The Four Marys

Companions to Mary, Queen of Scots

Chapter 1: Background

Yest're'en the Queen had fower Marys
The nicht she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael and me

So runs the old ballad, remembering the four friends and companions of a fifth Mary – Mary Stuart, the romantic and ill-fated Queen of Scots. The Queen’s fate is well-known, but who were her four Marys and what happened to them?

Mary, Queen of Scots as a child

Mary Stuart was Queen of Scots in her cradle. Her early years were spent in an atmosphere of unease as her mother, Marie of Guise, sought to protect her from the predatory Scottish nobles who fought for the Regency and for control of the little Queen. The nobility were divided between those who supported the traditional French and Catholic alliance that Marie represented, and those who looked to a newly Protestant England to support the burgeoning Scottish Reformation.

Marie of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots

Despite this tension, Marie of Guise sought to give her daughter a happy childhood, and appointed four girls to be her companions and, later, ladies-in-waiting. What all the girls had in common, as well as their Christian name, was noble birth and similarity in age to the Queen. There was also, whether deliberately or not, a pun in the choice of girls called Mary, as “marie” was the Scots word for a maid, derived from the Icelandic “maer”.

The ballad is slightly wrong on the names – they were Seton, Beaton, Fleming and Livingston. Fleming’s mother, Janet, Lady Fleming was the illegitimate half-sister of Mary’s father, James V; Livingston was the daughter of the Queen’s guardian, Alexander, 5th Lord Livingston of Callendar; Beaton’s grandfather was first cousin to Cardinal David Beaton, one of the men vying for the role of Regent; Seton was the daughter of George, 4th Lord Seton, and she and Beaton were also daughters of two of Marie of Guise’s ladies-in-waiting.