London Bridge Is Falling Down

DESCRIPTION: Upon learning that "London Bridge is (falling/broken) down," the singers must decide what to do, e.g. "Shall we build it up again?" "Mud and clay will wash away" "Iron and stone will stand alone"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: c. 1744 (Tom Thumb's Pretty Song Book)
KEYWORDS: playparty technology
FOUND IN: Britain(England,Scotland(Aber)) US(Ap,MW,NE,SE,So) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (21 citations):
Wolford, pp. 64-65=WolfordRev, pp. 221-222, "London Bridge" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph 578, "London Bridge is Falling Down" (1 text)
Flanders/Brown, p. 45, "London Bridge" (1 text)
Linscott, pp. 34-36, "London Bridge" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownSchinhanV, pp. 532-533, "London Bridge" (2 short texts, 2 tunes)
Ritchie-Southern, p. 8, "London Bridge" (1 text, 1 tune)
SHenry H48h, pp. 11-12, "Broken Bridges" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chase, p. 189, (no title; part of a section called "Granny London Tells About Old Times") (1 text, 1 tune)
Cambiaire, p. 135, "London Bridge" (1 text)
MHenry-Appalachians, p. 244, (no title) (1 short text)
Creighton-SNewBrunswick 81, "London Bridge" (1 text, 2 tunes)
Opie-Oxford2 306, "London Bridge is broken down" (4 texts)
Opie-Game 8, "London Bridge" (6 texts, 1 tune)
Newell, #150, "London Bridge" (5 texts, 1 tune); #184, "London Bridge" (1 text, 1 tune)
Welsch, pp. 294-295, "London Bridge" (1 text, 1 tune)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #641, pp. 254-255, "(London Bridge)"
Jack, p. 115, "London Bridge Is Falling Down" (1 text)
Dolby, p. 131, "London Bridge is Falling Down" (1 text)
GreigDuncan8 1566, "London Bridge" (3 texts, 2 tunes)
Fuld-WFM, p. 337+, "London Bridge"
ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #68, "London Bridge" (1 text)

ST R578 (Full)
Roud #502
RECORDINGS:
Pratt children and friends, "London Bridge" (on Ritchie03)
Pete Seeger, "London Bridge" (on PeteSeeger33, PeteSeegerCD03)

CROSS-REFERENCES:
cf. "Rock-A-By Ladies" (tune & meter)
cf. "Watch and Chain" (tune)
SAME TUNE:
Greenberg Shop is Moving South (Greenway-AFP, p. 126 note)
NOTES: The notes in Baring-Gould mention the hypothesis that this pertains to the breaking of London Bridge by Olaf of Norway in the reign of Ethelred II Unraed ("the Unready," c. 978-1016). Jack even mentions a Norse poem on the subject, a translation of which begins:
London Bridge is broken down,
Gold is won, and bright renown,
Shields resounding, war horns sounding,
Hildur shouting through the din....
The situation is this: In 1013, the Viking king Swein Forkbeard had driven Ethelred (also spelled Aethelred) out of England. But Swein died in 1013, and in the uncertainty that followed, Ethelred was called back. From there, O'Brien, p. 86, takes up the account:
"In the spring of 1014, Aethelred returned to England. But resuming control of the country was not, apparently, an entirely straightforward exercise.... [H]e and his Norwegian ally Olaf Haroldsson encountered major problems around London.... The biggest obstacle there was London's bridge.... In occupying this large wooden structure the Dan[ish defenders] had a great strategic advantage and were able to check any naval attacks from the River Thames below. Olaf, however, had an ingenious solution. He sneaked up to the bridge, fastened cables around the piles that supported it, and took those lines to ships waiting downstream. When the tide was right, his oarsmen rowed with all their might, the bridge fell and London was liberated."
Of course, there are three problems with this. First, any song about an event in the reign of Ethelred II would have to be in Old English, and would have to survive for roughly 750 years without leaving any trace in the records, and it would have to adapt from Old English to Middle English to Modern English. That is difficult enough, but perhaps possible.
The second problem is that the history here is dubious. Linklater, p. 137, tells us that "In the [Norse saga about the event] there is a detailed description of how [Olaf] broke down London Bridge and stormed the Danish positions in Southwark... though it is difficult to accommodate these stirring operations in the English narrative of events."
There is, in fact, no hint of the event in our primary English source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (see Swanton, pp. 142-146, especially p. 145). The source for the story is Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, a saga of the Norse kings. But Snorri was born in 1179, and wrote his saga some two centuries after the events he narrates. And we know from his other works that he did not always follow his sources very closely anyway (Snorri/Young, p. 12). The reliability of the tradition is very questionable.
The third and final problem is -- I don't think this is possible. Without details on the construction of the bridge, and of the ropes used, I cannot prove this. But a bridge, to stand at all, had to be firmly footed in the river bottom. To pull it *up* from its footings would be possible with enough energy. But to pull it off its footings from the side would take a tremendous amount of power. I doubt even tides plus oars could supply that power. Alternately, the ropes might break the wooden supports -- this is a greater possibility, but I suspect the ropes would break before the pilings did. Perhaps the bridge did fall in 1014 -- but far more likely that it was burned or broken than that it was pulled off its foundations.
Thus the idea that this song connects to an event is dubious. Simpson/Roud, p. 216, don't even mention the notion. Gomme mentions it only in passing. The Opies, in their extremely extensive notes, talk about foreign analogs (some of them much older than the earliest English versions), and bridges dedicated or mortared with blood, and note Carey's use of this in "Namby Pamby," but ignore King Ethelred. And I mention it only with long, wearisome footnotes like these.
Dolby lists other suggestions: That the song is about human sacrifice, and that the Fair Lady is Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I; Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III; or a member of the Leigh family of Warwickshire. None of these seems very likely. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.1
File: R578

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.