The Intriguing Origin of the Little Jack Horner Nursery Rhyme

An interesting article telling the true story and the origin of the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner" and the Christmas pie – a gift for King Henry V111.

There are numerous English nursery rhymes that have been sung to children for centuries which, taught to them by their parents, they learn to recite by heart; rhymes with such fascinating titles as “Old Mother Hubbard”, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” and “Jack and Jill Went Up The Hill”.

However, there is one particular sing-along rhyme that goes back in time further than most; back 400 years in fact to the days of King Henry V111, and the origin of its story is not at all what one might expect to discover.

The rhyme, only four lines long, tells an extraordinary tale of theft and intrigue.

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”.

So who was “Little Jack Horner”? Was he a real person? Did the Christmas pie really exist? And if so, what exactly was the plum that he picked out of the pie as he sat in his corner?

Jack Horner was indeed a real person who lived during the reign of Henry V111. Jack was steward to Abbott Richard Whiting who, after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, was to be the last Abbott of Glastonbury in Somerset.

In order to ingratiate himself to the king Whiting, one of the many Catholic priests who went in fear of his life under Henry’s reign, (Henry executed 57,000 people during his time on the throne of England), hit upon the idea of sending the king a gift – the deeds to twelve manor houses under his jurisdiction; hidden safely within a huge Christmas pie. Jack, as the Abbott’s trusted steward, was given the sole responsibility for the safe delivery of the pie to London.

At some point during his journey to the capital Jack Horner, probably stopping the night at one of the many roadside taverns, carefully broke into the pie and stole one of the deeds, (the “plum” referred to in the rhyme), pertaining to the Manor of Mells.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries the house went to Thomas Horner, whose ancestors lived in the house until 1975, always maintaining that the rhyme was nothing than a slander on their good name, and the Manor of Mells was purchased along with other farms and buildings for £1,831 9s 3d 3 farthings.

But why did the Abbott hide the deeds inside a pie?

As ridiculous as it may appear to our modern sense of logic, the idea was in fact a good one. At the time of Henry V111’s reign, travel on the roads of England was an extremely hazardous affair, with robbers and thieves virtually waiting around every corner in the countryside in order to relieve many an innocent traveller of their valuables.

So, to protect and retain whatever money or jewellery they owned, travellers came up with some ingenious ways to fool the highwaymen. Amongst others, sewing money and valuables into a cloak or coat or under a hat was one way, while another was to hide them inside a cake or pie.

That leaves one unanswered question. Did the light-fingered Jack Horner get away Scott-free with the “fruits” of his labours? Perhaps that is something we will never know!

Unfortunately the Abbott suffered a grisly fate. On the order of Henry V111, after a sham trial, he was hanged on a gallows erected on the top of the Glastonbury Tor in Somerset; his body was then quartered and the pieces sent to the four corners of England.

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For more information and useful links about another interesting aspect of English History, please visit the English Parish Churches website.

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Further church, history and railway-related articles by Charles Moorhen

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Autobiographical stories of the 1950’s and 1960’s by Charles Moorhen:

Reaching For The Stars

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Along Dover Promenade For a Walk In My Past (Part fiction)

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1 Comment
  1. Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    How interesting! I never knew the roots of this nursery rhyme!!

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