What Is the Story Behind “Three Blind Mice”?

What Is the Story Behind "Three Blind Mice"?

Before they ended up in Shrek’s swamp, the Three Blind Mice had top billing in a classic nursery rhyme that was published on October 12, 1609. At this time in England, James I was king, Guy Fawkes & co. had tried to blow up Parliament a few years earlier, and William Shakespeare had most likely just written the late romances Coriolanus and Pericles, Prince of Tyre (certainly not his two most famous works).

Just a few hundred years later, this is the modern version of the plight of the Three Blind Mice that we all know and love:

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?

Who Were the Three Blind Mice?

It is believed that the eponymous “Three Blind Mice” are references to three Anglican bishops: Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Nicholas Ridley, the Archbishop of London; and Hugh Latimer, the Bishop of Worcester. Almost exactly 54 years before “Three Blind Mice” was published, on October 16, 1555, Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake, with Cranmer suffering the same fate in March of the following year. Collectively, these three men are known as the “Oxford Martyrs.”

Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were martyred as a result of their “blind” devotion to Protestantism, during a period of British history when it was very unpopular to be Protestant. 

Beware the Farmer’s Wife

The Oxford Martyrs were just three of approximately 300 people who were burned at the stake on the order of the queen du jour, Mary I. The only child of Henry VIII and his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, Mary was the first queen of England whose reign was not disputed. Despite this accomplishment, Mary’s reign is better remembered for her efforts to undo the Protestant Reformation initiated by her father and to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Working toward this goal, she married the devout Catholic Philip II of Spain, possibly identifying her as the “farmer’s wife” of the rhyme. While by no means a simple farmer, Philip had expanded the realm of the Spanish Empire to its greatest extent and had amassed an expansive trade network in the New World.

So if Queen Mary I is the “farmer’s wife,” then, going by the rhyme, the Oxford Martyrs pursued her and got what was coming to them, right? Well, Mary probably thought so, but scores of stake-burnings do not often a just ruler make.

As part of her plan to “Make England Catholic Again,” Mary reinstituted anti-heresy laws, resulting in a period of persecution and execution that earned her a host of enemies, as well as the nickname “Bloody Mary.” 

When these laws came into effect, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were summoned to Oxford to stand trial, essentially, for their Protestantism. One by one, they all refused to subscribe to the Catholic concept of transubstantiation (that whole “blood and body of Christ” deal), so they were found guilty and put to death. After his fellows were executed, Cranmer decided that transubstantiation was cool, actually, and tried to walk back his earlier refusal, but it was too little, too late.

Bloody Mary may not have “cut off [the] tails” of the Oxford Martyrs, but their executions were likely common knowledge in 1609, as well as how their “blindness” and unwillingness to submit to Catholicism got them killed. 

What Happened Next?

After Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne and remained on it for almost 50 years. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England returned, once again, to Protestantism. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can assume that, had Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer managed to live with Catholicism for three years, they likely would have escaped execution. However, Elizabeth may not have taken kindly to their religious flip-flop, so perhaps there was no way for the three blind Protestants to escape unscathed, with their tails intact.

If you’d like to read about another Mary who inspired a nursery rhyme, check out this post: What is the Story Behind Mary Had a Little Lamb?