Why are Nursery Rhymes so Dark?

When you were a child you probably had a favorite nursery rhyme you sang happily either by your-self or with friends and siblings. Your innocence never really took into account the possible meaning of the words of some of those lullaby’s considering the joy it brought to you in the moment. Now as an adult I ask you to revisit those same nursery rhymes again and apply your grown up mind to the words. Are they still so innocent and meaningless?

Lullaby’s have been used in Horrors and Thriller for good reasons. Because they can be creepy and dark. Some of the most famous ones have conspiracy theories of dark origins behind them. Let me share those theories here.


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 sight in your life,

As three blind mice?”

Theory– The rhyme refers to Queen Mary I of England blinding and executing three Protestant bishops.


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.”

Theory- Mary I of England with “How does your garden grow?” said to refer to her lack of heirs, or to the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal or “branch” of Spain and the Habsburgs. It is also said to be a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner. “Quite contrary” is said to be a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. The “pretty maids all in a row” is speculated to be a reference to miscarriages or her execution of Lady Jane Grey.


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.”

Theory- the rhyme referred to resentment at the heavy taxation on wool, probably from King Edward. This has particularly been taken to refer to the medieval English “Great” or “Old Custom” wool tax of 1275, which survived until the fifteenth century.


Rock-a-bye Baby

“Rock-a-by baby

On the tree top,

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock.

When the bough breaks,

The cradle will fall,

And down will fall baby

Cradle and all.”

Theory- the son of James VII and II, who was widely believed to be someone else’s child smuggled into the birthing room in order to provide a Roman Catholic heir for James. The “wind” may be that Protestant “wind” or force “blowing” or coming from the Netherlands bringing James’ nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, who would eventually depose King James II in the revolution (the same “Protestant Wind” that had saved England from the Spanish Armada a century earlier). The “cradle” is the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words in print appeared with a footnote, “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”


Ring a Ring o’ Roses

“Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.”

Theory- Since the 20th century, the rhyme has often been associated with the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England.

The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.

The line Ashes, Ashes in colonial versions of the rhyme is claimed to refer variously to cremation of the bodies, the burning of victims’ houses, or blackening of their skin, and the theory has been adapted to be applied to other versions of the rhyme.


I am sure several other Nursery Rhymes might have theories of dark meanings, but they are only theories. Maybe the theories are baseless coincidence meant to bring malice to innocence. Or maybe there is a hint of darkness to the origin of these childhood rhymes. We may never truly know but it is interesting to wonder about these things.








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