“Mary, Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow ?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row”.


Recorded in 1744 the rhyme is believed to refer to Queen Mary of England. Eldest daughter of Henry VIII she ruled England from 1555 – 1558 and was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ after her death. She was responsible for the demise of hundreds of Protestants throughout Britain.

Mary was a Roman Catholic and had recently married another Catholic, Prince Phillip of Spain before she became queen. She followed her father and step brother King Edward VI to the throne, both of which had made proclamations that “England was a Protestant country”.

Because of this, on her accession, she declared her people did not need to follow her religion and allowed the protestant Church of England to remain.

However, within the first month of her reign, Mary became ‘quite contrary’ and passed the Revival of Heresy Act 1554 compelling everyone to become a Roman Catholic. Contrary describes the psychopath that Mary had no doubt become. ‘How does your garden grow’ refers to the cemeteries as they grew with bodies of protestant heretics burned at the stake. 

‘Silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ were objects of torture. The silver bells being thumbscrews and, as their name implies, were used to crush thumbs. Cockle shells was another device of screws, this time placed on the genitals of captured Protestants.

‘Pretty maids all in a row’ relates to ‘The Virgin of Nuremberg’ also known as ‘The Iron Maiden’. This was a coffin like structure in which the victims stood. The top was studded with steel spikes so that when the lid was closed the victim was pierced through – but none hit vital organs – so a hideous torture – as death was rarely an immediate outcome. If they were lucky, they were given the guillotine, known simply as ‘the maiden’ and had their head chopped off.



Leave a reply


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


©2022 The Scots of Barra

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?