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British Expat Newsletter: February 2013

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In this issue

This month

Sorry, we’re a bit late this month. Our excuse is that we’re on holiday and are sending this from our room in Bangkok.

Not many additions to the website to report about either. However, as usual we have added another Quick Quiz – this month’s is about Mexico.

And our latest Pic of the Week is of a hotel, but not one we’re likely to have the chance to stay in any time soon – it’s a night view of the spectacular Burj Al Arab at night.

Editorial: Bobby Shaftoe and other histories

Remember all those nursery rhymes you learned as a child? We thought it’d be interesting to look at the history behind some of them.

“Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea, silver buckles on his knee…”

You may have thought that Bobby Shaftoe was just a reference to a generic sailor. But apparently not. Robert Shafto was an MP in the mid-late 1700s (for Co. Durham in the 1760s, for Downton in Wiltshire in the 1780s), and he’s known to have used the song in 1761 for electioneering purposes.

However, it seems Shafto may have been a bit of a cad. Having stood as a Tory in 1760 and defeated the Whig candidate, he nevertheless supported the government formed by William Pitt the Elder (a Whig) in 1766. Not only that, but the version of the song that’s survived is believed to be the story of how he caused a former sweetheart to die of a broken heart after hearing that he’d married another.

“I do not like thee, Doctor Fell…”

Unusually, there’s a story of how this rhyme came to be written. Apparently the author, seventeenth-century satirical poet Tom Brown, was threatened with expulsion when studying at Christ Church, Oxford. The Dean, Dr John Fell, gave him the chance to redeem himself by doing a translation – off the cuff – of the Roman poet Martial’s 32nd epigram:
“Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.”
(“I do not love thee, Sabidus, and I cannot say why;
This much only I can say, I do not love thee.”)
Brown’s response became the nursery rhyme.

“The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown…”

It’s not hard to see what this is about, just by looking at the Royal Coat of Arms, where the two heraldic supporters are a golden lion and a silver unicorn – representing England and Scotland respectively. Judging by the next line “The Lion beat the Unicorn all about the town”, it must have been written by the English. What’s less clear is why the beasts were given bread and plum cake before being drummed out of town.

Interestingly, although unicorns were the traditional supporters of the Kings of Scots’ arms, English monarchs chose a variety of animals – lions both golden and silver, harts, antelopes, dragons, greyhounds, boars and even tigers made their appearance from time to time.

“Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men…”

The jury’s out on which Duke of York this refers to. Some people believe the song’s a reference to the defeat and death of Richard, Duke of York at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, at the height of the Wars of the Roses. Having attempted to claim the throne in place of the captive Lancastrian Henry VI, he’d been installed instead as Lord Protector and heir to the throne. However, Henry’s wife and loyal nobles amassed an army. York’s smaller army established itself at the stronghold of Sandal Castle on a hill near Wakefield, but unaccountably came out from its position and was overwhelmed in battle.

More people think the events in the song are connected with Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, who was the second son of George III and who came a cropper in the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794 during the French Revolutionary Wars. Not that there are many hills in Flanders – and the most likely explanation is that an existing song, about an unnamed King of France, was adapted for satirical purposes.

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”

Sticking with royalty, we’re looking at two possible contenders from the mid-sixteenth century here.

One possibility is Mary, Queen of Scots, whose headstrong character led her into increasing conflict with the Scottish nobility. In this version, the “silver bells” refer to her Catholicism (Scotland turned Protestant in 1560; Mary returned to Scotland from France to take up her throne in 1561). The “cockle-shells” are a reference to her rumoured infidelity to her second husband, Lord Darnley, with her Italian secretary; and the “pretty maids” were her ladies-in-waiting, the “Four Maries” of the song.

But another plausible explanation is that the Mary concerned is not a Scottish queen, but an English one: Mary I. Here, the “How does your garden grow?” is a caustic and rather cruel reference to her failure to bear a live child, though it could also be a pun on the name of her Lord Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner. The contrariness is again connected with Catholicism and her attempts to reverse the Protestant measures taken by her father Henry VIII and her half-brother Edward VI.

“Ring-a-ring-a-roses, a pocketful of posies…”

This is perhaps the most famous nursery rhyme with a historical background – it’s a description of the plague. The “roses” are the blotchy rash caused by the disease; the posies were carried as protection against the disease; the “Atishoo” was another symptom; and “We all fall down” – well, thousands did just that.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But apparently the “description” is an urban myth. There’s no record of this explanation before the mid-twentieth century, and plenty of evidence that the rhyme itself has changed since its first recorded appearances – which were comparatively late, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and thus long after the last major outbreaks of plague in Europe.

Perhaps it’s no great surprise that the symptoms described don’t match those of bubonic plague particularly well either. The typical “buboes” are swellings of the lymph glands, not a rash; and while coughing may sometimes be a symptom, sneezing isn’t.

So it’s worth remembering that anything you’ve learnt through a nursery rhyme may actually be a fairy tale.

Do you know of any other nursery rhymes or folk songs with a history behind them? Why not tell us about them on our discussion forum?

Do you miss the news from “back home”? Or does it warm the cockles of your heart to read about the old place and realise you’ve escaped from it? Either way, British Newspapers Online is the site for you – it’s the most comprehensive directory of the British press, with links to all the UK national newspapers and over 1,400 local and regional papers’ websites, so why not pop over and find your old local rag?
British Newspapers Online

Write for British Expat

Would you like to write for British Expat? Sorry, we don’t pay for articles but if you have a website we’ll link to it in the author’s blurb below any of your articles we publish. We use all sorts of content as long as it’s useful and/or interesting to our readership.

Besides articles, we also publish quick trivia quizzes – five questions about any subject. So, if you’d like to write for us but don’t feel like producing a literary masterpiece, then why not try writing a quickie quiz about your city, country, or even your hobby? Please use our contact form to get in touch.

British Expat Amazon Shopping

Amazon don’t just do books, you know. We’ve teamed up with them to bring you the ultimate in online shopping – from a micro SD card to a garden shed! A great way to do your shopping online, especially if the shops aren’t up to much in your part of the world.
BE Amazon Shop: UK & EU | BE Amazon Shop: non-EU

And now for something completely different…

We’re big fans of the BBC’s “Dragons’ Den” programme, where would-be entrepreneurs get to pitch their business proposition to five potential investors – the eponymous Dragons. This site gives you the chance to build your very own Dragon, using the facial features of all five plus presenter Evan Davis. Dave managed to make a passable Jasper Carrott lookalike using Evan’s eyes and head, Peter Jones’s nose and Duncan Bannatyne’s mouth.
The Dragonmaker by

So there’s a round-up of all that’s been going on. Come on over and see for yourself! Don’t forget…
Visit the BE website and join in with our lively community!

Till next time…

Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat – the definitive home for British expats

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