Skip to main content

Notorious Nursery Rhymes: Humpty Dumpty

John loves to read, especially crime, fantasy, psychological thriller, and sci-fi novels. He is interested in the paranormal and unexplained

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Humpty Dumpty Background

The catchy nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty,” with its simple lyrics and somewhat disturbing imagery, has been popular among children throughout the world since the 1870s. In fact, when you ask people to name their favourite nursery rhyme the majority will answer "Humpty Dumpty."

It’s a very basic, though implausible, story: Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall and falls off, being injured/damaged so badly that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn't put Humpty together again."

Not surprisingly, you have probably always thought of an egg as the main character, in spite of the fact that the lyrics don’t describe what Humpty Dumpty is at all. For that, you can thank Lewis Carroll's 1872 novel of Alice's adventures, Through the Looking-Glass which contained illustrations drawn by John Tenniel clearly showing Humpty Dumpty as an egg.

This portrayal has continued throughout popular culture ever since. Though why a horse or horses would be enlisted to try to assist in repairing an egg I have no idea, but let's not dwell on that.

The very first publication of Humpty Dumpty was actually in Juvenile Amusements by Samuel Arnold in 1797. In this original version of the rhyme, the last lines read:

“Fourscore men and fourscore more / could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.”

Over the years, the rhyme has appeared in numerous books and publications but over that time there have only been a couple of slight variations to the lyrics (unlike a lot of nursery rhymes).

This was not the first time the term “humpty dumpty” was mentioned though. The Oxford English Dictionary states “humpty dumpty” was first used in the 17th century and referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale.

And even before that, in the 16th century, it was a term used to describe an inebriated person or as a nickname for a short, chubby, or clumsy person. This was mentioned by Francis Grose in his collection of contemporary slang, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785.

Well, If Not an Egg, What Was the Humpty Dumpty?

OK, we have discussed some uses of the term "humpty dumpty," but who or what was the Humpy Dumpty behind the rhyme? Well, if you believe the most popular theory among historians, then Humpty Dumpty may have been the nickname of a cannon used during the English Civil War of 1642–1649.

Colchester, in England, was a walled city consisting of a castle and several churches. At the time it was under the control of a group known as the Royalists, who wanted King Charles I to rule the country without the need of a Parliament. In order to fortify the city against attack from the Parliamentarians who wished to oust Charles I, they placed several large cannons on the walls surrounding the city.

During the siege of Colchester, a tower of the church known as 'St Mary's by the Wall' was strengthened against attack, by putting a cannon on the roof. The story goes that a gunner named Jack Thompson was put in charge of the cannon and his expertise succeeded in repelling the attacking troops.

Thompson's skill caused the Parliamentarian forces to change their means of attack and eventually fire onto the church roof. After a prolonged battle, the tower was severely damaged and Thompson and his cannon were brought tumbling down ("Humpty Dumpty had a great fall").

Due to the size and weight of the cannon, the dozens of men ("four score men and four score more") who attempted to lift it back to its place on the wall failed to do so. This was a terrible setback and, on August 28th 1648, the Royalists lay down their weapons, opened the gates, and surrendered to the Parliamentarians.

An Alternative Story: King Richard III

Another popular theory is that Humpty Dumpty represented King Richard III, said to be known as the “humpbacked king” (recent evidence indicates his condition may have been exaggerated, with Richard actually having scoliosis making his right shoulder appear higher than the left, but no hunch).

Richard III fought at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. For this to fit a “Humpty Dumpty” origin story, it is suggested that either his horse was named “Wall” or his men, who abandoned him, were representative of the “wall.” Either way, the king fell from his horse and was supposedly hacked to pieces (thus no one could put him together again.)

Linking this with the Humpty Dumpty story seems quite fanciful, to me, and there are several problems with this theory. For instance, the terms “humpbacked” and "hunchback" didn’t exist in King Richard’s day, nor for several centuries after.

On top of this, the remains of King Richard III have recently been identified, and the body (skeletal remains) was intact other than having evidence of a mortal wound to the neck. This contradicts the story that he was hacked to pieces in the battlefield.

As with the “siege of Colchester” theory, no solid historical evidence has been found that shows that King Richard III was the inspiration for Humpty Dumpty. In fact, one of the reasons it’s so often connected is because of the line “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”, which wasn’t even in the original version— the actual line was the more generic “fourscore men and fourscore more”.

King Richard III

King Richard III

Riddle to Story

The historical events that have been linked to “Humpty Dumpty” provide excellent stories, but are based on speculation. Given the meagre evidence available, it is far more likely that Humpty Dumpty was intended to be just a riddle posed to children for their amusement and not an actual story portraying a historical event.

Trying to solve riddles was once a very popular form of entertainment for children and adults alike. If the rhyme itself is taken as being the riddle to be solved, then the answer to this riddle, of course, is “an egg”—something that, if it pushed off a wall, could not be mended by any number of people (and certainly not horses.)

Today, the answer is so well known that the character of Humpty Dumpty has become accepted as being an egg and the rhyme is not considered to be a riddle at all, but a story.

Because of this switch from “riddle” to “story”, many people today believe that there is more meaning to the nursery rhyme than is apparent in the simple lyrics. People will always try to attribute more meaning to nursery rhymes than was initially intended and often these alternative meanings do not come to light until centuries after the event.

Nursery rhymes are commonly linked to historical events, but there are usually more than one interpretation and it is difficult to prove which, if any, is the true one. Most modern rhymes, after all, are created with the intent of being silly, repetitive, and enjoyable for children to repeat rather than for their historical significance

My Modern Version of the Rhyme

Here is my current version of the popular rhyme. I think it's quite topical at the moment no matter what side of politics you sit on, or don’t. Maybe people will read this version 100 years from now and come up with another interpretation entirely.

I hope you enjoy Trumpty Dumpty.

Trumpty Dumpty

Trumpty Dumpty built a big wall,

Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All of the women and all of the men

Weren't voting Trumpty back up there again.

— John Hansen 2019

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Reinvented Cocktail: The Humpty Dumpty

OK, we have a choice, Humpty Dumpty is either a children’s poem, a deposed king of England, a cannon broken in a fall from a castle wall, or a popular 16th-century drink of brandy and ale. Let's select the latter and reinvent a cocktail based on the original drink.

Here is the cocktail recipe:

Humpty Dumpty
30 ml (1 ounce) of brandy
45 ml (1 1/2 ounces) of ale

1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice
1 dash Angosture bitters

Place ice cubes in a glass and add all the ingredients. Stir evenly for 10 or 15 seconds until chilled. Garnish with a lemon/lime peel and serve

brandy and ale

brandy and ale

Quite a Challenge

It is always quite a challenge to write a non-fiction piece or article on a subject that has been covered many times before.

When researching historical or widely believed events, it is inevitable to find the same information repeated over and over again and it is often difficult to write a whole new slant on the topic. When I started to write about the history/meaning of popular nursery rhymes I wasn't expecting the Internet to already be saturated, but I was certainly in for a surprise.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How does Alice know who Humpty Dumpty is?

Answer: Here is an excerpt from "Through the Looking Glass": "HOWEVER, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and, when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. 'It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. 'I'm as certain of it as if his name were written all over his face!' " If you want to know more you can Google "Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass)


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 14, 2019:

Hi again, ps. I am glad you found my research on this nursery rhyme interesting, and feel free to share the drink with your friends. Cheers.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 14, 2019:

Who woulda' thunk it? I never researched this nursery rhyme so now I know what you shared. I know some friends who would like the drink you have shared. Angels are on the way this morning ps

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 23, 2019:

Thank you Lawrence, the history behind the nursery rhymes is intriguing whether fact or fantasy.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on May 23, 2019:


Fascinating read. I knew about the story with the Cannon, but not the story of Richard the third!

Enjoyed the hub.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 01, 2019:

Thanks for reading, John, and for the interesting comment. Glad I introduced you to a possible new background scenario of Richard III and that you live close to where he was buried and the battlefield.

John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 01, 2019:

The general view now is that it was Tenniel who first thought of HD as an egg - unless he got the notion from some source that is now lost to us.

The Richard III option is new to me, but of interest due to the fact that I live about three miles from the battlefield and my wife regularly walked across his car park grave in Leicester before anyone thought of digging it up!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 29, 2019:

Thank you Shauna. Yes, it took some effort to get this one passed but persistence paid off. Glad you liked my version. Let’s see what happens to Trumpty shall we.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 29, 2019:

Well, John, you succeeded. I'm reading and commenting on this post.

I was completely surprised by your version of Humpty Dumpty (guess I forgot you do that in this series). I LOVE your version. Let's hope The People have learned and don't vote him back up there again. In fact, there's talk of impeachment over his non-compliance with subpoenas.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 25, 2019:

Thanks for doing your vote for Richard III, Audrey. Let’s see what happens with Trumpty shall we.

Audrey Howitt from California on April 25, 2019:

Well I vote for Richard III and let's hope trumpity doesn't get reelected!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 25, 2019:

Yes, I finally managed it PoetikalyAnointed. It wasn’t easy, but was worth it. I actually noticed a typo in the last paragraph but don’t want to have to resubmit it just yet, so that can wait. I am so glad this whole article gave you cause to have a good laugh. You are right, the world can do with more of that right now. Bless you.

PoetikalyAnointed on April 25, 2019:

Yay. You did it!

"Though why a horse or horses would be enlisted to try to assist in repairing an egg I have no idea, but let's not dwell on that." (LOL)

Hi John, I'm glad this one got cleared...the line above put a huge smile on my face. The whole time I read this, I kept thinking of the "egg" from the animated film, Puss-N-Boots.

Oh man, I love the title of your version and the entire piece! I needed the burst of giggles/laughter that you provided here. So much drama is going on in the world today so it's nice to sit back and laugh as you learn...or learn as you laugh. I concur with your poem's message 110%.

I can imagine how challenging this was for I've been there with the "re-do's." I'm glad you hung in there and stayed persistent. This has been a fun series to read because we all know them in some form or fashion. Each culture has its own meanings and so on. The notion that these rhymes are historical re-tellings is fascinating but chances are we're not gonna know either way. It's fun for discussion though so write on!

Thanks for sharing!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 25, 2019:

Yes, Bill some of those cartoons were downright violent....look at the road runner etc. Thanks for reading and commenting, glad you enjoyed this.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 25, 2019:

Not only nursery rhymes...I was thinking of cartoons we watched as kids. There was some serious violence in those cartoons. :) Great read as always!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 25, 2019:

Hi Venkat, I appreciate you reading this and leaving such a valuable comment. I am glad you enjoyed reading the possible background stories and my contemporary version of Humpty Dumpty.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 25, 2019:

A very much entertaining post submitting so many versions of the background stories that could be thought of as an inspiration for that Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. I enjoyed it a lot.

And, your own contemporary version of it is a wonderful one considering the present atmosphere. I appreciate your muse.