Dark Origins – Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard is a popular nursery rhyme but the words are not very child friendly. It is rather long so I am only sharing the first three verses here:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone:
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

She went to the baker’s
To buy him some bread;
When she came back
The dog was dead!

She went to the undertaker’s
To buy him a coffin;
When she came back
The dog was laughing.

As with most nursery rhymes, it is not possible to peg down its exact origins but I am going to share with you two quite different proposed origins, one being much darker than the other.

Old Mother Hubbard is purported to refer to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his failure to obtain an annulment from the Pope of King Henry VIII of England’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The cupboard represents the Catholic Church, the dog represents King Henry VIII, and the bone, the coveted annulment.

Thomas Wolsey (1475 to 1530) was a cardinal and a statesman, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor and one of the last clergymen to play a dominant role in English political life.

Henry was desperate for a male heir and Catherine produced a daughter, Mary. He argued that his marriage to Catherine was not lawful and requested that Wolsey use his influence in Rome to get a papal annulment so that he could remarry.

However, Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, dominated the Pope at the time and Wolsey failed in his mission. This failure led to him being arrested in November 1530 and accused of treason. He died on 29 November 1530 on his way south to face trial.

Thomas Wolsey at Tudor court
Thomas Wolsey significantly enhanced Henry’s already strong sense of his sovereignty. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The other popular belief is that Old Mother Hubbard from the nursery rhyme was a retired housekeeper called Miss Sarah Catherine Martin. Miss Martin wrote and illustrated the poem in 1804, but whether or not it was about her own life is unknown. She worked as a housekeeper at Kitley House, the estate of Sir Henry Bastard in Yealmpton, and when she retired she occupied a lovely thatched stone and cob cottage nearby. The area abounds with legends about Sarah and Prince William Henry, a friend of Sir Bastard and a visitor to his estate.

Old Mother Hubbard's Cottage in Yealmpton, Devon
Picture Credit: Old Mother Hubbard’s Cottage which is now a Chinese restaurant in Yealmpton. https://www.picturesofengland.com/England/Devon/Yealmpton/Old_Mother_Hubbard’s_Cottage

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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41 Comments on “Dark Origins – Old Mother Hubbard”

  1. Interesting. I must say, that these dark origin posts sometimes put me in mind of how people have always taken song lyrics apart to find the “true meaning”, especially with the Beatles’ music.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Janice Nye says:

    The Pope has not always been resident at the Vatican, during the time Henry VIII was trying to get an annulment from Catherine of Aragon the Pope was in residence in Spain, so it would not have been wise of him to declare that the King of Spain’s aunt had been living in sin with her late husband, Prince Arthur’s brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Staci Troilo says:

    This was the first rhyme in my nursery rhyme book, and as I child, I loved it. The dog came back to life, so I didn’t see it as dark. I never considered the meaning behind it and took it at face value. They end up dancing a jig at some point, if I recall correctly. I thought it was happy. What a different take I have on it now. Thanks, Robbie.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:

    I am over at Writing to be Read with the November Dark Origins post. This month the focus is Old Mother Hubbard. Wishing all my USA friends a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving tomorrow. Thanks for hosting, Kaye Lynne Booth.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow, I had no idea this nursery rhyme had historical/political origins! Fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Which of the two explanations for the origins of “Old Mother Hubbard” do you think there’s the most evidence for?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. BERNADETTE says:

    I really enjoy this series and the historical significance of these old tales.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Jim Borden says:

    I find the story about the housekeeper more believable. After reading the poem, I realized while I knew the phrase Old Mother Hubbard and her cupboards, I didn’t know the rest of the poem. Quite a strange one…

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Jan Sikes says:

    Fascinating! I love the symbolism in the nursery rhyme. Knowing the origin, it makes perfect sense! Thanks, Robbie!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great! Now, i know another interesting nursery rhyme. Honestly i cant remember this tradition here, in Germany. Will have a look for this. Thank you, Robbie! Enjoy a nice evening! xx Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  11. memadtwo says:

    I’m not sure about that political connection, though of course it’s interesting history. Old Mother Hubbard always reminded me of the old lady who swallowed the fly–just a reminder of life’s absurdity. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. JT Twissel says:

    Two very different origins! Interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Carla says:

    I always enjoy the Dark Origins posts. I like hearing what might be behind the nursery rhymes I recited as a child and again to my children.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Baydreamer says:

    How interesting to read these two different origins, Robbie. I remember reading this when I was young, and of course, had no idea of the deeper meaning.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I think it’s sad that women were little more than chattels in bygone days. I’m sure it takes two to create a baby- why is it her fault the child wasn’t a boy?

    Liked by 2 people

  16. CarolCooks2 says:

    I love these “dark origins’ posts and find it interesting that the nursery rhymes I loved and my children loved have a dark side…I wonder what will be the thoughts will be on the darker side of modern nursery rhymes in the future …

    Liked by 2 people

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