Mary Hamilton

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
"Mary Hamilton"
or, "The Fower Maries"
Published16th Century
GenreChild Ballad

"Mary Hamilton", or "The Fower Maries" ("The Four Marys"), is a common name 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. 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.

Sources of the ballad[edit]

Illustration by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale: She had Mary Seaton, and Mary Beaton, And Mary Carmichael, and me

Folk and traditional ballads, songs and stories often get recycled, with bits and pieces of material from different sources periodically recombined and excised over the centuries. The legend of medieval Danish prince Hamlet, for example, is partially the legend of earlier medieval Irish prince Amhlaide (h-Amhlaide, in the vocative case). Whatever the original source material of "The Fower Maries", the modern versions are fundamentally based upon the story of Maria Danilova Gamentova (d. 1719), whose name is the Russian form of Hamilton.[2]

Otherwise, 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 words:

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

This verse suggests Mary Hamilton was one of the famous Four Maries. They were four girls named Mary who were chosen by the queen mother and regent Mary of Guise (1515–1560; widow of King James V) to be companion ladies-in-waiting to her daughter, the child monarch Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587, r. 1542–1567). But the fourth Mary among Mary Seton (1542–1615), Mary Beaton (1543–1598), and Mary Fleming (1542–1581), was Mary Livingston (1541–1579). That Mary Livingston was the first of the Four Maries to die suggests the original song, or at least the source of this verse, was about the death of Mary Livingston in 1579.

Apart from that, Mary Stuart could not be a real life source for the ballad in any of its current forms as these are in conflict with the historical record. First, she and the Four Maries lived in France from 1547 to 1560, where Mary was dauphine and then queen as the wife of King Francis II. Upon the death of her first husband and her mother, who was regent for her in Edinburgh, Mary returned home to Scotland (keeping the French spelling of her surname, viz. Mary Stewart > Marie Stuart). She did not marry her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley until July 1565, and they had little to do with each other after their son, the future James VI and I, was born the following June. Darnley was murdered eight months later. So there was insufficient time for Darnley to have been involved in a romantic intrigue that would have got one of the four Maries with child; besides which, the song refers to "the highest Stuart of all" – which between 1542 and 1567 was a woman not a man.[3]

Mary Hamilton in Russia[edit]

The story may have been transferred from a wholly different context. It has been noted that it most closely matches, rather than any event in Scotland, the legend of Maria Danilova Gamentova, daughter of an expatriate branch of the Clan Hamilton established in Russia by Thomas Hamilton during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV (1547–1584). A lady in waiting to Tsarina Catherine, second wife of Tsar Peter I "The Great" (who later succeeded him as Catherine I), Mary Hamilton was also the Tsar's mistress. She bore a child in 1717, who may have been fathered by the Tsar but whom she admitted drowning shortly after its birth. She also stole trinkets from the Tsarina to present them to her lover Ivan Orlov. For the murder of her child, she was beheaded in 1719.[4]

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.[5]

In many versions of the song, the queen is called "the auld Queen." This would normally indicate a Queen Dowager or Queen Mother, but in this context suggests a queen consort who was an older woman, and married to a king of comparable age. If the reference is limited to Queens named Mary, another candidate would be Mary of Guelders (1434–1463), queen to James II, King of Scots.

The ballad was catalogued by Francis James Child as Child Ballad # 173.[6]

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

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

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)..."[7]

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.[8] 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."[9]

Mary Carmichael plays the role of a fictitious author referenced by the narrator in A Room of One's Own.[10] 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[note 1] Maries)
How the Four Maries were depicted in an Edwardian children's history book

Yest're'en[note 2] the Queen had fower[note 1] Maries
The nicht[note 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[note 4]

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

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

Yest're'en[note 2] the Queen had fower[note 1] Maries
The nicht[note 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[note 2] the Queen had fower[note 1] Maries
The nicht[note 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. ^ a b c d fower – four
  2. ^ a b c yest're'en – yestereven(ing) (i.e. last night)
  3. ^ a b c nicht – night /nɪxt/[11]
  4. ^ a b pronounced /d/
  5. ^ roon – around
  6. ^ eyene – eyes
  7. ^ a'wa – away
  8. ^ ain – own
  9. ^ kirkyard – churchyard (cemetery)
  10. ^ gowans – daisies


  1. ^ University of California, Fresno. "Mary Hamilton [Child 173]". Folklore ballads. Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ E. Henry David Music Publishers, The Four Marys Archived 2013-10-19 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  4. ^ Egorov, O. (2018-02-15). "Russia's own lady Hamilton: Why did the first Russian Emperor execute his Scottish mistress?". Russia Beyond the Headlines. Retrieved 2020-01-29.
  5. ^ Andrew Lang. The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories,
  6. ^ name=UCF
  7. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. 4–5.
  8. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. 37.
  9. ^ Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (Annotated). 1929. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. p.21.
  10. ^ Woolf, 1929. p.78.
  11. ^ "nicht". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 9 August 2017.

External links[edit]