Was Humpty Dumpty Really an Egg?

By: Rebecca Treon  | 

Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty is often portrayed as an egg but the nursery rhyme makes no mention of this. HowStuffWorks

The nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" is one of the most well-known verses for English-speaking kids, telling the story of a character who fell off of a wall and no matter how anyone tried, couldn't be put back together.

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

So, what's the story behind this? And why couldn't poor Humpty be put back together?

In popular culture, Humpty Dumpty is portrayed as an egg with human-like qualities like legs, arms, a face and clothing. But if you read the lines of the poem, it doesn't say that Humpty is an egg anywhere. The key to understanding this poem is to realize it is actually a riddle.

"In Iona and Peter Opie's 'The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes,' they talk about the origins of the riddle and its recurrence in different European cultures. The earliest traces come from 1848, in a magazine description of girls gathering their skirts together and pretending to be eggs while trying to retain their balance," emails Katherine Magyarody, an independent academic researcher with a Ph.D. in children's literature.

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Theories About Humpty Dumpty

The Humpty Dumpty rhyme first appeared in 1797 in a book titled "Juvenile Amusement," by Samuel Arnold. In the original poem, the third line reads, "Four-score men and four-score more," meaning 80 men plus 80 more, since a score is equal to 20. Regardless of which version you read, there are several curious answers to the riddle that is this nursery rhyme.

One theory is that Humpty Dumpty is supposed to be England's King Richard III. In the tragedy written by Shakespeare named after the notorious king, he's depicted as "a poisonous hump-backed toad," though it's probably because the Bard had to write plays that would please his patron if he wanted to stay employed. (Shakespeare's patron Ferdinando Stanley was a direct descendent of one of Richard's enemies). In reality, King Richard III who ruled for only 26 months, fought for the rights of the ordinary person and enacted many laws against corruption and bribery.

Poor Richard was part of just another chapter in England's dramatic political theater, killed in battle at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, kicking off the reign of the Tudors. It's claimed that Richard III's horse was named 'Wall' and that he fell off and was so severely bludgeoned that he couldn't be saved. He was the last English king to die in battle. (Richard III's body was found in a parking lot in Leicester, England in 2012.)

Humpty Dumpty also appeared in an 1803 edition of "Mother Goose's Melody," where he's depicted as a fat boy, with a last line says, "Couldn't set Humpty up again." In 1842, the popular British satire weekly, Punch, claimed that Humpty was a symbol for Cardinal Wolsey. Others have agreed. Apparently Wolsey was a plump man, who enjoyed sitting on the walls of Cawood Castle's high tower in York; fell from grace with Henry VIII for not getting permission from the pope so he could divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn; and was arrested by the King's men.

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Egg on Your Face (or Face on Your Egg?)

Humpty Dumpty and Alice
This illustration of Alice and Humpty Dumpty by Sir John Tenniel is taken from the 1889 book "The Nursery Alice" by Lewis Carroll. (The watercolor is by Gertrude Thomson.) Carroll made Humpty's portrayal as an egg famous.
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Humpty Dumpty rose to popularity again with the publication of Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," in 1871 where the egg-man has an entire chapter dedicated to him.

"[T]he egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she [Alice] 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."

A humanoid egg fits right in with the story's bizarre cast of characters, but this is also the first time Humpty Dumpty is depicted as the character we are familiar with today. Lewis Carroll invented the character as an egg. In a 1903 edition of "Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes," Humpty Dumpty is printed as a riddle, with the solution at the bottom reading 'An egg,' with an illustration to match.

"Humpty Dumpty sticks in our imaginations because of his iconic appearance in Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass,' the second of the 'Alice in Wonderland' books. I think that John Tenniel's illustrations become the touchpoint for all later images of Humpty," says Magyarody. "In Alice and Humpty's encounter, Alice repeats — and therefore establishes — a version of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. What's interesting is that Alice's version is a distortion — she replaces 'Couldn't put Humpty together again' with 'Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again,' thereby removing the violent egg-breaking of the original into something gentler. (Humpty isn't satisfied with her innovation, and dislikes being called an egg.)"

In the 1950s, an article in Oxford magazine wrote a spoof article whose theory ended up taking hold. It purported that Humpty Dumpty was in fact a cannon in Colchester, England, that was used during a 1648 siege during the English Civil War. The village, including its churches and its castle, were surrounded by a protective stone wall. At St. Mary's at the Wall Church, the forces defending the town put a cannon on top of the church tower and nicknamed it Humpty Dumpty. When it came under fire by Parliamentary armies (who targeted the foundations the cannon was on), the tower toppled, killing 'one-eyed' Jack Thompson, who was manning the cannon. Both tower, man and cannon were destroyed and couldn't be put back together again. However, historians doubt this is the real explanation.

Another theory holds that Humpty Dumpty is really a drink. The first appearance of the word Humpty Dumpty in print was in 1690, in a slang dictionary, where it is defined as "ale boiled with brandy," with a possible connection being that strong beer was commonly called "hum." By 1785, Francis Grose, in his book "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," notes both the drink definition and the definition of "a short, clumsey (sic) person of either sex." As for the cocktail, modern-day mixologists have revived it with this unique recipe.

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