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English Peasants Weren’t Fools

February 21, 2010

I often wonder why so many people think uneducated means unintelligent. A perfect example is the way many authors treat peasants in historical fiction and historical romantic fiction. I’m here to tell you, all peasant weren’t fools…

It’s amazing to find so few people nowadays understand the background of the silly poems we call Nursery Rhymes, or realize why they were composed to begin with. Most people believe the cause for composing such ridiculous jingles was to amuse children. Oh, no, young Jedi! They are the product of the irate English people who wanted to keep their heads attached and couldn’t speak openly against rulers or Church officials. These clever verses became their effective outlet for their feelings and transportation of news throughout the country.

Without using actual names, but by substituting familiar characteristics, the people were able to ridicule royalty, nobility and churchmen and still remain in one piece. The witty verses told news-hungry Englishmen secret tales of court scandals, political intrigue, religious strife, and grim tragedy. Every time you speak of Jack and Jill or Little Miss Muffet, you are repeating the history of 16th and 17th century England in a manner the not-so-ignorant peasants understood. In fact, The Mother Goose Nursery rhymes are a history book written by the common people. As soon as someone shows us the key to unraveling the verses, we wonder that we never realized the background ourselves.

Let’s take a look at a few of these precious gems and consider the hidden mysteries. One of the earliest kings to be lampooned was the malformed, hunchbacked tyrant Richard III.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,/Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./Not all the king’s horses,/ Not all the king’s men/Could put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Richard did sit atop a truly precarious wall – the throne of England. He managed to keep his balance for two years. In 1485, he clashed with Henry VII on Bosworth Field. This battle ended the War of the Roses and the life of Richard. When he lay wounded and dying on the field, after his fall, crying, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” none of his horses or men could save him from his fate.

Little Jack Horner/Sat in a corner/Eating his Christmas pie./He put in his thumb,/and pulled out a plumb,/And said, “What a brave boy am I!”

The situation that gave us this classic was a “Christmas pie” that Abbott Whiting sent to Henry III. It was an extremely large pie. Inside the Abbott had ingeniously inserted the deeds to twelve church estates. The Abbot hoped this gesture would save remaining church properties. However, the messenger carrying the loaded pie was either suspicious or wanted to taste the king’s fare. He poked a hole in the crust and pulled out one of the deeds. It was for a place called Mell’s Park. Later when questioned, he insisted it was a gift from the king. In this way, Jake Horner acquired a piece of property that is known to this day as Horner Hall. The dining room there is called “The Plumb,” and it is still in the possession of his descendants.

The rhymers became especially active when Henry VIII, in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, broke with the Roman Church and proclaimed himself head of the Church of England. Remember the rhyme you once chanted:

Sing a song of sixpence,/A pocket full of rye,/Four-and-twenty blackbirds/Baked in a pie;/When the pie was opened/The birds began to sing;/Wasn’t that a dainty dish/To set before a king?

The king was in the counting house,/Counting out his money,/The queen was in the pantry,/Eating bread and honey;/The maid was in the garden,/Hanging out the clothes,/When down came a blackbird/And snipped off her nose.

The meaning of this lilting lyric becomes clear almost as soon as the symbolic references are understood. The sixpence referred to the revenue from Henry’s heavy taxation of the clergy and people. The pocket full of rye indicates the rich grain fields that were in the custody of the Church. Again, a pie was used to transport some deeds to Church property. This time the sender was the Abbot of Newstead; the receiver was Henry. The blackbirds refer to the clergy, in this case, the Abbotts and the various monasteries which were given to Henry. They sang loud their sad song when their abbeys were confiscated.

While Henry was gloating over the increase in the treasury, Catherine was eating the “bread and honey” of assurance that Spain would not permit Henry to divorce her. And out in “the garden,” with maddening witchery, the maid was hanging out the clothes, daintiest frocks from France, tossing her winsome smiles at the king between grimacing frowns at Wolsey. This influential “blackbird” tried to snip off Anne’s nose by speaking of her unfavorably to Henry. His talk proved of little use. Henry divorced Catherine and “married” Anne anyway. Henry tired of his French maid though, and “snipped off” her whole head.

It was the fifth wife of Henry, Catherine Howard, who is responsible for an expression used until quite recently. It was she who introduced the use of pins to the ladies of the English court. As a new all-purpose accessory, pins were naturally quite expensive, yet they set the ladies’ hearts a-flutter. As a result, husbands were cajoled into giving their ladies a separate allowance for this French fad. Thus arose the expression “pin money.” The jingle written was:

Needles and pins, needles and pins/When a man marries his trouble begins.

In the days when the iron hand of Henry VIII ruled England, most people held their tongues in fear. The quickest way to commit suicide was to criticize him openly. The rhymers could resort to satirical verses with smug assurance of safety. While some argue the jesters and troubadours of the time were their originators, the common people were smart enough to understand and appreciate the meaning behind these rhymes and pass them along.

Robin the bobbin, the big-bellied Ben,/He ate more meat than three score men,/He ate the Church, he ate the steeple,/He ate the priests and all the people,/And yet he complained his belly wasn’t full.

This verse not only described the outward appearance of Henry, but also his greed for Church properties. He gobbled up 3219 deeds in all.

Nor was the Church the only institution hurt by the oppression of the tyrant. The common people also bore his wrath. The nobles who usurped the Church lands turned from farming to sheep raising because it was easier and realized a greater profit. The demand for field laborers was scant, unlike the days when the Church stewarded the lands and allowed the peasants to work their lands and keep a majority of the profits. The tax on wool was great for the few tenant workers who remained on the lands. The people expressed their grievance in:

Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?/Yes, sir, yes, sir – three bags full;/One for my master, one for my dame,/And one for the little boy who lives in our lane.

Perhaps Cardinal Wolsey, more than any other, was made the target for the covered darts of the rhymers’ indignation. Wolsey was the son of an Ipswitch butcher and started out in life as a shepherd himself. His scheming breast was so laid bare by the following innocent-sounding melody that he scurried about trying to buy up all the copies of the jingle.

Little Boy Blue, come blow up your horn,/The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn./Where is the boy that looks after the sheep?/He’s under the haycock fast asleep!

Cardinal Wolsey, hoping to advance his ambitions, was too busy blowing the horn of his personal power and fame. He failed to recognize the trouble brewing for him. While he “was fast asleep,” Cromwell urged Henry to declare himself head of the Church in England, which Henry did. At the same time, he deposed Wolsey as being of no further use to him. It was this turn of events that inspired:

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard/To get her poor dog a bone;/When she got there, the cupboard was bare/And so the poor dog had none.

There was no mistaking the victim at whom this rhyme was aimed. The coat of arms of Wolsey displayed a dog gnawing a bone. Old Mother Hubbard was the Pope who had made an effort to restore the dog, Cardinal Wolsey, to his former position, but it was to no avail.

Jack was another nickname by which the people of 17th century England designated the clergy. How many times have you recited the following verse without suspecting in the least that it had a clerical background in history:

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 represent Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes. They went to France hoping to secure a marriage between Mary Tudor and the French monarch. The pail of water, holy water, was an indirect reference to Wolsey’s ambitions to become Pope. Since it had become evident that Henry was going to take a new wife, Wolsey hoped that a continental marriage for Henry would strengthen his chances for papal succession. Their crowns were broken when Henry decided upon the marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Wolsey was a much wiser man in his decline than he ever was when riding the golden crest of Henry’s fitful favor. His last words were, “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

The rhyme which to many people seems to make the least sense is:

Hey, diddle, diddle!/The cat and the fiddle,/The cow jumped over the moon;/The little dog laughed/To see such sport,/And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Little do they suspect the cow to be the irate Queen Elizabeth who was furious when Edward Seymour, her royal carver (the dish), eloped with the royal taster (the spoon), Catherine Grey. The queen had taken a fancy to Seymour, and Robert Leicester – the dog – thought it humorous for her to have her plans thwarted. This bit of folly on his part put Robert (nicknamed Robbin) in her disfavor. This rhyme recorded the circumstances:

The north wind doth blow/And we shall have snow,/What will poor Robbin do then?/Poor thing./He’ll sit in a barn/To keep himself warm,/And hide his head under his wing,/Poor thing!

Another familiar personage to who bore the wrath of Queen Elizabeth was Mary, Queen of Scots. You may remember she was beheaded on orders from Queen Elizabeth. Since Mary was also a very controversial figure, it is to be expected that quite a number of verses were written to commemorate her. The most common perhaps is:

Little Miss Muffet/Sat on her tuffet,/Eating her curds and whey;/There came a big spider,/And sat down beside her,/And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The big spider was John Knox who was constantly trying to persuade Mary to convert and become Presbyterian. He chased her to France, to England, and to Scotland, but he could not manage to change her faith. She remained Catholic to her beheaded end.

The spider appears again in “’Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly.” Mary is also featured in Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary and Little Bo-Peep. Her contrariness cost her a dear price – the loss of her sheep, the Scottish clans, and the loss of her life.

Now the next time you hear a child innocently chanting one of these silly rhymes, you can appreciate the history behind the jingle – and the cunning of the not-so-ignorant masses who were able to transmit news and lampoon “their betters” in messages cloaked as nonsense.

Aren’t you impressed that the technoidiot finally half-way figured out inserting pictures?

Until next time, happy reading and writing!

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 8:48 pm

    What a wonderful post. I had studied this many years ago, but didn’t keep the source notes. Many times since, I have said that a certain rhyme was political and got blank stares. You really did a great job of putting it all together in one place. Thanks.

  2. February 21, 2010 8:55 pm

    This was very interesting, Mary!

    • February 21, 2010 10:31 pm

      Gerri, I’m glad you found them interesting. I always thought it would be fun to have a heroine writing the lampoons and the hero trying to hunt her down while she was right under his nose. There are so many possibilities for stories that we find in the oddest places.

  3. February 21, 2010 10:29 pm

    Thanks, Gail. The hardest thing was picking and choosing which ones to dissect. I find them all so fascinating. I think it’s also interesting to note that those English peasants had wits the royals never suspected.

  4. February 21, 2010 10:30 pm

    This was an eye opener and finally laid to rest questions as to why some of the “nursery rhymes” seemed nonsensical, not to mention somewhat grim. With technology comes arrogance, and it’s easy to see why most of us view those who have come before us as simple-minded folk. Thanks for the history lesson, I really enjoyed learning the facts behind the fancy!

  5. February 21, 2010 10:33 pm

    So glad you enjoyed the info, Lisa. I sometimes like to look at the nonsensical and discover its origins. In them we can learn the most amazing things.

  6. February 21, 2010 11:05 pm

    Fascinating stuff, Mary! I had no idea. Can you suggest resources for additional reading?

    • February 21, 2010 11:44 pm

      Hi Penny:
      I actually pulled this together from a paper I wrote years ago with long hard-copy bibliography. One thing I found was some scholars thought some meant one thing and other scholars applied the same rhyme to something else, so for this, I tried to stick with ones that weren’t disputed. There’s an interesting site at I’m sure if you bing or google Mother goose Nursery Rhymes, you’ll find others. To me it’s an interesting topic.

  7. February 21, 2010 11:08 pm

    Here is another one:

    “Ring around the roseies, pockets full of posies, hush a hush a, we all fall down.”

    It’s actually about the tuberculosis plague, don’t know of the actual time. It would give a ring around the lips to those ding, the pockets of the deceased would be filled by dried out flowers they called posies, and hush-a-hush-a imitates a cough.
    Learned all this in Children Lit. class, long time ago! And now when I see how kids love to play this I just think of what this is really about and makes my skin crawl.

    • February 21, 2010 11:52 pm

      Hi Zrinka: So glad you found your way over here. Your rhyme is one of those interesting ones that has varient texts, depending on who you read. Most people are unfamiliar with the TB plague that swept England and often attributed this to the black plague, which is why one of the variants is “ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” because they had to literally burn away the disease to get rid of it. But you’re right. You have to wonder if people would teach them to children if they knew the meaning of some of them. Some actually go as far back as the 13th century, but were written in Old English and Old French and lost “the rhyme effect” upon translation, which is why they are probably not so well known.
      Do you know if they had anything like this in Romania? There must have been some coorelation in different cultures, but I never looked into that.

      • February 22, 2010 10:55 am

        Hi Mary,

        I would not know about Romania. I’m from Croatia but if you are interested about Romania particularly, I can ask my friend from Romania.
        As far as Croatia I can’t think of any children’s songs in this contest, where it’s was actually to bash the king and later made it into a nursery rhyme. For the most part they are just that children’s rhymes and no one looked into their possible hidden meaning.

  8. February 22, 2010 5:58 am

    Mary, well done! This was fascinating! Loved it! What about Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old? I was singing that one last night 🙂

    • February 22, 2010 6:31 am

      Hi Eliza: This is actually one I had never looked into. It appears to be more of a lament of the poor English who couldn’t afford more expense fare. The following is an excerpt from

      “If you grew up enjoying nursery rhymes read by parents or grandparents, you may find this Old English rhyme familiar:

      Pease porridge hot,
      Pease porridge cold,
      Pease porridge in the pot
      Nine days old.

      For many, the rhyme didn’t have a clear meaning–it simply sounded good and was easy to recite with its singsong rhythm. However, if you were a young peasant child growing up in sixteenth century England, your frequent meals of pease porridge served hot, cold, and in-between may have prompted you to express your lack of enthusiasm in just such a verse.

      A large kettle containing a thick porridge made of peas hung over the fire in many English and Scottish homes during the Middle Ages and was customary even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because few of the peasants could afford meat, they based their meals on pease porridge with an abundance of whatever vegetables were on hand. When the fire died down at night, the morning porridge was quite cold. Each day the fire was relit, and more peas and vegetables were added to the kettle. Indeed, the original ingredients in the kettle could have been nine days old.

      Pease porridge actually evolved from Pease Pottage, a very thick porridge made of dried peas that was served with highly salted bacon. The pease porridge, cooked without salt, relied on the bacon for flavor. ”

      They go on to give quite an interesting history of pease (early plural – which I didn’t know) from BCE to present, including several recipes among them one for the Scottish dish Brose. I’ll have to check out this site more thoroughly. It has some interesting facts.

      • February 22, 2010 11:07 am


        Similar idea is behind the saying “Don’t throw a baby with the water!”

        Goes back in a day when the whole family would take their baths one after the other in the same bath water, starting from the oldest to the youngest. By the time youngest (the baby) would get its turn the water would be so dirty that one could not see it in the water and when water would get dumped out the baby would easily get missed. I really don’t think anyone actually dumped baby with the water, though.

      • February 24, 2010 6:17 am

        Thanks Mary! You are just a veritable fountain of information!

  9. Carol Jo Kachmar permalink
    February 22, 2010 4:06 pm

    I learned many of these years ago, but it was such fun to have you present them so I could enjoy them again. I might also say that I’m not one who thinks the uneducated are stupid. I make a distinction between ignorance from lack of a chance to learn and what my mother used to call “willful ignorance”, the refusal to learn – a characteristic I used to see too often when I taught high school – and which is all too prevalent in our society today, I fear.

    Thanks for a fun and nostalgic read.

    • February 23, 2010 2:55 am

      HI CarolL I couldn’t agree more. Willful ignorance has taken on epidemic proportions in this country, which is sad when there are third would countries crying for the chance to learn. As it is, our university system is educating a significant number of nonAmericans while our high school dropouts flip burgers and complain about minumum wage — the ones not selling drugs and adopting other illegal activities.
      Glad you enjoyed the walk back in time.

  10. February 23, 2010 2:52 am

    I can’t believe I mixed up countries. I knew you were from Croatia, and I don’t know why I have romania on my brain…lol. I remember the one about throwing the baby out with the bath water. After the second Vatican Council, the Traditonalist Catholices said The Church not only threw out baby Jesus with the holy water, but they threw out the font too… an obvious twist on the old rhyme that rather upset Paul VI until three years later when he said that at Vatican II “the smoke of Satan entered the Church.” Makes one wonder…

  11. February 23, 2010 8:41 am

    Wow, Mary this was a wonderful post!! I had NO idea the history behind those rhymes!!! I need to have a talk with my English, mother!!! lol :O)

    • February 24, 2010 7:38 pm

      Hi Andrea:
      I don’t know how I missed this. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Some of the oddest bit of history are filled with interesting and fun facts. I can define procrastination in one word… research.
      BTW, love your blog.

  12. February 24, 2010 2:31 am

    Mary, I’m traveling and so I’m late reading your post, but I loved it. Chock full of interesting tidbits!

    • February 24, 2010 2:51 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it,Pat. It’s a fun topic that has all kinds of implications for historical romances if someone chooses to address them. Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Sam KIm permalink
    March 4, 2010 10:35 am

    youre so nerdy

  14. June 16, 2010 11:58 am

    This was very interesting. Of course I’ve read other sources that disagree with what you’ve said, but no doubt many rhymes are somewhat political.

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