Tag Archives: Richard Duke of York

What Is The Origin Of (241)?…

In Dicky’s meadow

I was born in Lancashire and I still have some slight vestiges of that distinctive accent in my everyday speech, principally the flat a in words such as grass and bath which mark out the northerner from those from the south. I also retain some Lancastrian phrases like in Dicky’s meadow, fortunately one that I have not had to utter too often.

The Day to Day in Liverpool column in the city’s Daily Post and Mercury of March 20, 1916 gives us a charmingly succinct explanation of the phrases meaning; “No, that would land us in Dicky’s meadow. What does that expression mean? was the natural query. The clerk’s interpretation was that the saying implied a state of difficulty or trouble. He learned it in his boyhood, but he knew nothing it as to its origin”.

The column took pains to point out that the clerk was born and educated in mid-Lancashire as opposed to Liverpool and so it can be assumed that the phrase was unknown to or at least rarely used by Liverpudlians. It also reveals that Liverpool has never really considered itself to be part of Lancashire and most Lancastrians are happy for that to remain so.

That it was a phrase originating in Lancashire is confirmed by a quaint article found in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express of December 27, 1890, entitled Sum Lankisher Sayins. It is written in Lancashire dialect or, at least, a phonetic representation of it. The piece about Dicky’s meadow begins; “It’s a quare shop to find yo’rsels in, is Dicky’s meadow, becos ther isn’d th’ ghost ov a chance on yo’ geddin eawt ageean when wonst yo’ve getten in”. The nightmare for all good working folk of the time was to get in such financial straits, either because of lack of work or sickness, often the two went hand-in-hand, that they ended up in the workhouse. Dicky’s meadow was a more pleasing synonym for that grim place.

But who was Dicky?

There is a temptation in etymological searches to assume that a phrase bearing a name alludes to an actual character. Dicky’s meadow is one such case. One theory goes that the Dicky is Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460. His demise shows that the Duke was really in a difficult situation and historians conclude that he was ill-advised to engage with troops loyal to Henry VI on that field at Sandal Magna.

But there a couple of reasons why this derivation is unlikely. The first is that there is such a long passage of time between the battle and the phrase emerging in mid-nineteenth century Lancashire that it smacks of convenient retro-fitting. And Wakefield is in Yorkshire. The rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire is legendary, easily surpassing that between Liverpool and the rest of Lancashire. Why would Lancastrians reference a place in Yorkshire, although you can see the attraction from a pejorative perspective? They may just as easily have referenced the car park attendant, Richard III, who came to a sticky end in the fields of Bosworth in 1485.

There may be a more prosaic explanation at hand. In the early nineteenth century dicky or in its alternative form dickey was an adjective used to describe something that was uncertain, hazardous, or critical. Interestingly, the Preston Herald of June 23, 1866 reports that a crowd of workers, protesting at the importation of labourers from the south, shouted, “We’ll see ‘em in Dickey meadow first”. Whilst it may be a misprint the use of Dickey as an adjective rather than the genitive of a person’s name may suggest that it isn’t necessary to consider identifying a real person. Dickey was indicating that it was simply a terrible position to be in.

There is a more widely used phrase to indicate being in dire straits, queer street. The Burnley Express on October 23, 1920 joined the two; “we shall never be anywhere else nor I’Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system”. The inevitable conclusion is that Dicky’s meadow is the Lancastrian version of Queer Street.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Eleven


The Grand Old Duke Of York

This popular nursery rhyme goes, “Oh, the grand old Duke of York/He had then thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill/ and marched them down again”. It is a popular favourite but who was the Duke of York and why did he march his troops to the top of the hill and back down again?

As seems to be the way with these nursery rhymes, there is no definitive answer.  A version of the song, called Old Tarlton’s Song, dates back to 1642 and has different lyrics, viz “The king of France with forty thousand men/ Came up a hill and so came down againe”. Perhaps what we are seeing here is the idea of a commander requiring his troops to carry out some futile activity being used as the epitome of universal military incompetence. Perhaps the song was adapted to incorporate the latest blundering military commander.

The current form of the song featuring the Duke of York wasn’t published in its current form until relatively recently, in Arthur Rackham’s Mother Goose of 1913. Earlier printed versions featured the King of France and Napoleon.

There are three historical candidates to be the Duke of York featured in the rhyme. The earliest claimant for this dubious title is Richard, Duke of York (1411 – 1460). He was commanding a powerful position at Sandal Caste in Wakefield which was positioned atop of a Norman  motte with an army of 8,000 men. His position was surrounded by a Lancastrian army said to outnumber his troops by two or three to one. Nonetheless, for some unaccountable reason on December 30th 1460 Richard decided to sally forth with his troops and charge downhill at the Lancastrians, with predictable results. He was killed and he lost between a half and two-thirds of his army.

Next up is James II who held the title of Duke of York during his brother’s reign. In 1688 he marched his troops to Salisbury Plain to resist the invasion of William of Orange but allowed his army to disperse as soon as support for him started to evaporate.

The third claimant is Prince Frederick, the second son of George III (1763 – 1827), who led the British troops who fought alongside the Austrians against the revolutionary French army at Tourcoing in Flanders in May 1794. The French were outnumbered but fired by revolutionary spirit managed to overcome their numerically superior foes and inflict upon the British a humiliating defeat.  The problem, of course, with this version, which is the most commonly accepted, is that Flanders is not known for its hills. Some argue that the hill is the town of Cassel which is some 570 feet above sea level – quite high for the area – but it seems to me to be special pleading as the town doesn’t feature in the battle.

For what it is worth, I think that the rhyme really was a testament to military incompetence and the commanders who were pilloried changed over time. The song started off mocking the French king and the hill is a legacy of his escapades. The later victims of the song may not have actually led their troops up and down a hill but it was the sort of stupid thing their military incompetence may have resulted in given half a chance.