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Issue 63 - The Four Marys

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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The Four Marys

James Irvine Robertson looks at the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots ladies in waiting

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

It’s a beautiful ballad, dating from the beginning of the 18th century and tells the story of the ladies-in-waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots. The ‘me’ is waiting to be hanged in Edinburgh for some unspecified crime. It’s not history but there's an interesting story behind the Marys.

At the end of 1542 James V was dying, languishing in a deep depression at Linlithgow Palace. News was brought to him. The Scots army had been humiliated at the battle of Solway Moss and his queen, Mary of Guise, had born a daughter.

His last words were ‘It cam’ wi’ a lass, it’ll gang wi’ a lass.’ The House of Stewart had won the throne through Robert II’s marriage to Marjorie, the daughter of King Robert Bruce.

With her mother as Queen Regent, the six day old Mary became Queen of Scots. She immediately became a cat’s paw. Henry VIII wanted her as wife for his son so that he could take over Scotland. He sent an army north to plead his case in the campaign known as the ‘Rough Wooing’. It failed in its object and Scotland entered an alliance with France against England. To seal it Mary was betrothed to the Dauphin of France. At the age of five she went to French court where she would remain for 13 years. She married in 1559; her husband became king the following year but reigned only 18 months before he died. Mary returned to Scotland to reign as Queen until her overthrow in 1567. She fled to England and was imprisoned by Elizabeth I until her execution in 1587. Her mother had sent Mary to France with her own little group of attendants who included four girls of her own age, the Four Marys.

Mary Seton is described as being ‘tall and stately’. Her family was originally Norman and received their first charter of lands in East Lothian from William the Lion in 1169. They played a distinguished part in the Wars of Independence, Sir Christopher Seton marrying a sister of King Robert Bruce. Mary’s mother was a lady-in-waiting to Mary of Guise and her brother would later becoming Grand Master of the Household to the Queen Regent and fled to France after her downfall. Until his rehabilitation by James VI, he was virtually destitute and, at one point, earned a living by driving a wagon. Mary Seton was the only one of the four who never married although she is said to have had a lover, Andrew Beton, the brother of the Archbishop of Glasgow. She returned to Scotland with her mistress and helped her escape from the castle of Loch Leven. She served her for 15 years during her captivity in England until her own health failed and she retired to a convent in France, dying when she was in her seventies. Mary Seton was described by her monarch as ‘finest dresser of hair in Christendom’.

Mary Beaton was plump, pretty, fair-haired, dark-eyed, a bit scatty but probably the brightest of the four since her royal mistress bequeathed her library of French, English and Italian books to her.

Her family were Fife lairds and court functionaries and her mother another of Mary of Guise’s ladies-in-waiting. Her aunt Janet was mistress to the Earl of Bothwell who would become the Queen’s third husband. Like the others she came back to Scotland with her monarch and there she was wooed by the English ambassador Thomas Randolph. She was 21, he 45. He wanted her to spy on the Queen but his charm was insufficient to break her loyalty. Mary married Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne in April 1566 by whom she had a son. The Queen named her marriage day and signed the contract.

In reality rather than the ballad, the third of the Four Marys was Mary Livingstone. She was the daughter of Alexander, the 5th Lord Livingstone, the Queen’s guardian, who went to France in her entourage. Like Beaton and Seton, Livingstone had a French mother. This Mary was known as Lusty because she was tall, strong and athletic.

Like the others she was considered beautiful although being the Queen's attendant would have meant geese being perceived as swans. Once they had all returned to Scotland, she was the first of the Marys to marry, being wed in 1565 to a younger son of Lord Sempill. John Knox had a dig at them. ‘It was well known that shame hasted marriage betwixt John Sempill, called the Dancer, and Marie Livingstone, surnamed the Lustie.’ But nobody else seemed to find it furtive or hurried and preparations for the event went on for two months which included a masque at Holyrood centring on the Goddess of Chastity. The Queen gave Sempill an estate and paid for the wedding dress and the wedding feast.

Mary Fleming, La Flamina, was called by Thomas Randolph “a Venus for beauty, a Minerva for wit, and a Juno in wealth”. She was the daughter of Lord Fleming. Her mother was a granddaughter of James IV. Her mother went to France with her but was sent home after having a child by the King of France. That was not too much of a problem but she did insist on flaunting the fact. This Mary was the one who took on the Queen’s dares and ‘could outdo her in mischief’.

Randolph also wrote ‘the Queen was particularly consoled by Mary Fleming when she was disturbed by the discovery of the French poet Chastelard hiding in her bedchamber. After having ‘some grief of mind’ the Queen took Mary to be her ‘bedfellow.’ She married the Queen's secretary Sir William Maitland and bore two children. Her daughter married Robert Ker, the 1st Earl of Roxburghe.

But what of the Mary Carmichael in the ballad?

And who was ‘Me’? History is utterly silent on Carmichael but there are candidates for ‘Me’.

One is a Mary Hamilton who is said to have had an affair with the Queen’s husband, Lord Darnley, and came to a sticky end, but there is no evidence either for her or the liaison. And another Mary Hamilton was lady-in-waiting to Catherine I of Russia and the mistress of Tsar Peter the Great and his aide-de-camp Ivan Orlov. In 1719, she was decapitated for infanticide in St. Petersburg. It was rumoured that the sentence was so severe because the Tsar suspected that his own paternity was involved. Her execution took place at about the time the ballad was first being circulated which must make her the prime candidate.

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