20 June 2022

A cock-horse to Banbury Cross
and old stables in Stony Stratford

The old stables behind the Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford … was this stabling for the ‘Cock Horse’ on its way to Banbury Cross? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.

Recently I posted photographs of the stables, old and new, behind the Cock Hotel on the High Street in Stony Stratford, only to have people ask on social media whether these were the original stables for the ‘Cock Horse’ that took the fine lady to Banbury Cross.

The first version of the children’s nursery rhyme about riding a cock horse to Banbury Cross may date back to in 1725, with the opening words, ‘Now on Cock-horse does he ride.’ An early version of the present rhyme was included in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book around 1744.

But was there an earlier rhyme?

Who was the fine lady?

Which cross in Banbury was she riding to?

And did she make her journey on a horse from the stables behind the Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford?

Some comments suggest a mediaeval date for the rhyme because the bells the lady wears on her toes refer to the fashion of wearing bells on the end of toes and shoes in the 15th century.

Banbury Cross was pulled down around 1600, and the present cross only dates from 1859. So, which cross was she trying to get to?

Of course, it is possible that Banbury Cross refers not to a monument but to Banbury’s location at an important crossroads. But, in the past, Banbury had at least three other crosses – the High Cross, the Bread Cross, and the White Cross – all destroyed by zealous Puritans, who condemned the cross as a symbol of paganism. The carvings decorating the cross, included Christ on the Cross, the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and an image of a bare-headed man with a book, perhaps one of the Four Evangelists.

At dawn on 26 July 1600, two masons took it on themselves to start hacking and pulling at the High Cross. Soon they were joined by 40 more collaborators as a partisan crowd started to gather. As the cross crumbled and fell, Henry Shewell, later the bailiff, cried out ‘God be thanked, Dagon the deluder of the people is fallen down!’ (see I Samuel 5: 2-7)

The present cross in the centre of Banbury has nothing to do with the rhyme. It was erected in 1859 to celebrate the wedding of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, to Prince Frederick of Prussia.

The fine lady in the rhyme has been identified with both Lady Godiva and Queen Elizabeth I. Banbury was at the top of a steep hill and in order to help carriages up the steep incline a white cock horse or large stallion was made available to help. When Queen Elizabeth’s carriage tried to go up the hill a wheel broke, one local legend says, and she Queen chose to mount the cock horse and ride to Banbury Cross. The people of the town decorated the cock horse with ribbons and bells and provided minstrels to accompany her – ‘she shall have music wherever she goes.’

On the other hand, local tradition suggests the fine lady was really a ‘Fiennes Lady,’ Celia Fiennes, whose brother, William Fiennes (1641-1698), 3rd Viscount Saye and Sele, lived nearby at Broughton Castle.

A ‘cock horse’ can mean a high-spirited horse, and the additional horse used to assist pulling a cart or carriage up a hill. It can also mean an entire or uncastrated horse. From the mid-16th century it also meant a pretend hobby horse or an adult’s knee. There is also an expression ‘a-cock-horse,’ meaning ‘astride.’

But could the nursery rhyme refer to the Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford, less than 30 miles or half an hour east of Banbury and where people could hire a horse to ride across to Banbury?

It is said John Cok was the landlord of the Cock Inn about 1480, and that the hotel takes its name from him, not the bird depicted on the sign.

The Cock and the neighbouring Bull Hotel were convenient half-way, stopping places for stagecoaches, where travellers could find food, entertainment and a bed for the night, while horses were shod, fed, watered and rested, or fresh horses were made ready for the next day’s journey.

A major fire started in the nearby Bull Hotel in 1742 and spread down to the river and beyond, destroying many buildings in Stony Stratford, including the Cock Hotel and the old Parish Church. The Cock Hotel was rebuilt and travellers staying at the Cock and the Bull would vie with each other as they told outrageous tales of the road, leaving us with ‘Cock and Bull’ stories.

Local legend continues to insist that the Cock Hotel is the ‘cock’ of the nursery rhyme, and part of the stabling facilities behind the Cock can still be seen today. The Vaults Bar has reopened at the Bull, and hopefully there are plans to reopen the Bull itself, opening the possibility of a new generation of ‘Cock and Bull’ stories.

The Stable Yard behind the Cock Hotel … being turned to new uses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
20 June 2022 (Psalm 117)

‘Praise the Lord, all you nations!’ (Psalm 117: 1) … flags of the nations at a shop in Kalambaka near Meteora in central Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 117:

Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm and also the shortest chapter in the Bible. In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 116. It is often known by the Latin name it takes from its opening words, Laudate Dominum.

Psalm 117 is the fifth of the six psalms (Psalms 113-118) comprising the Hallel (הַלֵּל, ‘Praise’). Psalms 113-118 are among the earliest prayers written to be recited in the Temple on days of national celebration. They were sung as accompaniment to the Pesach or Passover sacrifice. Early rabbinic sources suggest that these psalms were said on the pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

These psalms are known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ because of the references in Psalm 114 to the Exodus from Egypt.

Psalm 117 consists of only two verses, and it is the shortest psalm and also the shortest chapter in the Bible. In Hebrew, it is an acrostic poem.

In Psalm 117, the Psalmist speaks of the universal significance of Israel’s history. It is not Israel alone, but all the nations who will see in the story of the people, something beyond history.

The Gentiles, all nations and peoples, are invited to join in praise of God. God’s love is steadfast and endures for ever.

‘The faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever’ (Psalm 117: 2) … birds of the air at sunset at Malahide Castle, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 117 (NRSVA):

1 Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
2 For great is his steadfast love towards us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Swarupantor programme in the Church of Bangladesh. This theme was introduced yesterday.

Monday 20 June 2022:

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for those running the Swarapuntor programme. May more communities in Bangladesh become self-sufficient and economically empowered.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org