By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Little Jack Horner’ has attracted a good deal more speculation than many other famous nursery rhymes, and others have had a fair bit. But for some reason, this little children’s rhyme about a boy eating a Christmas pie and pulling out a plum has been the subject of more debate than 90% of nursery rhymes in the English language. Why has the rhyme of ‘Little Jack Horner’ attracted such wild analysis, interpretation, and speculation? First, here’s a reminder of the words:
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, ‘What a good boy am I!’
We mentioned in our analysis of another nursery rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, that some scholars or enthusiasts of nursery rhymes seem to want to make all of them about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the English Reformation. But Reformation intrigue also surrounds ‘Little Jack Horner’, and here the case is a little more persuasive and interesting, although nevertheless nothing more than speculation.
The story goes as follows. A man named Thomas Horner was steward to Richard Whiting, the last of the abbots at Glastonbury Abbey. When King Henry VIII was dissolving the monasteries, the abbot sent Horner to London with the gift of a Christmas pie, in which were concealed the title deeds to twelve manors, which were designed to appease Henry in the hope that he would allow Glastonbury to survive the purging of the monasteries. But, when Horner returned to Glastonbury he opened the pie and pilled out the deeds of the Manor of Mells, which he had kept from Henry, meaning the monastery still had some of its own land.
What makes the link between this story and the rhyme of Little Jack Horner a little more scintillating is that we know that a man named Thomas Horner took up residence at Mells not long after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Neat, huh? But the Horner family descended from this sixteenth-century Thomas Horner claim that their ancestor bought the manor, rather than plucking it from a pie. So it’s difficult to know whom to believe.
‘Little Jack Horner’ was later worked into a longer rhyme, which was published as a chapbook in 1764. (Many familiar nursery rhymes were popularised by the chapbook form around this time: ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ first became a bestseller and household name when it was published as a chapbook in the early nineteenth century.) But it seems clear that the original six-line rhyme of ‘Little Jack Horner’ was of an older vintage, and may well have been penned in reference to Thomas Horner’s acquisition of his Mells estate. Even if the real Thomas Horner acquired his manor fair and square, tongues may have wagged in those divided times. In the last analysis, we’ll probably never know for sure just how closely the events of Thomas Horner’s life and the pie-poking events described in the rhyme were related.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.