Mary Seton (1542 – 1615) was a Scottish courtier and later a nun. She was one of the four attendants of Mary Queen of Scots known as the Four Marys. She was a sister at the Convent of Saint Pierre les Dames in Rheims at the time of her death.
Sent to France
Mary Seton was the daughter of George Seton, 6th Lord Seton, and Marie Pieris, a French-born lady-in-waiting to Mary of Guise, the wife of King James V of Scotland. As a child, Mary Seton became a lady-in-waiting to the young Mary, Queen of Scots, along with three other girls of similar age and of a similar standing in Scots society. They were famously known as "The Four Marys": she and Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston. They were chosen by Marie de Guise, with the exception of Mary Fleming, for their Franco-Scottish parentage. The Four Marys accompanied Queen Mary in France, where she later married the Dauphin, Francis II of France. Mary Seton was the only one of the four not to marry, and continued in service with Mary, in Scotland and during her captivity in England.
When Queen Mary returned to Scotland, after her ceremonial entry at Edinburgh in September 1561, she went to Linlithgow Palace, while the four Marys, accompanied by the Queen's uncle, the Grand Prior of Malta, François de Lorraine, travelled west to Coldingham Priory and Dunbar. They stopped at the house of Mary Seton's brother George Seton, 7th Lord Seton, Seton Palace, for dinner. The Grand Prior then returned home through England making strategic plans of Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle-on-Tyne. Mary Seton accompanied the captive queen back to Edinburgh after her defeat by the Confederate lords at the battle of Carberry Hill. Prior to the Queen's flight to England following the battle of Langside, Seton assisted her escape from the island fortress of Loch Leven by standing at a window dressed in the queen's clothes while Marie Stuart fled to the mainland in a small boat.
Mistress Mary Seton's role and talent as the Queen's hairdresser was described in detail by Sir Francis Knollys, Mary's keeper at Carlisle Castle in his letter to William Cecil of 28 June 1568. Mary had told Knollys that Mary Seton was the finest 'busker' of a woman's head and hair in any country. Knollys wrote that;
"Yesterday, and this daye she dyd sett sotche a curled heare uppon the Queen, that was said to be a perewyke that showed very delycately: and every other day lightly ... (word lost) she hathe a newe devyce of head dressyng, withowte any coste, and yett setteth forthe a woman gaylye well."
At first Mary Seton was given a room to herself with two beds, one for her maid or 'gentlewoman' Janet Spittell. She also had a manservant called John Dumfries. In March 1569 the Earl of Shrewsbury noted that Queen Mary would sit and sew in his wife Bess of Hardwick's chamber at Tutbury Castle accompanied by Mary Seton and Lady Livingston.
In August 1570, Mary's mother, Mary Pieris, Lady Seton, who was at Blair Castle heard her daughter was ill, and wrote from Dunkeld to Queen Mary to ask if she could come home. The messenger carrying the letters, John Moon, was captured, and Mary Pieris was imprisoned in Edinburgh. In October, Queen Elizabeth heard that Mary Pieris had been arrested and would be banished from Scotland for writing to her daughter and Queen Mary, and took action that Regent Lennox should be advised that she thought it no great cause. Pieris was released, before Elizabeth's intervention, promising not to write to Queen Mary again.
When Queen Mary was moved to Sheffield Castle in September 1571, Mary Seton stayed in attendance, but her servant John Dumfries was excluded and kept in the town. Janet Spittle was sent back to Scotland. Mary Seton then had an older woman as her servant, and as they were tired of each other by April 1577, the servant was allowed back to Scotland.
At Sheffield in November 1581, Robert Beale questioned Mary Seton about Queen Mary's recent illness, which had a quick onset. Seton said that she had not seen the Queen as ill before, her side gave her evil pains especially in the thigh and leg. The Queen lacked appetite, was losing sleep, and in Seton's opinion could not long continue. The master of Mary's household in England, Andrew Beaton, wished to marry Mary Seton, but as she had made a vow of celibacy, Andrew travelled to Paris to obtain a dispensation. He died during his return journey.
The Convent of Saint-Pierre in Rheims
Sometime around 1585 she retired from the Scottish Queen's household in England to the Convent of Saint-Pierre at Rheims in France where the abbess was Renée de Guise, the sister of Mary of Guise and aunt of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary wrote a letter to Mary, Countess of Shrewsbury on 22 February 1608, mentioning that her right arm was paralysed, and the letter was in French because she had forgotten the little English she knew after twenty years, as a 'poor recluse in a monastery.' She wrote that she had sent other letters to the Countess and Lady Arbella Stuart. Mary Seton died at the Convent in 1615.
Little else is known about her last years at Saint Pierre les Dames other than what was written by James Maitland, the expatriate Catholic son of William Maitland of Lethington. Maitland visited the convent and found Seton to be living in poverty and suffering from failing health. He complained to her family, to whom he was remotely related, and to Queen Mary's son James VI of Scotland, but there is no evidence of a response. The bequests in her will show that she was wealthy.
- Calendar State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth, 1561-2, vol. 4 (1866), no. 488 fn. 6, no. 631: CSP Scotland, vol. 1 (1898), p. 552 no. 1018.
- Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), pp. 447-8 no. 720.
- Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 3 (1903), p.565-6 no. 732, 'Johne Dumfries', 'Janet Spittell.'
- Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p.632 no. 1022.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.3 (1903), 313-5 (Madame "Pyenes")
- Calendar of State Papers Scotlandvol. 3 (1903), p.410 no. 543: A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents in Scotland, Bannatyne Club (1833), pp.185-6
- Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 3 (1903), p.691 no. 930.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 5 (1907), 227-8 no.249.
- Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 6 (1910), 91 no. 85.
- Duncan, (1905), p.369.
- Dynfnallt Owen, ed., HMC 58, Manuscripts Marquess of Bath, vol. 5 (London, HMSO, 1980), p. 133-4, French.
- Duncan (1905), p.369.
- Duncan, Thomas, 'The Queen's Maries,' in Scottish Historical Review, vol. 2 no. 8 (July 1905), pp. 363–371
- Seton, George, A history of the family of Seton during Eight Centuries, 2 vols, Edinburgh (1896)