The True Stories and Meanings Behind Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies

Updated on March 4, 2017

The Origin of Lullabies

Did you know ...

"Lullaby" is a derivative from Jewish folklore meaning "Lilith abi" which, in the English tongue, simply means "Lilith, go away".

Lilith was said to have been a succubus so the term "lullaby" was coined in order to protect children.

The use of lullabies and mainly nursery rhymes throughout history were most often used as an educational tool to teach children about past events. Over time, the term "lullaby" stuck and we now think of it as a soothing song used to calm children. However, history shows us that some lullabies are anything but soothing and are more or less horrifying.


Three Blind Mice

The "farmer's wife" refers to Queen Mary I, otherwise known as Bloody Mary. The "three blind mice" were noblemen who were convicted of plotting against Queen Mary and as a result, she had them burned alive at the stake.

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.

Ring Around the Rosie

In reference to The Black Death in Europe around 1347, it would appear as black sores on your body. People stuffed "posies", which were flowers, into their pockets so they couldn't smell the dead bodies that were piling up everywhere. They began to burn the bodies so the infection could no longer spread which refers to all of the "ashes". The Black Death wiped out a significant 20% of the world's population which signifies "we all fall down".

Ring around the rosie

Pocket full of posies,

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down!


London Bridge (is Falling Down)

This very popular nursery rhyme and game has multiple very popular theories.

  • One of which refers to the Vikings who supposedly attacked the bridge and brought it down in 1009. Some speculate this never occurred.
  • Another theory is that the bridge's foundation was made of human children's remains. The only way to keep the bridge standing was to offer another child as a sacrifice to it, however, there is no proof that anyone was buried within the bridge.
  • Walt Disney had also created a theory that the bridge was brought down by age and fire destruction.

My fair lady

This also has three theories in which it is in regards to.

  • Eleanor of Provence - she owned the bridge from 1269-1281
  • Matilda of Scotland - consorted with Henry I who was responsible for the crossing of the bridge
  • The Leigh Family - They had a primary tradition that a human body must be under the structure at all times.

While none of these theories have yet to be proven, they do make for great banter.

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Famous Nursery Rhymes Collection

Humpty Dumpty

The version we know today was first printed in 1810. Some people believe it refers to the average village drunkard and others believe it's in reference to King Richard III of England. He was portrayed as having a humpback but this is just speculation. The story says that King Richard III went to war at the Battle of Bosworth where he fell off of his horse (the wall) and was chopped into pieces by his rivals. There really is no direct evidence as to where history places this simple little quatrain, but there are a number of other theories as well.

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.


Rock-a-bye Baby

If you carefully listen to the lyrics of the version we know today, one can easily assume it depicts a horrific setting for a child.

One very popular belief is that the child in the rhyme is in reference to the son of James VII who some thought was smuggled into the birthing quarters in order to give a Catholic heir to James. Wind is thought to be in regards to James' family members coming in to overthrow the child as cradle is in reference to the royal House.

When the original was first printed, it had a footnote that read "This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last." This seemed to be a threat but others view it as just mockery.

Rock-a-bye baby on 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.

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Jack and Jill

This silly nursery rhyme often has people questioning the validity of it simply because water is usually thought to be at the bottom of a hill instead of the top, however, other theories suggest that it has a much deeper meaning than originally thought.

Jack and Jill are assumed to represent Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette but this is often questioned since the dates don't necessarily correlate with each events.

The couple was said to be a greedy couple, carelessly spending money, and investing their life into finer goods (referring to went up the hill to fetch a pail of water - eager gluttony). King Louis XVI was beheaded (lost his crown) in 1793 and Marie Antoinette was then beheaded (came tumbling after) around 10 months after her husbands death.

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.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Originally written in 1731, most people will believe that this fun little nursery rhyme was in reference to the heavy taxes that were placed on wool in 1275. However, many others will say that it was in connection with the slave trade of the Americas. There has been controversy over the words "black" and "master" in the rhyme, depicting that it's considered racially offensive. Over the years, many people have tried to have the rhyme completely altered to be less controversial, but it still has a tendency to stick to it's guns.

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir,

Three bags full.

One for the master,

And one for the dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

Also known as "Bloody Mary" due to her extensive  amount of murders she committed during her reign.
Also known as "Bloody Mary" due to her extensive amount of murders she committed during her reign. | Source

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary is in reference to Queen Mary I of England (also known as Bloody Mary). The rhyme was written to heckle at her time on the throne. "Contrary" was an average term used to describe her nature of leadership. "How does your garden grow" was mocking her inability to produce living children. She was always widely known for murdering over 280 people so "silver bells and cockle shells" were in regards to her torture devices. "Pretty maids all in a row" was in reference to her numerous miscarriages and/or dead bodies she accumulated over her 5 year reign.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells,

With pretty maids all in a row.

Little Boy Blue

Theories show that Little Boy Blue was in reference to Cardinal Wolsey who was the son of a butcher and was also a hayward. In the 18th century, cow's eating in grain fields (corn meaning grain) and sheep eating in large amounts were believed to have made the animals extremely sick, thus being a foul idea portrayed in a nursery rhyme.

Little Boy Blue

Come blow your horn.

The sheep's in the meadow,

The cow's in the corn.

Where is that boy

Who looks after the sheep?

Under the haystack

Fast asleep.

Will you wake him?

Oh no, not I.

For if I do

He will surely cry.

Regardless of what you choose to believe, you have to admit that the stories behind these dainty rhymes can be rather chilling.

© 2014 Ash Ryan


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    • profile image

      JoAnn Jackson 7 weeks ago

      I think it’s very educational to know where things originate from because Everything has a beginning……

    • profile image

      Arianna 2 months ago

      I showed this to my mom and she was like what!!! and i remember always singing ba ba black sheep i cant believe i didnt know what it really meant master and all creepy!

    • profile image

      DeQuavis Smith 2 months ago

      You like fried chicken?

    • profile image

      yeet 4 months ago

      I dont plan on singing non of these songs!!!

    • profile image

      Sarah 4 months ago

      Very creepy. But at least I know now.

    • profile image

      logan paul 4 months ago

      thanks these are creepy but interesting

    • Ashley Ryan P profile image

      Ash Ryan 3 years ago from Red Dirt Country

      Thank you!

    • indianreel profile image

      HK 3 years ago from London

      Wow... Such an interesting Hub..