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History Corner: On the Lighter Side...

February 14, 2023
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History Corner: On the Lighter Side...
Little Jack Horner

Did I say lighter side?  Humpty Dumpty was a 1,350-pound siege cannon atop St Mary’s Church wall in 1648 with its main reason for being to hurl a 12-pound, round granite ball at the enemy during the English Civil War.  So, now where am I going with this?  Nursery Rhymes, that’s my target today.  Ha ha.  I don’t know if today’s parents read nursery rhymes to their children but I grew up with the sing-song rhymes without questions as to what were they all about.  But I’m going to shed light on them for they were the “news” of the day in the centuries when speaking of those in power was verboten.  Despite their lyrical nature and humorous words, they were actually biting social commentary about people and events of the time.

I mentioned Humpty Dumpty which we all see in the illustrations as large, egg dressed in period clothes, cracked head and obviously having a wall?  Did we ever ask why an egg was on a wall?  Nope.  Somehow the cannon got its name and when the church was hit, it crumbled to the ground and voila, so did Humpty...Alas, never to shoot at the enemy again.

This is not the only nursery rhyme which has a past other than the obvious.  My favorite is Mother Hubbard, taking place In England, during the reign of Henry VIII.  It was unwise to speak ill of his majesty as the death of some of his wives, some losing their heads, could possibly be your demise as well.  So, when King Henry asked Cardinal Wolsey to petition the Pope to annul his 23-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Bolyn, his wife’s lady-in-waiting, it was denied.

Now, would you gossip in the streets about this?  Never.  So, Mother Hubbard, the Cardinal, went to Rome, the cupboard, to ask for a bone, with the answer of “no” the cupboard was bare and you know the rest.  There are more verses to this nursery rhyme which tell of the eventual annulment.  These seemingly innocuous childhood sing songs really had a dark past if not downright dastardly.  There were a few that were not targeted to people directly but an institution of historical importance.  In 1275, a great tax was imposed on wool in which king Edward I dictated that 1/3 of its value was to go to him, 1/3 to the church and the farmer could keep the last 1/3.  The list, in order is “one for my master’ King, “one for my dame” church and “one for the little boy who lives down the lane”, the farmer.  OK, you can sing it now..I’ll wait.

King Henry VIII

Rain, rain go away finds us in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II whose rivalry with Spain culminated in the launch of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  A fleet of over 130 ships set out to defeat the English whose fleet numbered 34 small Navy vessels, ouch.  But she had 163-armed, merchant ships.  Waging the war, the English triumphed with their smaller ships and a fierce storm scattered the Armada...part of the rhyme I never heard was, rain, rain, go to Spain.  Guess it did.

Mary, Mary Quite contrary is difficult to read to say nothing of rewriting it here but Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII was not only contrary but downright gruesome.  She was known as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestant heretics, whom she had burned at the stake in the hundreds!  Mary ruled, in her own right for 5 years.  While over 300 dissenters met their death at her hand, her father King Henry VIII is known to have executed 81 people for heresy.  This rhyme speculates in many directions, her lack of bearing children, infidelity, suitors, and on and on...but her persecution of the Protestants is in there, somewhere.

Mary Tudor

Shall we go to France for a minute?  One of the most common theories for Jack and Jill is King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette who were both found guilty of treason and beheaded.  But Jack and Jill was written 30 years before their demise so let’s look into another interpretation...a gill and a jack...definition – gill is 4 fluid ounces, jack is 2 fluid ounces...17th century, King Charles I of England tried to increase the taxes on alcohol but failed so he reduced the amount of a jack thus reducing the gill and it “came tumbling after.”  We do know and have in our possession at the Bryan-Andrew, a pewter mug which has indentations along the upper edge denoting the “signature” of an inspector who measured each mug, hung on the wall of the tavern to authenticate its volume.

Rock-a-Bye-Baby is short and sweet...well not so sweet.  An interpretation is that the son of King James II and Mary of Modena was not their son but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure as Roman Catholic heir to the thinks there was a little girl who could have been queen one day...oh well.

Ring Around the Rosie is not your best true story but I guess it was fun to run around in a circle, get dizzy and fall down.  Although so many of the rhymes do have dubious origins, this one appears to be the most accurate and infamous.  The most logical takes place in 1665 with the Great Plague of London.  The “rosie” is the rash that covered the afflicted and with that came an order which was covered up with “a pocket full of posies.”  Grim to say the least.  This plague killed nearly 15 percent of the population which the last part “ashes, ashes...we all fall down.”

The kings of England seem to be the brunt of the historically sung rhymes so let’s not disappoint history.  Little Jack convoluted.  So what else is new?  We go back to Henry VIII.  This one appears to have allusions to the English monasteries, bribes, gold, silver, land deeds land, of course, a pie.  The story goes that our illustrious King, in 1540, was greedy and set out to dissolve all of the monasteries in England for their gold, silver and land.  In trying to dissuade the King from this plan, a bishop attempted to bribe the king with land deeds of other manorial estates.  As the story goes, this bishop, in the bribery attempt, baked 12 deeds in a large, Christmas pie to be presented to the king.  Jack, given the chore to make this delivery is said to have stolen one of the deeds out of the pie.  The deed was to Mells Manor and his family lived there until the 20th century.  The delivery of the 11 deeds did not change Henry’s mind and he sold the seized property using the money to fund his many military ventures as well as giving some away to ensure the loyalty of those around him.

Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle, is not often referred to as a nursey rhyme as it has taken a turn toward patriotism and is indeed the State of Connecticut song.  The tune is said to be much older than the lyrics being well-known across Europe with a variety of words.  As a harvest song in 15th century Holland, it contained mostly nonsensical words in England and in Dutch such as Yanker, didel, doodle and others.  The term Doodle appeared in early 17th century England meaning playing music badly or a simpleton.  The macaroni wig came from the extreme fashion of the day for men to pile their hair up high making them appear important and the word Dandy added to that notion.  They would often wear two feathers in their hats and  wear two watches with chains.  One to tell time and one to tell what time it was silly.  The term macaroni was then used to describe a fashionable man who dressed and spoke in an outlandish manner.

Macaroni Fashion

In British conversation, the term Yankee Doodle Dandy implied an upper-class fashion that putting a feather in your hat would make you into a nobleman.  Prior to the Revolutionary War, the British officers sang the song to mock the raggle taggle men in the French and Indian War, who, upon finding a feather along the trail, put it into their raggle taggle hats.  After all, these men came from the farm, with farmers’ pretension here just a determination to win a war, a British War in the British colonies against the French out of Canada, with Native American allies on both sides.  Later in the Revolutionary War, the song was again sung against the colonials to mock their wearing of a feather in their hats BUT, the fighting men, fighting for freedom, turned the song around and sang it in defiance, adding verses to mock the British.  It had become a song of national pride.

So, there you have it folks, the lighter side of history, well most of it anyway.

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