Mary Hamilton

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This article is about the song. For other uses, see Mary Hamilton (disambiguation).
"Mary Hamilton"
or, "The Fower Maries"
Published 16th Century
Genre Child Ballad
Writer Anonymous

"Mary Hamilton" or "The Fower Maries" ("The Four Marys") are common names for a well-known sixteenth-century ballad from Scotland based on an apparently fictional incident about a lady-in-waiting to a Queen of Scotland or, possibly, to Catherine I of Russia. It is Child Ballad 173 and Roud 79.

In all versions of the song, Mary Hamilton is a personal attendant to the Queen of Scots, but precisely which queen is not specified. She becomes pregnant by the Queen's husband, the King of Scots, which results in the birth of a baby. Mary kills the infant – in some versions by casting it out to sea[1] or drowning, and in others by exposure. The crime is seen and she is convicted. The ballad recounts Mary's thoughts about her life and her impending death in a first-person narrative.

Source of the ballad[edit]

Most versions of the song are set in Edinburgh, but Joan Baez sets her version, which is probably the best known, in Glasgow, ending with these lyrics (in translation):

Last night there were four Marys;
Tonight there'll be but three:
There was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton
And Mary Carmichael and Me.

This verse suggests that Mary Hamilton was one of the famous "Four Marys" chosen by Mary of Guise (1515–1560), queen consort of James V, King of Scots, to be companions to her daughter – the infant Mary Stuart, called Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) – who succeeded her father shortly after her birth. Yet none of the real four Marys was a Hamilton, they were actually Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston.

In many versions of the song, the queen is called "the auld Queen", suggesting that she is middle-aged or older. The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, began when she was only six days old in 1542 and ended with her abdication in 1567 at the age of twenty-five, which might make young Mary and her spouse, king consort Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley,[2] unlikely grist for the tale. However, "the auld Queen," as a colloquial term, may refer to precedence rather than age, in which case, she should not be ruled out, nor should another possible Queen of Scots three generations earlier, Mary of Guelders (1434–1463), consort to James II of Scotland.

Mary Hamilton Before Execution, St. Petersburg by Pavel Svedomskiy, 1904

Another historical incident, in 1719, involving one Mary Hamilton (Maria Danilovna Gamentova, died 1719) that occurred not in Scotland – by which time the Hanovers had succeeded the Stuarts – but in Russia. In this case, Mary was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine I of Russia (1684–1727) and the mistress of Tsar Peter the Great and his aide-de-camp Ivan Orlov. In 1717, it was discovered that she had had two abortions, and had drowned her third infant after birth. On 14 March 1719, she was decapitated for infanticide in St. Petersburg. It was rumoured that the sentence was so severe, because the Tsar suspected that his own paternity was involved. Mary's head was preserved and displayed in the Kunstkamera, a palace holding natural and scientific "curiosities". At that time, Charles Wogan was in Russia on a mission for James Francis Edward Stuart, and through him news of the incident might have reached Scotland.[3]

Since ballads of different times about different people are often recycled, many scholars speculate that the Russian story, including the name "Mary Hamilton", may have fused with the original song, which may itself have been a fusion of other earlier ballads.[4]

The ballad was catalogued by Francis James Child as Child Ballad # 173.[1]

"Mary Hamilton" in A Room of One's Own[edit]

In her highly influential text A Room of One's Own, author Virginia Woolf alludes to the characters in the ballad. She refers by name to Mary Beton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael as recurrent personae, leaving only Mary Hamilton, the narrator of the ballad, unmentioned. Mary Beton plays the prominent role in Woolf's extended essay, as she serves as the speaker.

According to her narrator in A Room of One's Own, "'I' is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being." A few sentences later, the narrator returns to the concept of identity and subjectivity and invokes the subjects of the ballad for the first time: "Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of importance)..." [5]

Mary Beton serves as the narrator throughout A Room of One's Own. The six chapters of the essay follow Mary Beton's walks through Oxbridge grounds and London streets, and her mental explorations of the history of women and fiction. The name reappears in the character of the narrator's aunt, who serves as both the namesake and benefactor of Mary Beton.[6] Woolf is able to detach herself from the narrative voice of the essay through the use of Beton.

Mary Seton is a friend of Mary Beton at the fictitious Fernham College (modelled after Cambridge's Newnham and Girton Colleges). It is partially through her conversations with Seton that Beton raises questions about the relationship between financial wealth and the opportunities for female education. Speaking of Mary Seton's mother, the narrator states, "If she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography."[7]

Mary Carmichael plays the role of a fictitious author referenced by the narrator in A Room of One's Own.[8] Her fabricated novel, Life's Adventure, allows Woolf to introduce the concept of female relationships. Mary Carmichael may also evoke the idea of the real author and birth-control activist Marie Carmichael (pseudonym for Marie Stopes) and her novel Love's Creation.


      Mary Hamilton (The Fower(1) Marys)

How the Four Marys were depicted in an Edwardian children's history book

Yest're'en(2) the Queen had fower(1) Marys
The nicht(3) she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Car-Michael and me.

Oh little did my mother think
The day she cradled me
The lands I was to travel in
The death I was tae die(4)

Oh tie a napkin roon(5) my eyen(6)
No let me seen to die(4)
And sent me a'wa(7) tae my dear mother
Who's far away o'er the sea

But I wish I could lie in our ain(8) kirkyard(9)
Beneath yon old oak tree
Where we pulled the rowans and strung the gowans(10)
My brothers and sisters and me

Yest're'en(2) the Queen had fower(1) Marys
The nicht(3) she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Car-Michael and me.

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I've hopes for eternity
And I'll pray that the faith o' a dying thief
Be given through grace tae me

Yest're'en(2) the Queen had fower(1) Marys
The nicht(3) she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Car-Michael and me.

There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Car-Michael and me.


Notes to the lyrics:

  1. fower - four
  2. yest're'en – yestereven(ing) (i.e. last night)
  3. nicht – night
  4. (pronounced: "dee")
  5. roon – around
  6. eyene – eyes
  7. a'wa – away
  8. ain – own
  9. kirkyard – churchyard (cemetery)
  10. gowans – daisies


  1. ^ a b University of California, Fresno. "Mary Hamilton [Child 173]". Folklore ballads. Retrieved 14 February 2012. 
  2. ^ E. Henry David Music Publishers, The Four Marys. Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  3. ^ Andrew Lang. The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories,
  4. ^ Tolman, Albert H. "Mary Hamilton: The Group Authorship of Ballads." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 42.2 (1927): 422–32. ISSN: 0030-8129.
  5. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. 4–5.
  6. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. 37.
  7. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. p.21.
  8. ^ Woolf, 1929. p.78.

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