Centuries ago in England the lower classes dealt with the problem of illiteracy by creating short easy to remember rhymes and poems that could be repeated from person to person and from town to town. These ditties taught children (and adults) about counting, spelling and logical thinking and hence, the nursery rhyme was born.
On a darker note, the lower classes often dealt with their frustrations towards the wealthy, the titled and the royals by creating nursery rhymes about a significant event gone bad while others took a disdainful dig at a nobleman or royal. Because poking fun and mocking the upper classes was taboo back then (open mouth, lose head) these simple verses disguised as harmless nursery rhymes could be repeated without fear of retribution thanks to their supposedly innocent words and message.
Let’s take a look at three well known nursery rhymes which include horses and explore some alternate meanings put forward by historians.
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!
In centuries past, a Humpty Dumpty was actually a term for a fat person but in this rhyme Humpty Dumpty was in fact a very large cannon.
Humpty Dumpty was mounted on the protective wall of St. Mary’s Wall Church in Colchester, England. It was supposed to protect The Parliamentarian stronghold of Colchester which was in the temporary control of the Royalists during the English Civil War from 1642 to 1649. However, a shot from a Parliamentary cannon damaged the wall underneath Humpty Dumpty and it fell to the ground. The Royalists or ‘all the King’s men’ attempted to hoist Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall but even with the help of ‘ all the King’s horses’ they failed in their task.
This rhyme takes a poke at the King’s men and horses who didn’t come through when needed and Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a bloody siege lasting eleven weeks.
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle
And never went there again!
The English county of Gloucestershire is the site of this well known rhyme and is meant to teach children that in days gone by, roads (or situations) dotted with puddles (problems) might well be much deeper and more dangerous than first thought. However, it might also be a jab at King Edward I!
The origins of this ditty lie in English history dating back to the Plantagenet reign of the 13th century and is about King Edward I who had the nickname longshanks because of his height. He was over 6 feet tall and was considered a good king but one with a violent temper. He was reputed to have visited Gloucester and fell from his horse into a large muddy puddle! He was so humiliated by this event that he refused to return to the town of Gloucester ever again! However, people certainly wouldn’t have ridiculed the short tempered king by revealing his true identity in the rhyme so they used a substitute: Doctor Foster.
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes
The words in this rhyme are about Queen Elizabeth I of England, the only child of the infamous King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She is of course ‘the fine lady’ who travelled to Banbury to see a huge stone cross which had just been erected.
‘With rings on her fingers’ obviously relates to the fine jewellery worn by a Queen and the words ‘and bells on her toes’ refer to the fashion of attaching bells to the end of the pointed toes of each shoe. This fashionable footwear trend dates back to the day of the Plantagenet era of history but it was associated with the well to do and nobility for a long time.
The town of Banbury was situated at the top of a steep hill and the carriages bringing up the Queen and her entourage needed some extra help and therefore a white cock horse (a stallion) escorted by minstrels was made available to her by the town’s council. However, a wheel broke on the Queen’s carriage when they attempted to get it up the hill, and she then chose to ride the stallion beautifully decorated with ribbons and bells to the town with the minstrels providing the music for ‘ she shall have music wherever she goes’.
Sadly even a Queen’s visit couldn’t help the famous landmark: the massive stone cross at Banbury was later destroyed by anti -Catholics who opposed the notion of pilgrimages.
Research into the true meaning of nursery rhymes produces a wealth of ideas, opinions and versions from historians, researchers and authors through the centuries. For those who wish to dig deeper and to find other meanings, there is a lot of material out there. Mary, Mary quite Contrary and Ring Around a Rosie are two rhymes that hold very sinister well hidden meanings though not equine related.
Check them out along with many others at this great site: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/