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Lord Darnley: Murderer and Murder Victim in Stuart Scotland

History boasts many characters. Some are remembered kindly, others are cast as villains. It's fascinating. Meet Sir Thomas Bloodworth.

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Darnley, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

The strategically minded Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) had hoped to engineer a match between the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) and her own favourite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588) so that she would have a spy in her rival’s court. Mary was the Catholic queen who could depose Protestant Elizabeth given the opportunity. Elizabeth’s marriage plan came to nothing.

The handsome and haughty nineteen year old Lord Henry Darnley (1545-1567) seized his opportunity to ingratiate himself with the passionate and impetuous Mary. Darnley and Mary shared a grandmother, Mary Tudor (1489-1541,) the wife and widow of King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513.) She was the elder sister of King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) which made him a cousin of Elizabeth’s too. Darnley’s Catholic line was a threat which Elizabeth I had so far controlled. They had a claim to her throne.

Lord Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lord Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Passionate Queen, Handsome Suitor

When Darnley presented himself to twenty-two-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots at Wemyss Castle in Fife on 17th February 1565 the queen was heard to comment that “he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen." Darnley barely left her side during his visit, except to call on his father in Dunkeld, and he accompanied the court when it relocated to the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the 24th February. Whilst there, he contracted measles and a besotted Mary nursed him back to health.

Elizabeth I was furious that she wasn’t being consulted about her cousins’ increasingly likely alliance. She commanded that Darnley urgently return to the English court and report to her. He didn’t.

True Colours

The banns for Darnley’s marriage to Mary were read at Canongate on the 22nd July 1565. An edict was issued on the 28th July which he never forgave Mary for. If Mary died childless he would not become the ruler of Scotland, a privilege known as the Crown Matrimonial. They married on 29th July in the chapel at Holyroodhouse. The Earl of Moray and his cohorts who saw Darnley as a threat stormed the castle but they failed to halt the wedding. Moray fled to England.

Darnley soon revealed his true nature, much to Mary’s horror. He was unreliable, vain, arrogant, he drank heavily and grew increasingly vindictive. He was frequently violent and many of the courtiers despised him. His father, Matthew Stewart, the 4th Earl of Lennox (1516-1571) quietly removed himself from court, not willing to watch his son’s antics or suffer the effects of them. Despite their bubbling acrimony, Mary fell pregnant.

Palace of Holyroodhouse, circa 1544.

Palace of Holyroodhouse, circa 1544.

Darnley Murders Rizzio

Rumours of an affair with a dedicated Italian nobleman, her musician and secretary David Riccio di Pancalieri, known to history as David Rizzio or Riccio began to circulate. There was speculation about who the father of Mary’s unborn child might be.

On the evening of the 9th March 1566 Rizzio, the heavily pregnant queen and some friends were having a quiet supper in her chambers at the Palace of Holyroodhouse when Darnley and a group of accomplices burst into the room. They dragged Rizzio to the top of the stairs, stabbed him fifty-six times and threw him down to the ground floor. Darnley restrained Mary throughout the murder. At the foot of the stairs, Darnley plunged his dagger into Rizzio’s body as a sign of victory.

It was hoped by some of the rebels that she would miscarry so that there could not be a suspected “fiddler’s son” on the throne of Scotland. Other conspirators fled but remarkably Mary told Darnley that he was forgiven.

James Charles Stuart, later King James VI of Scotland and I of England, was born mid-morning on the 19th June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. Mary presented James to Darnley: “My Lord, here I protest to God, and as I shall answer to Him at the great day of judgment, this is your son, and no other man’s son…” Darnley publicly accepted that James was his but he did not attend the christening.

Mary, Queen of Scots Acts

Towards the end of November 1566, Mary and her most trusted nobles gathered at Craigmillar Castle near Edinburgh to discuss what could be done about her insufferable husband. In an agreement named the Craigmillar Bond, it was decided that for the good of Scotland “…he should be put off by one way or another…”

Darnley sensed danger and absented himself from the royal court just before Christmas 1566. On his journey to a family estate in west Scotland he fell ill. Opinion has remained split on whether poison, syphilis or smallpox was the cause. Mary followed Darnley and nursed him as she had done in happier days.

Towards the end of January 1567, Mary persuaded Darnley to recuperate at Kirk o’ Field, a former abbey and two-storey provost's house. It was near to the Edinburgh city walls and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Mary visited him in his first-floor bedchamber every day. She was rather conveniently attending a wedding reception when at approximately 2:00 am on the 10th February 1567 there were two violent explosions that blew Darnley's room apart.

Plan of Kirk o'Field drawn for Elizabeth I and Sir WIlliam Cecil at the Engish court.

Plan of Kirk o'Field drawn for Elizabeth I and Sir WIlliam Cecil at the Engish court.

A Royal Whodunnit?

Darnley's body, half-naked in its nightshirt, was discovered in the garden beside the corpse of his valet William Taylor. A dagger, a cloak, a coat and a chair were scattered around them. There were no external injuries on Darnley’s body. Captain William Blackadder, a soldier, was the first person to arrive at the scene.

It was soon discovered (or revealed) that the small room below Darnley’s chamber had two kegs of gunpowder stored in it and they had somehow ignited. The two men probably fled the room having heard a strange noise. It was then conjectured that they were strangled afterwards in the garden.

In the aftermath Elizabeth I wrote to Mary: "Men say that, instead of seizing the murderers, you are looking through your fingers while they escape…” How much Mary knew about the details of the scheme is debatable. She married the presumed murderer, another cousin of hers named James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell (c.1534-1578) on the 15th May 1567 at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Tales of his abducting and raping her to secure the marriage persisted and although his brief murder trial in April 1567 resulted in an acquittal few doubted his involvement in Darnley’s death.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.

Downfall

Ultimately, Bothwell’s play for power cost Mary the goodwill of the Scots and her throne. She was incarcerated in various English castles until her execution on the 8th February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. Bothwell went insane whilst imprisoned in Dragsholm Castle in Denmark. Apparently, the mark on the floor where he sat and the depression in the pillar he was chained to are evidence of his over ten years' stay.

Captain William Blackadder was arrested, released, rearrested and then tried for Darnley’s murder. On 24th June 1567, he was hung, drawn and quartered at Edinburgh Cross. Seemingly, no one benefitted from Darnley’s arrival at court that fateful February day in 1565.

Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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