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10 Dark and Disturbing Origins of Popular Nursery Rhymes

Plagues, prostitution, burning at the stake—none of these are topics you would talk to a toddler about. However, so many of the nursery rhymes we all grew up singing have such dark origins that you'd be shocked to find you were taught these in school, and kids are still being taught these rhymes.

Here are 10 nursery rhymes with some really dark backstories.

London Bridge is Falling Down

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London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Set a man to watch all night,

Watch all night, watch all night,

Set a man to watch all night,

My fair lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,

Fall asleep, fall asleep,

Suppose the man should fall asleep?

My fair lady.

There are several theories behind the origin of this rhyme, but the one that really stands out is the one about human sacrifice. It was believed that a bridge would collapse unless a human sacrifice was buried at the foundations. The practice is called immurement, which is the “practice of entombing someone within a structure, where they slowly die from lack of food and water.” 

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If you think about it, a game was played while singing this song, where two kids form an arch, and others run underneath till the end of the song. Whoever was left at the end, was trapped by the hands of the two kids forming the arch. Does it sound creepy now?

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.

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The Mary referred to in this rhyme, is Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, and petitioned the Catholic Church for a divorce time and time again, which was refused. So, he isolated himself from the Catholic Church, and created the Anglican Church. As a result of this, England was, at the time of Mary's reign, divided between Catholics and Protestants. When Mary came to the throne, she wanted to convert England to Catholicism again, going “contrary” to England's wishes, since most of England was happily Protestant.

Her short reign, from 1553 to 1558, was marked thus, by the execution of thousands of Protestants. The “silver bells” and “cockleshells” are torture devices from her time, and the “pretty maids all in a row” are referred to the hundreds of women burnt at the stake for the crime of being Protestant.

Three Blind Mice

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?

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This is another rhyme dedicated to Mary I's reign, also known as Bloody Mary. The three mice are believed to be a trio of Protestant bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who conspired to overthrow Mary. They were obviously unsuccessful and were found out, and then burned at the stake for treason and heresy. It was mistakenly believed that she also blinded and dismembered them, as the rhyme goes, as if being burnt alive wasn't enough.

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.

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The roots of this poem are so dark that they should not be allowed anywhere near children. Jack and Jill are actually France’s Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were convicted of treason during the French Revolution, otherwise known as the Reign of Terror, and beheaded. Jack or Louis XVI, lost his “crown,” i.e. his throne and his head. And Jill, or Marie Antoinette's head soon came tumbling after.

Ring Around the Rosie

Ring around the rosie

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down!

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The origin for this rhyme is by far the most infamous. The rhyme refers to the Great Plague of London in 1665. The “rosie” from the rhyme is the rash that covered the ones who contracted the disease, the smell of which they tried to cover up with “a pocket full of posies.” The “ashes” were the cremated remains of the deceased, and well, they all did fall down.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa baa black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir,

Three bags full.

One for the Master, 

One for the Dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

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While this rhyme sounds innocent enough, it actually dates back to feudal England, and is not so innocent. There was an extremely harsh wool tax imposed on the farmers back then by King Edward I in the 13th century. One-third of the wool was taken for the king or the Master, one-third for the Church or the Dame, and one-third for the farmers. Some older versions of this rhyme ended with “But none for the little boy / Who cries down the lane,” showing us just how little was left for the people who cultivated the wool.

Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard

Went to the cupboard

To get her poor doggie a bone,

When she got there

The cupboard was bare

So the poor little doggie had none.

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Old Mother Hubbard isn't even a woman, if the theories are to be believed. Old Mother Hubbard is actually Cardinal Wolsey, from 16th century England. Once a very powerful member of the clergy, he found himself in Henry VIII's bad books because he was unable to get him the divorce from Katherine that he so badly wanted. So King Henry is the “doggie” and the divorce is the “bone.” The “cupboard” is the Catholic Church, which straight up refused Henry his divorce, resulting in England's separation from the Church.

Goosey, Goosey, Gander

Goosey, goosey, gander,

Whither dost thou wander?

Upstairs and downstairs

And in my lady's chamber.

There I met an old man

Who wouldn't say his prayers;

I took him by the left leg,

And threw him down the stairs

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After England turned Protestant following King Henry VIII's creation of the Anglican Church, there were plenty of Catholic priests who refused to follow the Protestant faith. So, to avoid punishment, they set up small rooms in their homes, called priest's holes, to pray in. If they were found praying in Latin, as the Catholics do, they would be “thrown down the stairs,” or put to death.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Here we go round the mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush,

The mulberry bush.

Here we go round the mulberry bush

So early in the morning.

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We all sung this as kids in school, not really knowing who was going around the mulberry bush. Historian R. S. Duncan, who was also the warden of England's Wakefield Prison, wrote that this song's origin lies in the practice of female inmates singing this, who were exercised around a mulberry tree.

Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

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Georgie Porgie refers to English courtier George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who was rumoured to be King James I's lover. While there is no proof of this relationship, it was evident that King James was very fond of Villiers, who was given a lot of money and titles. Villiers' good looks are very well documented though, along with his love for women. It is said that Villiers earned the wrath of several husbands whose wives he had sex with, who did not always consent to it. We get why the girls cried, and why Georgie Porgie ran away when the “boys came out to play.”

Childhood ruined yet?

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