Many early fairy tales and children’s songs have been sanitized over the years, their darker origins being submerged under the seeming nonsense of the verses. Yet if we dig deep enough, we can uncover the disturbing origin of nursery rhymes. Two gruesome nursery rhymes link directly back to Mary I of England.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
The homicidal Queen Mary I (1553 to 1558), a fanatical Catholic, executed hundreds of Protestants during her reign. Although the nursery rhyme did not appear till 200 years later (1744), Mary remained an unpopular monarch.
The most common lyrics today are:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row
Mary I was quite contrary, going against the grain of English Protestism. Yet how does she “grow” her kingdom? With the sprouting of gravestones from the 284 Protestants she burned at the stake. In this interpretation, the silver bells and cockle shells can refer to torture devices.
The pretty maids in a row can refer to her attempts to create an heir. She knew she needed someone to rule after her, otherwise her sister, Elizabeth, would take control and revert the country back to Protestant beliefs. Mary was already 38 when married to Philip. She suffered from “phantom pregnancies” where she retained her menstrual fluid, causing her belly to swell. In the end, she suffered two such false pregnancies.
Three Blind Mice
This rhyme dates much closer to Mary I, being published in 1609 by one Thomas Ravenscroft. The modern lyrics go like this:
Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?
During Mary’s reign, three Protestant loyalists plotted against the queen. Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer all conspired to overthrow the queen. They were never blinded, but perhaps they were “blind” to the truth of God. Instead of cutting off their tails, Mary had the “Oxford Martyrs” burned at the stake.
The farmer’s wife in this tale refers to Mary and her husband, King Philip of Spain, who owned massive estates.
So the next time you hum one of these little ditties, think about the pain and suffering that inspired them.