History

What is the Real Story of Humpty Dumpty?

What is the real story behind Humpty Dumpty?

One of the first rhymes learned by children is “Humpty Dumpty.” We all know that poor ol’ Humpty was an anthropomorphic egg who, despite his fragile physique, unwisely sat on a wall. The error of his ways was evident when he took a tumble and broke into bits. Also, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, the military was summoned in a fruitless attempt to reconstruct him.

Come to think of it, that’s a rather ghoulish story to tell toddlers! We have already explored the horrifying origins of the stories of Pinocchio and the Little Mermaid. We will just add Humpty Dumpty to the ever-growing list of reasons why children are lucky to escape childhood without lifelong trauma.

But we digress…

As weird as it may be to amuse children with the unfortunate tale of a mutated egg who fell to a horrifying death, there are some who suggest that the real Humpty Dumpty wasn’t anything even remotely suitable for children. More on that later.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme was published in Juvenile Amusements by Samuel Arnold in 1797. It was pretty close to the modern version, appearing as

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Four-score Men and Fore-score more,

Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

With minor tweaks, the verse has remained a favorite to this day. Its popularity received a boost when American actor George L. Fox brought Humpty Dumpty to the stage in a musical of the same name. It was performed 483 times in 1868 and 1869, becoming the longest-running Broadway production to that point — a record retained until 1881. In Fox’s performances and Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is presented as we know him today: an anthropomorphic egg who seems oblivious to his precarious toe-hold on this life.

The verse, as it is most-commonly remembered today, is:

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.

It has appeared in countless collections of nursery rhymes and has been repeated so often that the image of Humpty Dumpty as a freakish and unexplained example of some form of demented genetic experimentation by an unknown mad scientist a cute and dim-witted egg is firmly enshrined in our collective imaginations.

Then, just to complicate matters, someone came along to throw cold water over centuries of Humpty Dumpty lore.

The East Anglia Tourist Board in England posted this little snippet 1996:

“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 in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it had been captured by the Royalists and they held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending “Humpty” tumbling to the ground. Naturally, the King’s men tried to mend him but in vain.”

The revelation that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon was akin to firing a cannon at a well-established canon. The fact that it appeared just as the internet was becoming widely available only increased the likelihood of it being spread. Before long, footnotes began to appear in reprints of the nursery rhyme, telling the surprising truth behind a beloved children’s story. If you type the words “True origin of Humpty Dumpty” into any search engine, most of the results will point you to this fun fact about the Colchester cannon by the name of Humpty Dumpty.

The Commonplace Fun Facts Fact Checking Department is composed entirely of Scottish men who are instinctively skeptical of conventional wisdom highly-discerning individuals who do not rest until uncovering the truth. They appear to have found a kindred spirit in the author of this article from the BS Historian.

In short, there is little evidence to support the claim by the East Anglia Tourist Board. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming evidence suggests that this particular claim is hokum. As a result, all hopes of this being just a quick, 3-paragraph article that would not eat into our weekend quickly shattered to the point that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not reassemble.

Come to think of it, horses have never been particularly well known for their ability to assemble pieces of anything, so we’re not really sure how they were supposed to be a lot of assistance to Humpty Dumpty, anyway.

Be that as it may, those who wish to continue to pull on the rapidly-unwinding thread of the Humpty Dumpty cannon rumor will find a reference in a 1968 opera staged by a school in which combatants referred to a piece of artillery as Humpty Dumpty. Prior to that, the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes states, “Professor David Daube, in one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine (1956), put forward the ingenious idea that Humpty Dumpty was a siege engine in the Civil War.” What seems to be lost on contemporary historians is the word “spoof.” In any event, if there really was a connection between the 1648 siege at Colchester and the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, no one seemed to think it worthy to mention for about 300 years.

So what was the true inspiration for Humpty Dumpty? Was he an egg, a cannon, or the French king who was convinced that he was made out of glass? Alas, the world may never know. The one thing we can know with absolute certainty is that this article took a lot longer to research and write than we had hoped.


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