Lavenham and Nursery Rhymes

On this page we begin with a general observation on Nursery Rhymes then move to talk about those that are specifically related to the village of Lavenham. Some surprise is I suspect in stall for all of us:

Nursery rhymes

So much of that which we learn as children has been set to rhyme whether it is our history such as the Bubonic plague or Guy Fawkes night, the rebuilding of famous bridges, mythical brownies, famous families, the Crusades, the Jacobite rebellion, how we learn the names of dogs, places or flowers.

Nursery rhymes are part of our culture, our heritage and our history.

Part of the magic of adulthood is to revisit these rhymes in their original setting, whether to dance around the plague graves in the graveyard at Lavenham to ring o ring o roses or to teach children in class the wise old owl poem in order to teach them the great value of being quiet, to eat an apple a day, to visit St Ives etc.

As I was going to St Ives,
I met a man with seven wives
and each wive did on her back carry with her a little brown sack
and in each sack the wives did carry, seven cats all in a hurry,
for each cat was heavily laiden with the delight of seven kitten

We can visit nearby Colchester (and old King Cole, the merry old soul) or Avignon (with its bridge upon which the young still dance and which is twinned with Colchester), the Big Ships on the Manchester Canal (Big sails on the ally ally oh), the different churches built by Wren and Hawkmoor in London and their bells (Oranges and lemons), to visit the Crooked House in Lavenham (the home of the Crooked man), or the House that Jack built (still with its carved wool jack outside, also found in Lavenham).

In school many rhymes become important lessons such as hic haec hoc, with children pretending to be pigs as we would go huic huic huic or Karla the snake as we went huis huis huis. I learnt my periodic table as a series of mnemonics, another device found often in nursery rhyme: libebknofne and namgalsipsclar (Lee Beb KerNoff Knee and Nam Gall Sips KLAR).

Many Nursery rhymes are wrongly considered to be nonsense, others intentionally are nonsense, as many are riddles or ways of remembering our heritage and history. So we begin with one that is clearly nonsense but intended to represent the impossible challenge of love:

The Fairground Challenge
Based on a 17th century rhyme where a maiden sets her swain impossible tasks to capture her heart and immortalised by Simon and Garfunkel. The original poem is lost but a few lines such as the seamless shirt and the lawn beneath the sea remain as snatches to become a great lyric in a beautiful and wistful song. The above is my version of how I think the poem might have gone had it survived to today!

Will you take my plaits and grace
to hide thy smile from my fallen face?

I shall not kneel to thy command
save you shall do as I demand:

Sow the seeds in my field green
beneath the sea it can be seen

Cool the heat upon my golden head
Drown the sun then you shall me bed

Make me a girdle in a single clothe
Turn my embers to sweetest broth

Build a tower of scented air
scale its walls that are not there

Harness the stars to my fair brow
Then shall you my secrets know

Threaten me with thy gentle kisses
Frighten me with thy unsaid wishes

Dance with me on waters still
Learn in the end to do my will

Surrender yourself to my desire
and I shall be yours in all my fire!

Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle

And so we come to the first of the rhymes with a Lavenham connection. This one wrongly thought to be a nonsense rhyme yet it is nothing of the sort.

Hey diddle, diddle the cat and the fiddle is often thought to be a set of impossible images designed to inspire children’s imaginations (an example of impossible challenge as also found with Scarborough Fair above) but like many other rhymes it has its origins in dynastic conflict and heraldry.

The cow is the symbol of the de Vere family of Oxford (the bull was the city’s heraldic symbol), the crescent moon a sign of a family that had been on crusade (and the de Vere’s were great crusaders as shown by the graves of Robert, Aubrey, Thomas and John each with their feet crossed) but also a sign of enlightenment and of someone whom was a patron of the arts, a cow jumping over the moon is figuratively an historic reference to the de Vere family being rewarded for their wisdom on return from the crusades with the role of High Lord Chamberlain (and thus becoming the national censors of the arts).

The cat and the fiddle are references to the marriage of the Suttie branch of Lavenham to the Montmorency branch of the de Vere family, the little dog is the royal symbol of the Talbot (the de Vere family wore this briefly when heir to two thrones through marriage at this time and so the Talbot appears on their shield), the spoon represents Oreille in heraldry, specifically and only found as an emblem of the de Vere part of the de Scales family (whose other symbol is the oyster because of their descent from Mary Magdalan and the Goddess Venus), a dish is only used by two families (both related to the de Vere family by marriage, Stolles and Standish) and so on ie such rhymes combine imagery and heraldry and family history.

Each of these symbols then carries also a meaning of a value as well as a reference to a family, from steadfastness for the cow, loyalty for the dog, cunning for the cat, enlightenment for the moon and fiddle, sustenance for the dish and spoon.

One of the most famous nursery rhymes was written in Lavenham by a young girl amazed that wherever she looked she could see the de Vere star symbol carved in door lintels and the stone of her church, the church where the Holy Grael is alleged to be buried, and so as part of the guide to those whom seek to go on the Grael quest and have their Grael vision, she wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, her name, Jane Taylor, the stars she wrote about are the emblem of the de Vere family.

From 21 October 1097 to 2nd June 1098, the crusaders besieged Antioch which lay on the direct route to Palestine and was to become the oldest crusader kingdom as part of the region known as Outremer. On the night of the 1st to 2nd June, Aubrey de Vere led a night attack that saw the city siege end, a single star shining on his shield, showing the besiegers the way to enter the city, his men following the star on his shield. Until then, his family had used the famous shield of St Mark, still found in the Cathedral they helped found in Venice, one of the most famous heraldic symbols in the world, to which, top left hand corner, was now placed a single five point star or molet, recalling Antioch.

As the de Vere family built towns, castle and churches, the emblem of the star was added as a sign of those whom still followed their family: their retainers. It was added to their other symbols: the blue boar, the Harpy or Angel and the whistle because they were Admirals of the Fleet (the origin of pubs known as the Angel, Pig and Whistle and the Blue Boar all derive from retainers of the de Veres of Lavenham).

By the time Jane Taylor came to live in the village that was the home of the Crooked House and the House that Jack built, she was surrounded by stars, hence she wrote the rhyme for her sister at the Old Grammar School in Lavenham, her house overlooking the school garden, the school would later be where John Constable learnt to paint.

Today, the stars, the boars, the wool jack, the Angels are still there for anyone to see, along with the carving of the Grael and the last oyster shell of the Oyster Trail that runs from the emblems of the de Vere family in Venice, past the shroud they donated to Turin, the sepulchre of Mary Magdalan, the site of Camelot and the lake of Avalon, the resting place of the Spear of Longinus and the sword Excalibur, all to be followed as the ancient pilgrims path, dating from when shroud, Grael, spear and sword were not just stories but part of the doctrine of the Christian world, as much part of belief as Christ himself to Christians. As always there is far more truth behind these legends than the new world order can imagine.

For nursery rhymes serve one more purpose: they are often puzzles or riddles offering the pilgrim of today the chance to revisit these magical places of pilgrimage and appreciate first hand and through repeated observable experience that there is far more to this world than the material.