We all know the story of Humpty Dumpty. He sat on a wall, had a great fall, and none of the king’s men could put him back together again. Neither could their horses. It’s one of those classic, beloved nursery rhymes that generations have grown up with.
As with a lot of these iconic old tales, things aren’t as they seem here. Not at all. Incredibly, the original Humpty Dumpty wasn’t an egg. “He” was probably a cannon!
The Origin Of The Egg
For the most part, children’s TV shows and picture books continue to depict the character in one of two ways. Either as a human with strangely egg-like qualities, or just a plain old human-like egg. Heck, DC Comics even created a villain named Humpty Dumpty (real name Humphry Dumpler). A nemesis for Batman whose only real crime is a compulsive desire to take apart and “fix” all mechanical items he comes across.
As supervillains go, Humpty Dumpty is less than stellar. And as depictions of the original Humpty Dumpty go, the whole egg thing really doesn’t cut it. If you want to know where the iconic image of Humpty as an egg came from, you’ve got to take a look back at Lewis Carroll’s similarly-beloved novel, Through the Looking-Glass.
The novel, published in December 1871, has a chapter simply titled “Humpty Dumpty.” Here’s what happens when Alice meets the character:
“…the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was Humpty Dumpty himself. ‘It can’t be anybody else!’ she said to herself. ‘I’m as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face.'”
Here, then, is the Humpty Dumpty most of us know today: a huge, bizarre, sentient egg. He’s even sitting on a high wall, as per tradition. If you’re familiar with Lewis Carroll’s tales of Wonderland, you’ll know that this is exactly the kind of odd character who would fit in perfectly. But there’s the rub: Carroll seems to have created the idea of Humpty as an egg himself!
Humpty Dumpty The… Cannon?
The original story pre-dates Carroll’s take on the character. According to a number of military historians, Humpty Dumpty was the name of a cannon used by the Royalists during the English Civil War.
The conflict raged from 1642 to 1649, and in June of 1648, Humpty Dumpty was stationed on the walls of Colchester. It was one of several cannons erected to try and keep Parliament’s army from taking the city. The next month, however, the Parliamentary forces heavily damaged the walls beneath Humpty Dumpty with their own artillery. You can guess where this is going: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and broke into pieces.
As for that business with “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” it seems those lines can be taken literally. The Royalists, or Cavaliers, were very much the king’s men, fighting in support of King Charles I—who would go on to lose the war and his head, pathing the way for Oliver Cromwell’s brief stint as Lord Protector.
An Egg-cellent Theory
This all fits together very neatly. But there’s no decisive evidence that the tale is the origin of the nursery rhyme. In 15th-Century England, “Humpty Dumpty” was a common snarky nickname for somebody who was a little on the large side. Muddling the matter further, it’s also been suggested that Charles I himself was Humpty Dumpty, having been toppled from a great height by his Parliament. Those loyal to him certainly couldn’t put him back in his lofty position, after all!
There were many sudden and dramatic falls from grace over this period of the country’s history. Others have also been put forward as possible inspiration for the story. Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field, for instance. The Colchester cannon is certainly the most popular theory and what a tale it makes.
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com