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As many of you can see, I've been a pretty terrible blogger lately! What can I say...Life.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Day Two of the Truth Behind the Nursery Rhyme: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary/ London Bridge is Falling Down

So, I thought nursery rhymes could not get more morbid than Ring Around the Rosy (See Day One of the Truth Behind the Nursery Rhyme: Humpty Dumpty/ Ring Around the Rosy.) I was sadly mistaken for Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is far worse! Fortunately, London Bridge is Falling Down is not nearly as bad. Read on to see what I mean...

Mary Mary quite contrary,How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

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.

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' 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 favor and was the first to experience the Maiden in Scotland!

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair Lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair Lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair Lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair Lady.

Set a man to watch all nigh,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair Lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair Lady.

The 'London Bridge is falling down' Nursery Rhyme is based on the one of the most famous landmarks in London. It's history can be traced to the Roman occupation of England in the first century. The first London Bridge was made of wood and clay and was fortified or re-built with the various materials mentioned in the children's nursery rhyme. Many disasters struck the bridges - Viking invaders destroyed the bridge in the 1000's which led to a fortified design, complete with a drawbridge. Building materials changed due to the many fires that broke out on the bridge.

The first stone bridge was designed by Peter de Colechurch and built in 1176 and took 33 years to build and featured twenty arches the dimensions of which were sixty feet high and thirty feet wide and was complete with tower and gates. The flow of the Thames under the bridge was used to turn water wheels below the arches for grinding grain. By the 1300's the bridge contained 140 shops, some of which were more than three stories high. ( The reference to Silver and Gold in the rhyme relates to the trading which was conducted on the bridge). London Bridge survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 but its arches and foundations were weakened.

In the 1820s a new London Bridge was built on another site, north of the old one. This new bridge opened in 1831 and the old bridge was demolished. In the 1960s yet another London Bridge was built. The London Bridge of 1831 was transported, stone by stone, to Lake Havasu in Arizona, USA.

There is another verse. (Sometimes on added onto verses of London Bridge is Falling Down, on its own, or a completely different rhyme called London Bridge is Breaking Down.)  Its origins relate to Queen Anne Boleyn

Take a key and lock her up,
Lock her up, lock her up,
Take a key and lock her up,
My fair lady.

This nursery rhyme refers to the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest and was ultimately executed for treason.

Original information and images can be found at...


  1. WOW! I did not know that and to me it is a big shock! Mary Quite Contrary is contrary to what I thought. I didn't know that London Bridge was transported to Arizona! Hoping to hear more :-)

  2. Fascinating! And certainly nothing to sing about. Were people so sadistic in the old days? So happy to be living in these times. It worried me before that my youngest (3) prefers to sing along with Usher, and Tao Cruise - now I'm actually glad that he does! Very interesting post, AubrieAnne. A little history lesson for us all.

  3. I think I’ve heard/read something about it a long time ago. Still, that’s an amazing story. I am quite interested in English queens lately but reading historical books is not so appealing... so I'm reading novels by Philippa Gregory; the world of old England is such a fascinating place!

  4. dtwilight...Yes, a lot of the history behind these rhymes surprised me too! I had no clue until I found these.

    Matt...Crazy is a good word.

    Moana...That's how I feel. I definately think that this history is fascinating and sometimes I think I would like to live back then, but then I remember the no electricity, no toilets, no sewage or drainage. It's a scary thing. Not to mention the hangings and beheading. Yikes!

    Mira...I love the English queens as well. A lot of the history classes I took mainly focused on England or that part of Europe around the Medieval Period and the Tudor Period. Really, really interesting stuff!

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  6. Amee...Thanks for finding me and for following. Please join in the conversation if you get a chance. We have a fascinating topic going on all week!

  7. Great stories on the nursery rhymes! I had no idea of their meanings. May have to work it into my homeschooling group for the kids.

  8. The Adventurer...That could be very interesting for them. :)

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  10. I grew up singing the first and last verses, I had never heard the rest for London Bridge!

  11. Teresa...Thank you for saying so, for finding me, and for following. I hope you have a great day as well!

    Rose...That's what another commentor and I were saying, that there were a lot of new verses that these websites revealed. It's kind of cool though.

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  57. Why is there a picture of Tower Bridge, which has never fallen down? It is farther down the river, near the Tower, and should not be confused with London Bridge.


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