The Grand Old Duke of York
|"The Grand Old Duke of York"|
‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ (also sung as The Noble Duke of York) is an English children's nursery rhyme, often performed as an action song. The Duke of the title has been argued to be a number of the holders of that office, particularly Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827) and its lyrics have become proverbial for futile action. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 742.
The most common modern version is:
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.
There may be almost as many slight or great variations to the actions as there are groups to regularly perform them and pass on their style, but the core movements are often based upon the performers standing whenever a clear "up" is sung, reseating themselves whenever "down" is mentioned and briefly taking an abbreviated half-standing/crouching position for the "only half-way up" phrase. A group of performers who, especially in an 'audience participation'-like situation, are originally seated (for example school children in an assembly, or the audience in a theatre - especially for a typical participative segment of a pantomime) will/should end the song back in their original positions.
The first verse is rather gentle one to react to, with one clear standing and one clear seating action, and so other actions may be given. For example: a stiff salute for the "Duke of York", indicating "ten" by clearly displaying ten fingers (optionally emphasising this on the further syllables of "thou-sand men") and/or forming the hands/arms into a some form depicting a 'hill' summit.
The second verse becomes far more rapid, especially between the two pairs of adjacent "up"s and "down"s (the performer may make a bob, between the two, to emphasise the separate positions, rather than just stay up/down), and synchronisation is easily lost by those who are not as quick or able to change positions, or who are new to the 'game' and not as practiced. This activity does help group-bonding in young children and encourages the following the teacher/leader of the activity, but its use is often more as an easily controlled game that promotes physical activity.
In an entertainment situation, however, performance errors may actually be the objective. After the first time through, the hosts may coerce the participants to repeat it several more times at ever faster tempos, with the deliberate aim of creating slightly breathless merriment by all concerned from the obvious and confused desynchronisation that emerges by the end of the final cycle. Other intentionally induced confusions might be to ask all those performing (or, perhaps in turns, only 'this half of the audience'/'that half of the audience', just the women/girls or just the gentlemen/boys) to switch the "up" and "down" actions for a round, to create a particularly chaotic spectacle as performers attempt to reverse their natural responses to the words, or not to instinctively echo the movements of those nearby who are doing it 'wrong'.
The standing and sitting and possible arm-waving (especially when not synchronised, by intent or otherwise) might be considered to be unsuitable for some situations and less expansive actions (simply reaching up, down, half-way up with an arm) might be substituted, to be less potentially injurious in cramped situations or amongst those less capable of movement, whilst more elaborate 'performance' versions might involve more dynamic posing (e.g. choreographed marching and linking of arms), especially if intended as a 'demonstration piece' such as by pupils on stage in a school concert whereupon perfection is the aim.
Like many popular nursery rhymes the origins of the song have been much debated and remain unclear. Unusually the rhyme clearly refers to a historical person and debates have tended to circulate around identifying which Duke is being referred to in the lyrics. The lyrics were not printed in their modern form until relatively recently, in Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose in 1913. Prior to that a number of alternatives have been found including a note that in Warwickshire in 1892 the song was sung of both the Duke of York and the King of France; from 1894 that it was sung of Napoleon. The oldest version of the song that survives is from 1642, under the title 'Old Tarlton's song', attributed to the stage clown Richard Tarlton (1530–1588) with the lyrics:
The King of France with forty thousand men,
Came up a hill and so came downe againe.
As a result, the argument has been made that it may have been a common satirical verse that was adapted as appropriate and, because it was recorded in roughly the modern form, has become fixed on the Duke of York.
Candidates for the duke in question include:
- Richard, Duke of York (1411–1460), who was defeated at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Richard's army, some 8,000 strong, was awaiting reinforcements at Sandal Castle in Wakefield (the castle was built on top of a Norman motte). He was surrounded by Lancastrian forces some three times that number, but chose to sally forth to fight. Richard died in a pitched battle at Wakefield Green, together with between one third and one half of his army.
- James II (1633–1701), formerly Duke of York, who in 1688 marched his troops to Salisbury Plain to resist the invasion from his son-in-law William of Orange, only to retreat and disperse them as his support began to evaporate.
- The most common attribution is to Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827), the second son of King George III and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. His one field command of significance was the Flanders Campaign of 1793–4, which resulted in the heavy defeat at the Battle of Tourcoing (1794), followed by his recall to England. Flanders having something of a reputation for being flat, the specific location of the "hill" in the nursery rhyme has been hypothesized to be the town of Cassel which is built on a hill which rises 176 metres (about 570 feet) above the otherwise flat lands of Flanders in northern France.
Apart from the ducal title in the song and the events of their lives there is no external evidence to link the rhyme to any of these candidates.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 442–443.
- E. Knowles, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941, 6th edn., 2004).
- J. Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps and Henry Chettle, eds, Tarlton's Jests: And News Out of Purgatory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1844), p. xxix.
- J. Swinnerton, The History of Britain Companion (Robson, 2005), p. 149.
- C. Roberts, Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind the rhyme (Granta, 2004), p. 44.
- J. Black, Britain as a military power, 1688–1815 (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 195.
- Cub Scout Songbook. Boy Scouts of America. 1955.