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Mary Hamilton / The Four Marys

[ Roud 79 ; Child 173 ; G/D 2:195 ; Ballad Index C173 ; trad.]

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).

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.

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 commented:

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 (Rounder CD 1800 or 1516) and Jeannie Robertson (Rounder CD 1776).

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.

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


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.”