Welcome to our new semi regular feature where we take a look at all things Nursery Rhyme. We all had them sung when we were young and they play a constant role in our lives as we now sing them to our kids and I dare say they will in turn sing them to theirs. We’ve all heard the stories of various nurseries singing ‘Baa, Baa, Rainbow Sheep’ instead of Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, but where do our Nursery Rhymes come from and what’s their context.
This time we will be looking at ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’.
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.
We all know the how the rhyme goes but where does it come from and how did it come to be?
I have always assumed that the rhyme itself dates back to the War of The Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks. That assumption is probably correct, according to Rhymes.org “the origin of the words to ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ are believed to date back to the 15th century and refer mockingly to the defeat of Richard ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ in the War of the Roses”, but where do the words come from?
The words are believed to come from a battle that Richard of York had against the Lancastrian Army. That battle is The Battle of Wakefield and took place on the 30th December 1460. During this battle Richard marched his army to Sandal Castle where they took a defensive position against the opposing Lancastrian Army. Sandal Castle is built upon an old Norman fort and stands on a hill which is 33 feet above the original ground level, hence the ‘and he marched them up the hill’ line of the rhyme.
At some point in the battle Richard decided that it would be a good idea to take the fight directly to the Lancastrians and marched them down the hill to fight, his army was overwhelmed and Richard was killed.
However Richard Duke of York is not the only candidate for the ‘Duke of York’ featured in the rhyme, other possibilities include James II (who was Duke of York before becoming King) whowho in 1688 marched his troops to Salisbury Plain to resist the invasion from his son-in-law William of Orange, only to retreat and disperse them as his support began to evaporate. Another potential candidate is Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. His one field command of significance was the Flanders Campaign of 1793–4, which resulted in the heavy defeat at the Battle of Tourcoing (1794), followed by his recall to England. Flanders having something of a reputation for being flat, the specific location of the “hill” in the nursery rhyme has been hypothesized to be the town of Cassel which is built on a hill which rises 176 metres (about 570 feet) above the otherwise flat lands of Flanders in northern France.
In fact there is no evidence to link any of the above men to the rhyme beyond the fact that it refers to a ‘Grand Old Duke of York’. However the most likely is Richard Duke of York from the War of the Roses.