Everyone knows this strange and violent little rhyme. Two children go up a hill to fetch water and Jack falls, breaking his head, or his neck, or something. Not to be left out, Jill takes a tumble after he does. There have been many attempts to source the meaning of the story, but the evidence is inconclusive. We do know that “Jack” was a kind of Everyman character in English drama. Indeed, Shakespeare even mentions a Jack and Jill in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost, where they appear as archetypal young lovers. So the nursery rhyme may be nothing more than another scene starring a pair of stock characters.
There are two more interesting interpretations, however. The first is that the rhyme refers to an attempt by King Charles I to regulate taxes on drink sizes. A “jack” is a half-pint and a “gill” is a quarter-pint. Charles attempted to reduce the volume but keep the tax the same, which was obviously unpopular and was vetoed by Parliament, hence “Jack fell down” and “Jill came tumbling after.” Of course, after the Civil War the king’s own crown was “broken.”
Another fanciful story says that the rhyme refers to the executions of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. Jack’s crown (head) was broken, and Jill’s head came tumbling after. This delightfully gruesome interpretation would be perfect were it not for the fact that the rhyme’s publication preceded their executions by nearly thirty years.