Humpty Dumpty is one of the best-known English nursery rhymes. Almost certainly intended as a riddle – and one to which everyone today knows the answer is “egg” – it first appeared in print in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements (1797). The name Humtie Dumtie was in use almost a hundred years earlier though, to describe a drink made from ale boiled with brandy.
|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 common representation of Humpty Dumpty as an egg comes from John Tenniel’s illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871), which anthropomorphise the solution to the riddle. The first image of Humpty Dumpty as a “squat, comical person” appears somewhat earlier though, in an engraving titled “A Lilliputian Prize Fighting”, published in The Lilliputian Riding School between 1754 and 1764.
The form of the rhyme has led to much speculation surrounding who or what Humpty Dumpty might “really” be. Along with an egg, other suggestions have included royalty and military equipment used during the English Civil War (1642–1649), but in the words of A Dictionary of English Folklore “Nursery rhymes have suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre”.
Kings and things
The American cartoonist Robert L. Ripley was the first to suggest that Humpty Dumpty refers to King Richard III, in his popular Believe it or Not series. The monarch may have fallen from his horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and been hacked to death.[a] Somewhat mitigating against that idea however, is that there is no mention of “king’s men” in the earliest known version of the rhyme, which ends:
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.
David Daube, Regius Chair of Civil Law at All Souls College Oxford, proposed that Humpty Dumpty was a siege engine in the form of a tortoise, used by Royalist forces in 1643 during the siege of Gloucester. His evidence was that the text was too “bumpy” to be describing an egg, and he presented his hypothesis in one of a series of spoof articles printed in the Oxford Magazine in 1956.
Other towns have been keen to jump on Daube’s speculative Civil War connection, most notably Colchester in Essex. In 1996 the East Anglia Tourist board was claiming that:
Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642–49). It was mounted on top of the St Marys at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege [by Parliamentary forces] in the summer of 1648.
Historian and author Albert Jack repeated this claim in his 2008 book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes. According to his version of events, the artillery piece helped to keep the Parliamentarian attackers at bay for eleven weeks until the top of the tower was blown away, sending the cannon plunging to the ground. Royalist troops rushed to retrieve the cannon and repair it, but were unable to do so, and as a result, Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians.
While contemporary accounts confirm that the Royalists did indeed install a cannon at the top of the church tower, there is no record of it being called Humpty Dumpty, or of it being particularly large for the time. And even if there were, it would not necessarily have been in reference to the Humpty Dumpty as opposed to a commonly used description of a dumpy thing. In any event, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known use of the term Humpty Dumpty to describe a “short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person” occurs in 1785, almost 150 years after the siege of Colchester.
That rhymes with very similar content and form are found all over Europe[b] is perhaps the strongest evidence against any parochial interpretation of the meaning of Humpty Dumpty, and in favour of the rhyme simply being a riddle to which the answer is “egg”.