The Tragedy of Mary Hamilton

The well known ballad “Mary Hamilton“, or “The Fower Maries” is a sixteenth century song about Mary Hamilton awaiting execution and telling the story of her downfall. Mary was a lady-in-waiting to a Queen of Scots who goes on to have an affair with the King. She becomes pregnant and has a baby, but kills him, either by drowning or exposure, depending on which version you hear. Mary is found out and sentenced to death, and the song ends:

“Yestre’en the Queen had fower Maries

The nicht she’ll hae but three

There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,

And Mary Car-Michael and me.”

It is believed that the ballad is fictional, and the four Marys come from the four ladies-in-waiting chosen by James V’s Queen, Mary of Guise, to be companions to Mary, Queen of Scots who succeeded her father at the age of just 6 days old. However, none of these woman were called Mary Hamilton; they were in fact Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming, Mary Livingston, and Mary Seton.

Mary Hamilton awaiting execution

Mary Hamilton awaiting execution

Yet, there was a real Mary Hamilton, whose story and downfall is rather similar to that of the Mary Hamilton in the ballad.

Mary Hamilton was a Scottish lady-in-waiting to the Russian Empress Catherine I. She was a member of a Scottish Hamilton family who emigrated to Russia sometime in the sixteenth century, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. It is believed that she was the daughter of a William Hamilton. Mary became a lady-in-waiting to Catherine I in 1713, and she attracted a lot of attention around the royal Russian court due to her beauty and love life, and it wasn’t long before she became the mistress of Peter the Great. But the Tsar wasn’t her only lover, she was also having an affair with Ivan Mikhailovich Orlov, an aide-de-camp to Tsar Peter. However, Orlov had another mistress, and when Mary found out, she tried to win him back by giving Orlov gifts which she had stolen from Catherine.

Over the years Mary became pregnant on at least three occasions, and had two abortions – one in 1715, apparently by consuming constipation medicine. However, she did have a secret birth two years later in 1717, but afterwards killed the baby by drowning it. That same year her lover Orlov was questioned over some missing documents, and during the interrogation he confessed to having had an affair with Mary, and claimed that she had an abortion.

A rumor was spread that the Empress, Catherine, had a slightly unorthodox skin care method: it was alleged that she would eat wax to make her skin pale. And Mary Hamilton was accused of starting this rumor by Avdotya Chernysheva; Ivan Orlov’s other lover. This, unsurprisingly, annoyed Catherine, and she demanded that Mary’s room was to be searched. Unfortunately for Mary, her room was where she kept several of the items she stole from the Empress, and when they were discovered Mary and Orlov were both arrested and imprisoned in the Fortress of Saint Petersburg. Whilst in prison Mary not only confessed to the theft, but she also admitted that she murdered her new born child, however, even under torture, she refused to testify against Orlov, despite the fact he had been quick to point fingers at her.

In the November of 1718, Mary Hamilton was sentenced to death for abortion, infanticide, and theft and slander of Empress Catherine. Catherine asked Peter to overrule the death sentence, but he refused. The Tsar did, however, promise Mary that the executioner would not touch her at all, meaning that she would be beheaded with a sword instead of an axe. Mary was executed on the 14th of March, 1719, dressed all in white.

Unfortunately for Mary Hamilton, her execution was not the last indignity that she would suffer. After the decapitation the Emperor went over and picked up Mary’s head and gave the gathered crowd a lecture about its anatomy before kissing it and then throwing it down. The Russian Academy of Science were given her head and they preserved it for at least the next 50 years.


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3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Mary Hamilton

  1. Blanca Salinas

    Dear Donald,
    This Mary Hamilton, is Alexander Cozens’ mother. She is mentioned as carrying a baby in 1717, and clearly stated the child was the Tsar’s baby. When Cozens arrived in England, he was close to William Hamilton and William Beckford of Fonthill whose mother’s name was Mary Hamilton… if both of these Mary Hamilton are related is yet to be confirmed. Orlov appears in the list of subscribers of Alexander Cozens’ art… could all of these events and people be coincidental? Great article. Thank You.

  2. Heather Forgham

    I am descended from the Cozens family who were in St. Petersburg at the time of Peter the Great and believe, as do others, that Alexander Cozens was the son of Richard Cozens and Mary Davenport. There was a rumour that he was might have been Peter’s illegitimate son, but art historians have questioned this. Certainly, he was raised as if he were Richard and Mary’s child, went to England to study and became an artist. Mary Cozens nee Davenport mentions him (and her other children) in a letter written after she was widowed in 1736. This version of events would be compatible with the tale of Mary Hamilton as outlined in the original article.

  3. Pingback: The Tsar’s Mistress- Executed for Infanticide. “After the execution, the Tsar took up the head that had once shared his pillow, gave a lecture about its anatomy, kissed it, and then threw it away.” –

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