On this day in 1555, two of the three “Oxford Martyrs’ were put to death for their manifest Protestant heresy by the government of her Catholic Majesty Queen Mary I, an event which went a long way in cementing her historical identity as “Bloody Mary” after Protestantism was re-established in England. Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley did not leave the country with her accession, like many of their conspicuous co-religionists, and so they paid the ultimate price along with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who was sent to the flames several months later. In his passionate and polemical account, Actes and Monuments, John Foxe illustrated the onset of their valiant deaths–just before the flames were lit– and recorded Latimer”s final words: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; for we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
I thought I would take the occasion of this dark anniversary to explore a long-held connection between Mary’s most prominent martyrs and the children’s nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. It seems like an odd pairing, but I have a distinct childhood memory of my mother telling me that Queen Mary was the mean farmer’s wife who cut off the tails of the three blind (-folded, apparently, or blinded by the light? or blinded by Protestantism?) mice/bishops/martyrs. Now she definitely had a Protestant bias, but she didn’t make this tale up–it’s been out there for a while, and the internet has done much to turn it into “fact” without much basis. Is there any? It sounds plausible, as seemingly-innocent nursery rhymes and fairy tales often have darker hidden meanings, but there are a few problems–and very little evidence–for any connection between the mice and the martyrs.
The most apparent problem is one of perspective: how could an account which portrays the Queen as a malicious woman (sometimes a miller’s wife, or a butcher’s wife, before she becomes exclusively the farmer’s wife) who carves off the tails of mice also portray those very same mice (bishops) as “blind”? It’s not clear whether there is an anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant bias here–certainly if it is the former the mice should be not only able to see the light but also enlightened: they are the light, according to Latimer’s quote. But the biggest problem is any kind of contemporary allusion: the first reference to the rhyme (or “round”) occurs in a little 1609 ballad book, Thomas Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia, or, the Second Part of Musicks melodie, or melodius Musicke, of Pleasant Roundelaies; K. H. mirth, or Freemens Songs, and such delightfull Catches as nothing more than a little ditty–whether it reflects an earlier verse I do not know. When it reappears in the various Victorian nursery rhyme compilations, it’s pretty much the recognizable standard. Something either happened in the interim or we have yet another example of the Victorian “invention of tradition”. In any case, there is no obvious hint of a Marian subtext in its first appearance. And there are far too many “generally accepted” references in the scholarly literature–I’m coming to the conclusion that the mice were just mice and the farmer’s wife wanted them out of her kitchen.
Illustration credits: John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, 1563 edition; Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1918, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Joseph Moorat, Thirty Old-Time Nursery Songs, 1912 (Illustrated by Paul Vincent Woodroffe); Winslow Homer illustration from The Eventful History of Three Blind Mice, 1858; Paula Rego, Three Blind Mice, 1989, Victoria & Albert Museum