Saturday, July 20, 2013

Who were Mary Barrett Dyer's parents?

Mary Dyer was not a Tudor, not the secret child of 
Arbella Stuart and William Seymour.
© 2013 Christy K Robinson 

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How do you stop a very old rumor, especially if it's hit the internet? I'm going to try, by telling you, repeating it, and saying it again. I will be overly redundant on the matter. Why do I try? Because this blog has received hundreds of search inquiries on this very subject.

Many genealogy pages (and Ruth Plimpton's book) say Mary Dyer's ancestry was royal by virtue of being the secret child of Lady Arbella Stuart and Sir William Seymour. If you've copied that to your records, it's time to erase the false legend now. No researcher has found proof of Mary's parents or her birth or christening record. They have, however, found proof that Mary Barrett had a brother named William Barrett who in the custom of the times was probably named after their father. Please read researcher Johan Winsser's articles at this link. Read my proofs at the end of this article.

The pure fiction that Mary was the daughter of nobility and potentially an heir to the throne of Great Britain, was created by a Dyer descendant, Frederick Nathaniel Dyer, in the late 1800s, the romantic Victorian era. It resembles many other attempts by conspiracy theorists to create some sort of connection to European royalty, perhaps to explain why a girl with no known background (as yet discovered) had an above-average education and stood out among other women of her time. The romantic notion was that a commoner from Westminster could never have risen socially without a royal background. 
Henry VII of England,
NOT Mary Barrett's ancestor,
therefore not your ancestor.

Lady Arbella Stuart,
probably about the time
of her illegal and short-lived
marriage to William Seymour.
The false story is that Mary was the child of Lady Arbella Stuart (3x great-granddaughter of Henry VII), aged 35, and William Seymour (4x great-grandson of Henry VII), aged 22 at time of their secret and illegal marriage. King James forbade their marriage, but they married in secret in June 1610. The secret was revealed, and by 9 July 1610, Arbella and William were arrested and imprisoned. Separate quarters, as you must imagine! William was in the Tower of London; Arbella was at Lambeth under house arrest. History records that there was no issue from this marriage. That means there was no secret child who would be raised as Mary Barrett.

 Age 35 was very old for first-time pregnancy in those days. It's called "elderly prima gravida" even today. If Arbella had become pregnant during her two weeks of married bliss and borne a baby while in custody and under a doctor's care for several maladies, it would have been noticed by servants, royal household personnel, Anglican clergy, or any of the Lambeth Palace or Tower employees like, oh, say, prison guards--it was impossible to hide something like that, especially since Arbella was a prisoner under a royal-watcher microscope! What about the laboring mother's screams or groans? What about a newborn baby's cry?

But according to FN Dyer's legend, the newborn Seymour child was spirited out of the Tower of London (a prison, remember, with security) and named after and raised by her nurse, the original Mary Dyer, and hidden from King James I while he searched for the child who had a better claim to the throne. Was there even a lady-in-waiting for Arbella? The only "lady" Arbella mentions in her letters, a woman who needed to be paid for her services, was a Lady Chaworth. Another point against FN Dyer is that Arabella was not even in the Tower at this time--she was across the river under house arrest. FN Dyer said the baby was spirited from the Tower of London, but Arbella was at Lambeth in March and April 1611 (her presumed due date), and then King James sent her on a long journey north to Durham, which Arbella delayed and claimed her inability to travel and need for recuperation at manor houses along the way. The journey and northern confinement meant she would be isolated from Seymour forever. Nevertheless, she was sent.
The odd couple: Stuart and Seymour, ages 35 and 22.

In early June the next year, the young William Seymour escaped the Tower and fled to France, having missed his connection with Arbella, who also escaped from her journey north to captivity in Durham. She traveled in men's clothes, but was delayed by weather, captured at sea, and returned to prison. If Arbella and William had a child born in March 1611, would they not have taken that child with them to their exile in France? After all, the child was supposed to have had a better heritage for the throne than King James. But King James, a middle-aged man, had been on the throne for years, and had heirs by now, so there was no need, no chance for a Seymour baby to knock him out. That's just not logical.

I've read a false rumor that Arbella Stuart Seymour was killed by King James in 1615 in the Tower of London. No, Arbella actually died--childless--from a self-imposed hunger strike in 1615. She may have been mentally impaired by porphyria, a blood disease. You can read their story in detail, which cites letters of all the players involved, here:  If you still doubt, read the biography at that link, and form a timeline. It just doesn't work for Arbella to bear a secret child.

After Arbella died, there was no reason to keep Seymour in prison, so (no doubt after a large fine paid by his family) he went back to England, and married Lady Frances Devereux in March 1617. They had seven children. Seymour took up a political career, and was a royalist supporter of his much-removed cousins, King Charles I and II. Again, if he had a baby by Arbella, wouldn't he have taken over the upbringing?

Let me be clear: it's impossible for Mary Dyer to have been a Stuart-Seymour daughter. There was no pregnancy, no cover-up, no baby, no servant named Mistress Mary Dyer who adopted a baby. The Stuart-Seymour historians and biographers never, ever, had an inkling that Arbella might have been pregnant or had given birth, because the story was invented in 1890, which was 280 years after Mary was supposed to have been born. Our Mary Barrett Dyer was born to a family named Barrett, with an older brother named William Barrett (for whom she was executrix in 1634 when he died abroad), and married William Dyer.

Really, isn't it MORE remarkable that Mary Dyer was brilliant and accomplished on her own, without a privileged background? If she was invited to court events (and there's no proof of that, either), perhaps it was because of friends or her guardian. Now, please go to your ancestry or genealogy files and DELETE the Stuarts and Seymours from your records. Arbella Stuart Seymour had no issue. No Mary. Do you really want pure fiction in your pedigree or family tree? (And if so, why??)

Celebrate that you are descended from a brilliant and beautiful woman who became great not because of whose child she was, but because of her conscious choice to lay down her life for her friends.

Please click the colored links to see for yourself that the "tradition" of Mary Dyer's royal ancestry is the fantasy of a Victorian man who was creating his own royal pedigree. 
FN Dyer sent his fictional account to the Colonial Dames Society where it was read in 1890. It contains more illogical statements and inaccuracies than Mary Barrett's parentage. He apparently had not even read a biography of Arbella Stuart. 

NEHGS, July 1940 issue (Vol. 94) published the marriage record of Mary Barrett (not Stuart-Seymour) and William (Latinized to Guglielmo) Dyer

NEHGS, April 1944 issue (Vol. 98) The New England Historic and Genealogical Society's Register published an article by Alice Eugenie Ortiz entitled "Tradition of Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr" which had been contributed by Mrs. Harry Clark Boden. Mrs. Borden herself stated that there was no proof whatsoever for her theory - simply that it was one conceivable way to account for Mary's early whereabouts.

From : Andrews Moriarty refuted this theory quite soundly in his article, "The True Story of Mary Dyer" (NEHGS Register, Vol. 104, January 1950). He states that "no proof is offered that the Lady Arabella ever "had" issue except a vague statement from Mr. Hardy's (Life of Lady Arabella Stuart) of a rumor that such was the case." Furthermore, Moriarty points out that "there never was such a tradition [of this lineage] among Mary Dyer's descendants, but that it was a quite modern story, emanating from an English gentleman, Mr. F. M. Dyer of Macclesfield [sic -]. for "Frederick Nathaniel" Dyer who was an American - his father was born in Rhode Island - and who moved to England to do research]....who, not so many years ago, sent the story of his beliefs to the descendants of Mary Dyer in this country. ... This 'tradition' does not even have the authority of age ... this being so, the story, without more evidence, is not worthy of serious consideration." Moriarty further takes the (then) editor of the Register to task for even accepting the article for publication, as it appeared four years after the July, 1940 issue (Vol. 94) which published the marriage record of Mary and William Dyer from the parish register of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, which clearly identified her as Mary BARRETT.  

Biography of Arbella Stuart by B.C. Hardy includes her letters, no mention of a baby girl--but conspiracy theory about a baby boy after Arbella's death. Arbella's servant Mrs. Bradshaw, under oath, said "her lady had never had a child."   
See screenshots here:

by B.C. Hardy, Constable & Company, Ltd., London, 1913

The book goes on to say that William Seymour was very upset at the rumor and denied he'd fathered a child by Arbella.

Arbella's letters to her uncle beg for money to pay servants (she didn't have the servants she thought she deserved, but she had a Lady Chaworth and a Mrs. Bradshaw--not Dyer). Arbella's 1610 letter to her husband on page 120 says, "Rachel wept, and would not be comforted, because her children were no more; and that indeed is the remediless sorrow, and none else. And therefore God bless us from that, and I will hope well of the rest, though I see no apparent hope."  She wanted a child, but didn't have one (no pregnancy had resulted from their short union), and wished God would bless them with children--though she saw no hope.

British Monarchs: Arbella Stuart, no pregnancy. 

The fiction was repeated in the opening pages of Ruth Plimpton's 1994 historical novel, Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker, Branden Publishing Co., Boston, 1994, pp. 10-13, "The Tradition of Mary Dyer & Lady Arabella Stuart." From there, the "tradition" or legend was copied thousands of times into internet genealogy sites as if it were the truth. But it was never the truth. It was a lie from the very beginning.

Lady Arabella Stuart No mention of pregnancy or baby.
Sir William Seymour No mention of baby. BECAUSE THERE WASN'T ONE. 

THIS ARTICLE IS PUBLISHED ON THE WEBSITE William and Mary Barrett Dyer, by Christy K Robinson, at

Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. Looks like the other rumors that people are descendants of Queen Katherine Parr, Lady Margaret Douglas (with a child by Seymour), and others connected to old royals. I've encountered several lines in which people REFUSE to change the mistakes because they would like to believe the lie and that someday there might be a connection found. If it's been disproven--take it out!

    1. But we know the majority of hobby genealogists won't take it out. *le sigh*

      The thing is, almost everyone -- millions of people -- can claim royal ancestors. They had large families, married across Europe, and had the means to escape the dangers of the plague or battlefield. The poor and the peasant no-names were the arrow-fodder and bubonic plague victims, as well as the ones who died from war-induced or Little Ice Age famines. Most of us living today had royal and noble ancestors who managed to survive.

  2. STT wrote on Facebook: "As an English history major and a genealogist by profession, I was always a bit dubious of this claim."

  3. I took the Tudor connection with a grain of salt when I read Plimpton's book. The whole "baby born in secret and spirited away" thing is too mythical, too much like King Arthur and Moses. Thanks for debunking it for good! I agree that Mary Dyer is more interesting as an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maria. Between Facebook and this blog, I get requests, emails, and oodles of search results trying to find info on Mary Barrett Dyer's Tudor ancestors. I'm glad YOU took it with a grain of salt, but because the illogical, improbable myth is replicated in the Plimpton book and countless websites where no one ever checks accuracy or asks a critical question, it not only survives, but (ACK!!) flourishes. I'm not sure if the searches and hits are increasing in frequency, or if my blog has risen in Google results. Or maybe a third factor: the popularity of Tudor TV series and books, and the wishful genealogical connection.

  4. Comment from J.R. through website email:

    "I want to thank you one hundred times over for writing truthfully of Mary Dyer (Barrett). If it is ok, I put a link to your Blog under Mary in my family tree on in hopes of squelching an age old rumor that she is the child of William Seymour and Arabella Stuart. So many people would rather stand on the backs of others rather than stand on their own. In other words, "surely MY ANCESTOR couldn't have been that awesome on her MUST have been due to her royal blood". Anyway, thank you again. It is truly appreciated."

  5. 35 was old for a first pregnancy, but that doesn't rule it out. I can think of possible scenarios under which a child could have been born in prison, secreted away by a sympathetic guard or his wife, and given to commoners to raise rather than risk the child being killed by the reigning monarch. Not all women scream and groan when giving birth (another myth). Most newborns cry very softly at first, and some don't cry at all. But all that said, there is no proof, and all this leads to is the plot of a smashing historical novel. As far as my family tree goes, I always prefer to err on the side of accuracy.

    1. Yes! Accuracy! Do you know that people actually ask me to prove that Mary wasn't born to Arbella, and they demand that I produce a birth certificate or something tangible? (facepalm) A genealogist friend and I call them birthers.

      My pessimistic assertions (yes, women gave birth into their 40s occasionally, and babies could be borne in silence) aside, this would, indeed, make a historical novel. That is what FN Dyer wrote in 1890: complete FICTION about all parties involved. If only he hadn't attached Mary Barrett Dyer, a real person, to his legend, and if only Ruth Plimpton hadn't copied that fantasy into her book on Mary Dyer. And then internet genealogy came along, and the fiction replicated like Star Trek tribbles. Mary has thousands of descendants. They shouldn't be lied to.

      But if you give due diligence to the actual letters and biographies of Arbella Stewart as I have, She. Never. Had. A. Child. Don't believe me. Believe Arbella and her husband. Believe Arbella's biographers. I've given links for you to investigate for yourself. FN Dyer and Ruth Plimpton didn't read them, and have perpetuated a fantasy.

      Historians who are familiar with Arbella's story have no clue that she was supposed to have had a secret baby. It's only Mary Dyer descendants who have heard the legend, and you can trace that back to 1890, when FN Dyer created it--279 long and eventful years after Mary was born. I hope that if anyone does write a Stewart-Seymour novel about a secret baby raised by commoners, that they don't call the baby Mary, and that they write an author's note that the conspiracy-baby plot is fabricated.

    2. Ja, when I compiled my genealogy I didn't include the legend of the Stuart-Seymour descent. It is fantastic to think about, but yes, women can give birth at 35, prison guards can be corrupt, Monarchs protecting their throne will kill to do it, her descendants claim to have a dress Barrett wore in the court of Charles I, who also condemned capital punishment after she died; she was extremely educated for her upbringing, she possessed a royal-like divine spirit in the way she led her life, and no one knows who her parents were. Her so-called brother could've have been an adopted sibling, who no one knows who his parents were either. If we could find her grave and test her DNA with Stuart's the questions would be put to rest, for good. But until then, we'll just never know, and although just a commoner who did incredible things, the Stuart-Seymour legend just makes her even more incredible because if so, she stepped down to do great things.

  6. Do you really have proof? Where is it? Websites? Really?

    1. Yes, really. Those links lead to actual BOOKS and peer-reviewed, scholarly JOURNALS written by HISTORIANS. Read them before you cling to the myths furthered by genealogy hobbyists. What do Arbella-birthers offer? A legend invented by a guy who wanted to be royal and then perpetuated by a little old lady who admitted it was only her theory. A lie that's easily debunked--if you'd bother to read the references.

      I have jpegs of the NEHGS (New England Historical Genealogical Society) journal articles that I transcribed above. What more do you expect? A Hawaiian birth certificate delivered by a unicorn?

  7. I just left Mary's parentage blank on my own family tree because I don't any knowledge of who they were. I agree that the Arbella story sounds fantastical, but I am bothered by the fact that there is NO information connected to Mary's family (besides a brother). This seems very odd for an educated woman, who married well at this time in London. This strange and total lack of family information does give Mary's story an air of mystery.

    1. Mary Barrett's father may have carried a French name, though she certainly lived in the borough of Westminster and parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields as a young woman. It's possible that her birth parents died in the many epidemics and hazards of the early 17th century (see my article on William Dyer's Annus Horribilis), and she could have been raised by guardians.

      Many, many women's surnames remain unknown to us, over many centuries. William Dyer's mother, named in some pedigrees as Dorothy, is unknown, according to professional genealogists. William's second wife, Catherine, who bore him a child, Elizabeth, in the early 1660s, has no recorded surname. William's son Charles (from whom I descend) had children by a Mary Lippett, that many say is not connected to the Rhode Island Lippetts. And surely you have many blank spaces in your pedigree where the wife/mother was never known. They didn't have birth certificates and national ID numbers. And if the births were recorded in parish registers, those books were susceptible to loss, fire and flood damage, and even willful destruction. We just put an X on that line and look for other lines.

  8. Why would the Dyer who wrote about her alleged Stuart-Seymour descent care about royal ancestry when he was already of royal descent through Mary's husband William? William-->Dorothy Shirley-->John Shirley-->Francis Shirley-->Ralph Shirley-->John Shirley-->Ralph Shirley-->Ralph Shirley-->Hugh Shirley-->Isabel de Meynel-->Alice d'Audley-->Nicholas d'Audley-->Ela Longespee-->WIlliam Longespee-->William Longespee-->King Henry II

    There are also descents from the House of Capet, Bourgogne, Dunkeld, Carolingian, and others. These facts diminish the theory of a blood-royal hungry hobbyist.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Because reputable, professional genealogists, using the best resources, deny that Dorothy Shirley was William Dyer's mother. The father is known. The mother is not. There was a Dorothy Shirley who married a George Dyer in Somerset, and she cannot be the same woman who married William Dyer Sr. and lived in Lincolnshire.

  9. Do you know where the Dyer Farm in Newport was located? I have looked at a few colonial era maps of Newport and do not see the Dyer name. Plimpton says it was in what is now the US Naval War College, just south of the Coddington farm as I recall. There is a Dyer Lane somewhere in Newport, I am told, but cannot locate that either.

    1. Hi, Zach.
      The farm was about that place, but had been subdivided and sold by the Revolutionary War, when maps were made for defense purposes. Several generations of Dyers were buried on their farm, and the few bones or headstones found when the War College was built, were moved to Common Burying Ground. There, not exactly close to the headstones, is Dyre Avenue (an unpaved lane in the cemetery). See my photos in this site,
      and (photo there)
      The farm was in the general vicinity of the Pell Bridge interchange, and the west coast of Aquidneck Island. A strip of land on the coast may have extended south to Dyer Point, now called Battery Park.

  10. Too bad there can be no genetic tests now that they are available. If she was a secret child, of course there would be no official record of her. So following a paper trail doesn't seem to be enough to completely disprove such claims. There are records however that prove there were conjugal visits between Arbella and William. It's not that outlandish to imagine there was a secret child.

    1. With the origin of the spurious story laid out above, it is IMPOSSIBLE for Mary Barrett to be Arbella Stuart's and William Seymour's secret child. Arbella did not have any children. Ever.

      It is absolutely outlandish to cling to a piece of fiction invented in 1890, based on the wannabe-royal fantasy of Frederick Nathaniel Dyer. Read my article again, slowly. Read the links for yourself. I shared them with you after countless hours of research over several years, at no profit to myself.

      There are no DNA samples from either William or Mary Dyer to compare to modern descendants' DNA. Science could detect their DNA if they had a skeletal remains that could be proven to be William and Mary--but they don't. With commercial DNA companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, they will give you a very general idea of geographical areas your thousands of ancestors came from, and they can compare your DNA segments to similar segments on their other customers to deliver distant cousin matches. But they don't distinguish your ancestors' families beyond about 200 years--and William and Mary Dyer were born 400 years ago.

  11. Hi Christy! Thanks so much for confirming where my own research led me to...that Mary is a Barrett. Excellent article!


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