The History Behind the Ballad of Mary Hamilton

Portrait of Mary Stuart

Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Getty Images

A folk ballad, possibly no older than the 18th century, tells a story about a servant or lady-in-waiting, Mary Hamilton, at the court of a Queen Mary, who had an affair with the king and was sent to the gallows for drowning her illegitimate child. The song refers to "four Maries" or "four Marys": Mary Seaton, Mary Beaton, and Mary Carmichael, plus Mary Hamilton.

The Usual Interpretation

The usual interpretation is that Mary Hamilton was a lady-in-waiting at the Scottish court of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) and that the affair was with the Queen's second husband, Lord Darnley. Accusations of infidelity are consistent with stories of their troubled marriage. There were "four Maries" sent to France with the young Mary, Queen of Scots, by her mother, Mary of Guise, when the Scottish queen (whose father died when she was an infant) went to be raised there to marry the French Dauphin. But the names of two in the song are not quite accurate. The "four Maries" serving Mary, Queen of Scots, were Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston. And there was no story of an affair, drowning and hanging historically connected with the real four Maries.

There was the 18th-century story of a Mary Hamilton, from Scotland, who had an affair with Peter the Great, and who killed her child by Peter and her two other illegitimate children. She was executed by decapitation on March 14, 1719. In a variation of that story, Peter's mistress had two abortions before she drowned her third child. It is possible that an older folk song about the Stewart court was conflated with this story.

Other Possibilities

There are other possibilities that have been offered as roots of the story in the ballad:

  • John Knox, in his History of the Reformation, mentions an incident of infanticide by a lady-in-waiting from France, after an affair with the apothecary of Mary, Queen of Scots. The couple was reported to have been hanged in 1563.
  • Some have speculated that the "old Queen" referred to in the song was the Queen of Scots Mary of Guelders, who lived from about 1434 to 1463, and who was married to Scotland's King James II. She was regent for her son, James III, from her husband's death when a cannon exploded in 1460 to her own death in 1463. A daughter of James II and Mary of Guelders, Mary Stewart (1453 to 1488), married James Hamilton. Among her descendants was Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.
  • More recently, England's George IV, while still the Prince of Wales, is rumored to have had an affair with a governess of one of his sisters. The governess' name? Mary Hamilton. But no story of a child, much less infanticide.

Other Connections

The story in the song is about unwanted pregnancy; could it be that the British birth control activist, Marie Stopes, took her pseudonym, Marie Carmichael, from this song? In Virginia Woolf's feminist text, A Room of One's Own, she includes characters named Mary Beton, Mary Seton and Mary Carmichael.

The History of the Song

The Child Ballads were first published between 1882 and 1898 as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child collected 28 versions of the song, which he classified as Child Ballad #173. Many refer to a Queen Marie and four other Maries, often with the names Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Carmichael (or Michel) and the narrator, Mary Hamilton or Mary Mild, though there are some variations in the names. In various versions, she is the daughter of a knight or of the Duke of York or Argyll, or of a lord in the North or in the South or in the West. In some, only her "proud" mother is mentioned.

Select Stanzas

The first five and the last four stanzas from version 1 of Child Ballad #173:

1. Word's gane to the kitchen,
And word's gane to the ha,
That Marie Hamilton gangs wi bairn
To the hichest Stewart of a'.
2. He's courted her in the kitchen,
He's courted her in the ha,
He's courted her in the laigh cellar,
And that was warst of a'.
3. She's tyed it in her apron
And she's thrown it in the sea;
Says, Sink ye, swim ye, bonny wee babe!
You'l neer get mair o me.
4. Down them cam the auld queen,
Goud tassels tying her hair:
'O marie, where's the bonny wee babe
That I heard greet sae sair?'
5. 'There never was a babe intill my room,
As little designs to be;
It was but a touch o my sair side,
Come oer my fair bodie.'
15. 'Oh little did my mother think,
The day she cradled me,
What lands I was to travel through,
What death I was to dee.
16. 'Oh little did my father think,
The day he held up me,
What lands I was to travel through,
What death I was to dee.
17. 'Last night I washd the queen's feet,
And gently laid her down;
And a' the thanks I've gotten the nicht
To be hangd in Edinbro town!
18. 'Last nicht there was four Maries,
The nicht there'l be but three;
There was Marie Seton, and Marie Beton,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.'
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The History Behind the Ballad of Mary Hamilton." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). The History Behind the Ballad of Mary Hamilton. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The History Behind the Ballad of Mary Hamilton." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).