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Origins: Mary, Mary

Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary

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

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744) has the first printed version of ‘Mary, Mary’, as follows:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your Garden grow?
With Silver bells,
And Cockle Shells,
And so my Garden grows.

The final line of the verse went through a a number of permutations in the first half-century of publication:

Nancy Cook’s Pretty Song Book for all Little and Misses and Masters, c.1780, Sing cuckolds all on row.
Gamer Gurton’s Garland, 1784, Cowslips all arow.
Tom Thumb’s Song Book, 1788, With Lady bells all in a row.
Tom Tit’s Song Book for all Little Masters and Misses, c.1790, With Lady bells all in a row.
Infant Institutes, 1797, And cuckolds all in a row.

There are a number of competing theories as to the identity of contrary Mary.

Our Lady

According to Opie, Catholics view the rhyme as a lament for the persecution of the Catholic church and Protestants as a lament for the reinstatement of the Catholic church. This belief is predicated on the interpretation of the verse as a pen portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where the ‘silver bells’ represent sanctus bells, the cockleshells Pilgrim badges and the ‘pretty maids’ nuns.

Bloody Mary

Mary Tudor (Mary I, 1516-1558) was a staunch Catholic. This interpretation of the rhyme suggests that Mary’s garden is her figurative personal graveyard, ever growing as it was filled with the bodies of Protestant dead.  The rhyme appears to be a celebration of Mary’s torturous ways: the sliver bells are said to represent thumbscrews; the cockleshells a (male) genital torture device which crushed the penis, and the maids a colloquial abbreviation of referring to either the Iron Maiden or Scottish Maiden, devices of torture and beheading respectively.

Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the case of Mary Stewart (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542 – 1587) the pretty maids are said to refer to the Four Marys, her ladies-in-waiting. In this case, the silver bells and cockleshells are said to be decorations on the womens’ dresses.

Victorian publications including the rhyme – Kate Greenway’s 1881 offering Mother Goose, Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Rusher’s Poetic Trifles (1840) – in keeping with the Victorian tradition of outward prudence, inward pervery, bowdlerizes the mention of cuckoldry in some earlier versions, referring instead to flowers.

No evidence has been found that the rhyme pre-dates the eighteenth century, which makes any links to the Queens Mary spurious at best. It’s worth mentioning, though, that a ballad called ‘Cuckolds all a row’ was registered in 1637, which may have provided the basis for the rhyme.


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