This is the most cherished scene of childhood: a mom or dad cradling their sleepy baby, softly whispering a lullaby in its ear as it closes its eyes and drifts off to a land of dreams.
Lullabies and nursery rhymes are often soothing or funny melodies shared with kids to either put them to sleep, or to help teach them new words. They’re simple, almost trite expressions of love, or a way to honor past events that have long been forgotten.
Usually, we wouldn’t think about them twice. But don’t you remember latching onto a phrase or two in a nursery rhyme that felt particularly jarring? A disturbing image that didn’t seem quite so benign?
History’s most beloved nursery rhymes have their origins in British and early American history, and they usually concealed hidden meanings, such as someone expressing their displeasure with the government. They were easy to remember and could be spread by word-of-mouth – a necessary way of communicating the news at a time when most of the population was still illiterate.
Three Blind Mice
Most of us know this one. The first part goes something like this:
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 sight in your life,
As three blind mice.
It’s weird to think that this is one of the most famous nursery rhymes ever – it’s pretty violent, even if it is referring to an odd form of pest control.
However, it is commonly believed that this variation of Three Blind Mice – of which there are many – dating to 1609, is not actually about a bunch of pesky rodents. The three blind mice is meant to refer to three Protestant loyalists who were accused of plotting again Queen Mary I. The farmer’s wife refers to the queen, who, along with her husband, King Philip of Spain, owned large estates.
Queen Mary here is actually the infamous “Bloody” Mary, who bore a well-known blood lust and boundless enthusiasm for everything involving torture, death, and basically being one of the most feared royals in history.
Although, she didn’t actually cut off the “tails” of the Protestants as inferred by the rhyme, as spooky and gross as that is. Instead, Bloody Mary burnt the “mice” at the stake.
Pretty horrifying that this cutesy rhyme has been sung to kids for centuries, its real meaning completely lost.
This is the sweetest lullaby of all. There are so many heartwarming scenes in television and movies featuring a mom languidly humming this gentle tune to her baby. However, if you listen closely, the lyrics are pretty weird:
On the tree top,
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
and down will come Baby,
Cradle and all.
Pretty macabre, right? There are numerous interpretations of this particular lullaby. A popular one states that it is actually about the son of King James II of England and Mary of Modena.
It is widely believed that the boy was not their son at all, but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.
Apparently, cradles were sometimes hung in trees at the time. But instead of a soft breeze rocking the baby back and forth in its slumber, a thief could come to steal one for the sake of the King and Queen…leading the cradle to “fall,” baby and all.
Ring Around the Rosie
Ring-a-round the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Originating in the late 1800s, this creepy nursery rhyme’s bizarre meaning is perhaps well known by most people.
While its lyrics have changed over the years, it is still popularly maintained that this twee song is about death, specifically the 1665 Great Black Plague of London. “The rosie” is the rash that covered the afflicted, the smell from which they attempted to cover up with “a pocket full of posies.”
The plague killed nearly 15 percent of the country’s population, which makes the final verse — “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down”— a rather self-explanatory and uncanny statement.
While some historians have recently discounted this interpretation of the infamous rhyme, it remains its most well-known backstory.
London Bridge is Falling Down
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
As far as bizarre nursery rhymes go, this one seems like the most innocuous. Although, it’s not totally clear why people enjoy singing about a collapsing bridge so much.
There are a few theories as to how this popular rhyme – and its adjacent game – came to be. One states that it could just be a way to refer to how difficult it was building the bridge over the River Thames, which took years before it was complete.
Another posits that the rhyme is actually referring to the supposed destruction of London Bridge by Olaf II of Norway in 1014.
But perhaps the most terrifying understanding of this rhyme has to do with the fact that people feel it refers to a child sacrifice ritual. Apparently, the song is about the burying of children – still alive and screaming at the time of the deed – in the foundations of the bridge.
This was based on the idea that a bridge would collapse unless the body of a human sacrifice was buried in its foundations and that the watchman is also a human sacrifice, who will then watch over the bridge.
Whereas no archaeological evidence of any human remains in the foundations of London Bridge have been found, this ghoulish myth has continued to endure.
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.
While its lyrics have been modified throughout the centuries, Jack and Jill remains a popular rhyme since it first became well known in the late 1600s. ‘Til now people jokingly twist the words around to turn it into something considerably naughtier than exhibited here, imbuing the nursery rhyme with an eerie veneer of sexual innuendo. But what does it mean, exactly?
Some historians have posited that it is simply a nonsensical verse, with no particular hidden meaning. But others remain steadfast in their belief that the rhyme contains complex metaphors meant to denote something more nefarious…
One of the most common theories surrounding the story’s origin is that it’s about France’s Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded.
Others feel that it is an account of King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he instead made sure that the volume was reduced on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills, respectively.
There is another, more likely belief that the rhyme has its origins in a more local affair: it records the events in the village of Kilmersdon in Somerset when a local spinster became pregnant. The supposed father is said to have died from a rock fall soon after, and tragically, the woman also died in childbirth.
Lullabies are meant to evoke a sense of calm, infinite care and peace. But in reality, our most popular songs and rhymes mask gruesome histories that are still being unraveled to this day.
Why are we comfortable singing about murder and mayhem to our kids in hushed tones? No one really knows the answer. Maybe these songs evoke the caregiver’s emotions, the thoughts he or she cannot loudly give voice to in polite society. It remains a mystery; almost as enigmatic as the nursery rhymes themselves…