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Illustration by William Wallace Denslow
Wikimedia Commons

“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is an English nursery rhyme that may have a religious background, but the possible meanings of which are disputed.[1]

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

The oldest known version was published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744) with the final line “And so my Garden grows”.[1]

The “Mary” who is the subject of the rhyme is often suggested to be the Catholic Queen Mary I of England (1516–1588), also known as Bloody Mary for her ruthless persecution of Protestants. The gardens are seen as graveyards where the increasing number of executed Protestants were buried, the “silver bells and cockle shells” as instruments of torture,[2] and the “pretty maids all in a row” a reference to her miscarriages.[3]

Another popular tradition has it that “Mary” refers to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), and that the “pretty maids all in a row” are her ladies-in-waiting, the “Four Marys”. Somewhat mitigating against both explanations however, is the lack of evidence that the rhyme was known before the 18th century.[1]