Little Jack Horner
This was a favourite from my childhood. The most common modern version goes, “Little Jack Horner/Sat in a corner/ Eating a Christmas pie/ He put in his thumb/ And pulled out a plum/ And said “What a good boy am I”.
If you sit and think about it – and as a small child, clearly you don’t – it is a slightly odd verse, lauding the benefits of opportunism and, possibly even, greed.
The first definitive reference to a rhyme featuring Jack Horner appears in a 1725 satire by one Henry Carey – he was taking the proverbial out of Ambrose Philips who had recently published a series of infantile rhymes for children. Carey begins by saying “Now he sings of Jackey Horner/ Sitting in a chimney-corner” and goes on to recount how the youngster sticks his finger in a pie and pulls out a plum. The opening suggests that the rhyme was known to the readers at the time.
That the actions of Horner were evidently associated with opportunism in the early 18th century is clear from Henry Fielding’s reference to the rhyme in his The Grub Street Opera of 1731. In his satire on then Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Fielding has all the characters trooping off to the strains of the music of Little Jack Horner.
Commentators have latched on to the theme of opportunism to provide the rhyme with a back story. The theory goes that Jack Horner represents Thomas Horner who was the last steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury before the Reformation. Horner’s job was to manage the household, collect the taxes and keep the accounts, a full-time job, no doubt, because Glastonbury was the largest and wealthiest abbey in England.
Henry VIII’s break with Rome in order to facilitate his divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn and his need to raise some cash led to the wholesale destruction of the living and wealthy symbols of indigenous Catholicism, the monasteries. By 1639 the glittering prize that was Glastonbury had become the focus of Henry’s lieutenant, Mark Ryland’s, sorry Thomas Cromwell’s, attention.
The abbot, Richard Whiting, fearing the imminent demise of his domain, despatched Horner to the king in order to bribe him to spare Glastonbury from its fate. It is said that the deeds of twelve manors were secreted in a large pie, it not being uncommon for valuable object s to be secreted in something else whilst in transit, for safe keeping.
During the journey, the dastardly Horner broke open the pie and kept the deeds to the manor of Mells for himself, allegedly the best of the manors on offer or should we say the plum. The bribe of eleven manors proved insufficient to sway Henry from his proposed course of action.
Worse was to follow for Whiting. He was put on trial, convicted of treason for continuing to adhere to Catholicism and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered at Glastonbury Tor – the 16th century equivalent of having to endure Kanye West at the festival this year.
Horner was allegedly a member of the jury that convicted Whiting and when the abbey was destroyed he took possession of the Manor of Mells which remained in the Horner family until the 20th century. Of course, the Horner family dispute this version of how they came to acquire the manor.
For those who like to gild a lily, the estate of Mells included some lead mines in the Mendip hills and, of course, plumbum is the Latin for lead. I think this is too fanciful.
Whether the story of the opportunism of Thomas Horner is the true origin of the rhyme I cannot say but it offers an interesting insight into the turbulent days of the reformation. It is tempting to believe that the rationalisation is a fanciful attempt to bring a historical association to what can be simply read as a graphic illustration of a greedy and opportunistic boy.