Was Humpty Dumpty Really an Egg or a King? The Origins of the Nursery Rhyme

Humpty Dumpty is an anthropomorphic egg from fairy tales, but it may have been inspired by the story of a king that fell from a horse or a cannon that fell from a wall.

Isabel Cara

Was Humpty Dumpty Really an Egg or a King? The Origins of the Nursery Rhyme

If you’ve listened to the famous nursery rhyme, read it in fairy tales, or even watched a movie like Puss in Boots, then you know about Humpty Dumpty. The character is an anthropomorphic egg whose origins are still unclear, but it remains one of the most popular figures in children’s literature.

Humpty Dumpty dates back many centuries. It is believed that the character was originally a cannon used during the English Civil War when it was damaged and impossible to repair. It could also be a reference to King Richard III or it may have come from an ancient Swedish tale.

The nursery rhyme goes as follows:

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.

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Humpty Dumpty and Richard III

The character, shown in modern representations as an egg, can be a reference to King Richard III, who reigned briefly around the late fifteenth century after his brother’s passing. He is said to have gotten rid of his own nephews to usurp the throne. But the plan didn’t last long, and Henry Tudor overthrew him in 1485 after an arduous battle.

Richard III suffered from scoliosis, a condition that made his back arch. The horse he rode during a battle against Henry Tudor was called “Wall.” So yeah, Humpty Dumpty (a name that could be referencing a hunchback) fell from a wall (not a wall, but a horse) at the historical battle of Bosworth Field. However, the word “humpback” didn’t exist yet. As a matter of fact, the rhyme doesn’t really mention an egg.

Humpty Dumpty in Fairy Tales

Some think Humpty Dumpty’s tale does not come from King Richard III but from a Swedish character, later mentioned by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers in the 19th century. It also appeared in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, where Humpty Dumpty holds a philosophical conversation with Alice. This was the first time it was actually presented as an egged-shaped creature.

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In James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” mentions Humpty Dumpty as a reference to The Fall of Man:

Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty / How he fell with a roll and a rumble / And curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple / By the butt of the Magazine Wall, /Of the Magazine Wall, / Hump, helmet and all?

Humpty Dumpty, the Cannon

It happened during the Fall of Colchester, when the town went under siege in 1648, in the middle of the English Civil War. Jack Thompson sat on the wall with a cannon called “Humpty Dumpty” and used it to attack the Parliamentarian troops. The cannon was big and heavy, so it fell to the ground. Many men tried to lift it back to no avail and, eventually, Colchester was forced to surrender.

The rhyme, then, could be a sad song about the Fall of Colchester, which did happen. But no evidence links Humpty Dumpty and the historical event.