The Dark Side of Mary Mary Quite Contrary

by M-Gillies

Queen Mary or "Bloody Mary" as she was called was quite contrary as the nursery rhyme says and sent almost 300 people to their death during her five year reign.

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

There’s a sadistic cruelty to the history of the world, from the times of medieval poverty, torture and disease to inquisitions, genocide and war; the past has been tarnished and plagued with atrocities that could only been considered fictitious. Even those playfully innocent nursery rhymes recited to children are shrouded with implicit messages, often depicting the follies of iconic moments in history or the people there within.

Among the most notable of nursery rhymes is that of Mary Mary Quite Contrary. In this particular couplet composition, Mary Mary Quite Contrary alluded to the reputation of Mary of Tudor, who after her death was given the name of Bloody Mary for her part in catalyzing the deaths of hundreds of protestants.

It was upon becoming Queen regent that Mary I, a practicing Roman Catholic attempted to establish a one ideological nation, setting in motion a reform to the laws of England in the early 1500s. With her implementation of Roman Catholicism, English Protestants were forced to convert to Catholicism or pay the consequences.

During the Marian Persecutions, those who refused to reform were burned at the stake for heresy, a practice used during the Spanish Inquisition. While the English detested the Spanish, Mary’s reign became seen as an English Inquisition earning her a lasting hatred from English Protestants. However, unlike her father King Henry VIII, who, during his reign executed an access of ten thousand people, Mary I was instrumental in the deaths of less than 300 people.

While the exact origins of the nursery rhyme are unclear, many historians studying nursery rhymes have uncovered the grisly comparisons to the imagery used in Mary Mary Quite Contrary. Prior to Mary’s accession, the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII married Prince Phillip of Spain. During a time when England’s favor toward the Spanish was ill-received, the marriage itself was unpopular amongst the people.

To further complicate matters, Mary issued a proclamation stating that she would not compel any of her subjects to follow her religion, particularly since her father had allowed the Church of England to break away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during the English Reformation and her half-brother, Edward VI had set a series of religious reforms that allowed England to act as institutionally Protestant country.

However, during her first month as Queen, Mary, being quite contrary to her people, set the first statute of repeal and nullified all religious legislation passed during the boy-King Edward VI short reign, further allowing her to put into motion the Revival of the Heresy Act in 1554.

In the verse, how does your garden grow, the nursery rhyme alludes to the garden being a cemetery and it growing with the bodies of heretics burned at the stake. Meanwhile, silver bells and cockle shells acted as colloquialisms for instruments of torture, where silver bells were thumbscrews used to crush the thumb between two hard surfaces and cockle shells were torture devices used on the victims genitals.

Meanwhile, all the pretty maids in a row holds multiple variations, with some considering it to allude to the original prototype of the guillotine, both known as the maiden or when shortened maids. Another device used for torture was the Virgin of Nuremberg, otherwise known as the Iron Maiden. It was with this device that victims would be placed within an upright standing sarcophagus and sealed inside by two doors which had strategically-placed spikes that pierced the victim’s flesh, but not any vital organs.

While nursery rhymes may seem innocent enough, with their harmonious melodies, the truth remains that they are rich with historical injustices, suffering and torture, rather than happy, feel-good poems we long ago were sung as children. So, the next time you catch yourself humming the rhythm of Mary Mary, Quite Contrary, remember that the nursery rhyme, like Ring-a Ring-a Rosie or London Bridge is Falling Down, is just another example of being reminded of the dark history of our ancestors.

Read more:

The truth behind “Mary Mary Quite Contrary”

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