The Grand Old Duke of York

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"The Grand Old Duke of York"
Nursery rhyme

"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 eponymous duke has been argued to be a number of the bearers of that title, 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.


Richard Tarlton in the 1580s with his pipe and tabor

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.

When they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only halfway up,
They were neither up nor down.[1]


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"downs"

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.


Like many popular nursery rhymes the origins of the song have been much debated and remain unclear. Unusually the rhyme clearly refers to an historical person and debates have tended to circulate around identifying which Duke is being referred to in the lyrics.[1] The lyrics were not printed in their modern form until relatively recently, in Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose in 1913.[2] 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.[1] 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.[3]

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.[1]

Statue of Frederick Duke of York in Waterloo Place, Westminster, London

Candidates for the duke in question include:

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.


"The Grand Old Duke of York" is also sung to the tune of "A-Hunting We Will Go".[7]

Dutch version[edit]

A Dutch adaptation of the song replaces the Duke of York with Maurice, Prince of Orange (1567–1625), whose practice of training mercenaries (completely new, and mocked at first) became famous following his success in war. It is not known when the British song crossed the North Sea, but nowadays it is well-known within the Dutch scouting movement.[8]

De held prins Maurits kwam
met honderdduizend man
daar ging hij mee de heuvel op
en ook weer naar benee
en was 'ie bovenan
dan was 'ie niet benee
en was 'ie halverwege
was 'ie boven noch benee

The hero Prince Maurice came
with a hundred thousand men
with them he went up the hill
and also down again
and when he was up
then he wasn't down
and when he was half-way
he was neither up nor down


  1. ^ a b c d e f I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 442–443.
  2. ^ E. Knowles, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941, 6th edn., 2004).
  3. ^ J. Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps and Henry Chettle, eds, Tarlton's Jests: And News Out of Purgatory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1844), p. xxix.
  4. ^ J. Swinnerton, The History of Britain Companion (Robson, 2005), p. 149.
  5. ^ C. Roberts, Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind the rhyme (Granta, 2004), p. 44.
  6. ^ J. Black, Britain as a military power, 1688–1815 (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 195.
  7. ^ Cub Scout Songbook. Boy Scouts of America. 1955.
  8. ^ "De held prins Maurits". Scouting Marca Appoldro. Retrieved 1 September 2016.