revolting rhymesThere’s nothing sweet about these little ditties!

How many mummies today lull their little angels to sleep with the nursery rhymes their own mother sang to you as a wee whippersnapper? Those nursery rhymes that we so adore… full of loveable characters, good moral messages and… persecution, poverty and the Plague! Oh – and don’t forget the Viking Raid! What!? Mum never mentioned that bit!

Friday Five Rhymes1. London Bridge is Falling Down (1744)

While we always assumed London Bridge was about the bridge’s deterioration after the Great Fire of London it seems there are some much more interesting theories. Our favourite is that of the Viking raid led by Olaf II of Norway which supposedly destroyed the bridge in 1014. A Norse saga includes a verse by Óttarr svarti which bears a convincing similarity to the rhyme, translated by Samuel Laing in 1844:

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!

(convincing until we find out Laing just added in the ‘London Bridge’ bit himself, and it’s disputed whether any raid actually occurred in the first place. Oh well it makes for a good story anyway).

2. Three Blind Mice (1805)

Oh that Bloody Mary, she was quite a one wasn’t she? So much so that it’s possible she influenced a couple of our best loved rhymes. The most obvious being Mary, Mary Quite Contrary but a less obvious one being Three Blind Mice.  This is said to be about a trio of Protestant bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer – who tried to overthrow the Queen (and failed miserably). As we know Mary wasn’t renowned for her forgiving nature and all three were burned at the stake at heretics. The blindness of the mice is said to refer to their religious beliefs and failure to see the true Catholic light of God.

3. Rock-A-Bye Baby (1765)

One suggestion is that Rock-A-Bye Baby retells the scandal surrounding the birth of James II’s son, who was commonly thought to be an imposter sneaked into the birthing room to try secure a Catholic heir to the throne. The ‘wind’ is said to stand for a Protestant force that was blowing in from the Netherlands bringing James’ nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, who eventually overthrew him in the Glorious Revolution, the ‘cradle’ is the royal House of Stuart.

4. Pop goes the Weasel (1855)

Away from naughty monkeys and weasel chefs this rhyme has much more serious connotations than we originally thought. It describes the cycle of poverty in the society from which it dates.  ‘Pop’ is Cockney slang for pawning something in, while ‘weasel’ means coat. This describes the cycle by which, poor as he was, a man was expected to own a Sunday suit. Thus the only option was to pawn your Sunday best in on a Monday to buy your bread for the week, so long as you could buy it back again before Sunday. In the verse which mentions the ‘Eagle,’ which was a tavern in London, we see what this way of living often spelled for the poor – while beer for breakfast can be quite exciting the first time round, it should never become a regular habit.

5. Ring a Ring o’ Roses (1881)

Perhaps the Nursery Rhyme with the most commonly known darker side, Ring a Ring o’ Roses is widely believed to be an early NHS Direct symptom guide for the Plague. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms we strongly suggest seeking immediate medical attention. First there’s the rosie rash, then the terrible smell which can only be covered by carrying round a pocket full of posies, next the sneezing and finally the… well you can guess the rest for yourself.

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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