Literature

A Short Analysis of ‘Ride a Cock-Horse to Banbury Cross’

What are the origins of this nursery rhyme? Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a classic children’s poem

‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ is a famous nursery rhyme, and has been popular with children for several centuries. The nineteenth-century Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, used to sing ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ to his children every day. But which ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ are we talking about? For there’s more than one. The origins and history of this nursery rhyme require a bit of unearthing and analysis.

First, here’s the most familiar version of the rhyme:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.

But this isn’t the only version of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’. There’s also this one:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To buy little Johnny a galloping horse;
It trots behind and it ambles before,
And Johnny shall ride till he can ride no more.

And this one:

Ride a cock-horse
To Banbury Cross,
To see what Tommy can buy;
A penny white loaf,
A penny white cake,
And a two-penny apple-pie.

But the first one is the ‘canonical’ version, of course. What does it mean?

There are a number of competing theories about ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’: who the ‘fine lady’ is upon a white horse, and why she should be at Banbury Cross. She is an ‘old woman’ in some versions, rather than a ‘fine lady’. In one she is ‘the strangest old woman that ever you saw’. In another, the ‘white horse’ is a black horse. This nursery rhyme has more subtle variants than just about any other, making the task of divining or analysing the meaning of its specific details, such as the colour of the horse or the identity of the female rider, even more fraught with peril and error.

As ever, Iona and Peter Opie, in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), summarise and distil the various theories and leading interpretations. One is that the ‘fine lady’ is Celia Fiennes (1662-1741), the remarkable author of an early travel journal which recounted her journeys around Britain to sites of interest such as Stonehenge and the spas of Harrogate. ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ first turns up in print in the early eighteenth century, around the time that Fiennes was getting a reputation for riding around Britain on her horse. What’s more, Fiennes’ brother was a viscount who lived at Broughton Castle in Banbury, so she certainly fits the bill when it comes to matching the woman in the nursery rhyme to the place it specifically mentions. For ‘fine lady’ should we read ‘Fiennes lady’?

Perhaps. But there are other candidates: Queen Elizabeth I, who would certainly fit the bill as a ‘fine lady’, has been proposed, and the Opies note that the original cross that once stood at Banbury was destroyed during Elizabeth’s reign, at the turn of the sixteenth century. Another possible inspiration is the far older Lady Godiva, who was a lady, and certainly had a reputation for riding horses. (Perhaps the rings on her fingers and bells on her toes are mentioned specifically because that’s all she’s wearing.) For the Godiva theory to be true, we’d have to replace ‘Banbury Cross’ with ‘Coventry Cross’, and certainly in the nineteenth century this happened: a number of Victorian publications mention Coventry rather than Banbury.

However, the true meaning of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ may lie more with Gladstone’s daily rendition of it than with Queen Elizabeth or Lady Godiva, whatever the rhyme’s origins. As the Opies note, ‘to ride a cock-horse’ was a phrase used to refer to riding a toy horse, or an adult’s knee, and this sense of the phrase has been found as early as 1540. So the rhyme was probably something to be sung while a parent played with their child, much like ‘this little piggy went to market’.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Someone once told me that Ride a cock horse had something to do with the Eleanor Crosses, erected by Edward I in memory of his wife, Eleanor. I now realise this is nonsense as Banbury doesn’t have an Eleanor cross and never did have one. Though I liked the idea of the poor, deceased queen passing by, rings on her toes and fingers, the harnesses of her funeral cortege jingling, giving her music wherever she went, even if she couldn’t hear it anymore.
    Fascinating nursery rhyme stories, as always.

    • Thanks, Lynn! I hadn’t thought of the Eleanor Crosses link, but as you say, this wouldn’t explain Banbury (although Charing Cross in London, I believe, immortalises one of Edward’s Crosses for Eleanor). This is what I love about these English nursery rhymes: even when the interpretations are flawed in some way, they are a good way of introducing people (especially younger readers, who may not have encountered the history before) to historical figures and events.

      • I was just bewitched by the idea of the Eleanor crosses I think. A woman so important in someone’s life he had to mark the places where her coffin rested. Probably the old Goth in me coming out but it strikes me as a romantic gesture :). And yes, love the rabbit warrens these stories take us down – even if the stories are untrue or impossible to substantiate

  2. I understand that a ‘cock horse’ was the spare horse that lived at the bottom of steep hills that was added to the front of the team to help them pull extra heavy loads up the hill. Perhaps a ‘fine lady’ was the only one available to take a fresh ‘cock horse’ to the bottom of the hill? Is there a steep hill in Banbury?