Childhood Nursery Rhymes

The Creepy Backstories Behind Your 10 Favorite Childhood Nursery Rhymes

1. Three Blind Mice

Three blind mice, three blind mice,

See how they run, see how they run,

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a thing in your life,

As three blind mice?

This one is actually pretty creepy without the historical context (note to self: ask mom why she thought it was ok for a six-year-old to gleefully sing this). Queen Mary I is the “farmer’s wife” mentioned, although she had a cuter nickname during her reign: “Bloody Mary.” You can guess why. The three mice represent three nobleman who weren’t really down for Mary implementing Catholicism throughout England, and were convicted for plotting against her. Instead of chopping their tails off, however, Mary just casually burned them at the stake.

2. Rock-A-Bye Baby

Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

This song is pretty spooky by itself too. But, consider this the next time you sing this lullaby to a sleeping infant: a proposed origin of the song says that it’s about King James II and Mary of Modena passing off a random child as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.

3. Ring Around The Rosie

Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.

Nothing like teaching children about the bubonic plague as early as possible! “Ring Around The Rosie” is not actually about frolicking around a rose bush, but about the plague that killed 75-200 million people in the mid-1300s. The symptoms of contracting the plague included a red rash in the shape on a ring on the skin, as well as sneezing (which explains 95% of the lyrics of the rhyme). “Pocket full of Posies” infers to how people would fill their pockets with sweet smelling items to cover up the perpetual stench of death, and also because some were convinced that the illness spread via bad smells.

4. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row.

Queen Mary I was sooooo popular and fun, she actually got a couple of nursery rhymes inspired by her. The “garden” is suggested to refer to a graveyard because, as was conveyed in “Three Blind Mice,” Mary was a big fan of executing people. “Silver bells” and “cockleshells” refers to Mary’s preferred instruments of torture, while “pretty maids” alludes to the guillotine (nicknamed at the time as The Maiden).

5. London Bridge Is Falling Down

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Not to be confused with the most underrated Fergie song ever, these London Bridge lyrics have many horrific theoretical meanings behind them. Some suggest it has to do with child sacrifice (their bodies needed to be inserted into the foundation of the bridge to prevent it from falling), but a more commonly supported origin is that it was inspired by a devastating Viking attack in the early 1000s.

6. 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.

You would think this one would be pretty straightforward, but a small town in England claimed that this was about a real couple in the late 1600s who used to sneak up to the top of the hill for some ~*~adulterous activities~*~ (apparently “fetch a pail of water” is some creepy euphemism). Then, as quick as the nursery rhyme itself is, the relationship implodes with Jill getting pregnant, Jack smashing his head open with a rock, and then Jill dying from childbirth. Romantic!

7. Georgie Porgie

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play

Georgie Porgie ran away.

Maybe you used to taunt anyone on the playground named George with this rhyme, but you probably weren’t aware at the time that it (allegedly) refers to a passionate gay sex affair involving European royalty. George Villiers was a Duke attempting to climb up the social ladder, and supposedly dumped Anne of Austria (“Kissed the girls and made them cry”) to pursue King James I. Parliament hated the relationship and forced it to end—an instruction George emotionlessly followed without a fuss, despite being so close with the King (“When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away”).

8. Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

There are two common theories behind the origins of Humpty Dumpty (neither of which include eggs): it referred to a type of cannon used in the English Civil War that would consistently shatter when lit, or it was a type of brandy that would cause the drinker to have a “great fall” when drunk. Neither are particularly appropriate for small children to be singing about.

9. Pop Goes The Weasel

All around the mulberry bush

The monkey chased the weasel;

The monkey thought ’twas all in good sport

Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,

A penny for a needle-

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.

What a joyful commemoration of England’s poverty! “Pop goes the weasel” is a saying, made up of Cockney slang, to mean something along the lines of pawning a suit. Essentially what the song is implying is that when a poor man needed to dress up for Sunday, he would pawn his suit earlier on in the week (for extra cash) and then take it back temporarily on Sunday morning for Church.

10. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!

One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full…

There has been some debate about the racial message at the center of this nursery rhyme (a couple elementary schools in 2011 replaced the lyrics with “Baa, Baa Rainbow Sheep”), but most scholars agree that the rhyme has to do with the Great Custom tax on wool from 1275. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

About the author

Katie Mather