Using Cradles Through The Ages

oak-cradle-17th-C ~ Oak hooded cradle, English, 1683, carved initials, alongside 16th and 17th century oak furniture. Photo by HomeThingsPast

We all likely know something of Rock-a-bye Baby as a nursery rhyme and lullaby. The melody is a variant of the song comes from an English satirical ballad calledLillibullero,a march that became popular in England at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 2768.

“One theory suggests the rhyme narrates a mother gently rocking her baby to sleep, as if the baby were riding the treetops during a breeze; then, when the mother lowers the baby to her crib, the song says ‘down will come baby.’ Another identifies the rhyme as the first English poem written on American soil, suggesting it dates from the 17th century and that it may have been written by an English colonist who observed the way Native American women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, which were suspended from the branches of trees, allowing the wind to rock the baby to sleep. The words appeared in print in England c. 1765.

“In Derbyshire, England, local legend has it that the song relates to a local character in the late 18th century, Betty Kenny (Kate Kenyon), who lived with her husband, Luke, and their eight children in a huge yew tree in Shining Cliff Woods in Derwent Valley, where a hollowed-out bough served as a cradle. Yet another theory has it that the lyrics, like the tune “Lilliburlero” it is sung to, refer to events immediately preceding the Glorious Revolution. The baby is supposed to be the son of James VII and II, who was widely believed to be someone else’s child smuggled into the birthing room in order to provide a Roman Catholic heir for James. The “wind” may be that Protestant ‘wind’ or force ‘blowing’ or coming from the Netherlands bringing James’ nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, who would eventually depose King James II in the revolution (the same ‘Protestant Wind’ that had saved England from the Spanish Armada a century earlier). The “cradle” is the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words in print appeared with a footnote, ‘This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last’, which may be read as supporting a satirical meaning. It would help to substantiate the suggestion of a specific political application for the words, however, if they and the ‘Lilliburlero’ tune could be shown to have been always associated.


Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) designed this cradle for the son of the architect Alfred Waterhouse. The cradle is in the Gothic style and decorated with painted panels. The cradle itself is also in the Museum’s collections. Although its structure is close to the design, the painting of the panels is different. The floral patterns in the drawing are replaced by signs of the Zodiac on the finished piece. In 1861 Shaw was designing in the reformed Gothic style, which is associated with William Burges (1827-1881) and William Morris (1834-1896). Painted panels formed the chief decorative element in this style. Very similar painted panels later became popular in works of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements. But they lacked the Gothic framing seen here. ~

“Yet another theory is that the song is based around a 17th-century ritual that took place after a newborn baby had died. The mother would hang the child from a basket on a branch in a tree and waited to see if it would come back to life. The line ‘when the bough breaks the baby will fall’ would suggest that the baby was dead weight, so heavy enough to break the branch. Another possibility is that the words began as a ‘dandling’ rhyme – one used while a baby is being swung about and sometimes tossed and caught. An early dandling rhyme is quoted in The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book which has some similarity:

Catch him, crow! Carry him, kite!
Take him away till the apples are ripe;
When they are ripe and ready to fall,
Here comes baby, apples and all, woop woop.”

50373b0e283fe39f82623559e15f1ea8.jpgCradles have been around for centuries.  The ancient Britons wove cradles in the tree-tops for both children and old men.  It was the custom of weaving an infant’s cradle in the branches of a tree, out of harm’s way, to be rocked by wind power, possibly another source of the lullaby.  The traditional wood for a cradle is birch the tree of inception, which the ancients believed drove away evil spirits.

Also, manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries show cradles hollowed out from halved tree trunks, with holes along the edges for straps or cords to keep the baby from falling out. Greek peasants were still using these in the late 19th century.

Some medieval cradles were made like miniatures of an adult’s bed, but on two curved rockers. In a wealthy/noble family, the cradle would be costly indeed. Take the instance when the men of Ghent despoiled the house of the Earl of Flanders in the 14th century – they destroyed all his furniture except the cradle.  Not out of consideration for the baby, though – but because the cradle was solid silver.

There was also the cradle that swung from two fixed supports, a different principle from the rocker, the pivot being above the centre of gravity instead of below – and this one dates from the fifteenth century.  It goes on rocking for some time with only an occasional push, and it seem to offer a more gentle ride, with less tendency to eject the child.


cdfc1edd428e3d9fb6371cca1df18d00Graham Blackburn at FineWoodworking in “A Short History of Cradles” tells us, “The first piece of furniture many people used to encounter in this world was a small swinging or rocking bed known as a cradle. Now largely superseded by cribs or cots (which were both originally also swinging or rocking), the cradle has a long history and was also typically one of the first pieces of furniture to be acquired in new households, preceded only by beds, chests, and tables.

61b188b053da6bd45849c37aeb79754d.jpg “The earliest and most common type of cradle is the rocker, derived undoubtedly from a half log, hollowed out to provide a secure resting place for the infant. From this to a simple box mounted on transverse curved sections was a short step, but a far cry from the miniature ‘great beds of state,’ richly carved and furnished with elaborate and costly hangings that were used to cradle the children of royalty. A particular American favorite is the type common with the early Colonists, characterized by sloping sides and a hooded end, most often made from simple nailed pine boards, although examples exist that represent in miniature all the major period styles, from Gothic to Art Nouveau.



Found on WalMart’s website ~ THE PUZZLE-MAN TOYS W-2510alt. Functional/Play Wooden Furniture – Live Baby Cradle Pennsylvania Dutch Overhead Canopy Style – Red Oak – 13 in. x 30 in.

“Almost as venerable is the type of cradle that consists of an open container suspended by hooks, chains, or rope from a standing frame. The earliest known example of this type is a Gothic cradle made at the end of the 15th century and reputed to have been used by Henry V (who, however, was born a hundred years earlier!). The box is simply pegged together and suspended between two standards or uprights braced on a flat frame. At the other extreme, in terms of construction, is a design illustrated by the famous 18th-century cabinetmaker Sheraton, in his Cabinet Dictionary, which includes a spring mechanism designed to keep the cradle rocking for an hour and a half  — a function now accomplished by electric motors in this age of preoccupied childcare providers.”

The first time the future George IV received company, he was twelve days old and securely ensconced in a gold cradle surmounted with a gold coronet.  He lay under a canopy of state, enveloped in crimson velvet and gold lace, in a nest of white satin.  On either side stood ‘a fair mute, employed as occasion required, to rock the infant to sleep.’  The public were admitted in batches of forty.  The daily bill for cake was GBP40, and for wine, ‘more than could have been conceived’.


Cradle commissioned by Queen Victoria for Princess Louise

Those who didn’t have money would fashion a cradle out of anything they could find – even an old barrel/key placed between two carefully spaced bricks or lumps of wood would provide a secure, ‘rockable’ cradle for a poor woman.  Or, as people have done over the years, a drawer, her own bed, etc.  I would think after the first year, unless the child was really sickly, but still lucky enough to be alive, the child would be getting a bit big for the standard drawer in furniture available to poorer folk in the Regency period.


Antique Rare Large Marklin Doll Carriage c1910 ~ found on eBay

Some families converted a doll bed, but a family that had a doll bed for their child was a prosperous family. That goes well beyond subsistence living.

Other Sources: 

Royal Cradles Throughout History 

Traditional Rocking Cradles – Wood and Wicker 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, George IV, Georgian England, Georgian Era, history, real life tales, Regency era, word origins, world history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Using Cradles Through The Ages

  1. Glynis says:

    I loved this post! I would have loved to have a cradle like these when my children were babies (especially one that didn’t eject the child 😊)
    I had to make do with a carry cot, then my big pram and an ordinary cot!
    I especially love the two carved wooden ones on a pivot, absolutely gorgeous!

  2. Diana Oaks says:

    Fascinating! Thank you, Regina!

  3. Elin Eriksen says:

    Interesting read!
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    I loved all the pictures and the history, not to mention I love JAFF with children in them.

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