March 15

1648


For an illustration - who could resist?
(Salvador Dali's in the crypt)
Though putting it up here couldn't be phonier
(the museum can be found in Catalonia)
The piece I'm writing needed a date
(March 15 was an empty slate)
The slot for a picture too was empty,
and this looked perfect for Humpty Dumpty
1648 doesn't register?
The Civil War fall of Colchester

The quality of verse is akin to a crime?
You're wrong - it's a skit on a nursery rhyme


Working, as I mostly do these days, in public libraries, the peace of private study is regularly assailed by the horrible onslaught of "Rhyme Time", a device used by many libraries to encourage young families to know that they exist and have a reason for visiting them, which will hopefully lead on to the borrowing of books now by the parents, and by the children when they are old enough to do so. Excellent self-promotion in the digital era, and really I am not complaining; I applaud it, though silently, so as not to disturb those who are trying to write their A level essays or research their PhD theses through this tuneless racket. Simply, I know when the half-hour of "Rhyme Time" is coming, put in my ear plugs for something loud and pleasant enough to drown out most of it, and spend the time writing pieces like this one, which can bear the now-distant howling and the clapping and the dreadful flatness of what cannot be described as singing, for fear of breaching the Trades Descriptions Act.

But there remains the voice of enquiry, permanently whispering in the corners of my brain: why are they going round the mulberry bush, why is there a mouse running up and down the clock, who would have sat down and composed a song about the wheels on the bus or the dickie-birds sitting on a wall? My daughter once made a series for the BBC about the ways in which modern authors re-used the old fairy tales to tell modern stories; were these songs once fairy tales too, or the pop songs of their day, written like Woody Guthrie or Phil Ochs songs as commentaries on current events, Broadside Ballads...

So here are the stories behind some of them...



Humpty Dumpty was not a person at all, but a massive siege cannon that was used by Royalist forces (the King's Men) during the English Civil War (1642 to 1651). During the siege of Colchester, in 1648, the Royalists hauled Humpty Dumpty to the top of the church tower of St Mary-at-the-Walls, and for eleven weeks Humpty sat on the wall and blasted away at the attacking Parliamentarian Roundhead troops, defending the town.

Humpty's great fall came when the church tower was blown up by the Roundheads, and he couldn't be put together again as he had fallen into, and subsequently had become buried deep in the surrounding marshland. Without the mighty Humpty Dumpty to defend them, the King's Men led by Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were soon overrun by the Parliamentarian soldiers of Thomas Fairfax.


Once the rhyme had entered the language, probably in the early 19th century, it became fit subject for use in other contexts, such as chapter six of Lewis Carroll's "Through The Looking Glass". And as a riddle, to which "an egg" was the answer. Yes, but what was the question? Probably not the Colchester cannon at all, or only indirectly; at the time of Colchester a "humpty dumpty" was the name of a milk punch, made with cream, sugar, whipped egg whites and egg yolk, plus a little drop of brandy. Later still it became the euphemism for what we would now term "dispraxic"; the Colchester cannon again the source, not a suggestion of being clumsy from consuming too much eggnog.


“The Grand Old Duke of York” may well be a satirical re-writing, or at the very least a transfer from one satirised character to another. The oldest known version, called “Old Tarlton’s song”, is recorded in 1642 as part of the stage-show of a clown named Richard Tarlton. Not just any clown either. The originator of the stage "yokel". Queen Elizabeth's favourite jester (the Olivia-Viola dialogues in "Twelfth Night" suggest the kind of open criticism she encouraged in him when he day-jobbed as her groom), and one of the sources of that endlessly repeated Shakespearian character "The Fool" - Will Kempe and Robert Armin too, but no question that he created Yorick in "Hamlet" with Tarlton in mind, and Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was probably a tribute or a homage; Shakespeare's play was penned in the late 90's and performed on New Year's night, 1605, Tarlton by then dead full seventeen years. He wrote a number of plays himself, but all alas are lost; not so his jokebooks, "Tarltons Newes out of Purgatorie" came out in 1590, two years after his death, "Tarlton’s Jests" in 1611.

As to the rhyme, Tarlton's version claimed that:
"The King of France with forty thousand men, Came up a hill and so came downe againe."
At what point this became transferred to the Duke of York is unknown, largely because no historian has yet come up with an incident in the life of any Duke of York that might have merited it. The future James II was Duke of York during the English Civil War, but all he did was get captured, and then escape to the continent. Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of King George III, is the most favoured candidate, though only because he was a professional soldier; he achieved nothing of note in the field, though he must have marched some troops up some hill at some time, and having gone up would have needed eventually to come down - perhaps the joke is about the reorganisation of the armies that he undertook during the Napoleonic wars, actually rather good improvements, but the verse is irresistible for anyone looking to criticise.



Highly ironic, "The Lion and the Unicorn". The unicorn was first used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I in the 12th century - and no, that isn't an error. William I of Scotland, not the Norman Conqueror. Known by the nickname Garbh, "the Rough", he reigned as King of the Scots from 1165 to 1214, and this is the irony, that he is recorded in the annals as "William the Lion".

The rhyme belongs to 1603, when Celtic Britain was re-unified under James VI (when Scotland and England were unified under James I, in the English version), and a new coat of arms was created, the Scots unicorn combining with the English lion.




Most of us know Tweedledum and Tweedledee from chapter four of Lewis Carroll's "Alice Through the Looking-Glass"; but Carroll pilfered it, and turned them into eggs too, just as he had Humpty-Dumpty. The original was by John Byrom of Kersal, obscure poet and creator of an even more obscure form of shorthand. Worse even than Marquez and Vargas Llosa, worse even than Faulkner versus Hemingway or Sontag versus Mailer, the rivalrous animosity between George Frideric Handel and the now forgotten Giovanni Bononcini. Handel was writing opera in the German style, Bononcini in the Italian, and both were in London, the centre of serious music at that time.

                            Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
                            That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
                            Others aver, that he to Handel
                            Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
                            Strange all this Difference should be
                            'Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

(and you thought my poem at the top of this page was bad!)


“Bobby Shafto” - or "Booby Shafto" as he appears in one version that I have seen, and which may well not be a misprint - was really Robert Shafto, elected as Member of Parliament for County Durham in 1730, and he actually used this song in his election campaign, though not in the version that we have now. The woman in our version was Bridget Belasyse, the heiress of Brancepeth Castle, whose heart was broken when Shafto found a better-endowed heiress at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire, one Anne Duncombe. Bridget took to her bed, alone and wilfully anorexic, and died, as any medic could have predicted, from starvation and dehydration, two weeks after she found out the news.




Baa Baa Black Sheep: Until the late 16th century the final lines of this rhyme read "But none for the little boy who cries down the lane". Apparently it was changed to the current version in order to cheer it up and make it into a song more suitable for children, though whether by Thomas Bowdler or by someone else I am unable to tell you.

What I can tell you is that the wool trade was big business in medieval England, with flocks as large as eight thousand, and shepherding as big as coal-mining in the 19th century or shelf-stacking in the 21st. When he came home from crusading in 1272, Edward I imposed heavy taxes on the wool trade in order to recoup his costs. The value of every "three bags" sold was divided equally between the King (the master), the monasteries (the dame, who owned most of the land) and the aristocracy (who owned the rest of the land), leaving the "none" for the poor shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane) who had tended and fed the flock.

Like "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" and "The Alphabet Song", the English tune for "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" was "borrowed" from an old French song, dated 1761 in the archives though likely very much older, "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman!", attributed to one Louis Le Maire, but that was probably just the person who wrote it down, an Alan Lomax of the Augustan age.

As to "Twinkle-Twinkle" itself, the lyrics are based on a poem by Jane Taylor called "The Star", published in "Rhymes for the Nursery" in 1806. And yes, Lewis Carroll satirised this one too, in "Alice In Wonderland" this time - click here.



Why King Edward I was given the nickname "Doctor Foster" is not something the historians are able to explain, beyond noting that he was recognised as a clever, indeed a learned man. He was also known as Longshanks, which is self-explanatory, and as the Hammer of the Scots, though actually it was the Welsh who he really hammered - control of Scotland lasted only until the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, by when Edward was seven years dead - and the people who got the very worst hammering were the Jews, who Edward expelled in order to renegue on his huge financial debts, in 1290. 

The story goes that Edward paid a visit to Gloucester, to assess its strategic position as a major crossing of the River Severn into Wales (which it isn't anyway - look at a map, you'll see the Severn is little more than a stream at this point, and the entire Wye Valley, which in those days was dense forest, had to be crossed before you got to Wales). He arrived during a storm and, mistaking a deep ditch for a shallow puddle, steered his horse in that direction. Both horse and rider became trapped in the mire and had to be hauled out. Infuriated and no doubt embarrassed by the humiliation, he vowed never to return to the town.

Unfortunately, while this may, sort of, if you say it in a Welsh accent, kinda-maybe fit the modern version of the rhyme (you can read about Edward in his princeship and The Second Baron's War here, which may explain why Doctor Foster became associated with him), it simply doesn't work at all for the words of the original

                                         Old Dr. Foster went to Gloster,
                                         To preach the work of God.
                                         When he came there, he sat in his chair,
                                         And gave all the people a nod.

Clearly an altogether person, at an altogether different time.

And who might Doctor Foster then have been? What if we went for a more mediaeval spelling, and called him Doctor Fauster? What if we then looked up Christopher Marlowe's play, "The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus", and went to the scene (unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe's texts are not broken down into acts and scenes, nor even line-numbered - you'll have to search your online text by phrase) where Mephistophilis having re-entered, at the departure of the Emperor with his Knights and Attendants, the bad Doctor says: "Now, Mephistophilis, the restless course That time doth run with calm and silent foot, Shortening my days and thread of vital life, Calls for the payment of my latest years: Therefore, sweet Mephistophilis, let us Make haste to Wertenberg." I leave you to read the scene that follows, and draw your own conclusions. Read on until you reach mention of Doctor Lopus, which I believe is the clue to this nursery rhyme. Lopus was Roderigo Lopes, personal physician to the Earl of Leicester at the time that Marlowe wrote this, later to Queen Elizabeth. Lopus the Jew, as he was known in cartoons of the period, and eventually executed, framed as a Spanish spy. The model, incidentally, for Shylock in Shakespeare's heroic defense of the persecuted Jews, "The Merchant of Venice" - Shakespeare attended his execution, and took over the rental of his house to help out his widow Sarah.



Cock A Doodle Doo: An English murder pamphlet of 1606, possibly a true story broadsheeted, possibly a "penny dreadful" fiction. The first part of the original rhyme was: "To mock the cockerel's crow" and nothing to do with maids or shoes. As a song it isn't known until "Mother Goose's Melody" collected dozens of these nursery rhymes in 1765, and then it was






Cock a doodle do!
What is my dame to do?
Till master’s found his fiddlingstick,
She’ll dance without her shoe.

Cock a doodle do!
My dame has found her shoe,
And master’s found his fiddlingstick,
Sing cock a doodle do!

Cock a doodle do!
My dame will dance with you,
While master fiddles his fiddlingstick,
And knows not what to do

A fiddlingstick being the origin of "fiddle" as slang for a violin.


"Rock-a-bye Baby", or possibly “Hush a-bye Baby”, was [reputedly] written by a boy who sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620 and was inspired by the Native American custom of propping babies’ cradles in the branches of trees. If true, it was the first English poem written on American soil.


Georgie Porgie: King George IV, when he was still the young and rather tubby (17½ stone with a 50-inch waist) Prince Regent, whence the "pudding and pie", and other, constant lampoons and ridicules in the tabloids of his day. "Kiss the girls and make them cry" was more than Tiger Woods but less than Harvey Weinstein, though of that order, with several mistresses and a string of illegitimate children. The most famous was Maria Anne Fitzherbert, who filled his twenty-third year with love and passion of such besottal he persuaded her into a secret marriage: and her a commoner, and worse, a Roman Catholic. And then - like Prince Charles continuing to see Camilla Parker-Bowles behind the fairy-tale of Lady Di; but bigamously in Georgie's case - he then married Catherine of Brunswick, who he detested to such a degree he refused to let her attend his coronation.

He was also regarded as something of a fop, a namby-pamby, feeble - when the awards for bravery were handed out at his school he skulked at the back in the hope of going unnoticed. But he did enjoy watching others perpetrate physical violence upon each other, especially the gentlemanly sport of boxing, which in his day was bare-knuckle. During one of those prize-fights, a boxer was knocked to the floor and Davey Moored by his injuries (see February 6); not wanting it known that he had attended what was an illegal event, he made a hasty retreat through a back door ("when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away").

The song was first published, with Bowdlerised different lyrics, in James Orchard Halliwell's collection in 1840.


There is also a completely different version, which may be Roly-Poly to describe his paunch, or it may be Rowley-Powley to reflect his name:
Rowley Powley, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the girls began to cry,
Rowly Powley ran away.



George's great-grandfather bears the blame for "There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe". King George II and Queen Caroline had eight children together, every one of whom found a seat in Parliament without any tabloid journalist shouting "nepotism". The king's inability to get Parliament to subject itself to his whims and will may have been intended by putting the whip in Queen Caroline's hand, though it was George who acquired the nickname "the old lady". The song is first known from the 1794 collection "Gammer Gurton’s Garland" by Joseph Ritson; but that is already 34 years after George died, so we can safely assume it was doing the rounds a lot earlier.


Goosey Goosey Gander: At least one informed source reckons this was a piece of propaganda from the time of Henry VII's reign, and that it was used by Protestants against the Catholic Church. To which I can only respond: "in Henry VII's reign"? Is that a typing error for "Henry VIII"? Another equally informed source (which is to say, a website which regards this subject as its scholarly specialism), claims that both the title and the first line of the song "might" refer to the march of Cromwell's soldiers in "goose-step", in the mid-17th century, after the Civil War. Given that the goose-step in question is not military, but a man tip-toeing into a woman's bedroom, and not even for a tryst with the lady but to steal other sorts of goodies...

The original went: 



                                              Goose-a goose-a gander, 
                                              Where shall I wander? 
                                              Up stairs and down stairs, 
                                              In my lady's chamber; 
                                              There you'll find a cup of sack 
                                              And a race of ginger

Claiming this for a Civil War march is simply a case of daylight robbery! Claiming it as a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda is more than likely correct - but in Henry VIII's time, please, or the first Queen Elizabeth's.



The same theme lies at the source of "Three Blind Mice", first published in 1609 by Thomas Ravenscroft in “Deuteromelia or The Seconde part of Musicks melodie”. The three "mice" were Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, of whom the first two had their tails cut off on October 16th 1555; the third kept his intact until March 21st of the following year. They are known as "The Oxford Martyrs" because they were auto-da-féd in Oxford, but really they should be known as "The Cambridge Martyrs" because all three were trained at that university, though by then Ridley was Bishop of London, Latimer Bishop of Worcester and Cranmer Archbisop of Canterbury. The "farmer's wife" was Queen Mary.

Or perhas they should be known as "The Christian Martyrs" - from the outside perspective of this lapsed Jew anyway. "The Great Anglo-Christian Civil War" might also be a term worth adding to the GCSE curriculum: first King Henry persecuted the Catholics, and his son briefly continued to do the same; then Queen Mary declared all Protestants heretics, and burned as many as she could manage at the stake; then she died, and Queen Elizabeth announced that it was the Catholics who were the heretics, and used the same fires. "The Golden Age", as it is also called. Gold melts at 1945 degrees Fahrenheit. But it starts melting at around 1509, melts much more between 1553 and 1558, and then it just goes on getting hotter and hotter and meltier and meltier... 1945 of course was when they finally closed the Christian ovens.

A very much longer version of "Ye Three Blind Mice" by John W. Ivimey, can be found here. Published in 1904, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the original nursery rhyme, and isn't actually very well written, but the illustrations, by Walton Corbould, are splendid.



London Bridge is Falling Down may well be the oldest of all the Nursery Rhymes that aren't really Nursery Rhymes at all, but simply satires on actual history in a form that juvenates. The original bridge was Roman, and wooden. This one was begun in 1176, by a man remembered only as Peter, a priest at St. Mary's Colechurch, at the southern end of Old Jewry - the church where Thomas Becket was baptised, and one of the first to go to blazes in the Great Fire of 1666. Peter's bridge was significant because no one had built a bridge in stone before, or not in Aengland anyway, though why a bridge needed nineteen pointed arches, and stone foundations laid in cofferdams inside the riverbed, was a matter of cor blimey to the locals, whose favourite game for years to come was to "shoot the bridge", preferably in a small boat, and at high-tide - the Jack and Jill of going through them archways!

Twenty-nine years after starting the project, Peter moved on to build greater pipe-dreams in Paradise with this one still unfinished, but others took up the project, and from its opening in 1209 it was the key crossing-point of the Thames, the reason why Southwark grew and London found itself on both sides of the river for the first time ever. Being made of stone, it could support other buildings, so the view from both sides quickly turned into back-window-only, 138 shops along the roadway by the middle of the 14th century, and fortified gates at each end to keep the proles and burglars out after closing time, because there were homes by now above most of the shops, and even a watermill, in Queen Bess' time. And then, why not, a town-house for Her Majesty, the bridge is strong enough. They named it Nonsuch House, and laid the foundation stone on August 28th 1577. 

The rhyme comes from two hundred years later, when the bridge needed repairs, and the man who had just designed Westminster Bridge, Charles Labelye, was commissioned. First he removed all the shops and houses, widening the roadway; then he removed the two central arches, replacing them with a single structure. When he tried to take out the central pier, those cofferdams lost their tension and just fell apart. Labelye decided to abandon the bridge, and start a new one a few yards upstream, though it took till 1832 for the last of the old bridge to finally be demolished.

My failed attempt to interject some Cockney rhyming slang earlier on has to do with the closing line of this rhyme. "
My fair lady" is really "Mayfair Lady", Mayfair being the poshest corner of London in Georgian times, the residence of those ladies who had gone on visiting Nonsuch House until it was demolished in 1757. And that Cockney pronunciation may also apply to "away" in the original of Georgie Porgie: "awhy" - it was just the way they spoke it on the north side of London Bridge, within bell-pealing distance of that other church of St Mary, at Bow.



Which ought to make a perfect segue into "Oranges and Lemons"; but I shall return to that later, for reasons that will become obvious when we get there. In the meanwhile, since we are in that part of London, "Pop Goes The Weasel", not really a Nursery Rhyme at all - but then, as we are beginning to realise, very few of them ever were.

"Weasel" belongs to the Victorian music hall, and "specifically to the sweatshops of Shoreditch and Spitalfields that provided Londoners with their clothing. A spinner's "weasel" is a device for measuring out a length of yarn; the mechanism makes a popping sound when the correct length has been reached. No doubt during this highly repetitive and boring work, the spinner's mind would wander to the more mundane, only to be brought back to harsh reality when the weasel went pop." The "eagle" referred to was probably the Eagle Tavern at the junction of City Road and Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton, in north London. Or at least, so they sing - the current version of that tavern proclaims it proudly on its signboard.



Lucy Locket, whose lost pocket is sung to the same tune as "Yankee Doodle"- and no one can say which came first. Which is to say, Lucy is a piece of English satire, dating from Charles II's time, and America, which was an English colony at the time, doesn't extend the special relationship to the extent of accepting that its national nursery rhyme was an act of plagiarism, the colonisation, one might say, of someone else's territory.

Lucy Locket and Kitty Fisher, the ladies mentioned in the song, were two of Charles II's courtesans. Lucy Locket also turns up in John Gay's "Beggar's Opera", written in 1728. Kitty was really Catherine Marie Fischer, whose portrait was painted by Joshua Reynolds and who gets mentioned by name in several of Thompson's Country Dances. Lucy Lockett was an early version of Lillie Langtry, a working-class girl with looks, rather than a minor aristocrat with aspirations; she was the waitress at a pub on Fleet Street called "The Cock". Most appropriate, really, in the circumstances.


Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary: The problem with historians is that they (we) hear a name, and have to associate it with someone famous, a king or queen, a general, a politician - and worse today, because this is the best we can now manage, a minor film or pop or sports star. So Mary cannot be some girl from somewhereland, who had a fight with her dad when she trampled on his magnolias, while playing a birthday game with four of her girlfriends, pretending to plant out all the stuff they had brought back from Christmas at grandma’s-by-the-sea. It would fit the song perfectly. But no, it has to be Mary Queen of Scots, and lacking any actual evidence for this, even for her having a contrary sort of personality, the cockle shells and silver bells must have been ornaments on a dress given to her by her first husband, the Dauphin of France, or maybe it was Bothwell, the night he raped her. And queens, even in Scotland, have maids, and hers were bound to have been pretty. On the other hand, English Mary was most definitely of a contrary disposition, which is why they called her “Bloody Mary”.

So let us now deconstruct the verse. Mary was a devout Catholic; when brother Edward VI died and she became queen, she took the contrary view of him and his father, and restored Catholicism to the “garden” of England. All very good thus far. Now, “silver bells”: a type of thumbscrew possibly, and the “cockle shells” ditto, used on Protestant martyrs to “persuade” them to change faith; the “maiden” would then be the device used to behead people, an axe rather than the not-yet-invented French guillotine, and the “pretty maids all in a row” would be the long lines of amputated heads of Protestant martyrs. 

And yes, it works - except that we know the names of all the torture instruments of the epoch, and these are not among them. And besides, if you were going to write a verse about a female monarch who used torture extensively to impose her religion of preference, then it would need to be “Lizzie, Lizzie, very busy” and not “Mary Mary quite contrary”, because never was there more torture, more "heretical" heads cut off, under a monarch than during the reign of Good Queen Bess.

Who then was Mary? Quite likely some girl from somewhereland, who had a fight with her dad...


Old King Cole: Unlike "Mary Mary", this one certainly does have a historic base: it was first published, by the way, around 1708, in a book by William King entitled “Useful Transactions in Philosophy”, though it is unclear how this rhyme about King Cole applies.

Those of you who inhabit the United Kingdom of Greater England and its Home Colonies, and therefore know absolutely nothing of the languages and literature of three parts of that realm, will also not know that Cole is a Brythonic word, and should be written “Coel”. The Brythons gave their name to Britain, and comprised, inter alia, Picts, Scots, Gaels (Welsh), Cymru (Cumbrian, but also Welsh) and Tuatha de Danau (Eirish), before the Anglo-Saxons conquered and dispossessed them. Alongside Ar Thur (The King”) as a royal title, there were also dynastic names for those kings, of which Coel was as common as Moses among the Pharaohs, which is to say “very”.

Of the known Coels, I am going to mention Coel Godhebog, or Cole the Magnificent, and his son, Ceneu ap Coel, later made a saint for defending the Christian faith against the German pagans; my mentioning them simply as an excuse to note that “ap” is to Welsh what “Mac” is to Scots, “ben” to Hebrew and “ibn” to Arabic: "son of"; and to share with you the information that Ceneu is the probable Celtic origin of the English name Kenneth.

But it is another Coel, Coel Hen, who is our man in this rhyme: Coel the Old literally. Like the other two, he ruled the Cumbrian region of Northern Brython during the last years of the Roman Empire, at precisely the time when the first of the Goths were extending their lebensraum to these islands.

As to the fiddle and the pipe and the drum, these are the instruments we associate with the Psalms, and rightly so, because Ar Thur in the Celtic and David in the Hebrew turn out to be the same, David giving his name to the Welsh river Taff - but you will have to read “The Land Beside The Sea”, or go to my BibleNet, to unravel that little puzzle. Easiest shortcut when you get to the latter of those is the essay “The Leprachauns of Palestine”.

One little clue however. People generally remember the opening lines of the song, but not the closing ones. In full it goes:




Tweedle dee? Oh, fiddlesticks!


Ride a Cock-Horse to Banbury Cross: The cock-horse is precisely what you think it is: a stallion. There were actually three Banbury Crosses. The High Cross, erected around 1478, and also known as the Market Cross; it was situated in Cornhill, just off the Market Place, and would have looked like - but much smaller - the one that still stands at Charing Cross in London. Then there was the Bread Cross, at the corner of High Street and Butchers Row: larger, with a slate roof so that the butchers and bakers who had their market stalls there could keep dry in wet weather. While public proclamations were made from the High Cross, it was the distribution of bread to the poor on Good Friday that gave this cross its name. It was probably erected around 1440. Finally the White Cross, on the western boundary line of the old town borough, though that is probably coincidence. Unrecorded before Queen Mary's time, it may have been erected to replace the previous two, after they were taken down in the Reformation.

As to the white lady, there are several candidates. The first is Queen Elizabeth I, and her proposers claim she came to Banbury to see a huge stone cross which had just been erected - unfortunately, the dates don't work. In their version, her carriage couldn't make it up the steep hill (Banbury is remarkably flat), and so she dismounted, and rode instead on a white stallion that had been decked out for the ceremonial occasion with silver bells and cockle shells (no other record of ceremonies at that epoch include such ornamentation). 

The second names her as Lady Katherine Banbury, wife of Lord Jonathan Banbury, whose grand-daughter told a New Zealand newspaper in the aftermath of World War I that her grandfather, who was the Squire of Burford near Banbury, had himself ridden the white horse on which the "fine lady" used to ride... which would have made the horse at least five hundred years old. 

The third names her as a member of the Fiennes family, ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele who own nearby Broughton Castle, and date the tale to the 1760s - a mere one hundred and sixty years after the two Crosses were torn down. 

There is a fourth possibility, though this is generally associated with Coventry, not Banbury - that the lady on the white horse was the May Queen, riding to her ritual marriage with the May King, and either ceremonially clad, or, as in the Coventry version, stark naked. Lady Godiva the name. Or Godgifu, in the original Mercian version, which also describes her as a "white lady" rather than a "fine lady". The "white lady" of the Mercian culture was their version of Guinevere among other Celtic tribes - so of the four options, the May Queen really does appear to be the most likely.

The illustration shows the current Banbury Cross, erected in 1859 to celebrate the wedding of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, to Prince Frederick of PrussiaFully clothed.




All these Mary and Elizabeth allusions make this the perfect place to conjecture whether “Frog Went A Courtin”, or possibly “Froggie Went A Courtin”, or even “Froggy Went A Courtin”, which tells the story of a Mr Frog who is asking a rather shy and reticent Miss Mouse to marry him... to conjecture whether Queen Bess knew the song (it first appeared in in Wedderburn’s "Complaynt of Scotland" in 1548, and was then called “The frog came to the myl dur”), and applied it to her Dauphin. The song was first recorded by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1611, and while she called the French Dauphin, Hercule François de Valois-Angoulême, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, "Monsieur" in public, she also nick-named him “my frog”, and used it most affectionately, in private. 

He came a-courtin’ in 1572, sent by his royal parents to make an alliance as well as a marriage, when he was 18 and she 38, and the only thing they obviously had in common was the impact of smallpox - though it is interesting to note that he also had precisely the spinal condition that Shakespeare would later attribute to Richard III. Lizzie fell for him completely; she even hid behind the curtains to watch him dance when he was visiting her at Greenwich, and when he left she wrote a poem for him, "On Monsieur’s Departure". Wedding negotiations dragged on for years, Elizabeth procrastinating and anti-Catholics protesting, but it all came to nought. On June 10th 1584, Froggie caught a fever at Château-Thierry, and died. Elizabeth wept in public for the next three weeks, and wore black for the next six months.

What has any of this to do with the nursery rhyme? Probably nothing - but it's such a good story I couldn't resist telling it; and especially the excuse to note that this was when the English started calling the French "frogs". Oh, and also to wonder whether or not, between Seymour in her teens, and Robin Dudley, and the Frog, was Bess also the Queen of Hearts in that nursery rhyme, or indeed in Lewis Carroll? Probably not.

Jack and Jill: The village of Kilmersdon in North Somerset claims to be the home of the Jack and Jill rhyme. In the late 15th century, so local legend insists, a young unmarried couple regularly climbed a nearby hill in order to conduct their liaison in private, away from the prying eyes of the village. Obviously a very close liaison, because Jill fell pregnant; alas, just before the baby was born, Jack was killed by a rock that had fallen from their "special" hill. A few days later, Jill died while giving birth to their love-child. Their tragic tale unfolds today on a series of inscribed stones that leads along a path to that "special" hill.

I am inclined not to believe this piece of local flea-market-force economics, and place it alongside Richard III's skeleton, now in York or Leicester or probably both, and all those relics of the Cross and fragments of Mary Magdalene's underwear in mediaeval churches, as simply a marketing scam to encourage tourism. Back in the day, John Doe or Joe Bloggs was plain Jack, while Jane Doe comes from Lady Jane - the second version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was entitled John Thomas and Lady Jane, DHL wanting to be sure people understood that he was doing a universal Adam and Eve tale, and that sex was at its core. Joe Bloggs' Eve was always Jill Bloggs, so Jack and Jill, which was probably Jacques and Gill in Plantagenet times.

Shakespeare clearly knew the rhyme, as he alludes to in "
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, Scene 2" ("Jack shall have Jill; nought shall go ill; the man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well") ; though he may have known it from a comedy act called "Jack and Jill" which was performed at the Elizabethan court a decade before his arrival, probably in 1567or '68. "A good Jack makes a good Jill" was an English proverb long before that time.

That same reliable source (I shall not embarrass it by naming it) which reckoned Henry VII was a committed Protestant, also insists that "the rhyme was first known as Jack and Gill, referring to two boys, not a boy and a girl". American spellings you see! Jill was Gill in exactly the same way that Bill was Will - the source is the Norman French Guillaume, which was itself sourced in the Latin Julius; and Juliana for the feminine.



All of which prompts a special section on Nursery Rhymes alluded to by Shakespeare:

Little Bo Peep: The first line was discovered in an old manuscript from 1805, and published around 1810, with additional lyrics in Gammer Gurton's Garland or "The Nursery Parnassus", a collection of lyrics for amusement. But this is very late. Shakespeare's Lear, clueless in his court though not yet wandering haplessly about the heath, is just about to lose his favourite sheep, Cordelia. But immediately before her entrance (Act 1, Scene 4), the Fool sings:

                                      Then they for sudden joy did weep,
                                      And I for sorrow sung,
                                      That such a king should play bo-peep,
                                      And go the fools among.
                                      Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach
                                      thy fool to lie: I would fain learn to lie.

Which presumably could only have been meaningful as satire to the audiences of the day, if the Nursery Rhyme was already in existence. Can we find a source? Possibly, but first I need to switch to a different nursery rhyme, which also talks about lost sheep, and which is also referenced in Shakespeare's "King Lear". In Act 3, Scene 6, to be precise, when Edgar, disguised as Mad Tom, arrives at the cave where Lear has been taken to rage his personal storm, and suggests putting all those lost sheep on trial. He too sings his nursery allusion:

                                      Are you asleep or awake, happy shepherd?
                                      Your sheep are running around the cornfield.
                                      But if you blow your cute little horn,
                                      Your sheep will be fine.
                                      Purr! The devil-cat is gray.

Little Boy Blue, surely?

                            Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,
                            The sheep’s in the meadow the cow’s in the corn.
                            But where’s the boy who looks after the sheep?
                            He’s under a haystack fast asleep.
                            Will you wake him? No, not I – for if I do, he’s sure to cry.

Historians reckon that the original "Little Boy Blue" was a satire on Cardinal Wolsey, who rose, extremely arrogantly all the way (the expression "to blow your own horn" comes from this), from being the son of an Ipswich butcher to Henry VIII's Chief of Staff. The English hated him, and there are many references to him as "the Boy Bachelor" - he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree at Oxford University at the ridiculously young age of 15. But is Shakespeare using two nursery rhymes completely separately, or in some subtle way making the same satire, by overlapping two that have remarkable similarities, making Wolsey Little Bo Peep as well - and Lear by analogy both of them?

And if so, can we also feed on the doggie-bone, regarded by some historians as the terms that Wolsey worked out with the Pope for Henry's divorce, which Old Mother Hubbard produced from her cupboard, down at Hampton Court?


Shakespeare may also carry some of the blame for "Sing a Song of Sixpence", though the connection is decidedly obscure: iAct II, Scene II of the 1602 version of "Twelfth Night", Sir Toby Belch summons Feste with “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song”.
With or without blackbirds? The earliest known versions (such as Tommy Thumb in his Pretty Song Book of 1744) go:

                                                          Sing a Song of Sixpence,
                                                          A bag full of Rye,
                                                          Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
                                                          Baked in a Pye!
The 1784 "Nursery Parnassus", collected by one Gammer Gurton, replaces the "Naughty Boys" with a chambermaid, and rather than "Baked in a Pye" she is "attacked by a magpie" - which at least is visually mistakeable for a blackbird, though magpies are usually associated with good luck, unlike here.
The phrasing hints at satire, though who, or even what, might have been the originals of the four-and-twenty, whether naughty boys, magpies or blackbirds, is not something that historians can do more than postulate. One version suggests that blackbirds cooked in a pie were a great delicacy among the gourmets of the comedy clubs of Tudor England, who took pleasure in contriving outlandish recipes as a form of entertainment joke, and thought that Henry VIII in particular would be amused by this one. A second Henry VIII postulation (click here) identifies the "dainty dish" with Anne Boleyn, but unfortunately the date of the blackbirds is two hundred years out.


Ding Dong Bell: Dates back to 16th century England. The Ding Dong Bell rhyme was first recorded in 1580 by the organist of Winchester Cathedral, John Lant. The expression "Ding Dong Bell" was used by Shakespeare in at least two of his plays (click here and here), though no one really has the feintest notion what he meant by them.

One of our difficulties with this particular nursery rhyme is that, according to all modern explainers anyway, the version that we have is "known" to be one that was Bowdlerised to make it safe for children, for fear that they would take the words literally and be tempted to throw cats in wells; but actually, and this is why that statement is itself the problem, in the earliest known versions, the cat managed to avoid drowning - "who pulled her out? Little Johnny Stout" - and in the even earlier versions, she wasn't thrown in the well in the first place, but simply sat down beside it, and the boy wasn't "naughty", but "jolly", because what he did was fetch the cat some cream (click here). So the supposedly Bowdlerised version is in fact a return to the original; but someone must have made it nasty in the intervening period, and what we do not know is who, or why. 

And all of this, most likely, as a way of teaching children rhyme and onomatopoeia - so this belongs in the closing section of this blog-page, where the genuinely Nursery Rhyme are gathered. 



And still in that same period of English history which has inspired more satire than any other, "Little Jack Horner"was another of Henry VIII’s men, the steward to Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of what was then spelled Gleistonbury. When Henry lost one tennis match more than his overstretched bank balance could tolerate, and decided to dissolve the monasteries and use their wealth to pay his debts, Abbot Whiting sent the king an enormous Christmas pie, concealed within which were the deeds of a dozen manors, owned by the Abbey, hoping thereby to bail out the royal cash-flow without the need for formal liquidation. Horner was the man tasked with taking the “pie” to London, but en route he simply cut himself a slice - the highly valuable Manor of Mells in Somerset, from which the concept of the “plum” entered the English language. Evidence that a Horner owned Mells from this time is not disputed, though hardly surprising that his descendants regard the rhyme as slanderous (click here for their side of the non-story and an even better picture than the one I've posted; they reckon the "plum" was Barnet, in north London)



Little Miss Muffet was the step-daughter of Dr Thomas Muffet, 16th century physician and entomologist, author of an illustrated guide to insects, famed for his Puritanism and his admiration for Paracelsus. Her Christian name was Patience, but alas that virtue crept no further. The lyrics purport to recall an occasion when Patience ran away from the breakfast table, frightened by a spider which had crawled out of step-daddy’s collection - which sounds rather like an alternate version of Mary Mary Quite Contrary; but I guess a lot of little girls, and big ones too, have fall-outs with their step-fathers. Speculation in this instance has never yet been proved.

The song had various known versions over the years, any one of which might discount the Thomas Muffett connection. “Little Mary Ester sat upon a tester” doesn't seem to me to have a leg-in-six chance of surviving, though I confess to liking “Little Miss Mopsey sat in the shopsey”. “Little Miss Man” was written in 1868 by Peter Doyle, Walt Whitman’s secret partner, and one of the few people to have left behind an eye-witness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (click here).



Old Mother Hubbard: An entirely made-up tale, it was written, and she did the illustrations herself too, by Sarah Catherine Martin, daughter of Sir Henry Martin, naval commissioner at Portsmouth and Comptroller of the Navy; somewhere around 1804, for the highly serious purpose (of amusing her sister’s children, according to some commentators; but there were no children) of metaphorically spitting in the face of her obnoxious brother-in-law, after he told her to "run away and write one of your stupid little rhymes". Said sister was Judith Anne Martin, and she was the second wife of the thoroughly name-deserving politician John Pollexfen Bastard, Member of Parliament for Truro in 1783 and for the Devonshire Constituency from 1784 to 1812. 

The words may have been inspired by an old housekeeper at her sister’s, who lived in a cottage on their property after giving up work. Or they may not have been. Those who need to find plausible historical sources in everything have written elaborate but unsubstantiated proofs that she was really St. Hubert, the protector of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers; or even Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (click here). My intuition tells me - look at the words and imagine the bile and spleen that drove them - that Ms Martin simply went up to her room, and wrote a bitch of a satirical epitaph for that clever-clever little wish-you-were-dead-right-now dog who was her brother-in-law.


Two more from the same realm [of literature]:


Calling Simple Simon "literature", however, requires a broader definition than the one employed on school and university curricula. St Augustine, like Italo Svevo's Zeno, called it "Confession"; Günter Grass at the opening of his memoirs spoke of fiction as a form of "camouflage", for writers regularly recycle their own life-experiences into their supposedly fictional tales, sometimes to reflect on them and understand them better, sometimes just to share them with the world, and gain some sympathy. Roman à clef is the official name for this.

So it appears to have been with whoever was the author of the original of this, published in an illustrated chap-book of 1685 and entitled “Simple Simon’s Misfortunes and his Wife Margery’s Cruelty”. That earliest version, which recounts the events of the first day of this desperate mismarriage, had nothing in it of piemen, and even less of fishing - the version that survived was someone else's satire on the original, circa 1764.



And then there is Wee Willie Winkie, written by William Miller, and published for the first time in the Scottish poetry and song anthology "Whistle-binkie” in 1841 (a whistle-binkie was probably the Scottish name for a busker, especially one who played at weddings and quares [quares were the ancient gatherings of Celtic and Gaelic poets, to recite their odes {odes were...}]). The English translation appeared three years later, but alas the name of the translator remains a mystery. That original Scottish version goes:







Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown,
Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”
“Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye comin’ ben?
The cat’s singin grey thrums to the sleepin hen,
The dog’s speldert on the floor and disna gie a cheep,
But here’s a waukrife laddie, that wunna fa’ asleep.”
Onything but sleep, you rogue, glow’ring like the moon,
Rattlin’ in an airn jug wi’ an airn spoon,
Rumblin’, tumblin’ roon about, crawin’ like a cock,
Skirlin like a kenna-what, waukenin’ sleepin’ fock.
“Hey Willie Winkie, the wean’s in a creel,
Wamblin’ aff a bodie’s knee like a verra eel,
Ruggin’ at the cat’s lug and raveling a’ her thrums-
Hey Willie Winkie – see there he comes.”
Wearit is the mither that has a stoorie wean,
A wee, stumpie, stousie, that canna rin his lane,
That has a battle aye wi’ sleep afore he’ll close an e’e-
But a kiss frae aff his rosy lips gies strength anew to me.

Don't you just so much prefer that version!



Jack Be Nimble: The origin of "Jack be nimble" is mostly related to an English pirate named Black Jack, who lived in the late 16th century, and managed repeatedly to elude the authorities. Not to be confused with Black Jack, who terrorised Australia after moving there from America in the 1820snor with Black Jack Davey, the gypsy who "come a-riden', a-whistlin' loud and merry", and "made the woods around him ring", before he "charmed the heart of a lady" of not yet sixteen.

"Jumping over candlesticks" or "Candle-leaping" was traditional in England, mostly practiced in the markets and fairs. It was believed that it was a good-luck sign to clear the candle without damping down or blowing out the flame.


Don Maclean's allusion in "American Pie" was to none of these however; his "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" is to the Rolling Stones, and specifically Mick Jagger, and even more specifically to what ganja and weed was called, before it was called ganja and weed (click here if you're naughty - NOPE? BLOCKED?)


All of the above are "historical" Nursery Rhymes, which is to say: they were never intended for the nursery, and shouldn't really be described as "Nursery Rhymes" at all - they belong to "Punch" and "Private Eye", not Enid Blyton or "Sesame Street". The ones that were, were written as teaching aides, to get kids started on counting, on learning their alphabet, on building their basic lexicon, and often inculcating religion too, because "get 'em young and you've got 'em for life" as it only ever says in unprinted footnotes to the scriptures.


So, the rhymes that follow are all true, genuine, authentic and proper "Nursery Rhymes":


Hickory Dickory Dock: A game for teaching children how to tell the time, originally - but most of these rhymes were: counting, alphabet, clock. "Hickere, Dickere Dock", in Tommy Thumb's 1744 "Pretty Song Book". Plain "Dickery Dock" twenty-one years later, in "Mother Goose's Melody" (Mother Goose herself is connected to St Olave's church by the Tower of London, which claims to have buried her there on September 14th 1586, but the Mother Goose of the melody was a book of nursery rhymes in French, published by a man named Perrault in 1697, or possibly in Loret's "La Muse Historique" in 1650, or even earlier, in a work by Guy de la Brosse, in 1628.). Some claim that Hickory Dikory Dock was written by Oliver Goldsmith of Dublin (the playwright who wrote "She Stoops To Conquer"), for his own nursery rhymes collection. They sing it to a very different tune in America than they do in Britain, but I guess that's true of most things.



Not much use teaching kids how to tell time if they haven't yet learned to count. Five Little Ducks will help, and should be sung with full physical effects, using fingers, or even toes, or any other objects of which five can be picked up, put down, pushed here, pulled there. The original was probably "Five Speckled Frogs".



Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe is a choosing rhyme, but generally uses the fingers rather than the toes. The original words did not have the racist connotation that they later acquired, and which has made the song unsingable in that form today. In New Amsterdam, before it became New York, the Dutch sang it as "Hana, Mana, Mona, Miké", with an accent on that final "e", so that all four words become duosyllabic. The remaining lines are in Double-Dutch, but there are also "Ena, Mena, Mona, Mi", and "Ena, Mena, Mora, Mi", which suggest the song came in from someone's foreign colony somewhere, and should then continue "Bassalona, Bona, Stri, Haré, Waré, Frown, Whack, Halico, Balico, Wé, Wi, Wack", which suggests something African or Polynesian to me. Scots versions, on the other hand, go "Eetern, Feetern, Peeny, Pump..."


Mary Had a Little Lamb: Authorship actually known on this occasion. Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), American writer, its accompanying musical sheet hand-written by the composer Lowel Mason in the 1830s. And apparently it really happened (but you can never trust fiction writers when they tell you a particular story is true): a 14 year old girl named Mary Sawyer was persuaded by her brother to take her lamb with her to school. Of course she couldn’t keep her pet unnoticed and the lamb was soon everybody’s distraction, making her famous for doing this. Believe that and you'll believe anything!

Including the claim by one John Roulstone, that he was visiting the school that day, and he wrote it.

A statue commemorating Mary’s Little Lamb can be found in Sterling, MA; but alas not Mary's house, which burned to the ground in a fire in August 2007. The school, Redstone School , founded in 1798, was for some reason and at some point removed, literally, physically removed, when surely it would have been easier and cheaper just to build one on the site, to Sudbury, MA, on Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

One last piece of completely and utterly useless information. The lyrics of "Mary had a Little Lamb" were the first words in history captured by a phonograph. Thomas Edison recorded his own voice reciting the rhyme, on November 20th 1877 (click here). Given what we know about Thomas Edison, it was probably at the limit of his literary repertoire.


Old McDonald Had a Farm: A similar version of this song called “Ohio (Old Macdougal Had A Farm)" was first published in 1917, in Tommy’s Tune collection (see below). But even that isn't the oldest, or the only; an even older version was discovered in 1908 in England, at “Workhouse Marylebone, a rest home in London”, when Cecil Sharp, the great English collector of folk songs, heard an old lady named Mrs. Goodey singing it. That one, or at least its melody, turned out to have been from an opera traceable at least to 1719, where it is called “The Kingdom of the Birds”, and located in Thomas D’Urfey's song collection "Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy".

I confess that I am not convinced by claims that the original went 

                       Old Macdougal had a farm in Ohio-i-o,
                       And on that farm he had some dogs in Ohio-i-o,
                       With a bow-wow here, and a bow-wow there,
                       Here a bow, there a wow, everywhere a bow-wow

Though I do have a version in my own repertoire, for the evenings when I do solid satire. It includes: Old MacDonald had a burger restaurant, but mostly it plays with the internal lines: and on that farm he had a mortgage, he had an EEC subsidy, he had a bad case of foot & mouth disease, he had a poacher; etc.



Oranges and Lemons was also a learning song - for dancers; though the account of it here is more useful as a guide-book for a really interesting day out in historic London. It may have been plural oranges but singular lemon in the original, which was a square-dance, an account of which can be found in the 3rd edition (1665) of John Playford’s, "The English Dancing Master".

The church names mentioned in the nursery rhyme are also a subject of much discussion, because they are different in different versions. What is consistent is first of all the tune, which was the tune actually played by the bell-ringers of St. Clement Danes in the City of Westminster, the first-named in every version; and secondly the theme, which is of bells tolling quite specifically for a death-sentence that has passed on someone who is also a debtor.

But first the dance: One boy, one girl, face to face, holding hands, arms outstretched to form an arch. One of them represent the Oranges, the other the Lemons. All other boys and girls form form a line, holding on to the hips, waist, shoulder, as you prefer, of the dancer in front of them. Keeping the beat, they dance under the arch, singing the Oranges and Lemons ballade as they go, and keep going until the last word of the last line "chops off its head".

Which also chops off whover is going through the arch at that moment, the boy-girl towers closing like the two halves of Tower Bridge on that doomed river-barge. The only way out is to answer the question, posed by both sides of the tower: "Oranges or Lemons?" Done in a whisper, so no one else hears the answer. Then stand out the rest of the dance, holding the waist of whichever side of the Tower you chose. 

And so it continues until every child has been caught, and there are two teams ready for a tug-of-war. Draw a chalk line, or lay a rope, between them, and before they start the human pandemonium, any sensible parent or schoolteacher will turn up with ice cream or the end-of-lesson bell, because what might happen next...

And now the churches, the ones in the version that most of us know:


Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's. Now the official church of the Royal Air Force, it stands at the junction of Fleet Street and Holborn Kingsway, outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, on that semi-circle known as the Aldwych where there used to be a Strand Tube station, and above it the BBC World Service - not a hundred yards from Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop, Lincoln's Inn Fields, the London School of Economics, John Soane's museum: the heart of that part of London where everyone who mattered lived in Tudor times.

You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's. From the location, St Martin in the Fields, which is on the side of Trafalgar Square, is the most likely, though there is also a church of the same name in Spitalfields.

When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey. Follow the Strand down into the City, and the two great halls of justice in London are joined: the Royal Courts by St Clements and the Old Bailey on the top of Ludgate Hill, immediately before St Paul's Cathedral.

When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch. Turn north-east now, cross the City by way of the Barbican, Moorgate, through Bun Hill fields and what were once Finsbury Fields, where James Burbage built London's first formal theatre. The Shoreditch church is named St Leonard's.

When will that be? say the bells of Stepney. The journey goes east again, and slightly south, into Bethnal Green, and down towards the Thames once more, reaching Stepney Green (take the opportunity to visit the loveliest of City Farms while you are there) where has stood for more than a thousand years now the Church of St Dunstan's and All Saints, famous for its kestrels that have lived for generations in the belfry.

I do not know, says the great bell of Bow. And still further east, the journey being so clearly lined that the argument over which St Martins simply has to fall in favour of Trafalgar Square. And then even more so, because that line, if you were to take it one stage further west from Trafalgar Square, would end at St Mary le Bow church at the very west end of mediaeval London, at what is now called Marylebone, and would have to pass through Marble Arch to get there - Marble Arch being the modern name for what was previously Tyburn, and the gallows of London located there for many centuries. At the other end, our final church also happens to be named St Mary le Bow, and after her there is no London to the east, because the river Lea comes down right there, and afterwards all is marshland.


Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

A map of the greatest churches in mediaeval London, and its two principal law courts, joined in a line of dancers. Neat, eh!



Pat-a-cake: likewise a game, for teaching rhythm, 
but mostly coordination: between two partners, 
and one partner’s hand is used as the cake. 

While the second verse is sung, one partner 
rocks the other who pretends to sleep. 

After the other person wakes up, 
the partners pat their hands together 
and serve the cake. 




What remains a mystery is the letter "B", pricked on the cake. B for baby?



Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor dates back to late 15th century, England. The oldest form of the song can be tracked to 1475, in a line from a rhyme called "The Game and Playe of the Chesse" by the man who introduced the printing-press to England, William Caxton. The form in which we now know came only very much later on, in 1695, and then, in the 19th century, specifically as a counting song.






Ring A Ring O'Roses is said to be a parody - and a very macabre parody if it is one - of the horrors of the Great Plague. Apparently, one of the first signs of the plague was a ring of rose-coloured spots, and the "protection" against this terrible disease was, at least in popular belief, a posy of herbs. Sneezing was taken as a sure sign that you were about to die of it, and the last line “We all fall down” omits the word, “dead”!

True ir false? And which plague? We assume the Black Death of 1348, which did for most of Europe then what influenza repeated in the aftermath of World War One - and rather more sneezing with the influenza; bubonic plague causes tumours, not sneezes. The rhyme was first published in 1881, which makes it very late for the Black Death, even if, as is believed, the tune of the song had been well known for at least a hundred years before that. But tunes are not necessarily their lyrics, and that image of rats and fleas which the Black Death conjures up also conjures up Robert Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin" from the same epoch, and that poem was an allegory of the Children's Crusade of 1212, in exactly the same way that Albert Camus' "La Peste" used a plague of rats as an allegory of the Nazi occupation in the 1940s.

Whether it has a historical base or not, it is now primarily a children's game, post-nursery. Children hold hands and dance around until, at the end of each stanza, an action is carried out – falling down or getting up. There are many known versions of the song and various different actions can be performed as well (jumping up or kneeling down).


Looking at the clock, it is time to start getting the kids ready to go home, let us sing "Bye Bay Bunting", or "Bye, baby Bunting", though actually it was known as "Cry baby bunting" in 1784, which is the earliest date we have for it; published in "The Nursery Parnassus", which was also known as "Gammer Gurton's Garland". The modern version insists on:




                                                 Bye, baby Bunting,                                                 Daddy’s gone a-hunting,                                                 Gone to get a rabbit skin                                                 To wrap the baby Bunting in

Though the Original Version extended this somewhat, with:

                                                 Bye, baby Bunting,                                                 Father’s gone a-hunting,                                                 Mother’s gone a-milking,                                                 Sister’s gone a-silking,                                                 Brother’s gone to buy a skin                                                 To wrap the baby Bunting in

And before you fly away home, one last nursery rhyme, which never was a nursery rhyme, until someone - and it wasn't Lewis Carroll on this occasion - came up with a satirical version; and it's the satire that we now sing.

The original, written by that most prolific of all poets, Anonymous (and not one of his best by a very long way):


                               Lady-bug, Lady-bug, fly away home
                               the field mouse is gone to her nest
                               the daisies have shut up their sleepy red eyes
                               and the birds and the bees are at rest

                               Lady-bug, Lady-bug, fly away home
                               the glow worm is lighting her lamp
                               the dew’s falling fast, and your fine speckled wings
                               will flag with the close clinging damp

                               Lady-bug, Lady-bug, fly away home
                               the fairy bells tinkle afar
                               make haste or they’ll catch you and harness you fast
                               with a cobweb to Oberon’s star.

For those who don't know it, today's satirical version goes:




Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
And her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan





And on that note, Rhyme-Time is now ended - parents please remember that the library is also being used by grown-ups for serious study, so if your littluns now need a place to run around and make a noise, there is a very different sort of adventure playground in the park over the road.