Cock Robin

Cock Robin
"Who Killed Cock Robin"
Roud #494
Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin - Project Gutenberg eText 17060.jpg
Cover of Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin, being vivid illustrations of scenes of the poem, by Henry Louis Stephens, 1865.
Written by Traditional
Published c. 1744
Written England
Language English
Form Nursery rhyme

"Who Killed Cock Robin" is an English nursery rhyme, which has been much used as a murder archetype in world culture. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 494.



The earliest record of the rhyme is in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published c. 1744, which noted only the first four verses. The extended version given below was not printed until c. 1770.[1]

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish,
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.
Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I'll make the shroud.
Who'll dig his grave?
I, said the Owl,
with my pick and shovel,
I'll dig his grave.
Who'll be the parson?
I, said the Rook,
with my little book,
I'll be the parson.
Who'll be the clerk?
I, said the Lark,
if it's not in the dark,
I'll be the clerk.
Who'll carry the link?
I, said the Linnet,
I'll fetch it in a minute,
I'll carry the link.
Who'll be chief mourner?
I, said the Dove,
I mourn for my love,
I'll be chief mourner.
Who'll carry the coffin?
I, said the Kite,
if it's not through the night,
I'll carry the coffin.
Who'll bear the pall?
We, said the Wren,
both the cock and the hen,
We'll bear the pall.
Who'll sing a psalm?
I, said the Thrush,
as she sat on a bush,
I'll sing a psalm.
Who'll toll the bell?
I said the Bull,
because I can pull,
I'll toll the bell.
All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.

The rhyme has been often reprinted with illustrations, as suitable reading material for small children.

Origin and meaning

Although the song is not recorded until the eighteenth century there is some evidence that it might be much older. The death of a robin by an arrow is depicted in a stained glass window at Buckland Rectory, Gloucestershire,[2] and the rhyme is similar to a story, Phyllyp Sparowe, written by John Skelton about 1508.[1] The use of the rhyme 'owl' with 'shovel', could suggest that it was originally used in older middle English pronunciation.[1] Versions of the story appear to exist in other countries, including Germany.[1]

A number of theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of the rhyme:

  • That the rhyme records a mythological event, such as the death of the god Balder from norse mythology,[1] or the ritual sacrifice of a king figure, as proposed by early folklorists as in the 'Cutty Wren' theory of a 'pagan survival'.[3][4]
  • That it is a parody of the death of William Rufus, who was killed by an arrow in the New Forest (Hampshire) in 1100.[5]
  • That the rhyme is connected with the fall of the government of Robert Walpole in 1742, since Robin is a diminutive form of Robert and the first printing is close to the time of the events mentioned.[1]
  • More recently internet speculation has associated the rhyme with Robin Hood, largely, it seems on the basis of a shared name.[6]

All of these theories are based on perceived similarities in the text to legendary or historical events, or on the similarities of names. Peter Opie pointed out that an existing rhyme could have been adapted to fit the circumstances of political events in the eighteenth century.[1] As with many such theories there is no textual or supportive evidence that the rhyme is connected to the selected events, or that the phrase 'Cock Robin' was used before the rhyme was first published.[7]

The theme of the death of Cock Robin, as well as the distinctive cadence of the poem has become something of an archetype, much used in literary fiction and other works of art, from poems, to murder mysteries, to cartoons.[1] It was quoted most recently on "CSI" by D.B. Russell (Ted Danson) as a clue to solving a quadruple homicide.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 130-3.
  2. ^ The gentry house that became the old rectory at Buckland has an impressive timbered hall that dates from the fifteenth century with two lights of contemporary stained glass in the west wall with the rebus of William Grafton and arms of Gloucester Abbey in one and the rising sun of Edward IV in the other light; birds in various attitudes hold scrolls "In Nomine Jesu"; none is reported transfixed by an arrow in Anthony Emery, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Southern England, s.v. "Buckland Old Rectory, Gloucestershire", (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 80.
  3. ^ R. J. Stewart, Where is St. George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong (1976).
  4. ^ B. Forbes, Make Merry in Step and Song: A Seasonal Treasury of Music, Mummer's Plays & Celebrations in the English Folk Tradition (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2009), p. 5.
  5. ^ J. Harrowven, The origins of rhymes, songs and sayings (Kaye & Ward, 1977), p. 92.
  6. ^ "Famous Quotes"
  7. ^ D. Wilton, I. Brunetti, Word myths: debunking linguistic urban legends (Oxford: Oxford University Press US, 2004), pp. 24-5.

External links

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