What Is the “Jack Sprat” Nursery Rhyme?

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“Jack Sprat” is a traditional English nursery rhyme whose main verse says, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean. And so between them both, you see, they licked the platter clean.” Though it was likely sung by children long before, “Jack Sprat” was first published around 1765 in the compilation “Mother Goose’s Melody.”

According to Rhymes.org, a U.K. website devoted to nursery rhyme lyrics and origins, the “Jack Sprat” nursery rhyme has its origins in British history. In one interpretation, Jack Sprat was King Charles I, who ruled England in the early part of the 17th century, and his wife was Queen Henrietta Maria. Parliament refused to finance the king’s war with Spain, which made him lean. However, the queen fattened the coffers by levying an illegal war tax.

In an alternative version, the “Jack Sprat” nursery rhyme is linked to King Richard and his brother John of the Robin Hood legend. Jack Sprat was King John, the usurper who tried to take over the crown when King Richard went off to fight in the Crusades in the 12th century. When King Richard was captured, John had to raise a ransom to rescue him, leaving the country lean. The wife was Joan, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, the greedy wife of King John. However, after King Richard died and John became king, he had his marriage with Joan annulled.