Eerie Nursery Rhyme- Mary Mary Quite Contrary

My father was a very strict man. He started to educate me in the field of literature quite early, and I was encouraged to read classic novels such as Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Fins, Sherlock Holmes and many more when I was a little girl.

When I was a little girl,there’s this one novel that my father did not need to pester me to read. It was known as Secret Garden. I loved to read the novel Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The secret garden in the story intrigue me as a young child. The nursery rhyme in it intrigue me even more, and it was one of the nursery rhyme that my father do not need to force me to memorize, as I thought, I’m like Mary herself when I was a child- everything seems to disagree with me and I have a mind of my own, even as a child.

This is the nursery rhyme that I was referring to:

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

As a young child, I never knew what the nursery rhyme meant. I always thought that the nursery rhyme was referring to the protagonist in the novel, Mary Lennox and her contrary and disagreeable ways, that is why I like the rhyme so much. But little did I know, the true meaning and the origins of the nursery rhyme is quite horrifying.

This particular nursery rhyme goes deep into history. It tells us the story of Mary Tudor, Queen of England.

Who is Mary?

The Mary alluded to in this traditional English nursery rhyme is reputed to be Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who was the daughter of King Henry VIII. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the garden referred to is an allusion to graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith – Protestant martyrs.

Instruments of Torture.

The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The ‘silver bells’ were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The ‘cockleshells’ were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!

The ” Maids” or Maiden was the original guillotine.

The ‘maids’ were a device to behead people called the Maiden. Beheading a victim was fraught with problems. It could take up to 11 blows to actually sever the head, the victim often resisted and had to be chased around the scaffold. Margaret Pole (1473 – 1541), Countess of Salisbury did not go willingly to her death and had to be chased and hacked at by the Executioner. These problems led to the invention of a mechanical instrument (now known as the guillotine) called the Maiden – shortened to Maids in the Mary Mary Nursery Rhyme. The Maiden had long been in use in England before Lord Morton, regent of Scotland during the minority of James VI, had a copy constructed from the Maiden which had been used in Halifax in Yorkshire. Ironically, Lord Morton fell from favour and was the first to experience the Maiden in Scotland!

Another form of execution during Mary’s reign was being burnt at the stake – a terrible punishment much used during the Spanish Inquisition. The English hated the Spanish and dreaded the idea of an English Inquisition. The executions during the reign of Bloody Mary were therefore viewed with a greater fear of the Spanish than the executions themselves – it is interesting to note that executions during her reign totalled less than 300 an insignificant amount compared to the executions ordered by her father King Henry VIII which are believed to have numbered tens of thousands.

Now, isn’t that eerie? I cannot believe that all all this while, when I was reading and teaching ‘Mistress Mary’ nursery rhyme to my students, I was actually telling them those horrible bloody things that Mary Tudor did during her reigns! When I found out about this, I actually shuddered in horror. I’m horrified by the fact that I’m ignorant and not well informed as a teacher. God knows all these while that I taught horrible history facts that was innuendoed by poems, rhymes, etc.

I wonder, how many more nursery rhymes and poems are disguised like this one? And what story it held behind it’s beautiful words?

Cleffairy: I’m Mistress Mary quite contrary at times. Perhaps I should write a coded novel to describe my thoughts on Malaysian politics? On second thought, perhaps not…it wouldn’t be as beautiful as Secret Garden.


  1. cleffairy says:

    Pete, actually, when I was a lil girl, I really like this rhyme a lot. I thought it fits me, because I was a very contrary child. Who knows it’s describing Bloody Mary. Scary!

    Zara… i don dare… ahaha… later i kena bomb, how? hancur my dear, hancur!

  2. BlurryLeo says:

    omg, some kinda findings you got there. i hope humpty dumpty is not some kinda psychopath in disguise too.

    on the book, me think you can consider compiling your ‘fairy tales’ into a book. could be a hot-seller 😉

  3. cleffairy says:

    BlurryLeo… thank God, no. Humpty Dumpty is used to describe a clumsy person. 😛 Yerr! As long as ISA is not abolished, i wun risk publishing em. I may not end up at the guillotine, but I’ll end up eating boiled eggs everyday like Theresa Kok. I’m not fan of boiled eggs! Ahahaha….

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