16th Century History origin of the Little Jack Horner story?
Little Jack Horner was reputed to have been the Steward to Richard Whiting (1461 - 1539) the Bishop of Glastonbury. The Steward had an important role and was responsible for managing the household, collecting taxes and keeping accounts.
The Church, the King and the Gold
Glastonbury was the largest and wealthiest Abbey in England and this Benedictine Monastery owned extensive lands and manors in the county of Somerset. Between 1536 and 1540, after breaking away from the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell set about the systematic Dissolution of all of the Monasteries in England. The reason for was to loot the monasteries of their gold and silver and seize the monastic lands. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only religious house left in Somerset and it was only at matter of time before Glastonbury Abbey was also seized.
It is rumoured that the Bishop tried to bribe the King. He sent his Steward, Richard Whiting, with a gift of twelve title deeds to various English manorial estates. The deeds were said to have been secreted in a pie (valuables were often hidden in this bizarre fashion to thwart thieves). Whiting (Little Jack Horner) realised that the bribe would do no good and was said to have stolen the deeds to the manor of Mells (it being the real 'plum' of the twelve manors).
The Traitor and the Execution
The remaining eleven manors were given to the crown but to no avail. The old Bishop was convicted of treason for remaining loyal to Rome. The jury included his treacherous steward Horner who found Bishop Whiting guilty and sent the old man to a terrible death of being hung, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor. The Abbey was destroyed. Following the destruction of the abbey the steward, Horner moved into the Manor of Mells. Whether Horner actually stole the deeds to the Manor or was rewarded with them for helping to convict the Bishop of Glastonbury is not known but the Manor of Mells became the property of the Horner family who lived there until the 20th century.
The first publication date for the lyrics to the Little Jack Horner rhyme is 1725.