Notorious Nursery Rhymes (Number Three): Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty Nursery Rhyme
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.
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.
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:
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
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 names 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, the “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” line wasn’t even in the original version, which had the more generic “fourscore men and fourscore more”.
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 not 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 lol. I hope you enjoy 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
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. Especially so here at HubPages where they frown upon duplication of any kind or content published (or even similar to) elsewhere on the Internet. This has always been a problem I face when writing non-fiction, and is probably one of the main reason I usually concentrate on poetry and short fiction stories.
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.
Although I never had a problem getting my first to "Notorious Nursery Rhymes" articles published without being hit with the "duplication" tag, that was far from the case with Humpty Dumpty. This is, in fact, the fourth time I have re-edited it and submitted it to be published. As yet, I don't even know if it has passed the review this time. I have changed everything I possibly can so if it fails again I will give up and publish it elsewhere. Fingers crossed that isn't necessary.
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
How does Alice know who Humpty Dumpty is?
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)