Learning History from Nursery Rhymes
Several English historians have read my recent article, Not All Women Are Perfect and suggested that I do more research on Mary I of England...also known as Bloody Mary by her detractors. They felt that I had not done due diligence when it came to the meaning of the rhyme. That is not the thing to tell someone who has taught history for over a decade.
One of the emails completely dissed my understanding about the cockle shells being related to the El Camino in Spain. One email suggested that I take another look into the term, maids, which I have read referred to Catholic nuns. The emails came before 3/3/13 when I posted the article, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, in which I mentioned being an authority on nursery rhymes. I want this article to get posted ASAP to avoid appearing less learned regarding nursery rhymes than I am...especially to Jack and Owen, my two grandsons. Jack enjoys my reading to him, but Owen hasn't gotten into me reading to him before bedtime yet.
Therefore, I went back to the old tomes in my library, dusted several off and sat by the fire to do my inquiry. There I was with a book in one hand and a seven and seven on the rocks in the other. On the table before me was some Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno peppers and crackers. There I sat late into the night.
After hours of research and comfort around the fireplace, I emerged out of my research with an intense level of discomfort with the meaning behind the rhyme that I thought I knew quite well. Therefore, allow me to the parse each verse of Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and provide you with a historical Weltanschauung to the famous nursery rhyme that all children have had read to them at one time or another.
So to the parsing: Mary, Mary quite contrary...many nursery rhyme aficionados see the contrary nature of Mary due to being miffed by her father, Henry VIII, who was miffed by the Catholic Church meddling in his marriage and subsequent divorce from Mary's mother.
Henry had married Catherine of Aragon. Mary was the only child of theirs that lived after birth. Catherine had six births in which all died soon after birth or were still born...except for Mary. Henry had to get a special dispensation from the then Pope Julius II to marry Catherine since she had already been married to Henry's brother, Arthur, who died within a couple of months after his marriage to Catherine.
Henry VIII was very troubled by Pope Clement who wouldn't annul the marriage between Catherine and his brother. Henry merely replaced the pope with himself as the head of the English church. Mary wasn't happy with her father's ecclesiastical one-upmanship. Henry got tired of arguing with Rome and merely replaced the pontiff by taking over ecclesiastical powers. Mary was a very strict Catholic and wanted her father to keep out of the Catholic Church's business.
Henry wasn't a Protestant per se...he simply didn't want the church in England run by the church in Rome. Therefore, he split with the Catholic Church in 1524. That miffed the Catholics and Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry.
While this ecclesiastical situation didn't miff Henry, Mary was quite contrary and defensive about the martial problems between her parents. She grew up as an only child in a divorced family. Mary's mother died at the age of 50. There were many rumors at the time that Catherine had been poisoned. Her father had married Anne Boleyn who had Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth. There was no love lost between the two half-sisters. Again, the Protestant/Catholic issue emerged. Elizabeth accepted her father's breaking with Rome.
To further Mary's righteous indignation about Henry and his marriages: Anne Boleyn was beheaded, Jane Seymour died after childbirth, the marriage with Anne of Cleves was annulled, Catherine Howard was executed, and Catherine Parr outlived Henry. An often forgotten rhyme of the time read:
Of the six wives, three of them bore Henry a child. Even more interesting is that each of those three children succeeded him on the British throne: Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI.
Mary wanted England back in the fold with Rome, and, when she was queen, she went on her holy war against Protestants. Many died due to Mary's jihad against the Protestants.
Back to the parsing....the second line of the rhyme, "How does your garden grow," seems to have been a reference to the graveyards of those that protested her iron-rule. Mary ruled slightly less than a handful of years, but in that limited timeframe, she had about 300-Protestants executed for heresy against the Catholic Church.
We are halfway through my parsing project. This is another of the areas that my email alerts mentioned. The line, "With silver bells and cockle shells," I had written this off as spring flowers. In addition to the general flower issue, I had read about the cockle shells being tied to the El Camino, which is a very famous Spanish pilgrimage. The logo for the El Camino is a cockle shell.
Having said that, many believe that the silver bells were in reality thumbscrews used as a means to torture heretics into confessions. The same is true for cockle shells. The cockle shells were similar to the thumb screws but were used on a man's genitals.
Finally, the last line of the rhyme, "And pretty maids all in a row". The more mundane view of that line was that it referred to the obedient nuns of the English society. The less mundane explanation was that it was the name used for the guillotine. Supposedly, the guillotine's use in Scotland during this period of time was so seldom used that it got the nickname, the Scottish Maiden or just the short version, Maid. Okay, use of the term, maid, was a sexist term, but that is the explanation of its usage.
Speaking of nicknames, Mary I's nickname was Bloody Mary for the various tortures and the guillotine. While the rhyme doesn't mention burning heretics at the stake, burning them was used by Mary during the Marian Persecutions. In fact, they would often place a bag of gunpowder around the person's neck who was about to be burned. While the notion of gunpowder might seem a more or less humane addition to kill the person quickly, gunpowder needs to be contained in a tight object to explode with any real force. Therefore, the use of gunpowder is at best questionable. There isn't much benefit or additional torture when it was used in conjunction with the burning at the stake.
I hope that you enjoy reading Mary, Mary Quite Contrary to younger family members. However, I'd suggest waiting until their adulthood to give them this article to read and learn an interesting history lesson.
For a funny research video about being burned at the stake, watch this scientific research project.