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Issue 14 - One of our greatest 'whodunnits'

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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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One of our greatest 'whodunnits'

James Irvine Robertson looks at the strange case of Lord Darnley - King Henry - who was a victim of political intrigue and murder

It was such a pity that neither Mary of Scotland nor Elizabeth of England had been born a man. Everyone knew theirs would have been a match made in heaven as well as on earth.

Both queens regretted it, and so did their advisers for in the 16th century queens needed husbands, not only to produce an heir but because their spouses would become king. Women weren’t really considered up to the job of reigning.

Mary was born in 1542 and became monarch a few days later following the death of her father James V. Her mother was Mary of Guise who sent her to France where she was raised in the French court.

In 1558, aged 16 she married the young heir to the French throne. A year later she was Queen of France, a year later a widow and a year after that she came to Scotland to take up her inheritance as Queen of Scotland.

As well as being beautiful and charismatic she was also the presumptive heir to the throne of England, but she was a Catholic and that certainly posed a problem when it came to choosing a suitable husband.

Following the reformation both countries were now Protestant and therefore any Royal husband- to-be needed the approval of both the English Queen and the Scots nobility.

A foreign princeling might subordinate the nation to his own country as well as being almost certainly Catholic. At the same time a subject might become over mighty and, in a Scotland where half the members of the aristocracy thought they had a decent chance of becoming king, no single candidate could be allowed such a pole position for power.

Elizabeth offered Mary her cast-off lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was contemptuously rejected. She also permitted another possible spouse, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley to travel north in 1565. Mary and Darnley were cousins, their grandmother having been Margaret Tudor, the aunt of Queen Elizabeth of England.

Perhaps thus adding to Mary’s claims over England gave Elizabeth pause, or perhaps it was simply envy and her own emotional confusion, but she quickly withdrew her approval of Darnley’s candidature.

The suitor himself was 18, tall, slim, and devastatingly handsome. Mary does not seem to have been initially impressed but when the young man fell ill at Stirling Castle in April 1565 she nursed him and became infatuated with him.

They married in July, Darnley was declared King Henry and the Queen was soon pregnant.

Alas! King Henry was not a good man. The Cardinal of Lorraine described him as an agreeable nincompoop but he was being far too kind. Henry was spoilt, selfish, vain, arrogant, vicious and stupid; the Queen fell out of love almost as quickly as she had fallen in.

The Scottish nobles smacked their lips in anticipation. Such a disaffected dolt was putty in their hands.

In between his hawking, hunting and whoring they persuaded him that he should be king in fact as well as name and that he was being dishonoured by the Queen’s innocent association with her secretary, David Riccio, who had been Darnley’s close drinking companion.

So they pulled the king into a plot to murder Riccio, capture the Queen and imprison her.

On 9th March 1566, using the private staircase in the Palace of Holyrood house, Henry and his fellow conspirators entered the Queen’s apartments where she, Riccio and other attendants were having supper. They threatened the heavily pregnant Queen with a dagger and then dragged their victim into the next room where they stabbed him to death.

The royal couple then showed their mettle. Mary swallowed her anger and disgust at her husband’s betrayal and convinced him that his fellow conspirators would betray him. So he betrayed them and helped Mary escape.

Within nine days the Queen was back in Edinburgh at the head of an army of 8,000 men. The conspirators escaped to England. King Henry had now succeeded in alienating everyone who supported the Queen and everyone who opposed her.

Mary herself now loathed him and wished she were rid of him; he had threatened the lives of herself and their son.

One of the few who had remained loyal to her was the Earl of Bothwell. On this occasion he had not been part of the various cliques of interests that wished to change the monarch or control her, so he was still trusted by Mary.

In November he and the disgruntled nobles as ‘most profitable for the common wealth’ signed a bond agreeing that the King ‘should be put off by one way or another’.

Darnley fell sick – probably from syphilis – in Glasgow on New Year’s Day 1567. The Queen went to collect him to bring him back to Edinburgh. She wished to keep him from plotters and plotting.

He did not want to be under her thumb and decided to convalesce at Kirk o’Field, a pleasant house near the city walls. The Queen, never a good hater, flitted between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and her husband’s house.

By the first week in February Henry was better and Mary and her Court spent a pleasant Sunday evening with him, the night before he was scheduled to move in with her; Mary had to be back at the Palace at 11 o’clock. At 4am, Kirk o’Field was razed to the ground by a massive explosion which woke the whole city. Those who rushed to pull the King’s body from the rubble found it lying in the garden with his dead servant. Both had been strangled.

In the febrile atmosphere which followed, Bothwell was accused of the murder, tried and acquitted. Within four months, he had abducted the Queen, married her and lost the ensuing civil war for control of the country.

He fled abroad to Denmark, dying a lunatic in prison. She was imprisoned on Loch Leven and her infant son James, who was being brought up in the Protestant faith, declared King. Mary escaped her captivity, fled to England to throw herself at Queen Elizabeth’s mercy. She was executed in Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1587.

These events have proved one of history’s most fertile fields for conspiracy theories. It is almost certain that Mary did not know of the intended murder. It is almost certain that Bothwell’s men laid the gunpowder.

It is probable Henry realised the danger and was killed as he tried to escape. But recent research seems to show that the entire affair, and almost Mary’s entire reign, was manipulated by Elizabeth’s Chancellor, Lord Cecil.

The web of intrigue that he spun preserved his realm from the threat of Catholic Queen by engineering her disgrace and eventual execution. And left an extraordinary story.