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In the rhyme, the reference to cockle shells, bells, and gardens probably refers to Mary Tudor's Protestant graveyard.


The Reformation in England seems to have inspired a great many rhymes, cleverly worded to hide the gruesome reality of the time. Children's imaginations and memories have changed the meaning of these rhymes, but in truth, they have allowed the legacy of England's monarchy to carry on for generations.


The rhyme Mary Mary Quite Contrary has a rather threefold history to it. It is speculated that Mary refers to any of the most popular Marys in history. Since it cannot really be traced, it is simply assumed that Mary is a reference to all of them.

Mary (Mother of Jesus) is believed to be the primary reason this rhyme was written. Her garden is supposed to be an allusion to the various sacraments and monuments in Catholicism. The great bells, saints, pilgrims, and churches that populate various parts of the earth might be what the cockle shells and bells refer to.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Image source: wikimedia commons


The most popular, and widely accepted allusion, however, is that of the two Queen Marys. Mary Tudor (Mary I) and Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) were queens who upheld the catholic faith, but whose lives were markers of persecution and tyranny on England and Scotland. Caught in the midst of the founding of a new world religion, both the queens vehemently opposed Protestantism. Mary Tudor reigned before Queen Elizabeth I and was the first one to oppose the new regime. She hated how it had broken her family, and went about promising to uphold a religiously diverse England, but as soon as she took the throne, brutally murdered as many Protestants as she could.

Mary Tudor, Queen of England. Image source: wikimedia commons


Mary Stuart, on the other hand, gained power during the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Contrary to her contemporary, she was the one persecuted for her faith. She had great ambitions to overcome Elizabeth I and reinstate Catholicism in England, but she never came through with her plan. Elizabeth was too powerful for her.

In the rhyme, the reference to cockle shells, bells, and gardens probably refers to Mary Tudor's Protestant graveyard. She was responsible for the death of many Protestant priests, and perhaps the downfall of newly instituted Protestant churches. During her time, England was also a vassal nation to Spain, and therefore, the keeping of bells in the garden could refer to the Church bells in Spain. The graveyard could also belong to the many children she miscarried. She could not have an heir, which is why Queen Elizabeth I became queen. 'Contrary' refers to her inability or her incompetence in restoring England to the time when it was entirely Catholic.

Bedroom of Mary Stuart, when she was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth for treason. (Image source: wikimedia commons)


Cockle shells also bear phonetic resemblance to Cuckold, which was a common practice in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. Mary Stuart's husband was famously known for this. Hence, if the rhyme were allegorical to her life, cockle shells bear reference to this allusion.

Keywords: Mary, Tudor, Stuart, Rhyme, Cockle Shells, England, Reformation


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