Anyone who has read any of my books on the origins of place names will know I like to include pub name definitions. On the face of it the Duke of York is an unremarkable pub name and yet it very soon became apparent his life story had little in common with the rhyme.
The Duke of York is the title held by the second son of the reigning monarch. Created in 1385, the gentleman in question was Frederick Augustus, son of George III. Being a leading Georgian he could doubtless be referred to as 'Grand' but he was by no means 'Old' as the rhyme suggests. This refers to the English action in Flanders at the end of the eighteenth century. At the time the man leading the English forces was just 31 years of age, by no means old. All the marching up and down hill is also quite fictional, for there are no hills in this part of the world. Finally we hear of his 10,000 men, when Frederick Augustus was in charge of at least three times that number.
I wondered how many other rhymes were based on false information. I started on fairly safe ground for everyone knows Ring a Ring a Roses is about the plague, but found no suggestion of such is seen before 1951, the symptoms would never be recognised as those of someone with the plague, and the falling down seems to have been more of a curtsey or bow. Few facts in those lines either.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is given as referring to either Mary I (Bloody Mary) or Mary, Queen of Scots, with supposed confirmation in the shape of the 'silver bells and cockleshells' said to be representative of Catholicism. Yet again there is a problem with the dates. Both Marys are sixteenth century figures while the rhyme is unknown before the eighteenth.
Cock Robin has no connection with any birds - certainly not a robin nor a sparrow. Some point to this being the pagan god Balder in Norse mythology. Others suggest William Rufus, the second Norman king of England who was named for his red hair and was indeed killed by an arrow in the New Forest. It was inevitable a connection would be made to Robin Hood, however with little evidence to show the outlaw existed this seems as unlikely as the fall of the government of Robert Walpole, the only evidence that Robin is a diminutive of Robert. Again, with the exception of Walpole, these explanations are far too early to be taken seriously.
Doctor Foster refers to Edward I? Unlikely when the rhyme is unrecorded before 1844, Edward I died in 1307. Goosey Goosey Gander is a comment on Henry VIII's break from Rome? Not really as some 250 years separate the beginnings of the Church of England and the first appearance in print. How about Humpty Dumpty being acannon used in the English Civil War? No, this story can be dated to 1956.
Jack and Jill are Louis VXI of France and Marie Antoinette. Yes? No, this verse predates the French Revolution. Rock-a-Bye Baby has been said to represent many things include the Egyptian god Horus and childcare the Native American way! London Bridge is Falling Down reminds us of children buried under the foundations? Maybe this is the gruesome truth, yet the rhyme is common to any cultures and periods. Little Boy Blue being based on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is, at best, speculative. Little Jack Horner has been linked to Thomas Horner who made significant financial gains through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, however the story and rhyme certainly predate this period of English history.
It comes as no surprise to find many generations have misled their progeny. Whilst we may be blissfully unaware of the falsehoods in rhyme, none can deny the annual deception of the tale of the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas.