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"Mary Hamilton"
Genre Child Ballad
Writer anon.
This is the page for the ballad "Mary Hamilton". For the serial bigamist, see Mary Hamilton (bigamist)

"Mary Hamilton" and "The Fower Maries" (accent on the first syllable of 'Maries' - it's plural, not French; 'y' changes to 'i', then add '-es'; 'fower' is the Scots for "four") are two common names for a famous, apparently fictional sixteenth century ballad from Scotland.

In all versions of the song, Mary Hamilton is a lady in waiting to the Queen of Scots - but precisely which Queen is a mystery. In all cases, she has had a sexual relationship with the King of Scots that has resulted in the birth of a child. Mary has killed the baby - sometimes by drowning, sometimes by exposure - and the remainder of the song recounts essential thoughts about her life and impending death. Most versions of the song set the events in Edinburgh, but the Joan Baez version, which is the probably the best known, is set in Glasgow.

Many versions of the song end (in English translation, as sung by Baez):

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 would seem to indicate Mary Hamilton was one of the famous "Four Maries" chosen by Marie de Guise, Queen of Scots to James V, King of Scots, to be companions to the child queen Mary I, Queen of Scots (commonly just "Mary, Queen of Scots"), who succeeded her father when she was just six days old. But none of the real four Maries was a Hamilton (the rest of the names being correct).

Moreover, in many versions of the song, the queen is called "the auld Queen" - meaning she is at least middle-aged, if not older. But Mary I, Queen of Scots, whose reign began six days after she was born, ended with her abdication in 1567 at the age of 25 - so she could not have been "the auld Queen". The term might, however, not refer to age but to precedence. Before Mary Stuart was Queen of Scots in her own right, her mother, commonly known by her French maiden name Marie de Guise, was Queen Mary of Scots, as consort to James V. Three generations earlier, James II's wife was also Queen Mary.

Pavel Svedomskiy. «Mary Hamilton before execution, St. Petersburg», 1904

Then, there is the historic incident of 1719 that did involve one Mary Hamilton - but that was not in Scotland (by which time the Stuarts had been succeeded by the Hanovers) but in Russia. This Mary, was Catherine I of Russia's lady in waiting and the mistress of tsar Peter the Great and his aide-de-camp Ivan Orlov. In 1717 it was found out that this maiden has twice made abortion, and drown her third baby after birth. On March, 14th 1719 she has been decapitated for infanticide in St. Petersburg. Thought that the sentence was so severe, because the tsar suspected his paternity. Her head has been alcoholized and shown in the Kunstkamera. At that time Charles Wogan was in Russia on a mission from James Francis Edward Stuart, and through him the news might reach Scotland[1].

Since ballads of different times about different people often get recycled, many scholars speculate the Russian event - including the name Mary Hamilton - may have gotten fused with the original song; which may itself have been an earlier fusion of other earlier ballads. Copyright protection is still a relatively new invention in human history, and certainly no wandering minstrel would have thought twice about playing fast and loose with historical material if it meant getting a better dinner and bed for the night. [2].

The ballad was catalogued by Francis James Child (Child Ballad # 173).

External links

Here is the ballad in one of its original Scots-language versions. Notes follow.

The Queens Maries

Yestre'en* the Queen had fower Mary's
The nicht* 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*

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

But I wish I could lie in our ain kirkyard*
Beneath yon old oak tree
Where we pulled the rowans and strung the gowans?*
My brothers and sisters and me

Yestre'en* the Queen had fower Maries
The nicht* 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

Yestreen* the Queen had fower Maries
The nicht* 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.

  • 1 Yestre'en - yester evening (i.e., last night)
  • 2 Nicht - night
  • 3 (pronounced dee)
  • 4 roon - around
  • 5 eyene - eyes
  • 6 a'wa - away
  • 7 ain - own
  • 8 kirkyard - Church yard (cemetery)
  • 9 gowans - daisies


  1. ^ Andrew Lang. The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories
  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


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