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Nursery Rhymes and English history: Rock the Kings!

Rock-A-Bye Baby

Nursery Rhyme Collection 1 Nursery Rhyme Collection 2Rock-A-Bye Baby is one out of nine historical nursery rhymes in this category directly or indirectly related to English Kings and Queens of the Houses Stuart and Tudor. By means of these nine historical nursery rhymes we explain some fascinating historical facts and we show how traditional nursery rhymes were influenced by these facts.


Table of contents


1. Humpty Dumpty - Defeat of Charles I, King of England and Scotland
2. Georgie Porgie - Charles II defeated by Oliver Cromwell
3. Three Blind Mice - Queen Mary and the prosecution of English Protestants
4. Rock-A-Bye Baby - From Charles II to James II
5. Jack And Jill - The French Revolution
6. Sing A Song Of Sixpence - King Henry VIII
7. Mary Mary Quite Contrary - "Bloody Mary", Queen Mary I
8. Skye Boat Song - The escape of Charles Edward Stuart
9. Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond - The last battle of the House of Stuart


Rock-a-Bye Baby


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Rock-a-bye baby,
on the treetop
When the wind blows,
the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks,
the cradle will fall
And down will come baby,
cradle and all.


Words & Music: Traditional
Arrangement: Ian J Watts/Mike Wilbury


traducción española traducción al español

traduction francaise traduction française

deutsche Übersetzung deutsche Übersetzung

traduzione italiano traduzione italiana

History, origin and meaning of Rock-A-Bye Baby

Well! This nursery rhyme contains a real philosophical question, maybe one of the most important questions in philosophy. The question is: Do words matter? You can read everywhere (and there is no doubt that the nursery rhyme is used in this way), that this song is a lullaby, used to help little children to fall asleep. It would seem, however, that neither the baby / little child or the adult singing the song is really aware of what they are hearing / singing. Concerning the baby or the little child, that’s not very surprising. If they are young, words like treetop, bough or cradle would have no meaning for them. Concerning the adult the situation is more RockaByeBabycomplicated. He or she understands exactly what the song is about. We see very clearly that very often the best communication is not to have any communication at all. Sometimes it is much more fun to look at someone while he or she is talking - looking at his or her face, to the emotions expressed by the movement of his or her hands or to his or her smile -without paying any attention to what she or he is actually saying. That’s what a baby does. A baby doesn’t really care what the words are about, or if they mean something or not. For a baby, words are just a melody. Perhaps there is a deep truth in the song, never revealed until known, words are misleading, far away from the melody of life and it is all about emotions. Because, if the baby understood what mummy, daddy, aunt, grandmother or whoever was singing, she or he would be SHOCKED. The song is about a cradle, rocking on a treetop. In order to fasten a cradle there, the treetop must be a certain size and therefore the tree must be a certain high, at least 5 meters. If the bough breaks, it must be a certain thickness, it must be a strong tree, otherwise it would just bend. We can therefore assume that the baby would fall at least 5 meters. If the baby really understood what the song was about, it is unlikely that he or she would have sweet dreams. A nightmare would be more probable! But all of that is no problem at all and the idea that this song could be a problem if used as a lullaby arises from the completely misleading conception of language. People think (nobody knows why), that words refer to something in the real world, that they MEAN something, although it is obvious that words means nothing, they just create emotions or energy. People die for instance for their fatherland, for a religion or for a flag because they are pushed by the energy of a word, but in fact a word for a human being plays the same role as petrol for a car.

We are going to discuss that topic once again when we talk about the song Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond. Therefore, we can say that this song is good illustration what words actually are. At the beginning, when they show up or are used for the first time in history, they have a meaning, but after that, they are just a box where people put their emotions and ideas (often very strange ones). When the word “love“ for instance showed up for the first time in history, it had a meaning, but then it becomes a box where people put in everything they believed bore a relationship to the word. We can therefore assume that a long, long time ago this song had a meaning. From a historical point of view we can’t say that words don‘t have any meaning. There must be a meaning! Let’s have a look at the songtext.

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all

The description is somehow abstract, but nevertheless there is a lot of information. The baby is in a very high, but insecure position. This position is endangered, because there is a risk that a wind may start blowing, which will rock the cradle with the baby and break the bough the cradle is attached to, so that the cradle will fall down from the top. The most important information is at the end. Not only the baby and the cradle will fall, but ‘all‘. What is ‘all‘?

There are some theories to explain the meaning of the song which can be easily exluded. The idea that the song was written by an english immigrant who saw the native american women rocking their babies in a cradle attached to the branches of a tree is absurd. It is well possible that these women rocked their babies that way, but not at the top of a tree and not if the wind blows so strong that there is a risk that the branch the cradle is attached to will break. It is much more likely, given the abstract but detailed information in the song, that the song refers to a concrete historical situation.

There are three reasons to believe that this song has a relationship to The Glorious Revolution (the overthrow of James II, the last ruling Stuart King).

1) This argument is valid for all the songs with a historical background. The only alternative we have is to say that they mean nothing. But, we have already seen that words become boxes in the course of history, but when they start their lives, they have a meaning.

2) There are a lot of songs where the relationship to the house of Stuart can be easily established and there are very few songs with a historical context which doesn t refer to the house of Stuart in one way or another.

3) The abstract but detailed description fits very well with a concrete historical situation.

We have already seen in Humpty Dumpty, Georgy Porgy and Three blind mice that the 16 and 17th century is characterized by religious conflicts which overlay other interests and conflicts. When Henry VIII (1491 - 1547) declared himself head of the English Church in 1533 to marry Anne Boleyn, the catholics were persecuted. This was both financially interesting, because the expropriation of the catholics monasteries was good financial business (see the song Little Jack Horner), and the catholic church was opposed to his marriage with Anne Boleyn because his former wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536) was still alive. After the death of Henry VIII , his son, Edward (1537 - 1553), issued from the third marriage with Jane Seymour, ascended to the throne. Until then there was only little difference between the catholic church and the anglican church, at least in the content, which is not very surprising, because theology consists of words - you can put in whatever you want. The fifteen year old Edward abolished the celibacy of priests and the use of Latin language in the mass. After his early death his half sister, the very catholic Bloody Mary, issued from the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, ascended to the throne. She reversed the reforms of Edward and the catholic faith became once again the religion of the state, although not officially. The persecution of the protestants began (see the song Goosy Goosy Gander). When Mary I died, Elizabeth, her half-sister, issued from the marriage with Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne and the Anglican Church became the official Church of England, with Elizabeth it‘s head. There are no songs about the conflict between Maria Stuart and Elizabeth I, although this conflict, beside the struggle for power, was caused by religious differences too.

There are still three kings left until we get to the historical situation described in the song. Elisabeth I was followed by James I (1566 – 1625), the son of Maria Stuart. His reign is characterized by conflicts with the parliament about financial issues rather than religious problems. Now there are only two kings left, Charles I (1600 – 1649) and Charles II, until we get to James II, and his insecure son in the treetop. The relationship between Charles I and the parliament was difficult from the very beginning, for several reasons; his marriage with the catholic Henrietta Marie de Bourbon, the conflicts created because of George Villier (see the song Georgy Porgy) and riots in Scotland and Ireland, which obliged him to ask the parliament for more money. The parliament basically was in favour of the suppression of the riots in Ireland and to offer the money needed to do that, but was afraid that the power aquired through that money would be used afterwards against them. Charles I tried to eliminate Pym, the leader of the majority fraction of the parliament, an act considered as a coup d’ état and the beginning of the first civil war (1642—1645) and the second civil war (1647 – 1649) which ended with the execution of Charles I. For a short period England was a republic with Oliver Chromwell as Lord Protector (head of the state). There is only one king left, Charles II, before we arrive at James II, who was blown away by a strong wind, when baby, the cradle and all fell down. After Charles I was beheaded the problems remained unresolved and the wars against Scotland and Ireland and the suppression of the catholic faith in general made Oliver Chromwell more and more unpopular. For this reason, the English parliament elected the son of Charles I, Charles II (1630 – 1685) King of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658. We have already discussed Charles II. Perhaps he is Georgie Porgie. Although he had a very exciting, erotic life and a lot of very nice children (that’s what we assume, we suppose that they were nice) he had no “legitimate“ son or daughter. So his younger brother - yes, we have arrived at the cradle falling from the top of the tree - James II ascended the throne of England.

The Stuarts were not really what we would call a success story, but in history everything is very relative. The whole history of humanity is not really what we would call a success story, and it is only after World War II, with strong international institutions like the UN and the European Community that we can observe something that looks like intelligence in human history. The unsuccessful story of the Stuarts ends in an unsuccessful way with James II. We can really say that the baby, the cradle and all came down! Even it is hard to understand, since religion is about words, and words as we have already seen, don’t have any meaning, he stumbled once again upon the conflict between catholicism and protestantism.

But lets start from the beginning. James II (1633 – 1701), as well as his brother, was in exile in France during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, serving first in the french army in the spanish – french war (1650–1653) and then in the spanish army against France. We see therefore that he was very flexible, much better than the idiot who said “wrong or right my country“. He returned to England in 1660 when his brother, Charles II, became King of England. When his brother died in 1685 he became James II of England and James VII of Scotland. Whilst still Duke of York, a title conferred to him by his brother, he married Anne Hyde (1638 - 1671). From this marriage issued two daughters, Anne (1665 – 1714), who would become Queen of England after the death of William III in 1702, (William was the wind who made the cradle fall, as we will soon see), and Mary (1662 – 1695), who married the wind who blew away her father James II. Both Anne and Mary were protestants. James II, breaking with the tradition of most Stuarts, became a catholic, although nobody really knows why. Perhaps during his stay in France and Spain he visited too many churches instead of enjoying the delicious french fromage and vin and having fun! Some people go mad thinking too much about the “eternal questions“. In any case he not only converted to catholicism, but still worse, he made it public and under his rule the discrimantion of catholics in public life was step by step abolished, observed suspiciously by the parliament, who feared the recatholization of the nation and the influence of Spain and France. Two years after Anne Heyde died in 1671 James II married again, Mary of Modena (1658 – 1718), aged 15 at the time of her marriage in 1673. His conversion to catholicism started before this marriage, but strengthened when he married the devout catholic Mary. (The problem with youngsters becoming religious before they have the knowledge to choose in freedom exists all over the world. The author would say that this is a failure of the schooling system and should be resolved by teaching in a more professional way, the main tendencies of philosophy, Charles Popper, Ernst Bloch, Miguel de Unamuno, Voltaire etc. There is no freedom, if there is no choice. It is up to the governments to guarantee choice and freedom. All over the world, that would help to resolve many problems.) His marriage with the catholic Mary of Modena, 25 years younger than him, increased the fear of a recatholization, because Charles II, his ruling brother, had no “legitimate“ heir, therefore James would ascend the throne after his death, which is what actually happened. James‘ marriage to the catholic Mary of Modena, as well as his open conversion to catholicism, was disapproved of by Charles II, although he himself converted to catholicism before he died and lowered the restrictions imposed on catholics. After James‘ marriage to Mary of Modena a campaign was iniciated by a part of the parliament to remove him from the list of pretenders to the throne. Nevertheless, in 1685 he ascended to the throne of England and Scotland. There were several isolated attempts to remove him from the throne, but it was only in 1683 when Mary give birth to a son, James Francis Edward (1688 – 1766), the future Old Pretender, who would never ascend to the throne, although he tried to so all his life, that fears grew. With the existence of a male heir, the danger that catholicism would become the religion of the nation became an imminent danger.

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

The verse “Rock-bye baby, on the treetop / When the wind blows, the cradle will rock“ can be understood in two different ways.

1) The baby, James Francis Edward‘s whole situation was insecure. We should accept that the whole society is the tree upon which a King or any goverment relies on, and his position on the top of society, is instable. If the tree is not very strong or not willing to support him, a little wind can be enough to make him fall and in this case, not only him, but the whole house of Stuart. This is what actually happened. His father, James II, was the last ruling king from the house of the Stuarts.

2) The “legitimaty“ of the James Francis Edward was questioned by the protestants for obvious political reasons. A rumour was started that James Francis Edward was not Mary‘s child, but smuggled into her chamber in order to substitute the real, but stillborn child. If James Francis Edward was not her child, there was no legitimate heir. Therefore, the cradle was rocking on the treetop, because his very origins were questioned. It is now sure that this rumour was completely unfounded, but was used to dicredit the legitimacy of James Francis Edward as a pretender to the throne.

The birth of James Francis Edward was the last and final event which made the bough break. In the same year that James Francis Edward was born, 1688, the parliament agreed with the Prince of Orange, William III (who was married to Mary, the daughter issued from the former marriage of James II with Anne Hyde) upon an invasion of England to overthrow James II. William arrived with his troops on 5 November 1688. Most of the army officers of James II defected and James II escaped to his cousin Louis XIV of France. There is therefore no doubt, that the baby, the cradle and all fell down from the treetop. After the escape of James II, William Orange (William III) and his wife Mary, the protestant daughter of James II from his first marriage, ascended to the throne. When William III died in 1702, Anne, the second daughter issued from the marriage between James II and Anne Hyde ascended to the throne. That was not really the end of the Stuart story, we are going to hear again from them in the song Speed, Bonny Boat, but it was the end of the Stuarts as kings of England or Scotland. There is a lot of history in these simple 4 line, hey!

Finally, we can observe in this song a phenomena we see very, very often. Traditional songs are often changed, to fit with another context or use. From this song, for instance, exists another version, which describes the desperate situation of a large part of the society at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top,
When you grow old, your wages will stop,
When you have spent the little you made
First to the Poorhouse and then to the grave

The topic is completely different, the sardonic tone remains the same. This sardonic tone is something very typical for most traditional songs with an historic background. One might get the impression that life was too hard for sweeter emotions. The only obvious exceptions to this rule are the Skye Boat Song and Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.



KERKEN (DE)
NOTTINGHAM (UK)
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