Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is an English nursery rhyme which is believed to have religious and historical significance.

Picture from Origins – What Does History Say?

The most common modern version of this nursery rhyme is as follows:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row.

The oldest known version was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744 and the lyrics were a little different.

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,

And so my garden grows.

The origins of this nursery rhyme are disputed and these are the three most popular theories.

Religous origin

One theory is that this nursery rhyme is a religious allegory of Catholicism as follows:

Mary is Mary, the mother of Jesus,

The bells are the sanctus or altar bells used to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a means of giving thanks for the miracle taking place on top of the altar,

The cockleshells are the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James (one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament) in Spain, and

Pretty maids are nuns.

Historical origins

The origin of this nursery rhyme has also been attributed to two 16th-century British queens, Mary Queen of Scots and Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary.

Mary Queen of Scots

Picture from Biography of Mary Queen of Scots where you can read more about her life

The tragic Mary Queen of Scots may have been the heroine of this nursery rhyme.

The cockle shells and silver bells were thought to have been ornaments on a dress given to her by her first husband, the Dauphin of France, who died in 1561, leaving her a widow.

The pretty maids all in a row is believed to refer to her ladies-in-waiting, the famous Four Mary’s: Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingston. These four young girls, all of noble and high birth, accompanied her when she travelled to France. They all had Scottish fathers and two of them had French mothers and could be relied upon to be loyal to the Scottish Queen and also to her French mother, Marie de Guise.

Mary I or Bloody Mary

Mary I was the elder daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary was a devout Catholic and upon ascending to the throne, following the death of her brother Edward VI, restored the Catholic faith to England. This, according to this theory, earned her the description Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.

Bloody Mary was renowned for torturing Protestants and “silver bells” was a nickname for the thumbscrews. “Cockleshells” were believed to be instruments of torture attached to the genitals. Pretty maids in a row was said to represent people lined up to be executed by the Halifax Gibbet, the same as a guillotine, which was nicknamed ‘a maiden’.

“How does your garden grow?” could be a taunt about Mary I’s failure to produce an heir or it could be a reference to the cemetery and the fact that the more deaths there were, the more the cemetery flowers would grow.

What do you think about this nursery rhyme? Which theory do you think is the most likely? Let me know in the comments.

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Roberta Eaton Cheadle has published nine children’s books under the name of Robbie Cheadle. She has branched into writing for adults and young adults and, in order to clearly separate her children’s books from her adult books, is writing for older readers under the name Roberta Eaton Cheadle.

Her supernatural stories combine fabulous paranormal elements with fascinating historical facts.

Supernatural fantasy YA novel:
Through the Nethergate

Horror Anthologies (edited by Dan Alatorre):
Spellbound
Nightmareland
Dark Visions

Paranormal Anthologies (edited by Kaye Lynne Booth):
Spirits of the West
Whispers of the Past

Murder mystery Anthology (edited by Stephen Bentley)
Death Among Us

Find Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Blog: https://wordpress.com/view/robertawrites235681907.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobertaEaton17

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robertawrites

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Roberta-Eaton-Cheadle/e/B08RSNJQZ5

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40 Comments on “Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    I am very excited about my new series over at Writing to be Read called Dark Origins – Nursery Rhymes and Fairytales. My first post looks at the dark origins of the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. There are three theories and they are all fascinating. Thank you for hosting me, Kaye Lynne Booth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jan Sikes says:

    Very interesting interpretations of this nursery rhyme, Robbie. It really resonates with Mary Queen of Scots, doesn’t it? Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I honestly didn’t know that this nursery rhyme had dark origins, Jan, until it popped up during my research process. I was fascinated by these three possible origins, but the religious possibility seems less likely to me. Thanks for visiting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mae Clair says:

    I love this kind of background. I remember hearing a few of these references before, but my memory of them is sketchy at best. A very enlightening post. I think the poem probably has more historical likelihood than religious. Very interesting to speculate on!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Mae, I agree with you. I think the theories of one or other of the two Mary’s is more likely. It seems people are divided on which one. I thought this history was fascinating and could definitely be worked into a period book or short story.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. tidalscribe says:

    I always pictured a pretty garden when I was a child and felt some affinity as my middle name is Mary, so is my mother’s and daughter’s. There are too many Marys in history and of course the Virgin Mary who made the name popular! I think it’s most likely to be about Bloody Mary.

    Liked by 2 people

    • HI Janet, I love the name Mary and am very familiar with the Virgin Mary as I grew up a Catholic and it was to her I always said my penances after confession. I no longer do these things but I still have great regard for the traditions of the Catholic Church. I also veer towards thinking this is about Bloody Mary, a much feared and hated woman.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Carla says:

    This was really interesting, but it makes sense. It reminds me of the origins of Ring Around the Rosey. Not all sweet like we associate them with.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. JT Twissel says:

    Most nursery rhymes were political statements from what I’ve read. I guess you’d call them medieval “tweets.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I love the dark side of nursery rhymes. What horror movie/book couldn’t benefit from a bunch of creepy kids chanting nursery rhymes?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. memadtwo says:

    I would say Queen Mary fits rather well. The rhyme does have a sinister overtone, at least I’ve always thought so. (K)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The theory I’ve heard before is Bloody Mary (from my mother’s copy of The Annotated Mother Goose, if memory serves).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. CarolCooks2 says:

    Fascinating, Robbie I knew that many tales and rhymes had a dark side but no more than that… Three great possibilities I would go with the Queens very interesting post xx

    Liked by 2 people

  11. olganm says:

    I think most of us go for the darkest explanation. As it’s often the case, children most probably don’t know what it might have meant originally, and it’s fascinating to research. Thanks, Robbie. What a promising start for a series of posts!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Deep sigh. I do believe that all of the theories have validity. Innocence was nor so innocent, eh?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Jim Borden says:

    I’m leaning towards Mary Queen of Scots…

    Liked by 2 people

  14. alexcraigie says:

    I’m really looking forward to these, Robbie. I have earlier versions of some of the fairy stories and they make for pretty disturbing reading, too – I think the idea was for them to be cautionary tales!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. marianbeaman says:

    Another dark tale, a Mother Goose rhyme: Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops,
    When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
    When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
    And down will come baby, cradle and all.

    Very creepy! Perhaps you have explored this one too in your writing, Robbie!

    Liked by 2 people


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