"The Grand old Duke of York" is a well-known English nursery rhyme concerning the exploits of an not-specifically-identified duke of York. Wikipedia, citing the Opies and other books, gives a summary of the state of knowledge concerning which duke and which historical event are being referred to (TL;DR: we don't know), but I'm more interested in the process by which a historical event (whichever one it may be) became a popular nursery rhyme.

One can assume that the people singing this rhyme to their children were likely not members of the nobility who would've actually known any dukes. Since we're talking about centuries ago, before mass media or even mass literacy was a thing, how would ordinary people even have known about a duke marching an army up and down a hill? Could it have been a story brought home by returning soldiers who never understood why they were ordered to march, or by people who saw armies marching from afar? Even if so, why would they turn such events into a song for their children?

Have there been any folklorological studies of how such events became children's songs?

  • 'process by which a historical event (whichever one it may be) became a popular nursery rhyme' if we don't know which event it was, do we know for a fact that it was any real event? Does your question presume a fact that's yet to be proved?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 11:37
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    @Spagirl The "Origins" section of the Wikipedia page seems to indicate that it's generally believed to be based on some historical event, although opinions differ as to which duke and which event. I haven't done more digging than that.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 12:48
  • Yes, I had read that, I just wonder if your actual question of how 'such events' got into nursery rhymes presupposes that they do, which doesn't seem to have been demonstrates, only speculated about. Are there any other children's songs that have been categorically tied to a known historical event?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 15:30
  • @Spagirl Good question, I don't know. The Grand Old Duke of York is the most clearly historically linked nursery rhyme that I can think of, but there's a lot of nursery rhymes! My question is broad but inspired by this specific example, since that kind of military manoeuvre doesn't seem like it would be something interesting to most ordinary people.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 19:12

1 Answer 1


Insofar as the rhymes could be traced to historical events, the original purpose appears to be satiric in nature. Ordinary people who lived in the vicinity of the army would certainly know -- and suffered the consequences -- of its presence. Political seats of power would debate matters of state, and in these areas also common people would be aware of them.

We know from newspapers and pamphlets that such rhymes were frequently used.

How they turned into nursery rhymes probably turns more on their inherent rhythm, suitability for games or lullabies, and such like traits. If the children mimicked the rhymes, they would preserve only the ones that suited their use.

(Complicating this, of course, is that existing rhymes could be pressed into satiric service.)

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    Could you provide references for any of this?
    – bobble
    Commented Oct 17, 2021 at 16:24

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