Does the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary refer to the Virgin Mary?

Does the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” refer to the Virgin Mary?

In his book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, Chris Roberts offers three possible interpretations for this English rhyme.

The first interpretation is the one you mention: Mary is the Virgin Mary, the “pretty maids all in a row” are nuns, and the “cockle shells” are a reference to the famous badges worn by pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela.   (How the “quite contrary” fits into the equation is not clear.)

It seems more likely, however, that the rhyme refers to one of two royal Marys:  either Mary Tudor or Mary, Queen of Scots.  Both were Catholic monarchs who reigned over Protestant subjects (these subjects clearly found their queens’ beliefs very “contrary.”)  In this interpretation, “Pretty maids” might refer to ladies-in-waiting;   “Cockle shells” and “silver bells” might represent the instruments of torture used on religious dissenters.

We’ll probably never know for sure which of the three Marys inspired the rhyme … though it’s certainly fun to speculate.

Ginny Kubitz Moyer is the author of Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God. You can visit her blog at