Heads Will Roll: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Before turning our attention to England’s shortest ruling monarch, let’s look at what the U.S. has to offer:

William Henry Harrison managed to be President of the United States for thirty-one days before dying of typhoid fever. At the time, he was considered a war hero for his military stands against the Shawnee Tribes; today, that reputation might not shine so bright.

Yeah, Harrison is probably closer to what we could call a war criminal, but times change. In the moment, he was celebrated.

How celebrated?

Well, he became the 9th President of the United States…if only for thirty-one days.

He was also the oldest president before Ronald Reagan (Harrison was 68, vs. Reagan’s 69).

So was he a nice man? Pro-slave, anti-native, and desperate to make a speech in the rain.

8,445 words long.

In the rain.

I’m struggling to get 600 words out of this post. I’ve got to give it to Harrison; he had several things on his mind.

Two hours of things.

He then got his photo taken – the first time that happened  for a president- and then went to three inaugural balls.

In the cold, in the rain.

And thirty one days later…

William Henry Harrison, Bass Otis, 1841

The U.S. had a new president.

But that is a lifetime compared to Lady Jane Grey;

She only got nine days on the throne.

And then heads rolled…


Here’s Jane Grey’s reflection on her upbringing. She was thirteen at the time; her tutor caught her reading Plato:

For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.

And you thought your parents were harsh!


Back in the good old days, you could kill a leader for anything that looked like treason.

And treason could be religious.

Her great-grandfather, Henry VII had broken with the Roman Catholic Church; Jane Grey had stayed true to his Protestant beliefs.

Not so much Henry’s daughter, Mary 1.

She was proudly Catholic.

And she was out for blood…


Besides Lady Jane Grey, Mary’s religious persecution would take some 280 other lives, leading to her informal title: Bloody Mary.

And a nice bit of limerick:

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

This is the most famous lyric potentially used to describe Mary Tudor, [Mary 1], Queen of England and Ireland.

There are many interpretations given to to these words; it could refer to her infertility, to her infidelities, to her restoration of Catholicism.

Some suggest the garden refers to cemeteries over flowing with new grave markers. Are the silver bells indicative or church bells? or do they refer to thumbscrews and the cockleshells genital clamps, both popular forms of torture at the time.

Another torture contraption at the time was the iron maiden, shaped like a sarcophagus and lined with spikes that would pierce the non-vital parts of the living victim shut up inside. Did the lined up maidens refer to that or the guillotine, which was also often referred to as the ‘maiden’.

It is certainly the most provocative line in the poem,  and at least some scholars think that Lady Jane Grey was one of those pretty maids in a row.

So what did Lady Jane Grey have to say in retort?

She quoted Jesus from the Gospel of Luke:

“Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”

And then the axe came down…

And heads rolled…

Jane was only 16-17 years old.


And that’s how the Nine-Day Queen’s reign ended.

Interestingly, Mary showed mercy on Jane’s mother; she was allowed to live out the rest of her days in Mary’s court.

Oh, Mary, Mary, quite contrary….

Jane Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833. National Gallery, London.

2 thoughts on “Heads Will Roll: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

  1. When I visited the Tower of London 20 years ago, our guide there told us that ‘Three Blind Mice/See how they run/They ran after the farmer’s wife / who cut their tails off with a curving knife’ was also about Queen Mary I. She was the ‘farmer’s wife’ (she is supposed to have looked very plain) and there were apparently some bishops who crossed her until she metaphorically snipped off their tails and they ran for their lives. I haven’t ascertained the truth in the tale, but it has remained with me all these years!


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