Sunday, August 19, 2012


Because I garden, I’ve always thought of the children’s rhyme, 'Mary, Mary quite contrary, How does your garden grow?' as a sweet poem.

It wasn’t until I guest blogged on Ellis’s blog,  that I learned another explanation. I wanted to quote the poem corrrectly, so I googled it.
Oh My Google! The rhyme has been seen as having religious and historical significance, but its origins and meaning are disputed. According to several sites, the nursery rhyme I thought so quaint and charming turns out to be a condemnation of Mary Tudor’s, gruesome cruelty to Protestants. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and was nicknamed Bloody Mary.
The earliest record of the rhyme was in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). In this record the rhyme was:

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

In one accounting, How does your garden grow refers to the growing number of bodies planted in graveyards because of Mary’s executioners.
With silver bells evoked a vision of delicate tiny bells sounding delightfully dainty chimes. Mary’s sliver bells, used on a man’s genitals, produced screams of horror and pain.

Though I had no idea what cockle shells looked like, I never imagined them to refer to thumbscrews that smashed and shattered Protestant’s fingers.
The most common modern version is:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Another theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm, "silver bells" referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, "cockle shells" insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" referring to her ladies-in-waiting - "The four Maries".

Since no proof has been found that the rhyme was known before the eighteenth century, it begs the question of the implications since Mary I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, were contemporaries in the sixteenth century.
That rhyme always put me in mind of a pretty girl tending her garden, using a pastel colored watering can to gently sprinkle her tiny treasures. Or maybe the Home Depot version of mulch and compost and Weed B Gone, but I never envisioned a sociopath wearing a crown.
It’s fascinating to discover that what we consider a children’s rhyme might have had roots in politics and religion. I’ll never look at my garden sign, “How Does Your Garden Grow” in quite the same way.

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