Hey Diddle Diddle!
The alternative version of this nursery rhyme is “Rock- a- bye baby on the tree top” which is believed to have replaced the original lyrics in the mid- 19th century, possibly in America where many people believe it to have begun as a Native American lullaby. We know they placed babies in the branches of a tree and allowed the wind to rock the infant to sleep because the Pilgrim Fathers noted their birch bark cradles when they first crossed the Atlantic, but is there more to it than that?
Almost certainly and one suggestion is French in origin, relating to a fable about a nurse warning about the baby falling into the clutches of a wolf waiting below the tree. Another suggests a link to the Saxon word “boh” which was pronounced “bock”, the first line reading “on the green boh” to rhyme with “rock”. Pure fantasy? Who can tell.
The most popular theory, however, is highly political and involves King James II of England. In 1688 there was a strong rumour that the son from his second marriage was not his at all, but had been smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan, thus ensuring another Roman Catholic monarch on the British throne. In this version the cradle stood for the Stuarts but the wind was the Protestant storm of change, which eventually replaced the incompetent and unpopular James with William and Mary ascending to the throne in his stead. The baby itself was, of course, England.
The tune is closely connected to the song “Lilliburlero” and a second, but almost totally forgotten, verse was added by William Stenhouse in in the mid- 19th century:
Hush- a- bye baby on the tree top, When the wind blows the cradle will
rock, When the bough breaks the cradle
will fall, Down will come baby, cradle and all.
The Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America in the Mayflower and noted how Native Americans placed their babies in birch bark cradles and allowed the wind to rock them to sleep in a tree.
James II of England was implicated in this rhyme via an alleged plot to illegally allow a Roman Catholic successor to the throne.
Rock- a- bye baby, thy cradle is green, Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a
queen. Betty’s a lady and wears a gold ring, Johnny’s a drummer and drums for
A tiled account of the rhyme created for the former children’s ward in Bedford Hospital, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.