A small furtive band of men carried large sacks through the quiet, dark streets of
Edinburgh. They stacked these bags around the walls of a lower room of a comfortable
house next to a church as if they were lying in stores of wheat for winter. One of
the men snaked a long cotton string from one of the bags across the diagonal of the
room so that it came out under the heavy oak door. The men backed away to some distance
from the building. With a flint and a small wisp of hay, they lit the end of the
string. They watched, transfixed by the slow, almost painful progress of the ignition
of the fuse. Then, the street, the church and the building lit up with an explosion,
the likes of which Edinburgh had never heard.
The cast of characters in this complicated plot is positively Shakespearean:
The most beautiful queen in all of Europe, twenty years old, six feet tall, in an
age when the average height of a woman was barely five feet. This is our heroine,
Mary Queen of Scots.
A nineteen-year-old king, handsome, two inches taller than his queen, towering by
half a foot over the men of the time, but despite these gifts, a syphilitic, disgruntled
libertine. Here we have the fascinating Lord Darnley.
A half-brother, Lord Moray, a bastard, seeking by any means to dethrone his half-sister,
even though he is sometimes her advisor.
Lord Bothwell, a dashing, mercurial, ambitious lord, with his eye on the throne,
who plans to win his trophy by capturing the affection of the Queen.
A short, ugly, swarthy Italian secretary to the queen, David Rizzio, perhaps her
lover. Perhaps, the king's lover, as well.
A complete cast of dukes and lords, all possessed with the pursuit of power, some
rabid Roman Catholics, some equally frenetic Protestants.
Treachery. Adultery. Religion. Greed. Sex. Power. And, most of all, murder.
This is a tale of two murders. The first murder that of David Rizzio, the Italian
secretary of Queen Mary, has no mystery, since it was committed by a crowd of assassins
before Mary's very eyes.
Imagine a sixteenth-century royal chamber, Mary and her secretary playing cards,
a musician playing his lute softly in one corner of the room, candles ablaze, servants
bringing and removing dishes of delicacies. Then, chaos. A group of men, armed with
knives and swords, knocked over tables and pulled the almost dwarfish Rizzio from
Queen Mary's skirts. They stabbed him repeatedly as his pregnant benefactor screamed
The second murder, that of Lord Darnley, Mary's second husband, is cloaked in mystery,
and has at least half a dozen suspects. In terms of history and historians, it is
an unsolved murder. This time the murder is preceded by a horrendous blast of explosives,
with the building housing Lord Darnley collapsing in dust and rubble, but leaving
the intended victim unmarked, as he lay dead in the adjacent courtyard.
Was history changed by these murders? Were they the undoing of the reign of Scotland’s
queen? Perhaps the destiny of England itself was altered.
The consequences were much more far-reaching than would first appear. The heart of
the story begins with Mary returning from France, where she had spent her childhood.
Return to Scotland
Mary, Queen of Scots, and Francis, Dauphin of France, were married in 1558. The bride
was sixteen, the groom fourteen. The marriage ceremony, even for the sixteenth century,
must have had elements of comedy about it. Mary, tall, robust, beautiful, walked
down the aisle with a short, puny, sickly boy. Those in attendance must have wondered
how such an incongruous couple could ever consummate a marriage. Shortly after the
marriage, Francis's father, Henry II, King of France, declared his new daughter-in-law
Queen of Scotland, Ireland, and England.
A little over a year later, King Henry II died and Francis was proclaimed King Francis
II. Other thrones were in flux. Within this time period, Elizabeth had become Queen
of England, and Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, was ruling Scotland in her daughter's
In 1560, however, things changed rapidly. Mary, now not only Queen of Scots but Queen
of France as well, had her life altered significantly by the end of that year. First,
France, England, and Scotland signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, in which France no
longer claimed the throne of England in Mary's name. By mid-year Mary of Guise died,
and Scotland was ruled by a faction of warring lords. By the end of the year, Francis
II, always a sickly boy, caught a fever while hunting and died in December. In the
course of two years, Mary Queen of Scots was married, orphaned, and widowed.
Francis II was succeeded by his brother, the ten-year-old Charles IX. Mary's mother-in-law,
the formidable Catherine de Medici, had no place in her plans for her newly widowed
daughter-in-law. Suggestions that Mary should marry Charles were quickly squashed,
as well as attempts by her Guise uncles to marry her to Don Carlos, heir to the Spanish
throne. [See "The Mad Prince of Spain."] Under these circumstances, Mary decided
to return to Scotland, her kingdom that she had not seen in thirteen years.
She would return to a land ruled by a council of twenty-four nobles divided between
Protestants and Roman Catholics, sufficiently motivated by the pursuit of power to
allow Scotland to exist in an uneasy truce between the competing religious doctrines.
Foremost among these lords was the ambitious Lord James of Moray, Mary's bastard
half-brother. Moray was a Protestant who had led the effort to declare Scotland officially
a Protestant country, but in effecting a compromise of tolerance between the competing
religious factions, he had acquired the enmity of the intolerant Calvinist, John
Knox, a powerful and wild-eyed preacher.
Despite this opposition, Moray seemed to Mary to be the most effective advisor for
her return to ruling Scotland and the man most likely to help her avoid civil war.
In accepting the advice and counsel of Moray, Mary had to accept the influence of
his cronies, the clever Lord Morton and the dangerous Lord Maitland. All three of
these men would have a hand in the murders that would ultimately determine Mary's
On August 19, 1561, Mary Queen of Scots, nineteen years old, returned to the land
of her birth. "She had left a Scots child and returned a French woman," as John Guy
so aptly describes it.
However, sixteenth century Europe did not look kindly on female rulers. In the early
years of her reign, Elizabeth I of England was under constant pressure to marry,
not only for the functional reason of producing an heir (male, hopefully), but to
have a strong man's hand on the helm of the ship of state. Anticipating Mary's return
to Scotland, John Knox had written three years before Mary's return to Scotland his
"First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" which began:
"To promote a woman to be our rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm,
nation or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious
to his revealed will ..."
This was the land that Mary was to rule: A land of cold castles inhabited by rabid
Protestants and equally rabid Catholics, all hungry for power. She was a lamb walking
into a lion's cage.
The Ambitious Bridegroom
There was no question in the minds of the lords of Scotland that Mary Queen of Scots
needed a husband. Despite the impressive power exhibited by Elizabeth of England,
there was reluctance elsewhere in Europe to accept the idea of a woman ruler. Elizabeth
herself considered Mary to be a possible heir to her own throne and was interested
in seeing that Mary was wed. She proposed several candidates, the most illustrious
being her own probable lover, the dashing Earl of Leicester, whose wife had been
found dead under unexplained circumstances. [See "The Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart."]
After some negotiations, Elizabeth settled on Henry, Lord Darnley, a youth of eighteen
who was of royal lineage. He was the son of Lord and Lady Lennox, the former in semi-exile
in Scotland and the latter living in almost virtual captivity in London with her
two sons. Darnley had met Mary shortly after the death of Francis when he brought
condolences from Elizabeth, but he evidently left little of an impression. Now, prompted
by the enthusiasm of Elizabeth and his parents, he set off to Edinburgh to woo Mary.
Darnley was tall, handsome, and in some ways rather effeminate. He could be charming,
selfish, engaging, and feckless. Most of all, he was ambitious. He wanted nothing
more than to be King of Scotland and eventually King of England. He was clever, dangerous
Eventually Darnley wore down the dubious Mary, who wasn't quite sure about this charming
young man. With the blessing of the lords of Scotland and Elizabeth, Darnley, a Protestant,
and Mary, a Roman Catholic, married on July 29, 1565.
It was a match that soon disintegrated. The best that can be said of the marriage
of Mary and Darnley is that the union produced an heir who would eventually attain
the goal that Mary had set for herself: the throne of England, the successor to Elizabeth
I, henceforth, upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, to be known as James I.
Darnley was a problem from the very beginning of the marriage. He not only liked
to drink and gamble, but he enjoyed spending his nights pursuing the prostitutes
of Edinburgh. From time to time, he was reported to enjoy men as partners in sex
as well. He even exhibited a certain amount of affection for the little Italian,
Rizzio. There is much not to like in Darnley. He complained bitterly that he should
be given the title of king, and he schemed and conspired with a number of the Scottish
lords to accomplish his goal as the undisputed king of Scotland.
First Murder: David Rizzio
Every murder story, real or imagined, has an element of comic relief in it. The very
character of David Rizzio (or "Riccio" as it is sometimes spelled) has such elements
in it. Rizzio was the Queen's secretary, rising to that position over the first months
of Mary's reign as Queen of Scotland. He was more than that. He was a musician who
entertained Mary, a companion with whom she played cards, and, in effect, a sort
of court jester.
Most of all, he had a comic appearance. He was short, swarthy, and, in the eyes of
some, a grotesque and ugly figure. As his self-importance grew, he became more and
more a strutting little rooster. He dressed lavishly, and restricted access to his
Queen, who preferred to remain isolated in her apartments rather than concern herself
with the entreaties of members of her Council. Rumors that he was Mary's lover abounded,
circulated by the jealous lords who sought more influence with her. Even decades
later, King James VI was referred to by sly Continental wits as "the British Solomon,"
i.e. the son of David. Such rumors were not only false, but absurd. The beautiful
six-feet-tall Mary was an unlikely paramour for the dwarfish, comical Rizzio. She
enjoyed his company, but no more than she would have enjoyed the company of an energetic
lap dog. Or so her defenders claim. Women are funny about these things, and at this
distance in time it's always hard to determine the facts about who was slipping into
whose bed down through the centuries.
If there was a ruling emotion among the lords of Scotland, it was paranoia. The favor
shown to Rizzio by Mary galled them. It particularly galled Darnley, whose profligate
ways and desire to be named to the "crown matrimonial," rather than his lesser status
of "King-Consort," led him to become involved with a plot to do away with Rizzio.
After supper, in the Queen's chamber, Rizzio and Mary, along with a number of attendants,
were playing cards. Mary was five months pregnant. It was a usual evening—light-hearted,
relaxing, and frivolous. Ruthven, an old and devious lord, entered from the staircase
that led from Darnley's chamber a floor below. He was part of a group that included
Morton and Maitland, which had hatched the scheme. Darnley was with them. It was
clear to all in the chamber that Ruthven's intent was to murder Rizzio. Clinging
to the Queen's skirts, shrieking in terror to her for protection, Rizzio was grabbed
by Ruthven. Darnley raised his dagger to stab Rizzio, but Ruthven accomplished the
deed first. Other lords of the Ruthven group entered through the main door to the
chamber and blocked the exit. Two of them dragged the wounded Rizzio out the door,
butchered him like a hog with their swords and daggers, and threw him down the stairs
as a horrified Mary looked on. She was convinced that they meant to kill her as well.
Rizzio's dying screams could be heard all over the palace and in the grounds outside.
Darnley, showing his usual bravery, began to beg Mary's pardon. It was all over in
a few minutes.
Mary was thunderstruck. Her own husband had been part of a cabal to murder her secretary
and perhaps even to murder her. It occurred to her that they intended for her to
After all had left, including a hypocritical and supposedly contrite Darnley, Mary
immediately made plans to escape Holyrood Castle. She managed to smuggle a plea for
help to the swashbuckling Lord Bothwell, whom she trusted, and late that night, after
having her maids "divert" the conspirators' guards in some manner discreetly passed
over by historians, she climbed over a wall disguised with a cloak, and escaped into
the darkness on the back of Bothwell's horse.
Second Murder: Lord Darnley
Under the protection of Bothwell, and now safely ensconced in Edinburgh Castle, Mary
was faced with a strange sort of rebellion. The lords who had killed Rizzio asked
for forgiveness, and in the interests of maintaining some measure of control of her
kingdom, she granted it. Darnley, of course, was not really forgiven, but endured
as a necessary evil. Mary began to consider the possibility of divorcing Darnley,
despite the myriad complications that such an act would have. The lords were not
happy with Darnley's pusillanimous performance during the murder of Rizzio, so he
was in the awkward position of being in no one's particular favor.
Bothwell assumed even greater importance as Mary's principal advisor. When the dust
had settled, Darnley, threatening to leave Scotland for France and greater security,
decided to relocate to Glasgow. He went to recover from an illness, most likely syphilis
acquired during his nights of debauchery in that first year as Mary's husband.
For some reason, Mary decided that it would be politic to minister to her ill husband,
and visited him in Glasgow. With apparent tenderness, she nursed him, and finally
convinced him to return to Edinburgh. Between the murder of Rizzio and Darnley's
self-imposed convalescence in Glasgow, James had been born, and was safely looked
after at a castle to the north of Edinburgh. It is probable that Mary wanted Darnley
closer to her so that she could keep an eye on him. Darnley, arrogant to a fault,
presumed that he was once more in her favor and could look forward to sharing her
bed. They settled on his moving to Holyrood Castle, the very locale of Rizzio's murder,
and close to Edinburgh Castle.
At the last moment, though, Darnley appears to have become suspicious of wifey's
sudden burst of affection, and he decided that he would rather reside at a comfortable
house that was adjacent to Kirk o'Field, some distance from both Holyrood and Edinburgh
Castles. It was a fateful decision.
The Lords of Scotland met after they learned of the relocation of Darnley. They were
still angry over his betrayal in the plot to murder Rizzio. Among their number was
Bothwell, who was playing a deep game of both ends against the middle. They decided
that Darnley must be eliminated. Despite the last minute switch of locations for
Darnley, they were able to formulate a plot that would rid them of this duplicitous
and irritating young man. They signed a bond, a statement of mutual commitment, to
the effect that they would kill Darnley.
The plot was simple. Bothwell's men, along with loyal liegemen of the other lords,
would place explosives in the lower chamber below where Darnley resided in Kirk o'Field.
The fuse would be lighted and Darnley would no more be the irritant that he had become.
Who, exactly, came up with this brilliant plan to murder Darnley in the most incredibly
public manner possible, making any attempt at a cover-up impossible, is unclear,
but it bears all the hallmarks of Bothwell's jolly, swaggering and murderous clowning.
Some of Mary's apologists have claimed that the plot included getting rid of Mary
along with Darnley. This may or may not be the case; by then the future James VI
had been born and an infant king would have been very convenient for the gang of
baronial bullies who wanted to return to a nice, long regency of the kind they had
enjoyed when Mary was away in France. It is a fact that Mary promised Darnley that
she would stay over with him on the fatal night, which may or may not have been done
to re-assure the recovered but jumpy consort and keep him in place. But, she had
previously committed to attend the wedding festivities for one of her servants at
Edinburgh Castle. At the last minute, she decided not to stay with Darnley.
It is known that on her way out of the building, the Queen met one of her former
servants, who was now working for Bothwell on the stair, who had just come up from
the cellar and was covered from head to toe with the gunpowder he'd been stacking.
Mary's laughing comment, which has come down through the long centuries, was "Jesu,
Paris, how black you are!" Then she went out to the party.
Late on the evening of February 13, 1567, an explosion rocked the neighborhood around
Kirk o'Field. The lodge in which Darnley had been staying was blown to bits; the
whole building was leveled and a huge crater was all that remained. The amount of
black powder used must have been colossal. However, Darnley was not a victim of the
explosion. He and three of his servants appear to have heard suspicious activity
below them, or have been otherwise warned, and fled out their second-floor rooms
in a state of undress by lowering themselves (by a rope and chair) into the courtyard
outside his window.
They escaped the explosion, but they did not escape the men of Lord Balfour who pounced
upon them and strangled Darnley and one of his attendants. At first, it was thought
that Darnley had been blown into the courtyard by the explosion, but it was evident
that he had no other injuries than those evidenced around his neck.
The Queen, who had retired after the wedding festivities, was aroused by Bothwell
and told of the explosion. Mary later claimed she was certain that she had been an
intended victim, since the charge had supposedly been set in her chamber, immediately
below that of Darnley's, which of itself requires some fancy explanation. Bothwell
took charge of the investigation, even though he had been privy to the plot and some
of his men had participated in the arduous task of hauling in the bags of explosives.
The questions immediately arose: Who were the perpetrators? How involved was Bothwell?
Could Mary herself been involved in the plot to rid herself of this odious husband?
How involved were the Lords Moray, Morton, Ruthven, and others?
Mary committed a fateful blunder. She didn't appear to be sufficiently mournful of
the death of her husband. Indeed, while she retired to her chamber in mourning, she
seemed to exert little effort in swiftly solving the crime. It was, after all, a
case of regicide, even if Darnley had been "king" only by virtue of marriage. It
was not long before placards arose around the city of Edinburgh, accusing Bothwell
and what was worse for Mary crude placards depicting her as a mermaid, a symbol of
Mary's Fortunes Decline
From this date on Mary was essentially doomed. Elizabeth, hearing the news of Darnley's
murder, was horrified that a king had been murdered. As despicable as Darnley was,
it was considered more despicable to kill a king.
After the obligatory forty days of mourning had elapsed, Mary was "kidnapped" by
Bothwell, her trusted councilor, who now fancied himself the most appropriate husband
for the widowed queen. He forced the signing of a bond between himself and the Lords,
approving him as the most suitable mate for the Queen of Scotland. Bothwell, with
the bond in hand, confronted Mary, swept her away to Dunbar Castle, and, to ensure
his matrimonial privilege over her, raped her. A clearly distraught and emotionally
exhausted Mary finally consented to marriage with Bothwell. If she was in on the
plot, she certainly got more than she bargained for. It was a dizzying time. From
the murder of Darnley to the marriage of Bothwell, a mere three months had elapsed.
Within a month, Mary had been forced to abdicate and her infant son James had been
declared King, with his uncle Lord Moray as regent. Mary escaped to England, and
sought the protection of her cousin Elizabeth. A month after his marriage, Bothwell
fled to Denmark, where he was immediately imprisoned for past acts of piracy. Bothwell
eventually died in prison, a madman. Mary and her third husband were never to see
one another again.
Mary Tried and Convicted
Mary was moved from castle to castle. These moves were interspersed with a brief
escape with subsequent recapture. Elizabeth bowed to the pressures of her advisors,
and allowed Mary to be tried for the murder of Darnley. The trial took place without
Mary's being allowed to defend herself in person. The principal evidence against
her was the so-called Casket Letters. This series of documents appeared to be love
letters and poems written to Bothwell before the murder. They suggested that Mary
was in league with Bothwell (now rotting in a Danish prison).
The Casket Letters, now lost and existing only in copies, have been a problem for
scholars ever since their unveiling by Moray at Mary's trial. Some of them may indeed
have been written by Mary, but it is not clear to whom they had been truly addressed.
Others appear to be forgeries, implicating Mary as an unfaithful wife and libertine.
Whatever the conclusion at the time, the Casket Letters constitute very slim evidence
in Mary's involvement in the murder of Darnley. Even if they were true, they prove
only motive for the murder, not complicity. Mary was found guilty of having conspired
to kill Darnley. Elizabeth did nothing, choosing to keep Mary as a prisoner.
In 1570, Moray, Regent of Scotland, was assassinated. Darnley's father, Lord Lennox,
was assassinated the following year. Lord Morton, who succeeded Moray as Regent,
was found guilty of treason and executed in 1581. By this time, James VI, now fifteen
years old, assumed the throne of Scotland without assistance from a regent. Raised
a Protestant, he essentially disavowed his mother and did nothing to help her.
The rest is sad history. Mary was kept imprisoned for nineteen years. It was only
after the discovery of the Babington Plot (a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and to
place Mary on the throne of England) that Elizabeth was faced with the problem of
what to do with her troublesome cousin. It is clear that Mary had been indiscreet
when she had given her written approval of the plot. What she had not been aware
of was that she had been the victim of a sting, and that the entire plot had been
devised to ensnare her into an act of treason. Elizabeth's Lord of her Secret Service,
Thomas Walsingham, had done his job well. This time her trial led not only to a verdict
of guilty, but a sentence as well.
The Fascination Lives On
How is it that Mary, a queen all of her forty-five years but who actually ruled for
only a scant five of them, is such a fascinating figure in history? She is equally
as famous as her cousin, the great Elizabeth I who reigned over England for over
fifty years. The literature devoted to Mary for over four hundred years is almost
as vast as that devoted to Elizabeth. Indeed, there are a number of joint biographies
of the two that link them together throughout all of time. History's fascination
for her seems strange.
Examining her life demonstrates that this fascination is not ill placed. She was
the daughter of James V, King of Scotland, and Mary of Guise, a member of a powerful
French family. Mary's father died when she was six days old, whereupon she was crowned
Mary Queen of Scots, with her mother as regent. Five years later, in the midst of
continual power struggles in Scotland, she was sent to live in the court of Henry
II, King of France, and shortly thereafter identified as the future bride of the
Dauphin, Francis, the heir to the French throne.
Not an uneventful beginning. Henry's goal was to position his son as king of both
France and Scotland, and the union of Mary and Francis would achieve not only that
but perhaps England as well, since Mary had, in the eyes of European Roman Catholics,
a legitimate claim to the English throne. Both Mary and Elizabeth could claim descent
from Henry VII. Mary could claim it through Henry VII's sister and Elizabeth could
make the claim from Henry VII's son, the larger-than-life Henry VIII.
But a crowning as an infant, a betrothal and subsequent marriage as a teenager to
the heir to the French throne, and a return to Scotland to rule all before the age
of nineteen, were just overtures to a life resplendent with plots and counter-plots.
There were two more marriages after her early widowhood. The second was ended by
murder, the third begun by a rape. All these intrigues were to end with her beheading
by Elizabeth's orders after nineteen years of imprisonment.
It is little wonder that history has considered Mary Queen of Scots a most noteworthy
No problem exists with the murder of Rizzio. Eye-witness accounts tell of Lord Ruthven
and the other lords slaughtering the little Italian before Mary's very eyes with
the complicit Darnley looking on.
The murder of Lord Darnley is a more difficult matter. Moray, Morton, Maitland, and
another less important lord, Balfour, were involved. Bothwell, although protesting
his innocence, was, at the very least, in on the plot. It was probably Balfour's
men who strangled Darnley after he escaped the blast in his night shirt.
And what of Mary? She had been seeking the possibility of divorce from Darnley. Lord
knows she had reasons aplenty to want to get rid of him. But the conclusion of most
authors is that she understood the rules of kingship (or queenship) well enough to
know that the murder of a queen's husband would produce more problems than it would
solve. It is possible that she wasn't unhappy that Darnley was done in, but, more
likely, she entered into a period of depression and seclusion after his death because
she recognized the problems ahead. In this emotionally debilitated state, and after
having been raped by Bothwell, she drifted into marriage with him in a sort of desperate
move. Even the Casket Letters prove nothing. The verdict on Mary, with respect to
the murder of Darnley, is that she was innocent of the plot and guilty only insofar
as she inadvertently encouraged his removal by voicing her exasperation with him.
Mary Queen of Scots was an ineffective ruler, even in the short time she actually
held power in Scotland. She certainly was a failure in her selection of men. Rizzio,
upon whom she depended, became an arrogant obstacle to her establishing reasonable
working relations with the Lords who had ruled Scotland before her return from France.
Darnley was not only a scheming, ambitious, self-indulgent husband who sought to
rule Scotland (and, eventually, he hoped, England as well), but as divisive as Rizzio
when it came to establishing a working government with the lords. And Bothwell, essentially
an adventurer, was as ambitious as Darnley, but more ruthless and more prone to intrigues
Against this dismal picture we have Mary the woman. She was intelligent, charming,
beautiful, and loyal. Most of all, she was tragic, because she was "... born to supreme
power [and] wholly unable to cope with its responsibilities." (Wormaid, 1988)
As was suggested earlier, what would have happened if Mary had been able to prevent
the murder of Darnley? It is possible that, if Darnley had lived, some accommodation
could have been fashioned between Mary and Darnley. Perhaps Darnley would have eventually
died from "the pox" acquired from the whores of Edinburgh. Even if he had lived and
he and Mary were able to rein in the ambitions of the Scottish lords, the outlook
for the two of them was promising. If nothing more had gone amiss, and Mary had been
able to stay alive until 1603 (when she would have been sixty-one), undoubtedly she
and not her son would have been Elizabeth I's successor. And even if she had died
before Elizabeth, her son, James (who eventually was Elizabeth's successor) might
not have been a Protestant, but a Roman Catholic, like his mother.
The possibilities of all these "what-ifs" point out that the murder of Lord Darnley
was not an isolated or trivial matter. Its consequences were as dramatic as the actual