Mary Hamilton

A poem by Frank Sidgwick

The Text given here is from Sharpe's Ballad Book (1824). Professor Child collected and printed some twenty-eight variants and fragments, of which none is entirely satisfactory, as regards the telling of the story. The present text will suit our purpose as well as any other, and it ends impressively with the famous pathetic verse of the four Maries.

The Story.--Lesley in his History of Scotland (1830) says that when Mary Stuart was sent to France in 1548, she had in attendance 'sundry gentlewomen and noblemen's sons and daughters, almost of her own age, of the which there were four in special of whom everyone of them bore the same name of Mary, being of four sundry honourable houses, to wit, Fleming, Livingston, Seton, and Beaton of Creich.' The four Maries were still with the Queen in 1564. Hamilton and Carmichael appear in the ballad in place of Fleming and Livingston.

Scott attributed the origin of the ballad to an incident related by Knox in his History of the Reformation: in 1563 or 1564 a Frenchwoman was seduced by the Queen's apothecary, and the babe murdered by consent of father and mother. But the cries of a new-born babe had been heard; search was made, and both parents were 'damned to be hanged upon the public street of Edinburgh.'

In 1824, in his preface to the Ballad Book, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe produced a similar story from the Russian court. In 1885 this story was retold from authentic sources as follows. After the marriage of one of the ministers of Peter the Great's father with a Hamilton, the Scottish family ranked with the Russian aristocracy. The Czar Peter required that all his Empress Catharine's maids-of-honour should be remarkably handsome; and Mary Hamilton, a niece, it is supposed, of the above minister's wife, was appointed on account of her beauty. This Mary Hamilton had an amour with one Orlof, an aide-de-camp to the Czar; a murdered babe was found, the guilt traced to Mary, and she and Orlof sent to prison in April 1718. Orlof was afterwards released; Mary Hamilton was executed on March 14, 1719.

Professor Child, in printing this ballad in 1889, considered the details of the Russian story[1] (most of which I have omitted) to be so closely parallel to the Scottish ballad, that he was convinced that the later story was the origin of the ballad, and that the ballad-maker had located it in Mary Stuart's court on his own responsibility. In September 1895 Mr. Andrew Lang contributed the results of his researches concerning the ballad to Blackwood's Magazine, maintaining that the ballad must have arisen from the 1563 story, as it is too old and too good to have been written since 1718. Balancing this improbability--that the details of a Russian court scandal of 1718 should exactly correspond to a previously extant Scottish ballad--against the improbability of the eighteenth century producing such a ballad, Child afterwards concluded the latter to be the greater. The coincidence is undoubtedly striking; but neither the story nor the name are uncommon.

[Footnote 1: See Waliszewski's Peter the Great (translated by Lady Mary Loyd), vol. i. p. 251. London, 1897.]

It is, of course, possible that the story is older than 1563--it should not be difficult to find more than one instance--and that it was first adapted to the 1563 incident and afterwards to the Russian scandal, the two versions being subsequently confused. But there is no evidence for this.


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'.

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'.

She's tyed it in her apron
And she's thrown it in the sea;
Says, 'Sink ye, swim ye, bonny wee babe,
You'll ne'er get mair o' me.'

Down then cam the auld queen,
Goud tassels tying her hair:
'O Marie, where's the bonny wee babe
That I heard greet sae sair?'

'There was never a babe intill my room,
As little designs to be;
It was but a touch o' my sair side,
Come o'er my fair bodie.'

'O Marie, put on your robes o' black,
Or else your robes o' brown,
For ye maun gang wi' me the night,
To see fair Edinbro' town.'

'I winna put on my robes o' black,
Nor yet my robes o' brown;
But I'll put on my robes o' white,
To shine through Edinbro' town.'

When she gaed up the Cannogate,
She laugh'd loud laughters three;
But whan she cam down the Cannogate
The tear blinded her ee.

When she gaed up the Parliament stair,
The heel cam aff her shee;
And lang or she cam down again
She was condemn'd to dee.

When she cam down the Cannogate,
The Cannogate sae free,
Many a ladie look'd o'er her window,
Weeping for this ladie.

'Ye need nae weep for me,' she says,
'Ye need nae weep for me;
For had I not slain mine own sweet babe,
This death I wadna dee.

'Bring me a bottle of wine,' she says,
'The best that e'er ye hae,
That I may drink to my weil-wishers,
And they may drink to me.

'Here's a health to the jolly sailors,
That sail upon the main;
Let them never let on to my father and mother
But what I'm coming hame.

'Here's a health to the jolly sailors,
That sail upon the sea;
Let them never let on to my father and mother
That I cam here to dee.

'Oh little did my mother think,
The day she cradled me,
What lands I was to travel through,
What death I was to dee.

'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.

'Last night I wash'd the queen's feet,
And gently laid her down;
And a' the thanks I've gotten the nicht
To be hang'd in Edinbro' town!

'Last nicht there was four Maries,
The nicht there'll be but three;
There was Marie Seton, and Marie Beton,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.'

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