Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross

‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’, also known only as ‘Banbury Cross,’ is an English nursery rhyme printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, along with other famous nursery rhymes, in 1744. There are several different versions of the lyrics, one of the main reasons why its hard to trace back its origins to a specific person or even one original version. There are references to riding on a “cock horse” reaching all the way back to the 15th century.

Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross

 

Summary of Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross

In this short nursery rhyme, which is normally only four to six lines long, the speaker describes a “fine lady” or an “old woman” riding a “cock horse.” This character, whose true identity has led to much speculation, rides to “Banbury Cross” in Oxfordshire. The lines that follow the introduction is used to describe the woman, perhaps with bells on her toes or strangely attired.

 

Variations of Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross

Like many famous, old English nursery rhymes, there are numerous versions of the lyrics and even the tune they are sung to. The version printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744 reads as follows: 

Ride a cock-horse

To Banbury Cross,

To see what Tommy can buy;

A penny white loaf,

A penny white cake,

And a two-penny apple-pie.

After this, a more contemporary version was printed in Gammer Gurton’s Garland or The Nursery Parnassus in London in 1784. In this version, the subject is an older woman rather than the young woman who appears in the popular version today. In 1788, the version with the “fine lady” was printed in Tommy Thumb’s Song Book in America. After this, another alternative or extant version appeared in The Tom Tit’s Song Book in 1790 in London. The text includes these lines: 

A ring on her finger,

A bonnet of straw,

The strangest old woman

That ever you saw.

Today, there are two major popular versions. They are: 

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,

To see a fine lady upon a white horse;

Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,

And she shall have music wherever she goes

And another alternative of ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’ is: 

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,

To buy little Johnny a galloping horse;

It trots behind and it ambles before,

And Johnny shall ride till he can ride no more.

The influences of previous extant versions are quite evident in these famous examples. The first brings in a woman, the “fine lady,” while the second focuses on a  boy, “Johnny,” which is quite similar to “Tommy”. 

 

Meaning of Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross

The first questions that need to be answered about this odd nursery rhyme are found in its title. What is a cock horse? And what or where is Banbury Cross? 

The first, a cock horse, might seem crude, but it is not necessarily mean to be an offensive word. The phrase originated from the 15th century and referred to a high-spirited or unbroken horse. This “unbroken horse” might also be an uncastrated horse. Alternatively, the phrase could refer to a horse used to pull something, like a cart, up a hill. It is likely that the original author of the poem was thinking about one of these two alternatives when penning the lines of the song, but another option presents itself in the mid-sixteenth century. It could refer to a pretend/hobby horse or even an adult’s knee that a child sits on and rides like a horse. 

On the other side of the title, there is Banbury Cross. This is the name of a market town in Banbury in Oxfordshire. The town is located on the River Cherwell. There, visitors can find a statue of a woman “on her cock horse”. 

As with most nursery rhymes, there are several different interpretations of its meaning. Some of the women with whom ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’ as been associated are Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Godiva. The latter refers to an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who was the patron of churches and monasteries. She acquired some fame due to a legend that describes her riding naked, covered by her long hair, through the streets of Coventry. Another possibility is that the fine lady refers to Celia Fiennes, the author of a travel journal, who lived from 1662 to 1741. She visited various sites of interest around England during the same period that the nursery rhyme first appeared. There is no real evidence to support any of these theories. 

 

Literary Devices in the Nursery Rhyme

In all versions of ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’ the text makes use of literary devices found in the majority of nursery rhymes. These include examples of perfect rhyme, half-rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and imagery. There is also almost always a lot of humor to be found. In this particular poem, readers can find samples of repetition, or specifically anaphora, in the use of and reuse of words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “A” or “The”. 

There are sing-song-like rhymes in all versions as well. For example, “before” and “more” and “toes” and “goes,” depending on the version. There are a few examples of alliteration in the various versions as well. For example,” “Banbury,” “buy,” and “behind”. Readers should also consider the brevity of this song compared to others such as London Bridge is Falling Down’, which also mentions a “fair lady”. 

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