The Dark History Behind Your Favourite Nursery Rhymes

You may want to sit down for this.

I hate to break it to you, but you know those nursery rhymes you are singing to your cute-as-a-button two year old nephew? Well, more likely than not they’re about a prostitute or someone having their head chopped off.

This post is all about the dark history of nursery rhymes. These rhymes were originally short songs. These songs were more often than not a metaphor for another topic that, for some reason, couldn’t be spoken about publicly. That topic could be blasphemous, treasonous, dangerous – or all three! Talking about it could literally be a matter of life or death.

That’s why these rhymes developed. To transfer messages and stories that couldn’t be talked about openly. This means that there are lots of nursery rhymes we still use today that are packed full of meaning.

Some nursery rhymes tell stories that it’s actually okay to talk about (for example, Baa Baa Black Sheep is about Britain’s wool trade and Humpty Dumpty is actually a particularly large cannon used by the Royalists during the English Civil War) but what about the dark history of nursery rhymes?

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

On the surface this popular English nursery rhyme seems to be about gardening. However, its actually all about Queen Mary Tudor a.k.a. Bloody Mary.

An ardent Catholic, her reign as Queen was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. The line ‘How does your garden grow?’ could refer to the ever increasing size of the graveyards populated by the Protestant martyrs.

The ‘silver bells and cockle shells’ referred to were instruments of torture. The silver bells were thumbscrews and the cockleshells were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals.

Some people say the ‘pretty maids all in a row’ refer to either Mary’s miscarriages or the Maiden, an early version of the guillotine.

Rock-a-bye Baby

Who would think such an innocent lullaby could hold a hidden meaning? This rhyme is all about the son of King James II of England and his wife Mary of Modena.

There was a widespread rumor that a child was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir for James.

‘When the wind blows, the cradle will rock’ refers to the ‘Protestant Wind’ of William of Orange coming to oust the cradle that is the Royal House of Stuart.

Lucy Locket

I totally forgot about this nursery rhyme until I started researching this post. I was mortified to discover its actually about a famous spat between two 18th Century prostitiutes!

The rhymes features two girls called Lucy and Kitty. Kitty is actually Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan, who stole the lover of a woman called Lucy Locket, who was believed to be a barmaid at The Cock, Fleet Street.

The pocket that Lucy loses in the rhyme refers to a small bag. The implication is that poor Lucy Lockett made very little money as opposed to the very wealthy Kitty.


Probably the most well-known of the nursery rhyme back stories, Ring-A-Ring-O-Roses is widely assumed to refer to the 1665 Great Plague of London.

The roses are the rash that covered the afflicted. A “ pocket full of posies” was carried as protection and to ward off the disease.

The plague killed a large proportion of the country’s population, which makes the final line ‘We all fall down’ rather self-explanatory (and rather morbid for a six year old).

1665 Plague

Three Blind Mice

Another nursery rhyme associated with Bloody Mary’s reign, the three blind mice actually represent a trio of Protestant bishops burnt at the stake by the Queen. The blindness in the title refers to their beliefs.

The three bishops in question were Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. On my recent trip to Oxford I actually visited the room where their trial took place – read more about it here.

I’m certainly be thinking twice before singing any of these to my two-year year old nephew again!

Did you already know about the dark history of nursery rhymes? Or perhaps there is a rhyme I’ve missed off? Let me know in the comments below.


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