Hey Diddle Diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed
To see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
Mother Goose’s Melody has Hey Diddle Diddle in 1765, where it appears much in the form we know it today. Frequently anthologised with only minor variances (‘fun’ is occasionally ‘sport’; ‘laughed’ occasionally ‘danced’), there is some evidence to suggest the rhyme has been well-known since the sixteenth century.
The 1569(ish) play, A lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth, contayning the life of Cambises King of Percia, written by Thomas Preston contains what may be a reference to the rhyme with the words,
They be at hand Sir with stick and fidle;
They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle.
Similarly, Alexander Montgomerie’s 1597 poem The Cherry and the Slae contains the lines,
But since ye think’t an easy thing
To mount above the moon,
Of your own fidle take a spring
And dance when ye have done.
While alone these references are not compelling enough evidence to state outright that the rhyme was known in the British Isles during the reign of Elizabeth I, together they are quite convincing.
Though Hey Diddle Diddle is quite clearly nonsense verse, there are various theories as to what the verse could be about.
The nicknames of Elizabeth I’s court
It is well-known that Elizabeth I liked to give her favourites nicknames. The story goes that Elizabeth, was often called a cat for the treatment of her court, the mice. When Elizabeth’s cousin Lady Catherine Grey eloped with Edward Seymour represented by the dish running away with the spoon, Elizabeth was not particularly impressed. The ‘dish’ and ‘spoon’ of the rhyme are sometimes said to be the Queen’s private server and food taster, but this theory too lacks evidence.
This theory, put forth by James Orchard Halliwell is almost certainly a hoax. Halliwell knew his stuff when he came to nursery rhymes and though he included this explanation in the first edition of Nursery Rhymes of England, it was omitted from subsequent editions.
Hathor is the Egyptian goddess of love, beauty, motherhood, music and joy, closely identified with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus. She is often depicted with a cow horn on her headdress.
The theory of Hathor worship claims the cat of the rhyme represents the feline goddess bastet and the fiddle a sistrum, a percussion instrument that resembled Hathor’s headdress and which bastet was often depicted holding. The sistrum was often used in ancient Egypt in religious services, and was particularly associated with the worship of Hathor because of its shape.
The prettiest theory that dares to suggest Hey Diddle Diddle pertains to the night sky.
There are, apparently, certain nights (often in April) when a number of constellations seem close to the moon: Leo (the cat); Taurus (the cow); Canis Minor (the little dog); Crater (the dish), Ursa Major (the spoon) and Lyra (the fiddle). This theory supposes the rhyme to be a reminder to farmers and small holders to plant crops and sow seeds when they see the constellations close to the moon.
Various historical Catherines and Cats
Katherine of Aragon (Katherine la Fidèle), Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine and supposed Govenor of Calais Caton le fidèle have all been suggested as the root of the phrase ‘cat and the fiddle’. No evidence is offered as to why they may be hey diddle diddling.
Richard III seizes the throne
This theory has a large dramatis personae:
- Sir William Catesby (1450-85), a supporter of Richard III – the cat
- Richard Neville (1428-71), the ‘Kingmaker’ – the cow
- Francis Lovell (1454-87), childhood friend of the king – the dog
- Richard III, king – the dish
- A spoon – the spoon
This story is convoluted and ridiculous, so bear with me.
Upon the death of his brother of Edward IV, Richard Duke of Gloucester was named Lord Protector of the realm, regent over the twelve-year-old Edward V. Edward, and his brother Richard, were placed, puportedly for their own protection, in the Tower of London.
Before the new King could be crowned, though, his father’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid by Act of Parliament. This made the three children of the union illegitimate and therefore ineligible to take the throne. According to the rules of heredity, that meant that the deceased King’s brother, Richard should become king. This chain of events is the basis of the Princes in the Tower legend.
William Catesby nicknamed ‘Catte’, was a powerful supporter of Richard III’s claim to the throne. He was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Speaker of the House during the Parliament of 1484. Richard Neville was the 16th Earl of Warwick and 6th Earl of Salisbury. He was a leading figure in the War of the Roses, and played a large part in the deposing of the Lancastrian monarch Henry VI.
Neville’s cousin was Henry Percy. Neville and Percy found themselves on opposing sides during the War of the Roses. This lead to a bitter and long-lasting feud, in which Neville eventually prevailed. The Neville family emblem was said to be a cow, the Percy a moon.
Frances Lovell, whose family emblem was a dog, was a childhood friend of the King. As soon as Richard III was crowned he made Lovell a knight and gave him a castle. Lovell did indeed laugh and dance when he was knighted.
The Dish, for reasons unknown, supposedly refers to Richard himself, and the spoon either a royal sceptre or the anointing spoon used in the Coronation ceremony. His ‘running away’ can be read as referring to the fracas with the Princes noted above.
The number of holes in this theory are beyond enumeration. Though it was not uncommon to be known by a family emblem in the 1400’s, the Neville and Percy family emblems were not, and never had been, a cow and a moon. While each of the characters of the rhyme can be linked (in some cases more reasonably than others) to Richard III there’s no real narrative in the tale, they are merely supporters of Richard’s claim to the throne.
The Opie’s note further theories that suggest Hey Diddle Diddle finds its roots in Bolton Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries, and anti-catholic feeling among labouring people, but it bears repeating that Hey Diddle Diddle is simple nonsense verse. These theories may be colourful, but they are all tosh.