“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 became of them?
Mary Stuart was Queen of Scots in her cradle. Her early years were spent in an atmosphere of unease as her mother, Marie de Guise, sought to protect her from the predatory Scottish nobles who fought for the regency and for control of the little queen. The nobility was 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.
Despite this tension, Marie de 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 above 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, and 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, while Seton was the daughter of George, 4th Lord Seton, and she and Beaton were also daughters of two of Marie de Guise’s ladies-in-waiting.
The four Marys in France
The location Marie de Guise chose as most likely to keep the queen safe during these troubled times was the almost impregnable fortress of Stirling Castle. However, it soon became apparent that this was not a long-term solution. The English government, first under Henry VIII, Mary’s great-uncle, and then the lord protector and council of Edward VI, were determined that she should marry Edward VI – a view supported by some of the Scots nobles.
Marie de Guise, and the pro-French faction among the nobles, were determined to prevent this, favouring the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France – especially when it came well lubricated with French pensions – and intended her to marry the French heir, Dauphin Francois [son of King Henri II]. In preparation for an escape to France, the queen was sent first to Inchmahome Priory, and then to Dumbarton on the coast. It was at Inchmahome that the four Marys joined her household. In 1548, they set sail for France.
The girls endured a rough crossing – all except the queen were afflicted by seasickness. Livingston and Fleming at least had the consolation of travelling with their families, since Lord Livingston and Lady Fleming as guardian and governess accompanied the queen. On arrival, Mary was immediately taken into the household of King Henri’s children, while her four friends were sent away.
Henri II’s motive for separating Mary from her companions was two-fold: first, he wanted her to speak French, rather than Scots, and second, he wanted her closest friends to be his daughters, the Princesses Elisabeth and Claude. Not that Henri was averse to a Scots tete-a-tete – Lady Fleming was sent home in disgrace after bearing him a son.
The four Marys were dispatched to the Dominican Royal Priory of Saint Louis at Poissy. Far from being a backwater, Poissy was at the forefront of Renaissance learning, with close ties to the court. There, the Marys would have received a thorough Humanist education, as well as learning all the skills necessary to be wives of noblemen, and attendants on a queen.
Seton seems to have been trained in hairdressing, too. Her skill in dressing her mistress’s head – first when Mary’s lustrous auburn hair was the toast of European courts, then afterward, when it thinned and greyed and was augmented by wigs – was remarked on. Later, the Marys returned to the queen’s household, where they enjoyed such domestic pleasures as making marmalade and crystallised fruit.
At the centre of the Scottish court, 1561–68
Mary married Francois in 1558. Following her brief period as queen of France, the widowed Mary [Francois died in December 1560] returned to Scotland in 1561, aged 18, and ready to take up the burden of personal sovereignty. Her Marys returned with her as ladies-in-waiting.
The first years in Scotland were taken up with Mary’s determination to control the complex political situation with which she was faced. A group of nobles, led by James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray (Mary’s half-brother), and calling themselves the Lords of the Congregation, had converted (some with rather more sincerity than others) to Protestantism, and changed the official religion of Scotland. This led them to look for support from Protestant England, rather than Catholic France.
Mary – no religious fanatic – tried to steer a course between the different factions that sought to dominate her. When not engaged in state business, the queen recreated some of the splendour of the court of France, and in this she was ably assisted by her Marys.
The four Marys went everywhere with the queen, even accompanying her to parliament in 1563. They had stools in her chamber, when to sit in the presence of the monarch was an extraordinary honour; they waited on her at table; and they took leading roles in the lavish court entertainments so important to 16th-century monarchy. They danced at masques, played music for visiting ambassadors, rode, hunted and hawked with the queen and her nobles.
More informally, they joined Mary in dressing up as burgesses’ wives to walk around Edinburgh and St Andrew’s, shopping in the market and cooking, in a faint foreshadowing of another doomed queen, Marie Antoinette. They even donned male costume – on one occasion at a banquet for the French ambassador, as well as for practical reasons when hunting – outraging the sensibilities of the increasingly dominant religious radicals.
Mary was unfortunate in that her greatest enemy at home was John Knox. Knox, a militant Calvinist, was even more misogynistic than most men of the age, and spent a good deal of time inveighing against female rule in such delightful tomes as “The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women”, and haranguing Mary in both public and private. Knox made the most of every innocent pastime derived from youth and high spirits at the queen’s court to insinuate that the queen and her entourage, including the Marys, lived immoral lives.
Pressure mounted for the queen to remarry – there were many at home and abroad who had their eyes on the crown – and even Mary’s person. In a frightening incident a foolish young poet, Chastelard, was found hiding under the royal bed. Mary, too nervous to sleep alone thereafter, took Fleming as her ‘bedfellow’. The queen’s affection for her Marys was one argument used to persuade her to take a husband, as they had all vowed to remain single while she did. Mary did remarry in July 1565, but life for all of the Marys would probably have been better had she stayed a widow – the marriage to Lord Darnley [who she wed in 1565] proved disastrous.
The Marys in love
Whatever the Marys’ earlier matrimonial intentions, the first of them, Livingston, was married in March 1565 to John Sempill, son of Robert, Lord Sempill. Knox, who had referred to Livingston as “lusty”, suggested the match was rushed – Livingston and Sempill, who was a noted dancer, had been tripping the light fantastic with gusto and from this, Knox inferred that she was pregnant. It seems unlikely, as the betrothal took place a year before the wedding and the first of their several children was not born until a year after it.
The queen attended the elaborate ceremony, and gave them a gift of a bed hung with scarlet and black velvet, with embroidered taffeta curtains and silk fringes, as well as land, drawing Knox’s fire again for granting lands to courtiers. Livingston remained at court as keeper of the queen’s jewels. When Mary made a will in 1566, Livingston drew up a minute inventory of her jewels – specimens of which were bequeathed to the Marys, should the queen die in childbed.
Beaton, considered the best looking of the four Marys, caught the eye of Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador. Around twice her age, perhaps he hoped that his position would attract her. The queen’s biographer, John Guy, refers to them as lovers, but it seems unlikely that one of the queen’s closest friends would expose Mary to the risks of confidential information leaking out – unless Beaton were acting in concert with Mary, extracting information from Randolph.
Beaton must have had the reputation of being politically influential with the queen, as she received letters and gifts from the wife of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, one of the other English ambassadors. Beaton was courted by Randolph for some time, but in 1566 married Alexander Ogilvy, by whom she had at least one son. Beaton died in around 1598, and her widower promptly married Lady Jean Gordon, the wife whom James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, had thrown off to marry Queen Mary.
Livingston was full of spirits and Beaton was the prettiest, but Fleming apparently carried the palm for overall attractiveness. As ‘Queen of the Bean’ at the Twelfth Night ceremonies in 1564, she was dressed in cloth of silver and jewels, and this “flower of the flock’s” dazzling looks attracted poetry and prose panegyrics.
Fleming was courted in 1564 by William Maitland of Lethington. Maitland had a chequered history in Mary’s service: one of the few nobles who was Protestant by conviction, he had joined the Lords of the Congregation and was a friend of Sir William Cecil, the English secretary of state, whose whole life was dedicated to eliminating Mary.
Maitland failed to warn Mary of the plot to murder her secretary, David Rizzio, and it is likely, too, that he knew of the plot against Darnley. [Darnley and a group of Protestant nobles stabbed to death Rizzio on 9 March 1566, after they convinced him Rizzio was Mary’s lover. Mary could never forgive Darnley, who was himself murdered on 9 February 1567.]
Fleming, of course, probably had no idea of the extent of Maitland’s duplicity. Maitland seems to have fallen headlong in love with her, and his passion was the subject of some mockery at court –nearly 20 years older than she was, he was described by one courtier as being as “suitable for her as I am to be pope”.
Maitland has been identified as a prime suspect for the forger of the casket letters, which triggered accusations that Mary was complicit in Darnley’s murder. [The letters contain eight missives and a series of sonnets said to have been written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Bothwell, between January and April 1567. They were produced as evidence against Queen Mary by the Scottish lords who opposed her rule].
Whatever his machinations, Maitland later became an adherent of what was known as the Queen’s Party that wished to restore her, if not to full monarchy, at least to regency for her son, James. The Queen’s Party, which included Fleming and Maitland, held Edinburgh Castle in 1573, but when it was captured by the English they were handed over to the Regent, Morton.
Fleming was freed, struggling to retain her diamond and ruby chain that had been Queen Mary’s, while Maitland, carried out of the castle on a litter, died before he could be brought to trial. Suicide was rumoured. The King’s Party planned to hang, draw and quarter his dead body, but Fleming wrote to Cecil, asking him to intervene. He passed the plea to Elizabeth, who requested the Scottish lords to spare the body.
Fleming waited until 1583 for Maitland’s lands to be restored. She and Maitland had two children – a son, James, converted to the old faith and fled to France, while their daughter, Margaret, became Countess of Roxburghe.
The fourth Mary, Seton, never married, but stayed with her mistress for many years. After the surrender at Carberry Hill [Mary surrendered and later went to exile in England following the battle of Carberry Hill, 15 June 1567, which took place near Edinburgh after a number of Scottish lords objected Mary’s rule following her marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, who was widely believed to have murdered her previous husband Lord Darnley], she joined Mary in captivity at Lochleven Castle.
By standing at a window, dressed in the queen’s clothes, she gave Mary time to slip out of the castle, and escape across the loch in a rowing boat. Later, when Mary fled to even more onerous imprisonment in England, Seton was permitted to join her, and spent 15 years incarcerated in the gloomy series of castles where Mary wore her life away.
In 1570 Seton’s mother wrote to her, and was apprehended by the King’s Party, who sought to banish her from Scotland for communicating with Mary’s household. Elizabeth intervened, requesting forbearance “if the cause be no greater” than writing to her daughter.
By 1583, even Seton’s devotion and health were tried by the long imprisonment, and she was given leave to retire to a French convent at Rheims. Seton lived on to see her mistress’s son inherit the crown of England, before dying in 1615. She was buried in the convent she had dwelt in for more than 30 years. Were her last thoughts of the charismatic queen she had served so faithfully, or did it all seem a distant dream?
“But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity….
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary [Fleming] and me”.
Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times, a new website about daily life in the period. Visit www.tudortimes.co.uk to find out more.
This article was first published on History Extra in April 2015