The Mary in the nursery rhyme is often associated with Mary the daughter of Henry VIII who reigned as Mary I of England from 1553 to 1558. She was the only surviving child of the king’s first marriage to the Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon.
‘How does your garden grow?’ according to Roberts (2004), could refer to Queen Mary’s lack of heirs or to her marriage to the Spanish King. After her marriage to Phillip II of Spain, England was seen by many as a ‘branch’ of the Holy Roman Empire.
‘Quite contrary’, may refer to Mary’s unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and by her brother Edward VI.
The “pretty maids all in a row” could refer to her false pregnancies. It has been suggested that it refers to the execution of her cousin Lady Jane Grey. However, Jane Grey was a married woman and was no longer considered to be ‘a maid’ in fact she was Mrs Jane Dudley at the time of her death.
Another theory suggests that the rhyme is about Mary, Queen of Scots who ruled from 1542–1567 and was executed by the English in 1587. ‘How does your garden grow’ might refer to her reign over her realm, ‘silver bells’ to Catholic Mass bells, ‘cockle shells’ insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and ‘pretty maids all in a row’ referring to her ladies-in-waiting known as the four Marie’s.
According to Opie (1997) and Archibald (1952) the rhyme is a religious allegory to Catholicism, with Mary being the mother of Jesus, the bells representing the Sanctus bells, the cockleshells the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) and the pretty maids are nuns.
There are differences of opinion as to whether the rhyme is a call for the reinstatement of Catholicism or for its persecution.
Roberts, Chris (2004). Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme. London: Granta. pg. 33–34.
Opie, Peter; (1997) and Iona Archibald (1952). The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford