Like most fairy tales or nursery rhymes that feature a character named Jack “Little Jack Horner” is up to no good.
In this famous nursery rhyme we have a short tale on opportunism and the reward and gloating that goes along with managing to acquire something valued, in this case a plum.
The text is short and simple enough.
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating his Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
Many interpretations of this nursery rhyme simply stuck with the opportunistic undertones and the rhyme was often used as social commentary on various people throughout history that took advantage of a situation for personal gain. Remember most nursery rhymes were deliberately vague and written and recited during a time when outright social commentary that named names was at best not a politically smart move and at worst a good way to get yourself be-headed.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that scholars began to assign the nursery rhyme to a particular event during the Tudor era. King Henry VIII was attempting to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and getting a lot of trouble for it from the Catholic church (after all they gave him special dispensation to marry her in the first place, since she was his brother’s widow). As a result he made himself head of the Church of England and declared England a Protestant nation so that he could divorce and marry who he pleased.
In the early sixteenth century King Henry VIII began to dissolve the Catholic monasteries and that’s where our Jack Horner comes in, or should I say Thomas Horner. Thomas was the steward of Richard Whiting the last abbot of Glastonbury. In order to appease the king and potentially spare the abbey the abbot decided to attempt to bribe the king by offering him twelve of Glastonbury’s lesser properties in a Christmas (mince) pie.
Now whether this was an actual pie is contested. But delivering or finding goods (deeds, jewels, other valuables) in nursery rhymes is often in the guise of a pie. This might have just been the most secure way to transfer secret valuables in the sixteenth century.
Thomas Horner was sent to the king with this pie. Along the way he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a piece of plum real estate in the form of the deed to Mells Manor in Somerset. This he kept for himself, delivering the remaining eleven deeds to the king.
Quite a clever fellow as it’s not like the abbot could have called him out on it. He would risk exposing himself as having bribed a king and further fueled the propaganda the king’s men were already industriously spreading about corruption in the Catholic church.
The king was just adding to an already wide-spread dissatisfaction of the Catholic church, Martin Luther had already nailed his complaints to a church door just twenty odd years earlier. The Canterbury Tales had been written another forty years before that.
So it should come as no surprise that the bribe ultimately failed. The monastery was dissolved and Richard Whiting was executed.
Thomas Horner on the other hand kept his property and it remained within the family until well into the twentieth century.
His family of course claims that all of this is nonsense and that Thomas Horner bought the property from the king fair and square after delivering the bribe. Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? And, in fact, the king did sell the properties he was given at a deeply discounted rate to his Protestant supporters. This was done in part to raise money and partly to gain loyalty in the event of rebellion in the tumultuous times of the Tudor era.
As further proof of this version of events there is another nursery rhyme that features Thomas Horner:
Hopton, Horner, Smyth and Thynne
When the abbots went out, they came in.
Horner, and several other men, saw an opportunity in the redistributing of Catholic lands to come up in the world and they took it. Buying the land that formerly belonged to the abbots and moving in just as the abbots were forced out. This nursery rhyme is seen as a Protestant version of the events in “Little Jack Horner”.
The nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner” on the other hand is considered by some to be more of a Catholic view of how things happened when Glastonbury abbey was dissolved.
Which version is true? No one really knows. But neither side comes away with hands clean, so perhaps it was a little bit of both.