What Is the Story Behind London Bridge is Falling Down?

What Is the Story Behind London Bridge is Falling Down?
London Bridge is Falling Down is a popular English nursery rhyme. Perhaps you remember it from when you were a child? While the origins of rhyme likely date back to the Middle Ages or beyond, the song really became popular in the mid 18th century, when the lyrics were first printed in the form we know today. There are many different versions found throughout the world. The most common American version of the rhyme goes a little something like this:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

There is even a fun little game that goes along with the song. Remember? Two kids make an arch with both their arms, while other kids take turns passing beneath. When the rhyme ends, the arms drop, capturing one of the kids inside, and eliminating them from the game.

It all sounds like good clean fun, until you start thinking about the meaning behind the lyrics. What is the story behind London Bridge is Falling Down? Scholars have been looking for answers for some time, and while there is no consensus, there are some pretty interesting theories.

Viking Attack Theory

Heimskringla” is a collection of sagas about past Norwegian kings, written in Old Norse by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, around 1230. According to “Heimskringla”, London Bridge was destroyed by Olaf II of Norway in 1014 (or 1009). A 19th century translation of the Norse saga, published by Samuel Laing in 1844, even includes a verse very similar to the nursery rhyme we know today:

London Bridge is broken down. —
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing —
Odin makes our Olaf win!

The original “Heimskringla” document does make reference to Olaf II “breaking down” London Bridge, so some historians believe this account to be accurate, especially since it was recorded only a couple hundred years after the event was said to have taken place. However, London Bridge is Falling Down was already a popular and well-known nursery rhyme at the time of Laing’s translation. So it is unlikely that the rhyme originates directly from “Heimskringla”.

It seems that when translating “Heimskringla”, Laing simply wanted to make obscure Old Norse verses more accessible to English readers. So he took a common nursery rhyme and used it as inspiration to model his translation.

“Heimskringla” does, however, provide the only historically recorded incidence of London Bridge actually “falling down”, though there are no other corroborating accounts of such an attack.

Immurement Theory

Never heard of immurement? Immurement is a form of imprisonment in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits, usually left there to die from starvation or dehydration. This torture was based on a belief that structures, like buildings and bridges, would be more sturdy and stable if a person was entombed in the foundations. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

While immurement is common in various legends and folklore (usually with children being the victims), there is evidence to suggest this practice has been used numerous times, in various cultures, throughout history.

The theory that London Bridge is Falling Down refers to this practice was first recorded by Alice Bertha Gomme in “The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894–1898)”. The idea is that London Bridge would fall down unless human sacrifices were buried in the foundations.

There is, however, no archaeological evidence of any human remains in the foundations of London Bridge. So immurement is not likely to be the inspiration behind this nursery rhyme.

Remember the game that accompanies the rhyme though? If you have ever seen it played, the dropping of arms to “capture” a player inside is a bit reminiscent of this brutal practice.

Age and Damage Theory

The Old London Bridge had long served an important role in London, as it was the city’s only crossing over the Thames up until the mid 18th century. Throughout history, the bridge has gone through its share of wear and tear.

In 1633, the bridge was badly damaged and weakened by a major fire. Much of the damage was not repaired, and that actually helped the bridge during the Great Fire of London in 1666, as the bridge acted as a barrier, preventing the fire from reaching South London.

Widespread popularity of London Bridge is Falling Down is usually credited to its use by Henry Carey in 1725 in his satire “Namby Pamby”:

Namby Pamby is no Clown,

London Bridge is broken down:
Now he courts the gay Ladee
Dancing o’er The Lady-Lee.

This printing comes less than a hundred years after London Bridge was damaged by fire, so it is possible the nursery rhyme is making reference to the deterioration of the bridge. And the rhyme’s popularity could have been heightened by the fact that throughout the 18th century, London Bridge was going through repairs.

The bridge was originally designed with 19 arches. These arches impeded the proper flow of the Thames, a situation made worse by an increase in river traffic. It was decided to widen the central arches and create more navigational span. These repairs were completed in 1763, but the bridge continued to need work even after that.

Ultimately, it was decided that a new bridge was needed. The New London Bridge was opened in 1831, and lasted until 1972, when it was replaced and transported to its current home in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

With a long history of damage and repair, it’s no wonder London Bridge is Falling Down became such a hit.

Who Was the Fair Lady?

While debate over the true meaning of London Bridge is Falling Down continues, one other aspect of the song is equally perplexing – who is the “Fair Lady”?

People have made many attempts to determine her true identity, with several names being proposed. Some popular names include:

  • Matilda of Scotland (c. 1080–1118): She was Henry I’s consort. Between 1110 and 1118, she was responsible for building many bridges that carried the London-Colchester road across the River Lea and its side streams.
  • Eleanor of Provence (c. 1223–91): She was consort of Henry III. From about 1269 to 1281, she had custody of the bridge revenues.
  • A member of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire: According to an old family story, one of their relatives was a human sacrifice that lies under the bridge.
  • The River Lea: This river is a tributary of the Thames.

London Bridge is Falling Down Meaning

Does the story have its roots in a Viking attack? Is it a song about the terrifying tradition of immurement? Or is it about the steady deterioration of the bridge? We may never know the true meaning of London Bridge is Falling Down, but it is certainly fun to think about all the different possible origins. At the end of the day, it might simply be about the difficulty of building a bridge across the Thames.

Either way, the nursery rhyme continues to be one of the most popular and well-known in the English-speaking world.

Want to learn more about the meanings of other well-known nursery rhymes? Check out this article to learn the true story behind Ring Around The Rose!

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 160 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.