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Mary Hamilton was supposedly one of the "four Marys"who were ladies-in-waiting to the "fifth Mary," Mary, Queen of Scots. However, the name of Mary Hamilton does not appear in any official records of the time. The Marys that attended the Queen in France were Seaton, Beaton and Livingston.
Other versions of this ballad (circa 1563) have Mary bearing an illegitimate child as a result of an affair with Lord Darnley, the Queen's husband. She drowns the baby and is subsequently hanged for her crime.
Another possibility for the scandal also occurred in Mary's court. A French maid was involved with the Queen's apothecary and was hung for the murder of her child. There is speculation that the "apothecary" was Lord Darnley in disguise. Legend has it that David Rizzio, the Queen chamberlain and close confidante found out about the affair and composed the tune and wrote the words. Lord Darnley's anger at Rizzio over the tune then contributed to his decision to murder Rizzio.
Child relates the tune to the execution of Mary Hamilton in Russia on March 14, 1719. She was a maid of honor to Empress Catherine and was hung for the murder of her child.
According to the Viking Book of Folk Ballads the ballad existed before the tragedy in Russia and therefore could not be related to it.
This ballad is Child Ballad #173 (Mary Hamilton).
For a complete list of Child Ballads at this site go to Francis J. Child Ballads.
Last night there were four Marys
Tonight there'll be but three
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.
Oh, often have I dressed my queen
And put on her braw silk gown
But all the thanks I've got tonight
Is to be hanged in Edinborough Town
Fill often have I dressed my queen
Put gold upon her hair
But I have got for my reward
The gallows to be my share.
Oh little did my mother know
The day she cradled me
The land I was to travel in
The death I was to dee.
Oh, happy, happy is the maid
That's born of beauty free
Oh, it was my rosy dimpled cheeks
That's been the devil to me.
They'll tie a kerchief around my eyes
That I may not see to dee
And they'll never tell my father or mother
But that I'm across the sea.
From Songs of the British Isles
See Bibliography for full information.
Additional information from
Digital Tradition Folksong Forum