The Dark History Behind ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’

Some scholars believe that the English nursery rhyme tells the story of a Viking attack, while others think it's about human sacrifice.

A group of school girls play the London Bridge game in 1898. © Library of Congress

Many of us are so familiar with the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” that we could sing it in our sleep. We remember playing the London Bridge game in the schoolyard with our friends, chanting the tune, and trying not to get caught as the “arch” fell down.

While the tune of this classic nursery rhyme sounds playful and the game might appear innocent, there are some sinister theories about where it originated from — and what it’s really about.


The meaning of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” has long been debated by historians and other experts. Like many popular children’s stories, there are some darker meanings that lurk underneath the song’s surface.

However, the most commonly accepted origin story for the rhyme is that of the London Bridge actually falling down in 1014 — because Viking leader Olaf Haraldsson allegedly pulled it down during an invasion of the British Isles. Though the reality of that attack has never been proven, the tale of it inspired a collection of Old Norse poems written in 1230, containing a verse that sounds close to the nursery rhyme. It translates to “London Bridge is broken down. Gold is won, and bright renown.” But that wasn’t the only event that could have inspired the London Bridge rhyme. Part of the bridge was damaged in 1281 due to ice damage, and it was weakened by multiple fires in the 1600s — including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Despite all of its structural failures, the London Bridge survived for 600 years and never actually “fell down” as the nursery rhyme implies. When it was finally demolished in 1831, it was only because it was more cost-effective to replace it rather than repair it.

An Illustration of “London Bridge” with an accompanying score by Walter Crane.

One dark theory behind the bridge’s longevity maintains that there were bodies encased in its moorings. The author of the book “The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland” Alice Bertha Gomme suggests that the “London Bridge Is Falling Down” rhyme refers to the use of a medieval punishment known as immurement. Immurement is when a person is encased into a room with no openings or exits and left there to die. Immurement was a form of punishment as well as a form of sacrifice. Gomme points to the lyric “take the key and lock her up” as a nod to this inhumane practice and the belief that the sacrifices may have been children. According to her, people during those times believed that the bridge would collapse if there wasn’t a body buried inside. Thankfully, this disturbing suggestion has never been proven and there is no archaeological evidence that suggests it’s true. Who Is The ‘Fair Lady?’ Some believe she may be the Virgin Mary, as part of the theory that the rhyme is a reference to a centuries-old Viking attack. Supposedly, the attack happened on September 8th, the date when the Virgin Mary’s birthday is traditionally celebrated.

Because the Vikings were unable to take the city after they burned the London Bridge, the English claimed the Virgin Mary, or “fair lady” protected it. A few royal consorts have also been mentioned as potential “fair ladies.” Eleanor of Provence was a consort of Henry III and controlled all London Bridge revenue in the late 13th century. Matilda of Scotland was a consort of Henry I, and she commissioned several bridges to be built in the early 12th century. The last potential candidate is a member of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire. This family dates back to the 17th century in England and claims that one of their own was entombed under the London Bridge as an alleged human immurement sacrifice. Today, the “London Bridge Is Falling Down” has become one of the most popular rhymes in the world. It’s continually referenced in literature and pop culture, most notably T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1922, the My Fair Lady musical in 1956, and country music artist Brenda Lee’s 1963 song “My Whole World Is Falling Down.” Even though it left such a major mark in our modern-day world, the true meaning behind this medieval tale may never be known. ARTICLE FROM: https://allthatsinteresting.com/london-bridge-is-falling-down

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