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London Bridge is Falling Down: Meaning & Origin

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will take a look at the origins and meaning behind the famous children's song 'London Bridge' that has been sung across the United States and Europe for centuries.

Background

London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady…

You probably recognize this familiar children's song and game, but what does it mean and who is this lady?

Some clues may lie in the additional verses that are not as well-known. These verses suggest materials that may be used to build the bridge, but problems with each of the options. For example, wood and clay will wash away, bricks and mortar will not stay, iron and steel will bend and bow, and silver and gold will be stolen away. It is suggested to have a man watch the bridge, but he might fall asleep. He might stay awake if you give him a pipe.

Let's examine the origins of London Bridge, as well as speculations as to its meaning.

Why Did the Bridge Fall?

Heimskringla, which is a saga of the Norse kings from the 9th century to the middle of the 12th century, was written by Snorri Sturluson in Old Norse. In 1844, Samuel Laing translated it and found a verse that is similar to the song, London Bridge. According to this text, Olaf II, the king of Norway who is known as St. Olaf, destroyed London Bridge in the first part of the 11th century. There are no other accounts that this attack on London Bridge took place, but Olaf II was known for violent raids.

Another possible explanation is that there were devastating fires in London that may have caused structural damage to the bridge. Another possible reason for the bridge coming down may have been the decision by Parliament to rebuild the bridge to improve the flow of the Thames River.

Lock Her Up

After attempting to build the bridge with a variety of materials, the song says, Take the keys and lock her up… The children playing the game take someone prisoner by putting their arms around whoever is under the bridge. Many think this refers to the practice of sacrificing children in the foundation of structures, which was thought to add stability. While there is no proof that children were immured, or buried, in the foundation of London Bridge, children's skeletons have been found in the foundations of other European buildings.

My Fair Lady

Many have speculated about who the fair lady is in this nursery rhyme. One theory is that it refers to Matilda of Scotland, Henry I's wife. Matilda was responsible for supervising the construction of several bridges in the first part of the 12th century.

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