Torture Nursery Rhyme

A week or so ago in home school, Caleb studied nursery rhymes.
One of his favorites is Humpty Dumpty…

We then heard “Mary Mary Quiet Contrary” – an odd sounding nursery rhyme… but oddly enough Owen LOVES to hear it sung.

Heres evidence…


That smile I got out of him was when I sang the song to him.

This morning I then decided to look up the meaning of the song. Cause it really is kind of weird and didn’t make much sense.

So I looked it up and came across this website.

I know many of you wont click that, so ill post the meaning here as well 😉

The origins are steeped in history… Bloody Mary!
The Mary alluded to in this traditional English nursery rhyme is reputed to be Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who was the daughter of King Henry VIII. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the garden referred to is an allusion to graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith – Protestant martyrs.

Instruments of Torture!
The silver bells and cockle shells referred to in the Nursery Rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The ‘silver bells’ were thumbscrews which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces by the tightening of a screw. The ‘cockleshells’ were believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to the genitals!

The ” Maids” or Maiden was the original guillotine!
The ‘maids’ were a device to behead people called the Maiden. Beheading a victim was fraught with problems. It could take up to 11 blows to actually sever the head, the victim often resisted and had to be chased around the scaffold. Margaret Pole (1473 – 1541), Countess of Salisbury did not go willingly to her death and had to be chased and hacked at by the Executioner. These problems led to the invention of a mechanical instrument (now known as the guillotine) called the Maiden – shortened to Maids in the Mary Mary Nursery Rhyme. The Maiden had long been in use in England before Lord Morton, regent of Scotland during the minority of James VI, had a copy constructed from the Maiden which had been used in Halifax in Yorkshire. Ironically, Lord Morton fell from favour and was the first to experience the Maiden in Scotland!

Another form of execution during Mary’s reign was being burnt at the stake – a terrible punishment much used during the Spanish Inquisition. The English hated the Spanish and dreaded the idea of an English Inquisition. The executions during the reign of Bloody Mary were therefore viewed with a greater fear of the Spanish than the executions themselves – it is interesting to note that executions during her reign totalled less than 300 an insignificant amount compared to the executions ordered by her father King Henry VIII which are believed to have numbered tens of thousands! We recommend the following site for more facts and information about Bloody Mary

Not so sure ill enjoy singing Mary Mary much more…
Isn’t it interesting to learn though!

Note: I didn’t read this history to Caleb… after all I dont want him reading at age 6 about peoples gentiles being tortured and people getting beheaded. Thats another lesson for years down the road 🙂

About dreawood

32 Yr old Mom to 4 boys. Married to a former Cop who now Pastors a Evangelical church in SC. Professional Photographer and random blogger @
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10 Responses to Torture Nursery Rhyme

  1. Brynna says:

    Oh my goodness, yuck!!

  2. Heather says:

    It’s surprising what kinds of stories nursery rhymes are about. Ring Around the Rosie is about the Bubonic Plague!

  3. Heather says:

    (oops. Rosy, not Rosie)

  4. jennography says:

    Might I suggest, “Wee Sing Bible Songs?” lol Yeah, nursery rhymes are dark for sure. 😉

    Very interesting, and I did not know this about Mary Mary. However…if you really thinking about “Rock a Bye Baby”…um, that is a bit weird too. Even without knowing the hidden meaning of the lyrics. 😮

  5. Jenn says:

    Yeah, most nursery rhymes have a pretty dark story behind them. “Sing a song of sixpence”…just listen to the actual words! It’s some kind of pirate song.

  6. scatterbrain says:

    Most nursery rhymes have gory stories behind them. Except maybe “twinkle twinkle little star” ??

    I was appalled that the rhyme ” peter peter pumpkin eater” was part of kindergarten curriculum at my old school!

  7. Robyn says:

    Love Owen’s hat! Can you link me where you got it from – if you know where it’s from? I’d love to get baby 3 a hat with his name on it ;0)

  8. Tara Dew says:

    Yep, its really sad how many of the nursery rhymes have horrible meanings from history. Even something as simple as ring around the rosy has many historical implications about the sickness during the plague!

  9. Megan C. says:

    Oh my goodness! That’s horrible! All these little innocent nursery rhymes we sang as kids weren’t so innocent after all! Ewww.
    On a lighter note, I love Owen’s hat. So cute!

  10. Britt says:

    You’d be surprised at the meanings of a LOT of nursery rhymes. This coming from an Elementary Ed major with a concentration in Reading.

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