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Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
Tonight she'll hae but three.
There was Mary Beaton and Mary Seaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.

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Source: Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Dec 1936

Anne Gilchrist wrote:

The real origin of this ballad, which first appeared in print in 1802 as "The Queen's Marie" in Scott;s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, is difficult to trace with certainty. Child prints no less than twenty-eight versions (Scott had collected eight), but it is now almost extinct in Britain, though traditional versions have been in recent years found in Aberdeenshire, in the State of Maine - where a strong Scottish element remains - and in Virginia. Historically, the surnames of the four Maries, companions from her childhood, who accompanied Mary to France in 1548, returning to Scotland with her in 1541, were Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston. Mary Beaton marries Alexander Ogilviw, Mary Livingston (who was the first to leave the Queen) married John Sempill, Mary Fleming married Lord Lethington and Mary Seton - the last to leave the Queen - died in a French convent, unmarried. It is obvious that as the fourth Mary's name of the ballad is hardly ever given in the texts the singer was free to name her according to his belief or fancy.

The ballad seems most likely to have been based upon a court scandal denounced as a "haynous murther" in his History of the Reformation by John Knox, connecting the crime of infanticide with a French waiting-woman - whose name is not given - and the Queen's own apothecary, the story being corroborated by Randolph, who states in a letter that both were hanged in December 1563 ....

A Mudcat thread discussing who the four Maries were, together with more versions of the lyrics and related songs, can be found here. Although this thread contains good information, it also contains speculation: some care is needed by the reader to sort out which is which.

Roud: 79 (Search Roud index at VWML) Take Six
Child: 173

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