In the first of a new series, Myra King starts to tell the story of the English Civil War.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells and pretty maids all in a row.”
Sound like a sweet, children’s rhyme? Well it’s not.
It actually refers to Queen Mary I of England. A woman so violent and psychologically imbalanced she earned herself the name, Bloody Mary. This queen, the first child and eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, had the strange idea that her God was punishing her with infertility because she was too tolerant of Protestants. This was an unfortunate belief as her father, 40 years before, believed his God was punishing him with infertility because England was not Protestant. And so, Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and changed the religion of the England. This might not sound catastrophic, but in an era when science and reason barely existed, belief in the church was all these people had. And Henry took it away from them. He replaced it with a church that saw him as the unquestioned leader. This tyrannical leader then burned monasteries, killed monks, stole their gold and hanged all those who questioned him.
Henry earned himself two of his own nursery rhymes, “Little Jack Horner” and “Old Mother Hubbard.” Once again, this might not seem important, but this shows us the turning tide of public opinion towards monarchs. Throughout the history of England, the question of who reigned had always been more important than how they reigned. The law called “The Divine Right of Kings” meant that the monarch was seen as God’s choice; he was a chosen person to rule over their land. Therefore, who were the commoners to question who ruled? A king was a king was a king was a king. If he wasn’t a good one, hopefully the next one would be better. And that was the end of it. The common man had no say.
Or did he?
Henry VIII destroyed his reign and the love of his people by gutting England of its long standing religion; of putting wives aside, or worse, killing them; of starving the nation for his wars; of murdering all those who opposed him. The people remember him by mocking him in rhyme. His son, and successor, did not rule for long enough to live in infamy. But his daughter, Mary, will always be remembered as the blood-thirsty, psychopath she was.
The poem, “Mary, quite contrary,” refers to Mary’s garden that in reality was the growing graveyard her religious genocide caused. Mary, unlike most of the rest of England, had never abandoned Catholicism. Upon her disastrous marriage and second phantom pregnancy, the Queen decided that England would once again be Catholic, and all Protestants should be tortured and burned. Silverbells, Cockleshells and Pretty Maids were all torture devices used heavily in her reign. Mary earned herself even more rhymes: Ladybird, Ladybird, Three Blind Mice, and Goosy Goosy Gander, as well as a handful that have not survived into modern times. Despite their sweet words, these rhymes depict the hell that Mary brought to the realm. More hated than her father had ever been, Mary lives on despite her death four hundred years ago. Although, only children, their mothers and pre-school teachers still speak of her. Rhyming happily to a poem forged in the blood and torture of the Protestants she destroyed.
Henry and Mary serve to prove the changing opinions of the English people. Their chosen monarch could be evil, they now saw. Their chosen monarch could be cruel and unjust; their policies wrong; their beliefs and rules could be against the wishes of England.
Common men of the past had quietly accepted their kings without complaint. But those kings had abused their people. Those kings had destroyed the trust put in to them.
And so when James I and his son, Charles I, insisted on the law of the Divine Right of Kings despite England not wanting that law, England no longer wanted their Kings.
You can read Myra’s first series of articles on the Wars of the Roses by clicking here.
- Who's who in British History by Juliet Gardiner
- British History by Miles Kelly