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Rhymes in Time:
Sing a Song of Sixpence

You know the popular nursery rhyme, but what does it mean? Which king is counting his money and why are there blackbirds in a pie?

You can click here to find a full transcript of this video.

Lyrics: Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money.
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird,
And pecked off her nose.


What's it all about?

As with lots of nursery rhymes, no one is certain what this one is about, but the king in the rhyme could be the famous Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He loved to spend money and famously took lots of land and wealth from the Church, so it's easy to see why he might be the one ‘counting out his money’ in the rhyme.

The queen who is eating delicious bread and honey could be Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the maid (an old term for an unmarried lady) might be Anne Boleyn, his second wife.

Do you know how many wives Henry VIII had in total?


Try at home!

Illustration of a slice of pie with purple berries inside against a blue background.

Pie for everyone!

If you could fill a pie with anything, what would you put inside?

Create your own dream pie by cutting up some food magazines to make a collage.

Will your pie be sweet or savoury?

Illustration of a blackbird against a yellow background.

How many birds?

There are 24 blackbirds in the rhyme.

When you next go outside, why not count how many birds you can see?

Male blackbirds are black, but females have brown feathers. They have yellow rings around their eyes and bright orange-yellow beaks.

How many will you spot?


What do you think?

Don't suppose you have a minute to tell us what you think of this resource? It's only a minute! Maybe even less. We've got five little questions for you right here. Thanks!

Illustrations of a thumb down, a forward slash and a thumb up sit next to each other.


Take a closer look...

Sing a song of...

Photo of a Silver sixpence of the Commonwealth, with 'sun' mint mark on obverse, of Tower mint, dated 1653. Obverse: Shield of England, with legend 'COMMONWEALTH. OF. ENGLAND'.

Sixpence is another way of writing, or saying, ‘six pennies’. A sixpence is an old coin worth that amount, which was one-fortieth of a pound at the time. In today’s money, it could buy you something worth £13.

This sixpence was made in 1653 at a time when England didn’t have a king! Instead, the country was led by a man called Oliver Cromwell who had the title of 'Lord Protector'.

What differences are there between this coin and a 1p coin today?

Rich and famous

Print of Henry VIII, made from a copy of the Holbein mural in Whitechapel Palace, destroyed by a fire.

This print of King Henry VIII, who was king of England from 1509 until 1547, is a copy of a painting by a famous artist called Hans Holbein.

In the past, only very wealthy people could afford to have paintings made of themselves.

Can you find any clues in the painting that show how rich Henry VIII was?

Blackbird? No, Blackbeard!

Uncoloured theatrical souvenir plate engraved with portrait of the actor Mr Cambell as Black Beard the Pirate. Published May 6th 1833.

Blackbeard is one of history's most famous pirate captains. Plays have even been written about him! This illustration, showing Mr Cambell in the role of Blackbeard, was sold as a souvenir at a London theatre in 1833.

Some people think 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' is actually a coded message used by pirates, like the infamous Blackbeard, to recruit new crew members.

Have you ever watched or read something about a pirate? What was their name?

Dockers' strike

Banner of the 'Amalgamated Stevedores Labour Protection league' Branch No.6. This banner was created to commemorate the founding of the trade union following the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

Who would go on your banner?

Two dockworkers, a London 'stevedore' and an Australian 'wharfie', shaking hands in front of the figure of Britannia.

As with many rhymes, people have often changed the lyrics to reflect the times they live in.

At the Museum of London Docklands, you can hear a version which dockworkers sang in 1889 when they went on strike. It starts with ‘Sing a song of sixpence, Dockers on the strike’.

The banner above is also displayed in the museum. It commemorates dockworkers founding their own trade union, an organisation that stands up for workers' rights. It shows a London 'stevedore' shaking hands with an Australian 'wharfie', representing the financial support Australian dockworkers gave to their London equivalents during the strike of 1889.

Can you make up your own lyrics to the tune of 'Sing a Song of Sixpence'?


Investigate more

Were blackbirds really baked in a pie?

Although the rhyme mentions ‘blackbirds baked in a pie’, no blackbirds would have been harmed in the making of this dish!

In the Tudor period, cooks tried to impress with exciting displays of food – a bit like a food ‘showstopper’. They would have baked the empty pie crust, put the blackbirds inside the cooked crust, and then put the lid on. When the pie was ‘set before’ (put in front of) the king, the blackbirds would fly out in a spectacular display! Afterwards, a real pie would have been brought out to eat.

What does ‘four and twenty’ mean?

We would say this number differently to how it was said in Tudor times. You can work out what it means by replacing ‘and’ with ‘+’ and doing the sum ‘4 + 20’. That equals 24!

Who sent the fantastic pie?

You maybe already know some of this story! While king, Henry VIII desperately wanted to have a son to inherit his throne after he had died. After years went by without his wife Catherine giving birth to a boy, he decided that he needed a new wife to make this happen. But the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic Church – wouldn't let him have a divorce.

Henry's answer? He made himself the head of a new church, the ‘Church of England’. And while he was at it, he saw the chance to get richer, by taking over hundreds of monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries that were owned by the Catholic Church. This is called the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Could the pie in the rhyme have been a gift to Henry VIII from some of these monks, trying to convince him not to take their riches? Did they hope that making him laugh would impress him? We don’t know for sure, but that’s how one version of the story goes!

What gift would you send to a king or queen to make them smile?

You can find out more about life in Tudor London right here.

Could the rhyme really be about a pirate code?

As today, in the 18th century, piracy (attacking and robbing other ships at sea) was against the law. So, whenever a captain of a pirate ship needed to recruit members into their crew, they would have to use a secret code to encourage people to join them.

Although most people don’t agree, some think that 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' was originally one of these coded messages, sung in pubs in ports across the world by the crew of a notorious pirate called Blackbeard. According to this idea, ‘the king’ wasn’t a king at all, but Blackbeard himself, and ‘the queen’ was his ship, called ‘The Queen Anne’.

What does the code mean?

Blackbeard paid his pirate crew a ‘sixpence’ per day, plus some whisky – an alcoholic drink loved by pirates which is made from a grain called ‘rye’.

What do you think life as a pirate might have been like?

Pirates often tricked passing ships by pretending that their crew were in trouble or their ship had sprung a leak. When the ships sailed in close to help, the pirate crew would jump aboard, dressed in black, to try and steal the ship!

In the coded rhyme, the 'blackbirds' could be Blackbeard’s crewmen dressed in black. They are ‘baked’ (hiding) inside the ‘pie’ (their pirate ship) ready to ‘sing’ (to surprise the other ship’s crew).

Take a look at our other Rhyme in Time called Pop! Goes the Weasel. That rhyme is also written in a code called Cockney rhyming slang.

Can you create your own code?


Emily  smiles while singing, with her guitar on her lap.

More Rhymes in Time

Watch more performances of classic nursery rhymes and discover the history behind them.

Video transcript

[VIDEO BEGINS]

Hey everyone. Welcome to the Museum of London’s Rhymes in Time. My name is Dani. And I’m going to be singing with you today. So, I really hope you’ve got your singing voices ready, because you will need them!

Now, today’s nursery rhyme is… Sing a Song of Sixpence. Wow, there’s a lot of ‘S’s in there, isn’t there? Sing a Song of Sixpence. Can you say that? Sing a Song of Sixpence.

Have you heard this rhyme before? Hmm. Well, fun fact for you: did you know that some people think that the king in this rhyme was the famous Tudor king who had six wives! I know. But do you know his name? Henry VIII.

Now, do you know the words to this song? Actually – it doesn’t even matter! Because if you don’t know the words, I’m gonna teach it to you. And if you do know the words, then I’m going to teach you some actions that we can do together to make it more fun and bring it to life. Yeah? Cool – alright let’s get ready.

[00:01:14]

So, the first two lines are:

♪ Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye. ♪

And rye is like a type of grain that grows in large fields, like wheat. Ok? So, let’s try that again.

♪ Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye. ♪

Nice!

♪ Four and twenty blackbirds ♪

And these are our blackbirds.

♪ Baked in a pie ♪

This is us holding our pie.

♪ When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing. ♪

Because these are our singing actions.

♪ Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king? ♪

So dainty is being very gentle, and we bow to the king.

Cool, let’s put that all together – I think you’ve got this! Here we go.

[00:02:02]

♪ Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye. ♪

Well done!

♪ Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie. ♪

Nice!

♪ When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king? ♪

Wow! You’ve done nursery rhymes before – I can tell. Now, second verse – very simple.

[00:02:27]

♪ The king ♪

– I’m gonna bow.

♪ was in the counting house, ♪

- So that’s the roof and the walls of the house. And we’re gonna hold a pot of money.

♪ Counting out the money. ♪

So, let’s put that together.

♪The king was in his counting house,
Counting out the money, ♪

Well done!

♪ The queen ♪

- this is our crown.

♪ was in her parlour,
Eating bread and honey, ♪

- Nom nom nom nom nom, really getting into that.

♪ The maid is in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes, ♪

- And this is us hanging out the clothes on the washing line.

♪ When down came a blackbird, ♪

- So, the bird’s gonna land on our nose.

♪ Black – bird ♪

– we’re gonna cover our hand.

♪ And pecked off her nose. ♪

And we’re gonna pretend that our nose is in our hand here. But we’re gonna [POP] that back on.

So, let’s try that again – that second half together.

So,

[00:03:23]

♪ The king was in the counting house,
Counting out the money, ♪

Well done!

♪ The queen was in her parlour,
Eating bread and honey. ♪

Nice!

♪ The maid was in the garden,

Hanging out the clothes,

When down came a blackbird,

And [POP] off her nose. ♪

Nice! Let’s put our noses back on. [POP]

Very good – do you know what? You’ve got this. So, we’re gonna do it from the top to the bottom, starting with ‘Sing a song of sixpence’. Here we go.

[00:03:50]

♪ Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out the money.
The queen was in her parlour,
Eating bread and honey,
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes.
When down came a blackbird,
And [POP] off her nose. ♪

Yeah! Ok, let’s put our nose back on. [POP!]

[00:04:38]

Ah, really good! Fantastic – you’re brilliant at this. I wonder, can you come up with an extra verse that you make up at home?

Also, don’t forget to head to the Museum of London’s website where you can find out more fun facts about the history of the song, Sing a Song of Sixpence, including the idea that this song might actually be a pirate’s code. I know! Plus, you’ve got loads more fun activities to do on there, that you can try at home. So, until then – bye!

[VIDEO ENDS]

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