Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Nine


Who killed Cock Robin?

This familiar rhyme was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744, although the version there was (mercifully) just four verses long. The longer version, running to fourteen verses, first appeared some thirty years later. The format of the rhyme is simple, a question possibly asked by a single interlocutor followed by an answer supplied by a different character each time.

The shortened version goes as follows, “who killed Cock Robin?/ I, said the Sparrow/ with my bow and arrow/ I killed Cock Robin/ Who saw him die?/ I, said the Fly/ with my little eye,/  I saw him die./ Who caught his blood?/ I, said the Fish/ with my little dish/ I caught his blood./ Who’ll make the shroud?/ I, said the Beetle/ with my thread and needle/ I’ll make the shroud”. The rest of the longer version deals with the funeral arrangements for the poor robin and all the birds of the air fall a-sighing and a-sobbing when they hear the bell toll.

Robins are popular British garden birds with their distinctive red breasts and representations of them adorn many a Christmas card. They are, though, very territorial and aggressive and you can easily imagine that a sparrow, fed up with being chased out of the robin’s air space, resorting to a bow and arrow to deal with the pesky menace. The stuff of cartoons, perhaps.

What, if anything, does the rhyme mean other than a depiction of murder most fowl? There is one internal clue to suggest a much older origin – the rhyming (in the longer version) of owl with shovel might be suggestive of middle English pronunciation rather than the dead hand of a rhymester aping William McGonagall. External evidence of an earlier origin includes a stained glass window at Buckland Rectory in Gloucestershire which dates back to the 15th century and features a robin slain by an arrow. John Skelton’s Phyllyp Sparowe of 1508 tells a similar story to that of the rhyme.

Inevitably there some more fanciful theories. One asks us to believe that it refers to the Celtic sun god, Lugh, whose feast day, Lammas, was marked on the pictographic calendar with the symbol of a bow and arrow. The sparrow, who slays him with his own weaponry, is supposed to represent Bran, the god of winter. Lugh’s association with the red sun might have earned him the sobriquet of Coch Ri Ben which in an anglicised form might have been rendered as Cock Robin. Not convinced by that one, I’m afraid.

And then we have William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, who was killed by an arrow whilst hunting in the New Forest in 1100. Rufus, of course, means red and that connection is supposed to enable us to believe that the rhyme is a parody of his demise. Equally as unconvincing is the theory that Robin, a diminutive of Robert, is none other than Robert Walpole, the politician generally regarded to have been the first British prime minister, whose government fell in 1742, just before the first publication of the rhyme. I think the stained glass window deals with that one.

There are versions of the story in other countries, particularly Germany, and I think what we have here is an old story which dates back to mediaeval folklore which, perhaps, has been hijacked to fit the particular political circumstances of Georgian England.