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Humpty Dumpty

Posted by Bruce Kahl on June 20, 2001

In Reply to: Humpty Dumpty posted by Wendy Dwyer on June 20, 2001

: What is the origin of humpty dumpty?
: Was the nursery rhyme based on a real person or event?
: Thanks

I found a few theories. Take your pick:

From the East Anglia Tourist Board in England:

"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 seige 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."

* NB: The "men" would have been infantry, and "horses" the cavalry troops.

"Humpty Dumpty" referred to King Richard III, the hunchbacked monarch. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, he fell from his steed, a horse he had named "Wall" (as dramatically rendered in Shakespeare's play "Richard III": "A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!") Richard was surrounded by enemy troops in the battle, and was butchered right there, his body being hacked to pieces. Hence the final part of the rhyme: "All the King's Horses and All the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again!"

Humpty Dumpty refers to the British use of a machine called a Testudo (an ancient Roman engine of war). The Romans often used this predecessor to the modern tank to cross moats and climb over castle walls. As the story goes, the British army was trying to conquer a castle with a moat, but they had no way to get over the wall, so decide to construct a Testudo. During the night, while the British army was working, the opposing army widened the moat. The next morning when the British attacked, their valuable machine plummeted from the wall into the moat. This failure is why the Testudo was the only Roman warfare technology not widely used by the British Empire. Humpty Dumpty refers to both the look of the machine (it gets its name because it looks like a tortoise) and also to the noise the wheels make as the machine moves forward. This 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. The rhyme works perfectly. There is an older version of the rhyme that fits even better, but I can't remember it. The whole egg reference only dates back as far as Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland.