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Mary Hamilton / The Four Marys

[ Roud 79 ; Child 173 ; G/D 2:195 ; Ballad Index C173 ; MusTrad MT146 ; DT MARYHAM1 ; Mudcat 109621 ; trad.]

Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia, sang Mary Hamilton in August 1941 to Alan Lomax. This recording was included in 2001 on her Rounder anthology in the Alan Lomax Collection, Ballad Legacy. The album’s booklet noted:

This old story has the amazing power to infatuate modern listeners as a narrative of history that reads like a romance. The inevitable drama told in the song may be more comprehensible than the history of the song itself. "Mary Hamilton is probably about four women named Mary who attended Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) in 1561. According to A.K. Davis’s introduction to the song in Traditional Ballads of Virginia,

The usual story of the ballad is that one of these, Mary Hamilton, is with child, hinting that the father is “the highest Stuart of all.” To escape discovery Mary wraps her baby up and throws it into the sea, but not before the queen has heard it cry and suspects the truth. Mary’s trial and execution follow. A similar child-murder took place at the court of Czar Peter the Great in 1719 involving a Mary Hamilton, attendant upon the Empress Catherine and a Russian officer named Orlof. … This possibility was discussed long ago by such authorities as Professor Child.

The song was collected in 1922 from Mrs. Marion Chandler of Salem, Virginia, by Alfreda Peel, who says in a personal note, “It was sung to me by my grandmother when I was little. Her family came from England, and my grandmother’s family all fought with the Stuarts.” A.K. Davis adds, “The melody is indeed very lovely, even when sung with the Virginia ‘mountain whine’ which Miss Peel can reproduce so perfectly.” In his book introduction, Davis notes, “The strange sing-song sometimes unappreciatively referred to as the ‘mountain whine’ is apt to display a lack of accuracy in pitch and accent.” This way of describing ballad-singing style reflects on the scholar/collector’s inability to accept this nuanced musical tradition. Listen to Joan Baez’s version of Mary Hamilton for another stylistic interpretation.

Jeannie Robertson sang The Four Marys, in a recording made in 1955, on her 1957 Riverside album Songs of a Scots Tinker Lady. It was later included as The Four Maries (Mary Hamilton) on the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

Cynthia Gooding sang Mary Hamilton (The Four Maries) in 1957 on the extended reissue of her 1953 Elektra album of early English folksongs, Queen of Hearts. She noted:

Mary Hamilton (Child No. 173) has suffered in much the same way as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Mary, Queen of Scots, did have four ladies in waiting all named Mary; her husband did stray a bit and it was whispered that one of her ladies (a Frenchwoman) took up with the Queen’s apothecary. But the historical truth nearest this song concerns a Marie Hamilton who went to the court of Czar Peter and there bore and killed her natural son. Scottish singers merely rearranged things a bit. From this song has come the lament of the Four Maries, which is a group of verses concerning Mary’s thoughts as she prepares to be killed.

John Laurie recited Mary Hamilton in 1959 on the anthology The Jupiter Book of Ballads.

Robin Hall sang Mary Mild in 1960 on his Collector album of ballads from the Gavin Greig Collection, Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads.

Isabel Sutherland sang The Four Maries on her 1966 Topic album Vagrant Songs of Scotland. She noted:

As usual, there are different opinions as to the origin of this ballad. In 1548, the young Queen Mary left Dumbarton for France with four young serving maids, all named Mary. (The name Marie seems to have been used to mean an attendant). A French woman who served in Queen Mary’s chamber had an affair with the Queen’s own apothecary, conceived and bore a child, which she murdered. Both father and mother were condemned to be hanged publicly in Edinburgh. A similar incident is reported in the Court of Czar Peter the Great. A/nbsp;handmaid of Catherine’s, one Mary Hambleton, daughter of a Scots woman, was beheaded in 1719 for a crime of the same kind.

Perhaps the two stories became confused? Child dates the authorship of the ballad as between 1719 and 1764. There are many verses and versions; this is mine.

Almeda Riddle from Heber Springs, Arkansas, sang The Four Marys in 1972 on her Rounder album Ballads and Hymns From the Ozarks.

Gill Bowman sang The Ballad of the Four Marys in 1990 on her Fellside album City Love.

Marion Paterson sang Mary Hamilton at the Blairgowrie Folk Festival in between 1986 and 1995. This recording was included in 2000 on the festival anthology The Blair Tapes.

Maureen Jelks sang Mary Mild in 2000 on her album Eence Upon a Time. She noted:

Versions of this song are well known under the title The Four Marys. I heard my favourite version of this song sung by John Eaglesham of Glasgow, who sings with the group Stramash. I first heard this sung by Joan Baez in the 1960’s, but fell in love with this tune as soon as I heard John sing it. It is in Greig-Duncan vol. 2, song no. 195.

Isla St Clair sang Marie Hamilton on her 2000 album Royal Lovers & Scandals.

Ellen Mitchell sang Mary Mild on her and Kevin Mitchell’s 2001 Musical Traditions anthology Have a Drop Mair and on her 2002 Tradition Bearers CD On Yonder Lea. Rod Stradling commented in the anthology’s booklet:

Ellen: I learned this from John Eaglesham. It is included in comprehensive collections of Burns songs and poems, and it’s a version of the Mary Hamilton ballad. The background to the song is somewhat mysterious since there is no clear connection with an actual historical event. It seems that, in common with other ballads, events and dates have become displaced.

The highest steward (or Stewart) in the first verse is the king (Lord Darnley), and Mary Hamilton was one of the group of four ladies called Mary who attended Mary Queen of Scots. Historically they were Mary Fleming, Mary Livingston, Mary Seton and Mary Beaton—but the first two of these names appear in the ballad. No accusations of infanticide were made against any of these women, but a French woman in the Queen’s service and her lover, a royal apothecary, were hanged for murdering their child in 1563.

The ballad is not known before 1790, however, so it could be linked to a later incident at the Russian court of Peter the Great. A maid-of-honour to Empress Catherine, named Mary Hamilton, was beheaded for infanticide. As Emily Lyle says in her notes (Scottish Ballads, Penguin, 1994): “It is not improbable that there are reminiscences of both these historical events in the ballad.”

More than half of Roud’s 120 references to this ballad are from Scotland; the rest are from the USA and Canada, with just one each from England and Ireland. Oddly, there appears to have been only one broadside printing, by Sanderson of Edinburgh; however its publication in Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1806) would have ensured its popularity.

Recordings on CD can be heard from the wonderful Texas Gladden [Ballad Legacy] and Jeannie Robertson [The Child Ballads 2].

Katherine Campbell sang Mary Hamilton, accompanied by Mairi Campbell on fiddle, in 2004 on her CD The Songs of Amelia and Jane Harris which is a companion to the book The Song Repertoire of Amelia and Jane Harris, edited by Emily Lyle (2002). Her album’s notes commented:

This lovely ballad, often known by the title The Four Maries, has been widely popular in Scotland during the last couple of centuries. The twenty eight versions in Child make it the most popular in his collection (Child 173; GD 195) and Bronson included the Harris tune among twelve. Whether the ballad reflects a historical event associated with Mary Queen of Scots is by no means certain. When Mary Stuart was sent to France in 1548 at the age of five or six she had four companions of her own age all by the name of Mary and when she returned in 1561 the four Maries returned with her. They were named Fleming, Seaton, Livingstone and Beaton and some of these names are retained in the still popularly known verse:

Yestreen the queen had four Maries,
The nicht she’ll hae but three;
There was Mary Bethune and Mary Seaton,
An Mary Carmichael and me.

The story takes place in the court of Mary Stuart where the unfortunate heroine is one of the queen’s four maries (i.e. her ladies in waiting, coincidentally all named Mary). The young Mary (Hamilton) has fallen pregnant as she says:

Queen Mary’s bread it was sae sweet,
An her wine it was sae fine;
That I hae lien in a young man’s arms,
And I rued it aye sin syne.

In many versions the father is given as “the highest Stewart of all”, that is Henry Darnley, but this is unlikely. Mary gives birth to the babe who the queen “hears greetin sae sair,” but Mary says it is herself in pain from colic. However, they search high and low and “there they got the wee, wee babe, but its life was far awa.” Mary is summoned to Edinburgh where she is tried and the ballad ends as ‘the bonniest Mary amang them a’ was hanged upon a tree.” Historical evidence suggests that the actual event referred to was the murder of a child born to a French maidservant of Mary Queen of Scots, for which she and her lover, an apothecary to the queen, were executed in 1563 and not to any of her maids-of-honour (the “Queen’s Maries”).

Ed Miller sang Mary Hamilton in 2006 on his CD Never Frae My Mind.

Wendy Stewart sang Marie Hamilton on her and Gary West’s 2009 album Hinterlands. They noted:

There are many versions of this well known ballad; this one comes from the Harris Collection, held at Harvard, edited and published by Katherine Campbell and Emily Lyle. The instrumental is Down by the Greenwoodside, which, like the song, deals with infanticide.

Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller sang Mary Mild in 2010 on their Greentrax album In a Bleeze.

Alasdair Roberts sang Mary Mild on his 2023 album Grief in the Kitchen and Mirth in the Hall. He noted:

This version of the popular ballad more commonly known as Mary Hamilton or The Four Maries was learnt from a recording by the great Glasgow singer Ellen Mitchell [see above], who in turn learnt it from John Eaglesham.


Texas Gladden sings Mary Hamilton

Word has come from the kitchen,
And word has come to me,
That Mary Hamilton drowned her babe,
And throwed him into the sea.

Down came the old Queen,
Gold tassels around her head.
“Oh, Mary Hamilton, where’s your babe,
That was sleeping in your bed?”

“Oh, Mary, put on your robe so black,
And yet your robe so brown,
That you might go with me this day,
To view fair Edinburgh town.”

She didn’t put on her robe so black,
Nor yet her robe so brown,
But she put on her snow-white robe,
To view fair Edinburgh town.

As she passed though the Cannogate,
The Cannogate passed she,
The ladies looked over their casements,
And they wept for this lady.

As she went up the Parliament steps,
A loud, loud laugh laughed she.
As she came down the Parliament steps,
She was condemned to dee.

“Oh, bring to me some red, red wine,
The reddest that can be,
That I might drink to the jolly bold sailors,
That brought me over the sea.

“Oh, tie a napkin o’er my eyes,
And ne’er let me see to dee,
And ne’er let on to my father and mother,
I died way over the sea.

“Last night I washed the old Queen’s feet,
And carried her to her bed,
And all the reward I received for this,
The gallows hard to tread.

“Last night there were four Marys,
Tonight there’ll be but three.
There was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton,
And Mary Carmichael and me.”

Ellen Mitchell sings Mary Mild

Oh word’s gaed up and word’s gaed doon
And word’s gaed through the haa,
That Mary Mild is great wi child,
Tae the highest steward o aa.

They socht it east, they socht it west,
Aye and in ablaw the bed,
And there they’ve found this fair bairn
A-wallowin in its blood.

“It’s lie doon by me Mary Mild,
Oh lie ye doon be me,
And every favour ye might ask,
Then I might grant tae ye.”

“It’s happy, happy is the maid
That is born o beauty free,
For it’s been ma red and rosy cheek
That has been the dule o me.

“For often hae I dressed ma queen
And pit gowd in her hair,
Ah, but noo I’ve gotten for my reward
The gallows to be my share.

“It’s little did ma mither think
On the day she cradled me
O the lands I wis tae travel in
And the death I wis tae dee.”

“Oh will ye pit on the black, the black,
Or will ye put on the broon?”
“Oh, no, I’ll put on the sky blue silk
And I’ll shine through Edinburgh Toon.

“Yestreen the queen had four Marys,
And the nicht she’ll hae but three,
There was Mary Seaton, and Mary Beaton,
Mary Carmichael and me.”