«London Bridge Is Falling Down»: explaining the meaning behind song and songfacts

«London Bridge Is Falling Down»: explaining the meaning of the song and songfacts songs

A strange children’s song, “London Bridge is falling” (“London Bridge is falling”), with a rather haunting melody, most of us have heard in English-language TV series and films. It appears even in English textbooks, in books for reading. Several questions immediately arise: What kind of bridge is it talking about? About the Tower, Westminster, or the Millennium Bridge in general? Who created this song, and when? Let’s try to find answers further.

The Story of the Song «London Bridge Is Falling Down»

So, the preliminary version of this work has been known since the beginning of the 18th century. The melody was recorded and published in 1718 in a small collection of “Master of Dances” by John Playford. It is worth noting that this motive is somewhat different from the modern one, and the text in the book is completely absent. Only in 1744 did a text appears in the general press, similar to the classical one in many respects. By the end of the 18th century, Entertainment for Children by Samuel Arnold was published, and the song began to be openly positioned for children. In the USA, the melody and lyrics became widely known thanks to A.Kh. Rosewig, who included the work in the collection Illustrated National Songs and Games (1879).

The modern form of the song finally took shape in 1951. Her text refers to London Bridge, which is constantly collapsing. It is proposed to make it from clay and wood, lime and bricks, steel and iron, and gold and silver, but the result is always the same – the bridge cannot stand. At the same time, the person offering all these options in each verse addresses a particular sweet (beautiful) lady. What is the meaning hidden in this seemingly simple children’s song? Let’s figure it out.

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Meaning of the song «London Bridge Is Falling Down.»

To date, folklorists and historians have presented more than ten of the most diverse versions that interpret the meaning of the song “London Bridge is falling down .”Consider the most popular of them.

  • The destruction of the bridge by Olaf II. Several historians believe that the song describes the collapse of the London Bridge across the Thames by the Norwegian king Olaf II around 1044. Data on this is contained in the sagas “The Circle of the Earth” collection by Snorri Sturluson, collected by him in 1220-1230. This version has not received unequivocal confirmation since there is no mention of the full text or its fragments in the sources. Only one of the sagas begins with these lines: “London Bridge is falling, we have mined gold and glory…” However, experts tend to assume that these historical records demonstrate the only recorded “actual” destruction of London Bridge.
  • Immuring alive in the building. Folklore experts do not rule out that the song is directly related to the practice of immuring people in buildings and urban structures under construction. This macabre medieval tradition was based on the idea that a building with a human (rarely any large animal) in its foundation would be much more stable and last for a long time. The first suggestion that the song is associated with this practice was voiced by the researcher of children’s games Alice Gomm in 1898 in the collection The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Her idea is based on the fact that in the text, the bridge cannot stand for only one reason – the absence of a victim immured in its foundation.
  • Damage to the bridge during the fire of 1633.  Thirty-three years before the Great Fire of London (1666), the bridge was significantly damaged by the fire of another massive fire. Considering that until the middle of the century before last, it was the only structure that connected the districts of the British capital, it is not at all surprising that such an incident could be widely reflected in folklore. Later, London Bridge was repeatedly repaired, partially destroyed, and rebuilt, which only increased the popularity and relevance of the song.
  • Thus, only one question remains: Who is this “beautiful lady,” and did she have real prototypes? As you might expect, there are plenty of options here too.
    • Matilda (wife of King Henry I of England). Historians note that this active woman at the beginning of the 12th century was responsible for constructing bridges and organizing crossings in London and its environs.
    • Eleanor  (wife of Henry III, better known as Eleanor of Provence). This lady financed the construction of bridges within the English capital in the period from 1270 to 1280.
    • The girl is a representative of one of the aristocratic families. This version is based on the assumption that a girl was immured in the base of one of the columns, and it was to her that the phrase “my fair lady” was addressed. In the sources of the 19th century, her surname is even openly indicated – Lee.
    • River Li. It is also possible that the human prototype of the “lady” does not exist, and the appeal is addressed to the tributary of the Thames – the small river Lea.
  • In conclusion, we note that the song “London Bridge is falling down” (“London Bridge is falling down”). However, it is positioned as a work for children (at one time, there were several children’s games accompanied by it); it contains a certain hidden meaning and has a curious history. Likely, this motif returns to the earliest history of the British capital. At the same time, the song tritely describes the complexity and high cost of building bridges across large water barriers in the Middle Ages.
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