Three Wise Men of Gotham

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song had been longer.

Three Wise Men of Gotham


The nursery rhyme Three Wise Men of Gotham likely originated from the small English village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, England. The rhyme is believed to be centuries old and is one of the oldest known English nursery rhymes. It dates back to at least the late 1500s.


The three wise men of Gotham are the people of Gotham village who supposedly feigned idiocy to avoid a visit from King John sometime in the Middle Ages. The people of the village were said to have done all sorts of foolish things, like trying to drown an eel in a pool of water, dragging carts on a large barn, tumbling cheeses down a hill, and trying to hedge a cuckoo in an old bush when the Royal messengers arrived. Upon hearing of these occurrences, King John agreed that Gotham must be a village of fools and chose to have his hunting lodge elsewhere.
The “Three Wise Men of Gotham” nursery rhyme has been interpreted to be a secret form of protest against the rule of King John. By pretending to be fools, the villagers of Gotham were able to hold their own against the powerful King John and prevent their lands from being made a public highway. This act of disobedience could have been seen by some as an act of defiance and wisdom, rather than foolishness.

Children's Activities

Since the rhyme is so old, there are many fun activities for children to do to explore the origin and meaning of this popular nursery rhyme. You can have your child try to recreate the village of Gotham and imagine all the activities the villagers were doing that day the King’s messengers arrived. You can also have your children look up the year King John ruled, read more about the history of Gotham, and find out what other nursery rhymes originated during his rule.


The nursery rhyme is thought to be an example of the “blason populaire” genre of folklore which is common to many countries.
Similar stories to the “Three Wise Men of Gotham” nursery rhyme can be found in countries around the world. In Germany, there are the “Schildbürger” from the town of Schilda, in the Netherlands there are the people of Kampen, in Bohemia the people of Kocourkov, and in Moravia the people of Šimperk. In Romania, Caracal is known as the place where “the cart of fools tipped over”.

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