Dark Origins – Mary, Mary, Quite ContraryPosted: January 27, 2021
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is an English nursery rhyme which is believed to have religious and historical significance.
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.
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.
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
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):
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
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