Mary, Mary, quite contrary
Another seemingly innocent rhyme but one with a darker meaning. The most popular version goes, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells and pretty maids all in a row” although in the earliest printed version – again in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of around 1744 – the final line reads “and so my garden grows”.
At one level it seems to be a ditty about a keen horticulturalist, albeit one who is a bit temperamental and who has a strange array of stuff in her herbaceous borders. However, it seems that there is more meaning to the rhyme than meets the eye. Quite what that meaning is depends upon which of the competing explanations you choose to accept. The one common thread is that its origins go back to the 16th century.
One theory is that the rhyme is an allegory about Catholicism, although whether it is in favour of that version of Christianity or not is open to question. The bells represent the sanctus bells – small, hand-held altar bells – and the cockleshells the shells that pilgrims wore en route to Santiago de Campostela. The pretty maids are nuns.
Possibly – but a slightly more compelling claim is made on behalf of Mary Queen of Scots. The garden is her realm (or, at least, the realm over which she made claim), the bells are symbols of her Catholicism, the maids are her ladies-in-waiting and the cockleshells reflect the fact that her husband has been unfaithful to her.
However, the most popular and, in my view, compelling interpretation is that it relates to Mary I or Bloody Mary. She is contrary because she sought to overturn the country’s move to Protestantism initiated by her father, Henry VIII, and continued by her brother, Edward VI. The garden is thought to be a reference to her Lord Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner.
The second half of the rhyme is a pretty grim reference to the reign of terror that Mary and her supporters unleashed against adherents of Protestantism. The phrase silver bells was a popular colloquialism at the time for thumb screws, applied to extract confessions from the victims, and cockleshells were attached to the genitals for much the same purpose. The maids or maiden was a forerunner of the guillotine and was used to hold the victim in place so that the executioner could get a better sight of their neck. Many beheadings, apparently, were botched and onlookers were occasionally treated to the sight of the executioner chasing the victim around the block. The row reflects the number of executions carried out during Mary’s relatively brief reign.
There is an alternative explanation to the pretty maids all in a row. Mary had a number of miscarriages and the line could be a cruel jibe to Mary’s misfortunes and the row could be the line of grave stones marking the burial places of her still-born children.
Whichever version you choose to accept, we are a long way from the pastoral scene of a young lady tending her plants in the garden.