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“London Bridge is Falling Down”: Kids Nursery Rhyme Possibly Has a Sinister Meaning

British History | January 9, 2019

Old London Bridge, 1795. View of old London Bridge, St Magnus the Martyr and the Monument from the south west with boats on the River Thames. Source: (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Do you remember the popular children’s nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling Down”? Kids would chant the ditty…well, usually just the first verse or two…while two kids held hands to form an arch. The other kids would pass under the arch until the end of the rhyme. Then, the arch would fall, trapping a kid between the arms of the other two. Once you were captured, you were eliminated, and the game went on until only one player was left. It was a fun and innocent schoolyard game. Or was it? Scholars have been trying since the rhyme came out in the Middle Ages to decipher its meaning. The three most common theories are all somewhat sinister and morbid…not typical fodder for a nursery rhyme. Let’s explore the meaning behind “London Bridge is Falling Down.” 

Young children playing "London Bridge is Falling Down" Source: (thepointisiforgot.blogspot.com)

First of All, The Nursery Rhyme

Like a nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling Down” became popular around the 1850s when the ditty was first published, but it seems to be a much older tune. In fact, many experts believe that it may date back to the medieval era, although the words have most likely changed slightly over time. So if the nursery rhyme tells of an actual event, it may have occurred in England’s Middle Ages. Historians are not in agreement as to the impetus of the rhyme. They have several theories that are up for debate. 

Source: (youtube.com)

The Attack Theory

The British Isles were a constant target for marauding Vikings, so one theory contends that “London Bridge is Falling Down” tells of a destructive Viking invasion. In 1844, Samuel Laing released his translations of an Old Norse saga called the Heimskringla, a collection of stories that were written in 1230 by Snorri Sturluson. One of these stories begins in a similar fashion as the nursery rhyme. It starts, “London Bridge is broken down. Gold is won, and bright renown.” The Norse saga adds that Olaf II was responsible for the fall of London Bridge. It is plausible that the Vikings, under King Olaf II, sacked London and destroyed the bridge, however, there is no evidence for this on the English side. In fact, the Heimskringla is the only textual reference we have to London Bridge “breaking down”. 

Source: (museumoflondon.org.uk)

The Fire Theory

London Bridge was already a few hundred years old when, in the span of just three decades, it was twice damaged by fire. The first fire occurred in 1633. The stone structure was damaged and weakened by the fire. Then came the Great Fire of London in 1666. During this event, the Thames River prevented the raging fire from spreading to London’s south side, but the bridge was damaged. The repair process on the bridge took decades after the Great London Fire and eventually, Parliament decided that simply constructing a new bridge to replace the 600-year-old bridge was probably more cost effective. The new bridge opened in 1831. The original bridge, however, never fell down, as implied in the nursery rhyme, due to the fires. 

Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

The Immurement Theory

Most of us are probably not familiar with the form of punishment known as immurement. This is when a person is bricked up in a room with no exits or openings and left there to die of dehydration or starvation. Although it was often used as a punishment in medieval times, it was also utilized as a form of sacrifice. Medieval builders thought that the structures would be sturdier and last longer if a person was encased in the moorings. In her book, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, author Alice Bertha Gomme suggested that the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling Down,” references the immurement practice. It is the part of the ditty that says “Take the keys and lock her up” that Gomme points to as a possible link to the immurement practice. This theory is often contested because there is no textual or archaeological evidence to suggest that a human is encased in the foundation of London Bridge. 

London Bridge in 1500. Source: (britannica.com)

The Disrepair Theory

For centuries, London Bridge was the only crossing point over the Thames in all of London. Over that time, the structure naturally experienced some wear and tear, as well as damage from fires. The original medieval bridge had 19 arches, but those caused a narrowing of the River Thames. As river traffic increased over the years, this became problematic. In 1763, work was completed on widening the central arches to make it easier for boats to pass under the bridge. But it didn’t completely solve the issue. The first printed reference to the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling Down,” appeared in 1725. Perhaps the ditty was referring to the bridge’s state of disrepair and not an actual bridge collapse event. 

Queen Matilda of Scotland. Source: (historyandotherthoughts.blogspot.com)

But Who Was the Fair Lady?

“London Bridge is Falling Down” makes several references to a woman, a “Fair Lady.” Scholars have tried to uncover the identity of this woman if, indeed, she is based on a historical figure. A few people have emerged as contenders. One of them was Eleanor of Provence, a consort of Henry III. All of the revenue from London Bridge was in her control from 1269 to about 1281. Another consort, this one for Henry I, is also a likely candidate. She was Matilda of Scotland. Between 1110 and 1118, she commissioned several bridge building projects so that a road between London and Colchester could be completed. Lastly, the “Fair Lady” may be a member of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park. A long-held Leigh family story says that one of their relatives was the immurement sacrifice and is entombed under the bridge. 

London Bridge in Arizona. Source: (aarp.org)

Where is London Bridge Today?

As we learned, the original London Bridge was replaced in 1823 by a wider, Victorian stone bridge. That bridge stood strong for more than 100 years. Then, in 1971, the structure was replaced by a modern steel bridge. The Victorian bridge was not destroyed. It was sold to Robert McCulloch who had it dismantled, brick by brick, and sent to the United States. It was reassembled in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. 

Tags: kids nursery rhymes, london bridge is falling down

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.