I’m pretty sure that almost all of us at some point in our lives loved hearing and chanting children’s rhymes. Who wouldn’t? They are fun, catchy and somewhat nonsensical. But did you know that many of these seemingly innocent nursery rhymes actually have hidden meanings—and not just ordinary meanings but gruesome, terrifying connotations?
Yes, you read that right! Most nursery rhymes that we grew up hearing (and whether we’d like to admit or not still chant from time to time) depict dark themes such as death, mass persecution, murder, bizarre acts, immorality, domestic violence, and so much more.
10. 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.
This seemingly child-friendly nursery rhyme actually has a sexual undertone to it. Georgie Porgie is a caricature of George Villiers, a bisexual nobleman who lived from 1592 to 1628. George was greatly favored by King James I. His friendship with the king was so intimate that he was able to gain immense power and position in just a short period of time—he was named the first Duke of Buckingham at the age of 31.
George and King James I were rumored to be lovers due to their intimate friendship, and accounts from various court diaries and letters proved this to be true. King James I even declared his love for George by publicly declaring, “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf, and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my George.”
Though George had a covert romantic affair with the king, he was a womanizer (…kissed the girls and made them cry…), and had sexual relationships with numerous women, including the daughters and even the wives of many English noblemen. Because the king favored him, the English noblemen were incapable of prosecuting him, thus explaining the line, “when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away”.
9. Rock-a-Bye, Baby
Rock a bye baby 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.
There are many theories explaining the origin of this all-time favorite lullaby, but perhaps the most intriguing is the one that comes from a Native American custom practiced hundreds of years ago.
Legend has it that a certain pilgrim saw an American Indian mother hanging her baby from a tree; the baby was inside a birch bark cradle (…rock a bye baby on the tree top…). The idea behind this custom is two-fold. By suspending her baby from a tree, the Native American mother can work freely, knowing that her child is safe from animal predators. The other reason, which is depicted in the rhyme, is that the winds blowing above will lull the baby to sleep (…when the wind blows the cradle will rock…) However, this custom could be potentially fatal for the baby since “when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”
8. Ladybird, Ladybird
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house in on fire and your children are gone
The person referred to as “Ladybird” in this nursery rhyme is Mary, the Mother of Jesus and a prominent figure in Catholicism. During the time this rhyme was written, Catholic believers all over England were heavily persecuted. Those who disobeyed the Act of Uniformity, which required all citizens to attend the services conducted by the Church of England, faced serious punishment such as being imprisoned or put to death.
Despite the deadly consequences they could face, many Catholic priests and believers still practiced their faith—they would conduct Mass on the open fields.
The line, “Your house is on fire and your children gone”, signifies the death of many Catholic priests and believers under the hand of the Protestant monarch who ruled during this period of time. Many of them were burned alive, hanged, or sawn.
7. Ride a Cock Horse
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.
Unlike” Ladybird, Ladybird”, this rhyme does not have a horrible undertone, but rather it depicts a bizarre act of goodness from an English female historical figure.
The woman referred to in the rhyme is Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Leofric caused so much anger in his people by imposing new heavy taxes on them. Lady Godiva sided with her countrymen and requested her husband to lower the taxes. The Earl agreed but with one condition: Lady Godiva had to ride a horse through the streets of Coventry without any clothes on.
Surprisingly, the brave lady agreed. As a manifestation of their respect and admiration for the lady’s act of bravery and goodness, the people of Coventry agreed to stay inside their homes and not to peep out through their windows.
On the appointed day, Lady Godiva rode a white horse through the streets of Coventry wearing nothing but her rings and bells on her toes. The purpose of the bells was to inform the people that she was coming, giving them time to go inside their homes, close their windows, or face the opposite direction.
6. Three Blind Mice
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
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.
Unknown to many of us, the term “Bloody Mary” and the rhyme “Three Blind Mice” actually have one thing in common—they refer to the same ruthless person.
The farmer’s wife depicted in this rhyme is Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and the Catholic Queen, Catherine, who ruled England from 1553 to 1558. She is known as “Bloody Mary” because of her atrocious acts; she ordered the torture and execution of many Protestants during her short-lived reign.
On the other hand, the three blind mice referred to in the rhyme are three Protestant noblemen who were charged of secretly planning to kill Queen Mary, and no, they were not blind. As punishment, these three men suffered a horrible death—they were burned alive!
5. There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do!
So she gave them some broth without any bread,
And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed!
Among the nursery rhymes discussed in this list, this is the only one whose obvious meaning is already gruesome or bizarre. I mean, it talks about domestic violence, specifically child abuse! (…gave them some broth without any bread and she whipped them all soundly…)
There is even one version that states that the mother goes to town to buy coffins for her children.
Then out went th’ old woman to bespeak ‘em a coffin,
And when she came back, she found ‘em all a-loffeing.
But behind this gruesome obvious meaning lies a historical significance worthy to be explored. Some experts suggest that the old woman is actually a “he”. Yes, you read that right. The old woman referred to in the rhyme is a man, King George II to be exact. He was called “old woman” by his enemies because he started the fashion trend of wearing white powdered wigs.
The word “children” in the rhyme represented the members of the Parliament while the bed symbolized the Houses of Parliament. Just like in the rhyme, those members who did not follow or agreed with King George faced his (old woman’s) wrath; they were “whipped…all soundly and sent…to bed!”
4. Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.
“Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” is one of those nursery rhymes that seem innocent and nonsensical at first glance, but if you take a closer look, you’ll discover that it has a gruesome hidden message. This nursery rhyme talks about relationships, infidelity, and murder.
Just like “Rock-a-Bye Baby”, this rhyme did not originate from Britain but rather from America. It is generally believed that Peter’s beloved wife was a hooker. Since he could not keep his spouse from having sexual affairs with numerous men, he decided to kill her and hide her body in an absurdly large pumpkin.
There’s another version of this rhyme that goes like this.
Eeper Weeper, chimbly (chimney) sweeper,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her.
Had another, didn’t love her,
Up the chimbly he did shove her.
And yet, here’s another more gruesome, vivid version.
Peter, my neeper,
Had a wife,
And he couidna’ keep her,
He pat i’ the wa’,
And lat a’ thet mice eat her.
This rhyme suggests that women ought to love and be faithful to their husbands or else, they could suffer grave fatal consequences. As what the rhyme suggests, they could be murdered by their husbands and then hidden in a pumpkin, shoved in a chimney, or fed to rats.
3. Ring Around the Rosy
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of poises
We all fall down.
For sure, when you read the lyrics of this rhyme the first picture that comes into your mind are children gleefully holding hands together, giggling, and doing the thing they’re most good at—having fun. Certainly, the images of suffering and death do not cross your mind when you hear this rhyme being chanted. However, this seemingly innocent rhyme does indeed depict death, in fact, mass death.
Experts believe that this nursery rhyme depicts the Black Death or Bubonic Plague—a disease that ravaged London in 1665 and killed millions of people. The line “Ring around the rosy” symbolizes one of the prominent symptoms of the plague—a ring-like red rash on the skin. Many people believed that the disease was airborne. To protect themselves from getting infected, they would carry around poises or sweet-smelling herbs in their pockets.
The hidden meaning behind the last two lines is pretty much obvious. It signifies the death of millions of people infected by the Bubonic Plague. To prevent the disease from spreading, the corpses were cremated (…ashes, ashes…). Thankfully, a massive fire accident eradicated the Bubonic Plague. In 1666, the Great Fire of London occurred. This accident killed the rats, which were the primary carriers of the plague.
2. Oranges and Lemons
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Chip chop chip chop
The last man’s dead!
This is one of those nursery rhymes that start off innocently and gleefully, and then suddenly turns gruesome. “Oranges and Lemons” may seem harmless, but it actually has a disturbing historical implication.
Many believe that this children’s rhyme originated from a certain dance form called Square Dance. No one knows the exact lyrics that accompanied this dance, but many speculate that the words were identical to that of “Oranges and Lemons”.
Interestingly, children of this time sang this rhyme while playing a game bearing the same title as that of the said rhyme—“Oranges and Lemons”. The game would end with a certain kid trapped between the two connected arms of two other children. The ending scenario of this game depicted the cutting off of the heads of convicted criminals and debtors.
It is interesting to note that the last disturbing four lines of the rhyme were added by the children who witnessed the gruesome scene of public executions prevalent during this time.
1. 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.
This rhyme deserves to be in the number one spot because among the rhymes discussed in this list this one has the most gruesome hidden meaning.
As you might have guessed, the “Mary” described in this rhyme is no other than Mary I of England, the same “Bloody Mary” who executed the three Protestant noblemen. The first line, “how does your garden grow”, refers to the expanding graveyards of innocent Protestants whom Mary ordered to be tortured and murdered for not converting into Catholicism.
Experts suggest that the words “cockleshells” and “silver bells” refer to two torture devices used during this period of time. The former is a kind of torturing machine placed in the private parts of the victims while the latter refers to a kind of thumbscrews that smashes one’s thumbs if they are fastened. Finally, the word “maids” is said to represent “the maiden”—a torturing device used to behead people.
Now, that you already know the gruesome hidden meanings behind these nursery rhymes would you still chant them to your little ones?