Nursery Rhyme Origins Part 1: The Grand Old Duke of York and Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

Why is Humpty Dumpty portrayed as an egg?

I recently read a book called ‘The World’s Greatest Royal Scandals’ written by Nigel Cawthorne. It was a very revealing book and enough to turn the most ardent of royalists into hardcore republicans. It’s not the strings of mistresses, illegitimate children, hushed up murders or extravagant parties that bother me, after all we are all entitled to a little bit of fun. The issue for me is that the money spent to look after the illegitimate children and mistresses, hush money and parties were all paid for by us, the humble tax-payer.

However I’m not ranting about that in this post. I wish to talk a little bit on the origins of some of our favourite nursery rhymes. How did I get from royal scandals to nursery rhymes? Well I’ll tell you.

The Grand Old Duke of York

Oh, the grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men;

He marched them up to the top of the hill,

And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,

And when they were down, they were down,

And when they were only half-way up,

They were neither up nor down.

Duke of York and Albany

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827)

The aforementioned book refers to Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827) and that the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ has been attributed to him after showing his ineptitude on the field of combat. However an earlier form of this rhyme exists and was published in 1642 under a different title and with slightly different wording.

Known as ‘Old Tarlton’s Song’ (Richard Tarlton 1530-1588), the rhyme referred to the King of France suggesting it was written about one of the many French kings who ruled over France within Tarlton’s lifetime. These include:

Like many folk songs the lyrics of this rhyme have been adapted over time to suit the object of the performer’s mirth. It has been suggested that the Duke of York mentioned in the modern rendition refers to aforementioned Prince Frederick, second son of George III of England, after his defeat at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794. The hill mentioned in the rhyme is possibly the town of Cassel.

Humpty Dumpty

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

Arguably the most well-known of children’s nursery rhymes and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some have argued that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is actually Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 because Richard had a ‘Humped’ back. Growing up it was suggested to me that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ was actually a cannon or siege weapon used in the English Civil War (1642-1651) at the Siege of Gloucester in 1643.

Similarly the town of Colchester claimed the origin of the rhyme has a link to a cannon that was used by Royalist defenders at St. Mary-on-the-Wall in the Siege of 1648. A Parliamentary cannon was fired at the gun and damaged the wall causing the cannon to ‘have a great fall’. Naturally the King’s horses and King’s men were unable to fix the weapon.

Other suggestions to the origin of the rhyme can be found in the meaning of the name. The Old English Dictionary suggests that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ was a term used for a drink of boiled brandy and ale in the seventeenth century. One can imagine the drinker of such a concoction to be trifle unsteady on one’s feet after consumption. Especially if perched on a wall.

The earliest publication can be found in Samuel Arnold’s ‘Juvenile Amusements’ published in 1797 although the lyrics are slightly different:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Four-score Men and Four-score more,

Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before

Modern illustrations portraying ‘Humpty Dumpty’ as an egg, although no-one seems to know why. The rhyme is simply a child’s riddle is a further possibility to its origins.

I always find it interesting to note that there are always more than meets the eye with children’s nursery rhymes. I would like to know what your thoughts are on the origins of these two.


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