A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Fifteen


There was a crooked man

I’m not sure that this rhyme is particularly popular these days but fascinated me because every noun in the stanza of four lines attracted the adjective, crooked. It goes like this, “There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,/ He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile./ He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse./ And they all lived together in a little crooked house”. Although crooked can mean bent or deformed I think the adjective in the context of this rhyme is used to denote someone or something treacherous or deceitful. To make the rhyme scan the emphasis needs to be on the second syllable of the adjective.

First recorded by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s its meaning is supposed to be tied up with the origins of the fall (temporary, alas) of the house of Stuart in the mid 17th century.

Rather like an erstwhile David Cameron, Charles I had some local difficulties with the Scots, albeit this time over the matter of religion and the organisation of the church, a hot topic at the time. What became known as the Bishops’ Wars and which broke out in 1639 and 1640 centred on Charles’ desire to organise the church in Scotland along episcopal lines, that is, with bishops, whilst the contrarian view north of the border was that it should be organised along presbyterian lines, that is without bishops.

Leader of the presbyterian cause was one Sir Alexander Leslie who took Edinburgh Castle without the loss of a single man. He then marched his troops to Duns Law to await the Royalist force but instead of engaging them in battle he invited the leaders to dinner and allowed them to inspect his troops. Sensing that they were likely to be bested in any dust-up the king’s men decided discretion was the better part of valour and retreated. In the Second so-called Bishops’ War Leslie conducted a brilliant campaign in the north of England, capturing Newcastle and forced the king to accept all the Scottish demands. Under threat – the Bishops’ Wars triggered unrest in other parts of the kingdom and are seen as the prelude to the Civil War – Charles acceded to all of the Scottish demands, including the right of their parliament to challenge ministerial decisions, and made Leslie Earl of Leven.

Leslie, according to contemporary commentators such as John Aston and Sir Cheney Culpeper, had a reputation for guile, deceit and treachery and, true to form, in 1644 accepted command of the forces raised for the intervention in England on behalf of the parliamentarians and was prominent in both the (unsuccessful) siege of York and the battle of Marston Moor.

If we accept that Leslie is the crooked man, then – or, at least, so the explanation goes – the stile represents the border between the two countries, the walk the march against the Royalist forces and the house reflects the temporary unity brought about by the Covenant which secured religious and political freedom for the Scots. I have not seen any satisfactory explanation, however, for the cat and the mouse.

As is often the case, the attempt to assign historical allusions to a nursery rhyme seems somewhat forced and unsatisfactory. The strange rhyme may just be what it is – a strange rhyme. However, if you must seek a deeper meaning to it, then the Leslie theory is as good as any.

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