Originally known as Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary, this rhyme was first published in 1744 in the Pretty Song Book by Tommy Thumb. The fascinating thing about this rhyme is that there are so many different opinions on what it really means.
No one is absolutely certain of who “Mary” was but most people believe it was Mary Queen of Scots. It’s believed that the silver bells and cockle shells were embellishments on her dress that her first husband, the Dauphin of France gave to her. The “pretty maids all in a row” is a reference to her four ladies in waiting.
However, some sources have suggested the nursery rhyme is about Mary I, Bloody Mary with much grislier meanings attributed to the lyrics! In other sources, it is said to be sharing views on the sadness people felt when Catholicism was reinstated and regret at the number of people that were persecuted because of it.
Mary Mary Quite Contrary Lyrics
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.