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Does this old Rhyme describe Henry VIII’s marital history and executions?

Oranges and lemons:

I have often wondered if the last line of ‘Oranges and lemons’ is about the executions in Henry VIII’s reign and if the game really goes back as far as Tudor times.

In the 1970’s the oranges and lemons singing game was still being played and taught in London schools. The song names the ancient churches of the city of London and is sung to the tune of change ringing, and the intonation of each line corresponds with the distinct sounds of each church’s bells. Today, the bells of St. Clement Danes ring out the tune of the rhyme.Taking each generation of Londoners back to the memories of their school days.

oranges-and-lemonsPicture by Agnes Rose Bouvier

To play the game a group of children split into pairs and form a circle. They then dance in a circle in their couples through an arch. The arch is made by two hand clasped children who raise their arms over their heads. The most exciting part of the game comes during the final lines:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s dead.

On the word ‘dead’, the children making the arch drop their arms and catch the last pair who are going through their arch. These children are ‘out’ and become the next arch which joins the first until they form a long tunnel. The last children who are not ‘out’ run faster and faster as the game ends to avoid getting caught.

The song:

Oranges and lemons, Says the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich. Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney.

I am sure I don’t know, Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Chip, Chop, Chip Chop,

The last man’s dead!

The churches can be seen on the copperplate map above.

The song for those who have not heard the tune

 Over the years there have been many theories to what the rhyme is really about.The words, ‘When you pay me said the bell of old Bailey’ may be referring to the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate  which is opposite the Old Bailey . The Old Bailey, is the central criminal court for England and Wales. It is also close to the site of the Fleet Prison where debtors were once held.
One of the 12 bells of St. Leonard’s church in Shoreditch during maintenance.

St. Clements’s may be St Clement Danes or St Clement Eastcheap both are near to the docks where citrus fruit was delivered from over seas.


Some believe that the song refers to public executions. Others claim that it is about child sacrifice and some think it is about Henry VIII. The mention of the word ‘farthing’ could imply that the song was invented between 1714 and 1953. This is when the farthing a coin was in circulation.

Queen Anne farthing 1714
 However, these are is not the original words. The oldest words from 1774 are:

Two Sticks and Apple,
Ring ye Bells at Whitechapel,
Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring ye Bells Aldgate,
Maids in White Aprons,
Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines,
Oranges and Lemons,
Ring ye bells at St. Clements,
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey,
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleet ditch,
When will that be,
Ring ye Bells at Stepney,
When I am Old,
Ring ye Bells at Pauls.

The last two lines are missing in this oldest version because they were added in the 1840’s. Which could suggest that all of the above theories are wrong. However, some of the words point to the rest of the song coming from a far earlier period in English history than Queen Anne.

The words ‘Fleet ditch’ and ‘Old Father Bald pate’ could come from Tudor times or even medieval times. ‘Father’ is the name given to Catholic priests so it suggests it could have been sung long before the reformation occurred when England was Catholic or shortly afterwards in the reign of Mary I who was a Catholic. (Bloody Mary)

The Fleet on the Agas map.

The reference to the ‘fleet ditch’ is interesting because after the great fire of London in 1666 the whole city of London was rebuilt. In 1680 the fleet river was made into a canal and in 1737 the Fleet river was covered as it is today apart from the mouth of the river. It was only in Tudor and Elizabethan times and before that the Fleet river is referred to as a ‘ditch.’ So it is an ancient song which is at least as old as the church buildings. It was sung  in Henry VIII’s lifetime but it is not about him or his wives or executions. At least not until the final lines were added in Victorian England.

Deepening the Fleet Street Sewer, London, 1845 (engraving)
XJF872730 Deepening the Fleet Street Sewer, London, 1845 (engraving) by English School, (19th century); Private Collection; ( Illustrated London news, October 4, 1845); English, out of copyright


The mouth of the Fleet today.



I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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