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The Grand Old Duke of York

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Title: The Grand Old Duke of York  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Barney's Magical Musical Adventure, Duke of York's, Barney in Concert, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, Nursery rhyme
Collection: Nursery Rhymes, Roud Folk Song Index Songs, Singing Games
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Grand Old Duke of York

"The Grand Old Duke of York"
Roud #742
Written England
Published 1642
Form Nursery rhyme
Writer Traditional
Language English

‘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.


  • Lyrics 1
  • Origins 2
  • Song 3
  • References 4


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.

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.[1]

Frequently, the audience is asked to "act out" the rhyme by standing up, sitting down, and standing halfway up at the appropriate points in the verse. Sometimes the audience may be asked not to say various words in the poem, for example; they may be asked not to say 'up' and 'down'. The idea is to catch out the participants.


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.[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]

Candidates for the duke in question include:

  • Statue of Frederick Duke of York in Waterloo Place, Westminster, London
    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.[4]
  • 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.[5]
  • The most common attribution is to Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.[1] 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.[6] Flanders has something of a reputation for being flat, the specific location of the "hill" in the nursery rhyme has been attributed 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.[1]

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] It is used as an action song within many Scouting organizations. The song is repeated with the actions, getting faster each time.

The nursery rhyme was also featured as a 24-second bridge between tracks on the 1968 album Every One Of Us by Eric Burdon and The Animals. It was retitled "Uppers and Downers" as a possible reference to the drug culture of that time period, but the poem itself was not altered.


  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. 
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