Week 421: The Queen’s Marie, by Anon

This ballad, also entitled ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’, is Child 173 and is thought to date from the sixteenth century. If it has a historical basis, this has proved difficult to pin down: various Stuart kings have been proposed as the guilty parties, and a Russian connection has also been suggested. Needless to say it exists in many versions: this one, as part recited and part sung by the great Scots ballad-singer Jean Redpath, is my favourite, and the only regret I have is that in some other versions Mary knows quite well that she is going not to a wedding but to her execution, but nonetheless puts on her best clothes, her gown of white, as an act of defiance to the queen. In this version, she is apparently oblivious of her journey’s end. Or is she, given her weariness and reluctance? It is a little unclear, which could be a device to add to the pathos, or it could just be a result of the patchwork way ballad-singers tended to operate, stitching together favourite stanzas from here and there in a way that resulted in the occasional inconsistency.

In any event, one of the things I admire most about the old ballads is their sheer narrative drive, how nothing is wasted as they plunge you straight into the action and then never let up on it. You see it in the border ballads: ‘Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid/And I wot they had better stayed at hame/For Michael o’Winfield he is dead/And Jock o’ the Side is a prisoner taen’. And you see the same drive here: the King’s head turned by the pretty young serving-maid, pregnancy, a failed attempt at abortion, infanticide, gossip making its way to the queen, all in a handful of stanzas.

A note on the Abbey tree: I don’t know what kind of tree this was, but it was traditionally believed that certain abortifacient plants, notably birthwort (Aristolochia) were planted close to religious buildings for the convenience of nuns who had inadvertently become pregnant. See Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’. But birthwort of course is a flower; my guess for the tree would be juniper.

The Queen’s Marie

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ ribbons in her hair;
The king thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than ony that were there.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane
   Wi’ ribbons on her breast;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than he listen’d to the priest.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ gloves upon her hands;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than the Queen and a’ her lands.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely one,
Till she was beloved by a’ the King’s court
   And the King the only man.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely three,
Till frae the King’s court Marie Hamilton,
   Marie Hamilton durstna be.

The King is to the Abbey gane,
   To pu’ the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie’s heart;
   But the thing it wadna be.

O she has row’d it in her apron,
   And set it on the sea—
‘Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
   Ye’se get nae mair o’ me.’

Word is to the kitchen gane,
   And word is to the ha’,
And word is to the noble room
   Amang the ladies a’,
That Marie Hamilton’s brought to bed,
   And the bonny babe’s miss’d and awa’.

Scarcely had she lain down again,
   And scarcely fa’en asleep,
When up and started our gude Queen
   Just at her bed-feet;
Saying—‘Marie Hamilton, where’s your babe?
   For I am sure I heard it greet.’

‘O no, O no, my noble Queen!
   Think no sic thing to be;
’Twas but a stitch into my side,
   And sair it troubles me!’

‘Get up, get up, Marie Hamilton:
   Get up and follow me;
For I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding for to see.’

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
   And slowly put she on;
And slowly rade she out the way
   Wi’ mony a weary groan.

The Queen was clad in scarlet,
   Her merry maids all in green;
And every town that they cam to,
   They took Marie for the Queen.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, gentlemen,
   Ride hooly now wi’ me!
For never, I am sure, a wearier burd
   Rade in your companie.’—

But little wist Marie Hamilton,
   When she rade on the brown,
That she was gaen to Edinburgh,
   And a’ to be put down.

‘Why weep ye so, ye burgess wives,
   Why look ye so on me?
O I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding to see.’

When she gaed up the Tolbooth stairs,
   The corks frae her heels did flee;
And lang or e’er she cam down again,
   She was condemn’d to die.

When she cam to the Netherbow port,
   She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But when she cam to the gallows foot
   The tears blinded her e’e.

‘Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
   The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
   And Marie Carmichael, and me.

‘O often have I dress’d my Queen
   And put gowd upon her hair;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows to be my share.

‘Often have I dress’d my Queen
   And often made her bed;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows tree to tread.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   When ye sail owre the faem,
Let neither my father nor mother get wit
   But that I’m coming hame.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   That sail upon the sea,
That neither my father nor mother get wit
   But I this death did dee.


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