

What’s in a name?

Knave of Spades. V&A collection.

Knave of Spades. V&A collection.

In early tales and nursery rhymes roguish, vagrant and ne’er-do-well characters were often called Jack.  A Jack or Knave is also the name of a playing card. The Collins dictionary gives a number of different definitions for the word knave including a deceitful dishonest person; a rogue or rascal and; a male servant. It can’t be a coincidence then that the Jack of the nursery rhyme was believed to have been based on a devious male servant whose behavior helped to bring about the downfall of a well-respected abbot and the destruction of one of the last monasteries of Tudor England.

Many people believe that Jack Horner was in fact Thomas Horner, the steward of Abbot Whiting of Glastonbury. The story goes that the abbot had sent Horner on a mission to see King Henry VIII in London, the aim of which was to try to save Glastonbury Abbey from being dissolved. Feeling hungry on the journey, Horner, who had been sent on his way with a pie, decided to eat a piece of it. To his surprise instead of pulling out the mince filling he pulled out a deed to one of Glastonbury’s smaller properties. On examining the contents of the pie he found a further eleven deeds concealed inside. Keeping the first deed, he delivered the other papers to the king[13]. The abbot was caught in a no-win situation as he could not accuse Horner of theft because then he would have to openly admit to trying to bribe the king giving Henry an easy excuse to charge the abbot with corruption. Horner gained the deeds to the estate of Mells Manor in Somerset where his descendants lived until the beginning of the 20th century[14].

“Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three-pound of the best Mutton suet and shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace”[15]

The quote above is taken from a 1615 recipe for mince pies. The recipe goes on to instruct the reader to place the mixture in a coffin or divers coffin before baking. The coffin is in fact a dough crust in the shape of a basket or box which was several inches thick and had been cooked for several hours. The coffin was inedible and acted as a container and cooking vessel to keep the meat tender by preventing the juice meat dripping away[16]. Due to the sturdy nature of the pies, people often hid valuable objects such as jewellery, money and important papers in them to stop their possessions falling into the hands of robbers. Therefore it is highly plausible that the deeds to the Glastonbury properties would have been hidden in a mince-pie.

It is also interesting to note that mince pies were considered symbols of Catholic idolatry and were banned under Oliver Cromwell. It was believed that the coffin pastry represented Jesus’ crib!

Glastonbury Abbey: The last monastery of Somerset

“I wish to create a church so beautiful that it would move even the hardest heart to prayer” (unknown architect of Glastonbury abbey)[17]

Glastonbury Abbey. Image from Wikimedia.

Glastonbury Abbey. Image from Wikimedia.

The Benedictine abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset was believed to have been founded in the 7th century by King Ine of Wessex and later expanded by St Dunstan in the 10th century[18]. By the 16th century the magnificent abbey of Glastonbury had become the largest and second wealthiest abbey in England with its estates covering a large swathe of Somerset, a community of 100 monks and an important centre of learning for the sons of nobility.

In 1525 Cardinal Wolsey with the permission of Henry VIII ordained Richard Whiting as Abbot of Glastonbury. Contemporary records show that Whiting was well-respected, held in high esteem and considered a good and honest manager. For the first few years, the abbey and its monks lived in peace and security but with the chaos caused by Henry’s attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon and break away from the authority of Rome, Whiting knew that it was only a matter of time before Glastonbury would be under attack[19].

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Despite the 1535 Suppression of Religious Houses Act which dissolved the lesser monasteries, for a while Whiting felt safe. Henry repeatedly assured Whiting that the abbey would be spared, a belief strengthened by Richard Layton’s inability to find any evidence of mismanagement in the abbey’s accounts. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only abbey left in Somerset. In September of that year, Cromwell demanded that the abbey be surrendered to him. Whiting refused. In response Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyles on Cromwell’s orders closed the monastery and the 78-year-old Whiting sent to the Tower to be personally examined by Cromwell.

The Fall of the Abbot of Whiting

“Whose soul god pardon” (Pollard, Royal Commissioner on the death of Abbot Whiting)

The precise charge on which Whiting was arrested has never been known but on the 25 October 1539, Marillac, the French Ambassador wrote

The Abbot of Glastonbury…has lately, been put in the Tower, because, In taking the abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine[20]

Although Whiting was condemned by an Act of Parliament as a traitor to the crown, his fate was already sealed. Whiting accompanied by Pollard returned to Somerset to face trial. On the 14th November, Whiting was sentenced by a jury on the trumped-up charge of ‘robbing Glastonbury Church’. It is interesting that the jury contained none other than his former steward, manager of the household, keeper of the abbey’s accounts and collector of taxes, Thomas Horner. The following day, Whiting along with two of his monks, John Thorne and Roger James were tied on hurdles and dragged by horses up to Glastonbury Tor where they were hung, drawn and quartered. Whiting’s disgrace did not end there. His head was fastened over the west gate of the town and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. Even at the end, Whiting never admitted to treason and died a dignified and humble death asking for mercy from god and forgiveness from the king and all men (even those whose actions had led him to the gallows)[21]. After the abbot’s death Glastonbury Abbey was finally destroyed and its stones used for building material.

Quartering a body. Source: Fr Wikimedia.

Quartering a body. Source: Fr Wikimedia.

As with all sites with a traumatic history, Glastonbury is believed to have its own share of ghostly residents. Many of the sightings have links to the abbey these include the ghost of an important monk who has been seen at the abbey; ‘a mad monk who is said to wander the ruins muttering to himself’ and the kind spirit of a monk known as Friar Francis who remains on the site of the former leper hospital where he worked. The George and Pilgrim Hotel is the residence of two ghost lovers, a lady and a monk whose unconsummated love has condemned them to wander the corridors of the pub for all eternity. Lastly the ghost of Richard Whiting has also been seen on a number of occasions on Dod Lane making his final, tragic journey towards Glastonbury Tor[22].

Glastonbury Tor. Source Wikimedia.

Glastonbury Tor. Source Wikimedia.

The enigmatic ‘Little Jack Horner’

The descendants of Thomas Horner have always denied the accusation that their ancestor obtained the rights to the Mells Manor estate by dubious means and there is solid evidence to support their claims. The original conveyance still survives which records Thomas Horner’s purchase of the deeds from Henry VIII at a high valuation which is confirmed by John Leland who visited Horner in 1543 on behalf of the king[23]. Also another rhyme has been discovered referring to the change of hands of the property,

“Hopton, Horner, Smyth and Thynne
When the abbots went out, they came in”[24]

There is even evidence of a Little Jack Horner rhyme being known as early as 1390 and connected to a location in Barnet long before the Horners of Mells enter the picture[25]. If this now seemingly pro-catholic/anti-protestant verse was not originally written to condemn the actions of Henry VIII and Thomas Horner we will never know who the first Jack Horner really was and what the rhyme was about. It is remarkable how six lines of what on the surface is a childish and simple rhyme has been imbued with such deep historic significance and for me the speculation is absolutely fascinating.

Notes

[1] Seesaw Marjorie Daw Rhyme, http://www.rhymes.org.uk/seesaw_marjory_daw.htm

[2] Ba, Ba, Black Sheep, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baa,_Baa,_Black_Sheep

[3] Sheep in the Cotswolds: The Medieval Wool Trade, Derek Hurst

[4] 10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes: http://listverse.com/2012/11/28/10-sinister-origins-of-nursery-rhymes/

[5] 10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes: http://listverse.com/2012/11/28/10-sinister-origins-of-nursery-rhymes/

[6] Kitty Fisher and Lucy Locket:Tawdry Origins: http://persephonemagazine.com/2012/05/kitty-fisher-and-lucy-locket-tawdry-origins/

[7] Kitty Fisher, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitty_Fisher

[8] The dark side of nursery rhymes: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150610-the-dark-side-of-nursery-rhymes

[9] Jack and Jill Dash, http://www.kilmersdonvillageday.co.uk/jackjilldash.html

[10] Nursery rhymes from mother goose: http://nurseryrhymesmg.com/rhymes/little_jack_horner.htm

[11] Ambrose Philips: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrose_Philips

[12] Ambrose Philips: http://www.nndb.com/people/862/000097571/

[13] Little Jack Horner: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/little_jack_horner.htm

[14] Mells Manor House: http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000442

[15] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, (1615)

[16] The history of pies http://www.everythingpies.com/history-of-pie/

[17] Catholic Quotes: http://catholicquotations.com/truth-and-beauty/

[18]Glastonbury Abbey – History and archaeology: www.glastonburyabbey.com/history_archaeology.php?sid=50050ac212abc86effcb7ece21cb4ccb

[19] Richard Whiting (abbot): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Whiting_(abbot)

[20] Once I was a clever boy: http://onceiwasacleverboy.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/blrichard-whiting-abbot-of-glastonbury.html

[21] The Execution of Richard Whiting: http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/execution-of-richard-whiting.html

[22] Halloween: The Ghosts of Glastonbury http://www.centralsomersetgazette.co.uk/Halloween-Ghosts-Glastonbury/story-20007779-detail/story.html

[23] Mells Manor House: http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000442

[24] Fairy Tale Origins: http://mythsweliveby.tumblr.com/tagged/Long_reads

[25] Mells village: http://nurseryrhymesmg.com/rhymes/little_jack_horner.htm

Bibliography

Seesaw Marjorie Daw Rhyme, http://www.rhymes.org.uk/seesaw_marjory_daw.htm

Ba, Ba, Black Sheep, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baa,_Baa,_Black_Sheep

Sheep in the Cotswolds: The Medieval Wool Trade, Derek Hurst

10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes: http://listverse.com/2012/11/28/10-sinister-origins-of-nursery-rhymes/

Kitty Fisher and Lucy Locket:Tawdry Origins: http://persephonemagazine.com/2012/05/kitty-fisher-and-lucy-locket-tawdry-origins/

Kitty Fisher, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitty_Fisher

The dark side of nursery rhymes: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150610-the-dark-side-of-nursery-rhymes

Jack and Jill Dash, http://www.kilmersdonvillageday.co.uk/jackjilldash.html

Nursery rhymes from mother goose: http://nurseryrhymesmg.com/rhymes/little_jack_horner.htm

Ambrose Philips: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrose_Philips

Ambrose Philips: http://www.nndb.com/people/862/000097571/

Little Jack Horner: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/little_jack_horner.htm

Mells Manor House: http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000442

Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, (1615)

The history of pies http://www.everythingpies.com/history-of-pie/

Glastonbury Abbey – History and archaeology: www.glastonburyabbey.com/history_archaeology.php?sid=50050ac212abc86effcb7ece21cb4ccb

Richard Whiting (abbot): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Whiting_(abbot)

Once I was a clever boy: http://onceiwasacleverboy.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/blrichard-whiting-abbot-of-glastonbury.html

The Execution of Richard Whiting: http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/execution-of-richard-whiting.html

Fairy Tale Origins: http://mythsweliveby.tumblr.com/tagged/Long_reads

Mince Pies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mince_pie 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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