Geese in Literature


Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs

I am not a native English speaker, per se, as I only learned the language in kindergarten, so I missed out on most English language nursery rhymes.  I find them interesting, in a cultural and historical sense. Much like rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, there is more to them than meets the eye.  They are not just childish amusements, but have a deeper meaning which can be quite morbid.  “Ring Around the Rosie” is about the plague and this rhyme which seems to be about geese isn’t, not entirely.  The traditional interpretation of this rhyme regards it as an account of religious upheaval in England.

Seventeenth century Britain was a dangerous place to be a Catholic. Ever since Henry VIII had created the Church of England, after the Pope refused to recognize the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Catholicism had been increasingly on the out.

By the time that Oliver Cromwell came to power, the realm was in the grip of a hard-line Protestant faith called Puritanism. It was now that devout Catholics could expect a terrible knock upon the door. Hordes of soldiers would rampage through the house, searching for priests or anything which suggested that this family was Catholic. Then violence could and would ensue.

The lady’s chamber is the private room of a high born lady. The lady in this rhyme, apparently had a ‘Priest Hole’ in her room to hide a Catholic Priest. A Priest Hole is a very small hidden room. Priest holes were necessary at this time because those found harboring a priest were executed along with the priest.

The old man who wouldn’t say his prayers refers to the fact that Catholic Priests said their prayers in Latin instead of the using correct language for prayers which according to Protestants was in English. Those who did not ‘convert’ to the Protestant way were executed.

A Specific Event Recorded in the Rhyme

Katherine Elwes Thomas in her book The Many Personages of Mother Goose (1930) proposed a specific incident as the source for the rhyme. The old man who wouldn’t say his prayers was Cardinal Beaton. Beaton did not follow the reformed doctrine of the Convenanters who insisted that prayers be said in English and not Latin.

Cardinal Beaton was thrown “down the stairs.” Once he reached the bottom, he was stabbed to death. His body was then hung from the walls of his castle.


Nursery Crimes  Rewrite this