Dark Origins – Little Jack Horner, a nursery rhyme

When I was a girl I loved nursery rhymes. I had a beautiful Mother Goose book which I used to read often. Over the years that book disintegrated from frequent use and it was eventually disposed of. When my oldest son was born, I replaced it with a few new nursery rhyme books, all of which are beautifully illustrated.

Nursery Rhymes Are Not What They Seem: The Story Behind “Little Jack Horner”  | History Daily
Picture from: https://historydaily.org/nursery-rhymes-are-not-what-they-seem-the-story-behind-little-jack-horner

One of my favourite nursery rhymes is Little Jack Horner. The modern version goes like this:

Little Jack Horner.

Sat in the corner,

Eating a Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb,

And pulled out plum,

And said “What a good boy am I.”

The text of the original nursery rhyme is somewhat different and is believed to have originated in 1538 during the English Reformation. During the years 1536 to 1541, King Henry VIII set about an administrative and legal process whereby he disbanded monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. The incomes previously earned by the monasteries were expropriated by the crown and their assets were seized.

It is speculated that the Jack from this nursery rhyme is Thomas Horner who was a steward to the last abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting. According to the story, Horner was sent to London with a Christmas pie for King Henry VIII. Inside the pie the deeds to twelve manor houses were hidden. These were intended to be a gift to the king and a last effort by Richard Whiting to prevent the nationalisation of church lands and the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey.

On the way to London, Horner discovered the deeds hidden in the pie and took for himself the deeds of the manor of Mells in Summerset. Shortly afterward, Horner moved into the manor and his descendants have lived in the manor house for generations. They dispute the claim that the deeds were stolen by Horner.

The origin of this nursery rhyme fascinates me so much I have incorporated it into my writing. In my supernatural novel, Through the Nethergate, it is mentioned by one of the main supporting characters, the Monk.

Extract from Through the Nethergate relating to Little Jack Horner

Here is an short extract from Through the Nethergate that details the original wording of this nursery rhyme and a peek into its history:

“Margaret continued to watch him. She wasn’t sure where this outpouring of information was going.

I’m talking to a ghost, she thought. Someone who says he was born in 1483. Bewilderment and fear fluttered in her stomach.

The monk seemed to pull himself together and continued to speak:
“In 1536, King Henry VIII set about the dissolution of the monasteries. Monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland were disbanded and their income and assets appropriated by the Crown.”

The monk’s eyes seemed to glisten in the dim light.

“In the run up to Christmas 1538, Richard Whiting sent a gift to the king in a last effort to prevent the nationalisation of church lands and the destruction of the abbey. The gift was a huge Christmas pie with the deeds to a dozen manor houses hidden inside it. The abbot chose two trusted men to deliver the gift; one was his steward, Thomas Horner, and the other was me.”

A smile suddenly lit up the monk’s face.

“Do you know the nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner?”

Margaret nodded again. A little taken aback at this sudden change of direction to the conversation.

Now he sings of Jackey Horner,
Sitting in the Chimney-Corner,
Eating of a Christmas pye,
Putting in his thumb, Oh fie!
Putting in, Oh fie, his Thumb,
Pulling out, Oh strange! A Plum.

“That nursery rhyme was written about Thomas Horner. During the journey, he opened the pie and took out the deeds of the manor of Mells in Somerset, which he kept for himself.”

“What about you?” Margaret asked. “What happened to you?”

The monk looked at Margaret, his smile slowly fading.

“I was killed, of course. Stabbed through the heart by that treacherous and thieving Thomas Horner.”

The monk’s shoulders slumped dejectedly and his mouth turned downwards.”

The story of the Monk’s death is included as a short story in a murder mystery anthology, Death Among Us.

Picture from Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glastonbury_Abbey

I was planning to visit the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey last year, but sadly Covid-19 put paid to that trip.

There are two interesting features of Glastonbury Abbey that make it very interesting to me:

  1. The graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s tomb are purported to be in Glastonbury; and
  2. The Abbot’s Kitchen is described as “one of the best preserved medieval kitchens in Europe”
Site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s purported tomb beneath the high altar. Picture from Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glastonbury_Abbey

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

I am a South African writer specialising in historical, paranormal and horror novels and short stories. I am an avid reader in these genres and my writing has been influenced by famous authors including Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Amor Towles, Stephen Crane, Enrich Maria Remarque, George Orwell, Stephen King, and Colleen McCullough. 

I was educated at the University of South Africa where I achieved a Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1996 and a Honours Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1997. I was admitted as a member of The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants in 2000. 

I have worked in corporate finance from 2001 until the present date and have written seven publications relating to investing in Africa. I have won several awards over my twenty year career in the category of Transactional Support Services.

I have been published a number of anthologies and have two published YA books, While the Bombs Fell and Through the Nethergate. I have recently published my first adult novel called A Ghost and His Gold which is partly set in South Africa during the Second Anglo Boer War.

Find Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Blog: https://wordpress.com/view/robertawrites235681907.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobertaEaton17

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robertawrites

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Roberta-Eaton-Cheadle/e/B08RSNJQZ5


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65 Comments on “Dark Origins – Little Jack Horner, a nursery rhyme”

  1. A fascinating post, which makes me want to read more about the origin of other nursery rhymes. Kevin

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have heard tell that not all of our nursery rhymes are as innocent as they seem. A devious lot, our ancestors…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi ladies, our nursery rhymes are generally quite horrible and so are our fairytales. The Grimm’s Brothers certainly did justice to the dark times they lived in and many of their original tales are quite horrifying. Thanks for visiting.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Teri Polen says:

    I had no idea this nursery rhyme was that old – and I sure didn’t know about the deeds in the pie. That’s fascinating.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Teri, I was also very surprised by the origins of this nursery rhyme which I came across when I was doing research for Through the Nethergate. It inspired me so much I wrote a story about it and even built it into my book.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi Robbie. This one surprised me because it is seemingly harmless at face value. Its origins are surprising. I would have never guessed.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on and commented:

    I am over at Writing to be Read with a another Dark Origins post about the nursery rhyme Little Jack Horner. It seems such an innocent little rhyme … but its not. Thank you Kaye Lynne Booth for hosting me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Staci Troilo says:

    That’s truly fascinating. I had no idea what the origins of that rhyme were. I have a book of nursery rhymes, and now I want to research the history. (I’ve done that with some fairy tales, but this opens up Pandora’s box for me!)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. willowdot21 says:

    It’s amazing how dark these Nursery Rhymes are Robbie, great post 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post! I used to have a copy of “The Annotated Mother Goose” which provided historical backgrounds to most nursery rhymes. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is another good one.

    Nursery rhymes and many folk songs were common folks’ way of speaking truth to power. Lacking the Internet, I guess that was as good a way as any, though they did have “underground” leaflet printers who occasionally survived, but usually didn’t. With or without electronic communication, we have somehow managed to get our messages “out there.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • You have hit the nail on the head Marilyn. Someone said that nursery rhymes were medieval tweets and that idea has stayed with me. A good way of recording history too. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, I covered Mary, Mary Quite Contrary in my first post in January. Also very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jan Sikes says:

    I love the fascinating tidbits of history that you share, Robbie. And how clever to weave this one into The Nethergate! Great post. Thank you for hosting, Kaye Lynn!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. What an interesting post! I think it’s cool that Robbie incorporated the Jack Horner nursery rhyme origin into Through the Nethergate.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. All so fascinating. I’m not surprised the Horner family disputes the theft. And apparently the bribes didn’t help anyway. And so cool that you added the story to the book, Robbie. Great post and thanks to Kaye Lynne for hosting.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Darlene says:

    O love reading about the origins of nursery rhymes. Most of them are not very innocent. I love that you incorporated this in your book.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. JT Twissel says:

    Interesting – at least no-one’s head was chopped off!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I thank you Robbie for that, I didn’t know that about this rhyme… I knew about ring a ring a roses a pocket full of posies… one… So interesting where they originated from..
    Many thanks… ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Mae Clair says:

    I’ve read a few articles related to the background of this nursery rhyme and it’s always fascinated me. I love how so many of these old rhymes and tales had much deeper and darker meanings. Excellent post, Robbie, and kudos to you for including reference in Through the Nethergate!

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Fascinating, Robbie… Thanks for sharing your research findings. Still, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes was one of my favorites and I had a huge volume that my daughters and I read together every night when they were young. The playfulness and rhymes made reading so much fun…

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Jim Borden says:

    that was fun to read the background of Jack Horner. I wonder how much of it is true…

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Daniel Kemp says:

    Fascinating and I don’t just mean the origins of fairy tales. I had no idea you had published books on–Investing in South Africa. Are there no ends to your talents?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Danny, I am a person who gets very caught up in research. At this point in my life, I was fascinated by economics and how the fourth industrial revolution would impact Africa; how African countries measured against other developing countries in this regard. It was a good time. I got to do a number of interviews on television and wrote lots of articles for magazines and newspapers.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. It reminds me of the telephone game, where someone says something to one person and by the time that something is whispered to more, it has changed.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Loved! So fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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