Dark Origins – London Bridge is Falling Down

Picture credit: https://speak-and-play-english.com/london-bridge-is-falling-down-lyrics-activities

I grew up playing a children’s game to the tune and lyrics of London Bridge is Falling Down. The game I played was similar to the actions for Oranges and Lemons which involves two players holding hands and making an arch with their arms for a single file line of players to walk under. At the end of the song the arch is lowered to ‘catch’ a player.

There are two dark hypothesis for the origins of this nursery rhyme.

The first hypothesis is that the rhyme relates to the supposed destruction of London Bridge in 1014 by the Olaf II Haraldsson, later known as Saint Olaf, who was the King of Norway from 1015 to 1028.

This supposition is derived from the translation of the Norse saga, the Heimskringla, by Samuel Laing in 1844 which includes a verse which is reminiscent of the common version of the London Bridge is Falling Down nursery rhyme as follows:

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!

However, this one verse is not corroborated by any other information or accounts.

The single surviving page known as the Kringla leaf (Kringlublaðið) is kept in the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík. Picture credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heimskringla

The second hypothesis relates to the practice of entombing someone within a structure due to the ancient belief that a human blood sacrifice would ensure the stability of the structure. This centuries-old practice is called immurement.

In the context of this nursery rhyme, the immurement is believed to be about starving children who were ‘buried alive’ as the Old London Bridge was built in the 1200s.

 It is thought children were 'buried alive' in the foundations of the Old London Bridge
It is thought children were ‘buried alive’ in the foundations of the Old London BridgeCredit: HULTON ARCHIVE – GETTY

A final option, is that the nursery rhyme alludes to the pair of fires that London Bridge suffered in 1633 and 1666. The first fire, significantly damaged the structure and weakened it. The Great Fire of London was different in that the bridge acted more like a fire break and stopped the fire from travelling into the south of London. With its 19 narrow arches, the bridge impeded river traffic and flow and structural changes were undertaken to upgrade it. These changes were not that successful and the bridge needed continuous and expensive repairs. In 1831 the New London Bridge was open and survived until it was replaced in 1972. The bridge was transported and reconstructed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Extract from Through the Nethergate

One of the ghosts in my supernatural fantasy novel, Through the Nethergate, is immured. Katherine ran away from her life as a novice in Bungay Priory in 1376. When she was recaptured, she was immured in the walls of the Abbey of Coldingham. This is the relevant extract:

“What happened to you after you escaped? You must have died badly if you are a ghost?”

“I was caught,” Katharine said simply. She didn’t seem surprised by the question.

“My escape became the subject of a denunciation by the Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, and a consequent order from King Henry II for my capture. Once caught, I was to be forcibly returned to the priory.”

“That didn’t happen, did it?” said Margaret.

“No, I was caught and, when it was discovered that I was with child, I was immured.”

Margaret didn’t recognise the word “immured” and stared at Katharine blankly.

“A small niche was carved out of the wall in the Abbey of Coldingham, where I had been taken. I was given some food and water and then my grave was sealed.”

“If you died in Coldingham, why is your ghost attached to the ruins of Bungay Priory?”

Katharine’s pretty mouth drooped at the corners and her eyes dimmed as if a veil had descended over them. “At the time of my death, I was visited by a great black dog with fiery red eyes. He encouraged me to turn away from the White Light that was waiting for me and remain here on earth. I didn’t know that by choosing to remain, I would become trapped in the Overworld, between Heaven and the Underworld, for all eternity. My choice to walk the path of promised revenge resulted in my becoming enslaved to the black dog of Bungay. The black dog is excellent at
recruiting ghosts who die elsewhere but have a link to Bungay, and placing them in his power. He likes us all to stay near to his home, Bungay Castle.

“I have told you enough about me,” said Katharine, changing the subject. “This meeting has a purpose other than me telling you my life story. “The priory was founded by Countess Gundreda, in honour of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Cross, for nuns of the Benedictine order. It was built on land granted to the countess on her marriage to Hugh Bigod, First Earl of Norfolk. After Hugh’s death, the land was confirmed to her, and her second husband, Roger de Glanville,
by King Henry II.”

Here it is. The link between Hugh Bigod and the priory. But what does it matter if his descendants established the priory?

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Roberta Eaton Cheadle is a South African writer and poet specialising in historical, paranormal, and horror novels and short stories. She is an avid reader in these genres and her writing has been influenced by famous authors including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Amor Towles, Stephen Crane, Enrich Maria Remarque, George Orwell, Stephen King, and Colleen McCullough.

Roberta has short stories and poems in several anthologies and has 2 published novels, Through the Nethergate, a historical supernatural fantasy, and A Ghost and His Gold, a historical paranormal novel set in South Africa.

Roberta has 9 children’s books published under the name Robbie Cheadle.

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

Roberta has worked in corporate finance from 2001 until the present date and has written 7 publications relating to investing in Africa. She has won several awards over her 20-year career in the category of Transactional Support Services.

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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53 Comments on “Dark Origins – London Bridge is Falling Down”

  1. (deep sigh) so many things to ponder as adults

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting post, Robbie. I don’t understand the purpose behind the practice of immurement. I had never heard of this before. Did they do this just so they wouldn’t be burdened with these children, or had they committed some offense and it was a severe punishment? Why would they do that? It seems a rather harsh punishment, but it would be even crueler if they were just ridding themselves of unwanted children. I suppose it is no worse than the practice of leaving unwanted babes in the cold to die. I guess they were very harsh times, but were they so bad that decency and humanity were lost completely?

    It also seems odd to me that they would deconstruct the bridge and relocate and rebuild it here in the states. Any insight as to why that waas done? I suppose they would have found the childrens’ remains when the original bridge was replaced if that origin story were true, so maybe that was something said to scare children into behavior or something?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kaye, no evidence of immurement was found with regards to the original bridge. The one moved to the USA was not the original but a later bridge. Immurement was a very common practice in Europe in the Middle Ages and many buildings do have the remains of children and other people in their foundations. It was to do with superstitious beliefs, many of which were inhumane. With regards to nuns and also their babies, this was very common and many skeletons have been found in the walls of priories and other buildings of religious significance. My story of Katharine was based on real facts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Staci Troilo says:

    I had heard the legend of immurement, but not the other two. Fascinating.

    Loved your excerpt.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:

    I am over at Writing to be Read with this months Dark Origins post. London Bridge is Falling Down, what is the origin of this nursery rhyme? Immurement? Vikings? Or the fires that impacted London in the 17th century? Thanks for hosting me, Kaye Lynne Booth.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. BERNADETTE says:

    Wow Robbie, this was fascinating, frightening and so very sad all at the same time

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a very interesting research, Robbie! Only a few more postings, and your are going to become a real academic literature historic professional too. xx Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Immurement seems an incompatible practice for Christendom–unless it was for heresy. A holdover pagan practice, maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had forgotten the Falling Bridges game until you mentioned it- brings back some happy memories 🙂
    The survival of that ancient page from Norway is amazing!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. memadtwo says:

    I have read about immurement before, but your explanation clarifies it for me, although it still seems barbaric. Nevertheless I remember with fondness playing London Bridge. (K)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. D.L. Finn, Author says:

    Great history and story behind the children’s song. Great excerpt from your story, Robbie!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Timothy Price says:

    Excellent history. I found London Bridge is falling down to be really disturbing when I was a kid. I like the teaser from your novel.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Carla says:

    Oh my, here I thought it was just a harmless little nursery rhyme. In the version we sang, there was a stanza where you Take the Keys and Lock her up, lock her up …… Some great research here Robbie.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. CarolCooks2 says:

    I think this is the darkest nursery rhyme yet, Robbie what an awful practice immurement was those poor children …Well done on the research though excellent info …

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Amazing Robbie.. and yet it has been sung by millions of children over the years…the hypothosis that starving children were buried alive in the foundations is unthinkable…terrific post as always and thanks Kaye Lynne for hosting…hugs

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Dan Antion says:

    Why do we tell these stories to our children ? I grew up playing and singing the song. I never thought about its meaning. I never heard of immurement – yikes!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. dgkaye says:

    I’d never heard any of these legends Robbie, so I appreciate your disection on these various tales. Funny, as children we never look deep enough into the meaning of these rhymes, but many of them as well as fairytales are scary – Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Seriously, those are scary stories for children. Great post! 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Norah says:

    Oh my, what ghastly practices we humans engage in. I hope young children weren’t entombed in the bridge, but even if they weren’t, I know terrible things were done to them. I’m not sure whether to thank you or not for bringing this history to my attention, Robbie. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  18. olganm says:

    Thanks, Robbie. There are horrendous stories behind some of the nursery rhymes and tales, unfortunately many of them involving children as victims. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but it shouldn’t be ignored. It is so true that reality can be far more incredible than fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

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