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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Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is an English nursery rhyme which is believed to have religious and historical significance.

Picture from Origins – What Does History Say?

The most common modern version of this nursery rhyme is as follows:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row.

The oldest known version was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744 and the lyrics were a little different.

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,

And so my garden grows.

The origins of this nursery rhyme are disputed and these are the three most popular theories.

Religous origin

One theory is that this nursery rhyme is a religious allegory of Catholicism as follows:

Mary is Mary, the mother of Jesus,

The bells are the sanctus or altar bells used to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a means of giving thanks for the miracle taking place on top of the altar,

The cockleshells are the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James (one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament) in Spain, and

Pretty maids are nuns.

Historical origins

The origin of this nursery rhyme has also been attributed to two 16th-century British queens, Mary Queen of Scots and Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary.

Mary Queen of Scots

Picture from Biography of Mary Queen of Scots where you can read more about her life

The tragic Mary Queen of Scots may have been the heroine of this nursery rhyme.

The cockle shells and silver bells were thought to have been ornaments on a dress given to her by her first husband, the Dauphin of France, who died in 1561, leaving her a widow.

The pretty maids all in a row is believed to refer to her ladies-in-waiting, the famous Four Mary’s: Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingston. These four young girls, all of noble and high birth, accompanied her when she travelled to France. They all had Scottish fathers and two of them had French mothers and could be relied upon to be loyal to the Scottish Queen and also to her French mother, Marie de Guise.

Mary I or Bloody Mary

Mary I was the elder daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary was a devout Catholic and upon ascending to the throne, following the death of her brother Edward VI, restored the Catholic faith to England. This, according to this theory, earned her the description Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.

Bloody Mary was renowned for torturing Protestants and “silver bells” was a nickname for the thumbscrews. “Cockleshells” were believed to be instruments of torture attached to the genitals. Pretty maids in a row was said to represent people lined up to be executed by the Halifax Gibbet, the same as a guillotine, which was nicknamed ‘a maiden’.

“How does your garden grow?” could be a taunt about Mary I’s failure to produce an heir or it could be a reference to the cemetery and the fact that the more deaths there were, the more the cemetery flowers would grow.

What do you think about this nursery rhyme? Which theory do you think is the most likely? Let me know in the comments.

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Roberta Eaton Cheadle has published nine children’s books under the name of Robbie Cheadle. She has branched into writing for adults and young adults and, in order to clearly separate her children’s books from her adult books, is writing for older readers under the name Roberta Eaton Cheadle.

Her supernatural stories combine fabulous paranormal elements with fascinating historical facts.

Supernatural fantasy YA novel:
Through the Nethergate

Horror Anthologies (edited by Dan Alatorre):
Dark Visions

Paranormal Anthologies (edited by Kaye Lynne Booth):
Spirits of the West
Whispers of the Past

Murder mystery Anthology (edited by Stephen Bentley)
Death Among Us

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


Want to be sure not to miss any of Robbie’s “Dark Origins” segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress. If you found it interesting or entertaining, please share.

Exciting Happenings for Writing to be Read and WordCrafter

2021 is off to a great start and today, I wanted to take a minute to update you on the really cool stuff scheduled on Writing to be Read in the coming months. I’ve talked about some of these new additions previously, but one or two have only come together recently and I can’t wait to share them.

Dark Origins

You’ll find Robbie Cheadle’s new series, “Dark Origins”, posted on the fourth Wednesday of each month, and the first post will be this coming Wednesday, January 27th. Robbie will be delving into the origins of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, which can be very dark indeed, so be sure and watch for it.

Jeff’s Game Reviews

Jeff Bowles already shared the first post in his new video game review series, “Jeff’s Game Reviews”, where shared his thoughts on Hitman 3. This series will post the fourth Friday of each month, and each post includes a link to the video version of the review.

WordCrafter Book Blog Tours

Last but not least, February will see the launch of WordCrafter Book Blog Tours. The first tour will be for the Spirits of the West western paranormal anthology. Later in the month, tours are scheduled for Arthur Rosch’s poetry and photography collection, Feral Tenderness, and Barbara Spencer’s first book in the Children of Zues trilogy, A Click of a Pebble. I do hope you’ll all join us in learning about these wonderful books and their authors. Tours include interviews, book reviews and informative posts by the authors. You’ll find the complete tour schedule, as well as instructions for scheduling your own book blog tour on the WordCrafter Book Blog Tours page.

Where Spirits Linger

I’d also like to remind everyone that there is still time to submit your story in the 2021 WordCrafter Paranormal Short Fiction Contest, and to have it included in the resulting anthology, Where Spirits Linger. See the full submission guidelines for details. There is a $5 entry fee, which you can pay with a button right on the contest post, and the winner receives a $25 Amazon Gift Card and guarenteed inclusion in the anthology. But don’t wait too long. The deadline is April 30th.

2020 was a pretty good year for Writing to be Read and WordCrafter, in spite of the unusual circumstances of the pandemic and the “new normal”, which isn’t normal at all. After all the lock downs and mask mandates and social distancing, I think everyone needs a little makeover, and this blog is no exception. Writing to be Read may be getting a facelift with new types of content which will change it’s appearance a little, but the end result is that the blog will be so much better for them. Jeff’s and Robbie’s new series, the WordCrafter Book Blog Tours, and this year’s contest and anthology, are all welcome improvements, and I for one, can’t wait.


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