By Kirsten Blackham
‘Word is to the kitchen gone
And word is to the hall
And word is up to madam the queen
And that is the worst of all
That Mary Hamilton’s born a babe
To the highest Stuart of all’
Mary Hamilton is possibly one of the most well-known and prolific folk ballads of all time. This ballad has been interpreted and sung for more than 400 years and survives to this day. In an era when reproductive rights, consent, and social judgment are at the forefront of governmental change and legislation, this ballad holds unprecedented significance. It is evidence that these issues have been a point of social distress and discussion for hundreds of years.
The ballad itself is the result of ‘group authorship’ – stories that have been told and amended over a large period of time (Tolman, 1927). Ballads and other folk music spread in a similar manner to gossip, and this seems to be particularly relevant to Mary Hamilton (Coffin, 1957). Though altered over time, the song’s emotional core remains; a woman is coerced by a man, often the king, and as a result becomes pregnant. She kills her baby, and hides the evidence of its birth, but not before being discovered by the Queen. As a result she is put to death.
There are two possible real-life sources for Mary Hamilton (Long, 1973). The first source originates from the 16th century, occurring in the court of Mary Stuart, and is mentioned in John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. In Knox’s account, a maid became pregnant and disposed of the baby with the aid of her purported lover, the Apothecary. Both were hanged in Edinburgh for their crimes (Knox, 2017). The second source comes from 18th century Russia. This is where the last name Hamilton comes in. Mary Hamilton was a Lady in Waiting to the Empress Catherine (Long, 1973). Her story is strikingly similar to Mary Stuart’s unnamed maid, with the notable exception that Mary Hamilton alone was put to death. She bore the legal weight of the infanticide, and her partner was not held responsible. All surviving versions of this ballad contain elements from both women’s stories.
This begs the question: why does this ballad survive? What is so important about the tale of Mary Hamilton that it has survived for so long? The answer may be found in the content of each version.
There are at least 28 different recorded variations of the ballad, most of which were preserved by James Francis Child in his collection English and Scottish Ballads. However, ballads are meant to be continually sung and reinterpreted by each reciter, and therefore the actual number of ballad variations is unknown. That does not mean, however, that each version is inconsistent with one another. There are a few key points of the ballad that appear in almost every variation. These lines which are the most consistent with the ballad over time can tell us how people felt and continue to feel about her fate.
The first and most common, the naming of the four Mary’s, firmly placing the court of Mary Stuart:
‘Yestreen four Maries made Queen Mary’s bed,
This nicht there’ll be but three,
A Mary Beaton, a Mary Seaton,
A Mary Carmichael, and me.’
(Child Ballad: 173k.8)
This line is essential to the ballad and it appears in almost every single version. Though it is certain that none of the famous four Mary’s who served Mary Queen of Scots were killed for terminating a pregnancy or infanticide, this line is essential to both period and location placement and is an added embellishment that enforces the sense of betrayal later in the tale when Mary Hamilton is put to death.
The next line outlines Mary’s sense of worth as she approaches her death through a choice of clothing.
‘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.’
(Child Ballad: 173A.7)
Mary, instead of choosing brown clothes to indicate a desire to blend in as she rides to her judgment, or black a symbol of mourning, chooses to wear white, a color that represented purity, and may have been quite expensive. This may indicate that the interpreter felt that Mary was, if not innocent, then at least not afraid of her judgment, and wanted to stick out from the queen’s retinue as they rode through the city.
The next line is intriguing, particularly as it relates to the public sentiment towards Mary, and it echoes how the audience should feel about her while listening to the ballad:
When she cam down the Cannogate,
The Cannogate sae free,
Many a ladie lookd oer her window,
Weeping for this ladie.
(Child Ballad: 173A.11)
This line is arguably one of the most important to the ballad when looking at gender, and in particular, women of the past. Though abortion and infanticide were both punishable by death at this time, and throughout most of the lifetime of the ballad, women mourned for Mary. Mary responds to them in the ballad by saying they should not weep for her because she took responsibility for the action of killing her baby (Child, 2010) However, that did not prevent them from weeping for her, nor does it prevent the audience from sympathizing with her. The interpreter further emphasizes the need to sympathize with Mary with the next line:
‘Oh little did my mother think,
The day she cradled me,
What lands I was to travel through,
What death I was to dee.’
(Child Ballad 173A.15)
Invoking the image of her mother cradling her as a child reminds the audience that Mary too was someone’s child, and that her parents could not have known what misfortunes would befall her in the future.
The final line focuses on Mary’s betrayal:
‘Last night I washd the queen’s feet,
And gently laid her down;
And a’ the thanks I’ve gotten the nicht
To be hangd in Edinbro town!’
(Child Ballad: 173A.17)
Mary feels wronged and claims that the only reward she received for her service to the queen was death. It also implies the interpreters felt that Mary had no control over what happened to her. Whether her pregnancy was the result of coercion and rape or of a whirlwind romance from a man at court, she should not have been put to death by the queen.
There could be many reasons for the long life of this ballad. It could have survived because it was a piece of salacious court gossip, or used as a cautionary tale. However, the most probable reason for its survival, considering the tone set by these lines, is that the story of Mary Hamilton is relatable. Mary Hamilton would not have had access to birth control, and even if she had chosen to keep the baby, she would most likely have lost her position and been banished from court, a fate that may have sentenced her to death in itself. It is unlikely that she would have received support from her partner, and she almost certainly would have been forever labeled for having a child out of wedlock. To this day, people still face the pressure of these circumstances. The legalization of abortion is not even across the board in all or even most countries, and even where it is legal, there is a distinct social stigma attached to it. This ballad represents a social issue, even a trauma that we feel to this day
Baez, Joan, Mary Hamilton (Vanguard, 1960)
Brickdale, Eleanor Fortesque, “The Queen’s Marie” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eleanor_Fortesque_Brickdale’s_Golden_book_of_famous_women_(1919)_-_The_Queen’s_Marie.jpg>
Child, Francis James, English and Scottish Ballads Volume 2 (Rarebooksclub.com, 2012)
Coffin, Tristram P., “‘Mary Hamilton’ and the Anglo-American Ballad as an Art Form,” The Journal of American Folklore , 70.277 (1957), 208–14
Eyre-Todd, George, Scottish Ballad Poetry (Volume 3) (General Books, 2012)
John1948SevenB, “Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton (BBC Television Theatre, London – June 5, 1965)” (Youtube, 2015) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCnP9E4lUzo>
Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland; Volume 2 (Andesite Press, 2017)
Long, Eleanor R., “Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology,” Western Folklore, 32.4 (1973), 225
Preston, Cathy Lynn, “The Way Stylized Language Means: Pattern Matching in the Child Ballads,” Computers and the Humanities, 23.4–5 (1989), 323–32
Tolman, Albert H., “Mary Hamilton; The Group Authorship of Ballads,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 42.2 (1927), 422–32 Uknown, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1560-1592 <https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04272/Mary-Queen-of-Scots>