One of the favourite nursery rhymes of all times is Humpty Dumpty which, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, goes like this, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./ All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again”. The quatrain is another example of the trochaic metre which is commonly used in nursery rhymes because it is easy to remember.
Humpty Dumpty was characterised by Lewis Carroll in his book, Alice Through The Looking Glass, as an anthropomorphic egg and this is the image most of us have of the character. Eggs, of course, are fragile things and it is easy to associate the fate that befell Humpty with what can happen to an egg. But Carroll was not the inventor of the rhyme. It was first published in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements of 1797 but its antecedents almost certainly go back earlier than that.
And who was Humpty Dumpty?
As usual there is no definitive answer but there are a number of suspects. First up is Charles I who, of course, lost his head at the hands of the Parliamentarians, despite the best efforts of his supporters, the cavaliers. Another suspect is Richard III who ended up under a car park in Leicester after being killed at the battle of Bosworth, again despite the best efforts of his supporters.
But Humpty Dumpty was a sobriquet given to fat or large people as far back as the 15th century and there is no conclusive evidence that either Richard III who was famous for his hunchback or Charles I were porkers.
The theory I like best owes its origins to the English Civil War. Cannons were used with greater frequency during the campaign and were cumbersome, requiring several people to move them. Colchester, a major town in Essex, was protected by a city wall at the time and came under siege from the Parliamentarians in 1648. A large cannon was stationed on the roof of St Mary’s By The Wall and the gunner named One-Eyed Jack Thompson – would love to know how he got his nickname. So effective was our Royalist Cyclops and so much damage did he cause to Lord Fairfax’s troops that he and his cannon were singled out for special treatment. Some time on the 14th or 15th July 1648 Thompson and his gun came tumbling down and the damaged cannon couldn’t be hauled back into place. On August 28th 1648 the Royalists laid down their arms and surrendered to the Parliamentarians.
Sounds plausible and makes for a great story.