by David McNicoll
David is a longtime Brainery teacher and author of The Language of Whisky
At two o’ clock in the morning, on the 10th of February 1567, Edinburgh was shaken by an enormous explosion in the district close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The building, the Kirk o’ Field, was reduced to rubble, while in the adjacent orchard garden two dead men were found, half naked and murdered. It was a sensation that led to scandal, for one of the men was the husband of the Scottish Queen, and a man with vaulting ambitions to wear the crown of England. The crime has never been solved, not even close, and few have been left open to as much interpretation and speculation. A classic palace whodunnit of Shakespearean proportions – but will the answer to this baffling Royal Murder Mystery ever be revealed?
Darnley and Mary
If it weren’t so damn tragic, the life of Mary Queen of Scots could be considered almost farcical. From a surreal childhood bouncing around Scotland trying to avoid her deranged, wife-murdering uncle, Henry VIII who wanted to marry her off to his own infant son, to a fairytale upbringing amid the achingly sumptuous court of Versailles in France. And there, amid the tinsel, and at only fifteen she would find herself married to an even younger king, becoming as a result, the Queen consort of France – the future looked mapped out both for her and her country. But the king died – of an ear infection of all things; and no sooner had that rug been pulled, than her mother, the regent of Scotland, Marie de Guise also died. At seventeen, and a widow with few allies, she did something rather unexpected – she came home.
It was a surprise for all concerned, but in August 1561 Mary Stuart arrived to reclaim the authority of the realm ruled by her family since 1371; not everyone was happy. The Stewart dynasty may have been successful, but they weren’t exactly lucky, nor did they die old in their beds – consequently, all of them came the throne as children, the six-day-old Mary, no exception. Real power therefore lay in the hands of ruthless Machiavellian regents, power-hungry uncles and bastard brothers. Mary too was burdened with one such sibling, her half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray. With charm, wit and a cunning political streak he may have made a good king, but he was conceived on the wrong side of the sheets; a fact that gnawed away at the man. So, while he was all smiles and graces towards his sister on arrival, behind the mask his ambitious mind was whirring. Although Mary’s return had blindsided him, he was recalibrating for the situation. Plotting was afoot.
Moray wasn’t her only concern, for much had changed in Scotland since last she saw it. Moving swiftly on the heels of the death of her mother, the country’s Protestant nobles, known as the Lords of Congregation, with veiled threats pushed to have Scotland proclaimed a Protestant nation, and Catholicism wiped from the slates. The Act was passed in Mary’s name, against her will and in her absence, and came into law in August 1560. The new church, the Kirk with all its bluster and Calvinist ranting was led by the firebrand preacher, John Knox; and as Catholic Mary disembarked to grasp the reins of power, he gave it to her with both barrels. But Mary was no dullard, sharp-witted and savvy herself she was able to balance these two characters, placate them even. But just so, she needed a strongman in her own camp – she needed to remarry. It would prove disastrous; and Mary Stuart’s train wreck of a life picked up pace and hurtled on down the line.
The main problem for Mary, apart from being a practicing Catholic in Protestant country full of arrogant misogynists, was her dynastic position. Her grandfather, King James IV had married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, in 1503, and it would have far-reaching consequences. Margaret’s brother, Henry VIII was married six times and had three children – but, he would have no grandchildren. This meant that after Elizabeth I, the heir presumptive of England was none other than Mary Stuart. As Elizabeth aged, the prospect of a Catholic queen edged ever closer – alarm bells were ringing. Elizabeth’s spies began plotting with the Protestant lords in Scotland, chiefly the Earl of Moray.
Having failed to secure a top-ranked European match, Mary changed tack and decided to solidify her English claims. After James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, Margaret Tudor remarried, and the grandson of this union was the dapper and man-about-town dandy, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Initially besotted by the big six-footer, Mary decided this would be the perfect union. As another great-grandson of Henry VII, he was in fact the next in line to the English throne after Mary. Not only that, but as a senior descendant of King James II, he was also heir to the throne of Scotland as well. It seemed dynastically solid, but in reality, she’d invited the fox into the henhouse.
The couple were married in 1565, and almost immediately the thing began to unravel. Dashing as Darnley may have been, as a boorish, drunken, loudmouthed knucklehead he’d garnered many enemies along the way, among them, Moray. Seeing his own dreams vanish into the ether thanks to this marriage he led a failed coup against the queen, under the guise of ‘advice’. For his efforts, he was outlawed, which planted a seed of seething hatred in his ambitious heart. It also alienated a large proportion of the court away from Mary, an issue she may well have resolved herself, but for her wrecking-ball of a husband. On balance, the marriage was now looking like a bad move – and the almost permanently drunk, womanizing, Darnley was now openly calling himself king. The Queen was having none of that, and the relationship deteriorated into a vitriolic mess. Much worse however was round the corner.
Estranged, Darnley found solace in the tavern and the arms of countless women, Mary became more reclusive and pining for Parisian gaiety, spent more time with her ladies in waiting and her personal secretary, David Rizzio. The feckless Darnley had at least done his duty, and the queen was now pregnant – it was a game-changer. We will never know if the intention was to frighten Mary into miscarrying his own son, an heir who would stand in his way, but Lord Darnley and his goons broke into Mary’s chambers at the palace and killed Rizzio – stabbing the diminutive Italian fifty-seven times, and then kicking his body down the stairs. It was deliberately brutal, and the queen held at pistol point while the gory deed played out before her. She was then kept a virtual prisoner in the aftermath; but Mary and the child survived. She escaped and fled the city, and around her grew a cohort of supporters, led by James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell. The two would become intimate lovers: the countdown to murder was on.
Earl of Bothwell
Following the birth of Prince James in June 1566, there was an attempt at rapprochement between the Queen and Darnley. There was no doubt that Mary would like to have divorced her low-life husband, but this had the potential of rendering her son illegitimate, which she couldn’t risk. She dispatched James to Stirling castle for his safety, swallowed her pride and sent out an olive branch. In seeking a return to favour, Darnley gave up the names of the Rizzio murder plot, a cabal of nobles that were forced to flee to England. They would not forget. Darnley for his part was in Glasgow with his family recuperating from either smallpox, or just as likely syphilis given his lifestyle. A couple of weeks ahead of the murder, the Queen moved him back to Edinburgh. He was lodged close to the palace at the Kirk o’ Field House, a building straddling the old city wall and split into two parts: The Old Provost’s House and The Salle. The Provost’s House was set up as an apartment for Darnley, while the Queen’s bedroom was arranged in the Salle whenever she decided to stay over. This arrangement was important given what would happen on the 10th of February 1567.
On the evening before Mary had visited her husband and then left to attend the wedding of one of her household staff at the palace. The intention was to return later that night, but she never did. In the early hours, the Scottish capital was rocked by a terrific blast – the Kirk o’ Field had been blown to smithereens. Recent investigation by explosive experts suggests that given the damage around 200lb of gunpower must have been stored in a lower part of the house, probably in two large barrels. That would have been difficult to hide, leading to the speculation that Darnley himself had planted the explosives with a view to killing the queen on her return. Indeed, the same investigation concluded that the barrels were under the Salle, where Mary’s bedchamber was kept and not the Old Provost’s House where Darnley resided.
The first upon the scene, a William Blackadder – a soldier in the pay of Bothwell found the bodies of Lord Darnley and his manservant, Taylor in the garden-orchard adjacent to the house and raised the alarm. Both men were semi-naked, and their shirts were pulled up to their armpits, suggestive of being dragged. Had they been dragged from the building as a rescue? There was no physical evidence of injury on either man whatsoever, and given their relative positions on the grass, a modern forensic team determined that they would’ve needed to be standing next to each other, and beside a window in the Salle at the precise moment of detonation, and then flung over the city’s Flodden Wall. An incredible fluke, and give it was two in the morning, highly unlikely. It looks as if both were suffocated and laid out specifically in the garden to be found as they were. The only real conclusion of the night’s events was that Darnley was not killed by the blast that destroyed the house. This has led to speculation that there were two plots coincidently at play that morning – one to kill the queen (and Darnley too) in the explosion, and another to simply have Darnley murdered, and the killers having the fortune of stumbling across the man in the garden (perhaps dazed) and doing him in. Additionally, the explosion may have been a red herring, intended to throw any investigation off course by the implied connection of the two events.
So, we need to consider who was the intended victim: a) The Queen herself, and the foul-play planned by Darnley as a stepping stone to the throne, or at least to control his son as regent, but was botched and went horribly wrong; b) The Queen and Darnley were both the target, perhaps part of a English-promoted plot to have the Earl of Moray become regent, or by Moray acting alone; c) Darnley alone was the victim, as a revenge by the Rizzio killers (possibly with the collusion of Moray); and d) Darnley was killed in a deliberate attack by the Queen’s lover Bothwell, with or without the Mary’s knowledge in the garden and unconnected to the explosion. At the end of the day, somebody wanted to blow somebody up, and murders were done in the garden. Pick the bones out of that.
As with many crimes, it often pays to follow the money, or in this case the power. Who had most to gain from Darnley’s death? Bothwell would be the obvious answer, the Queen too possibly – although since the birth of Prince James, Darnley was less of a threat. Moray too could have taken advantage, returning to a position of authority he had prior to Mary’s return from France and access to the prince – all in the pay of Elizabeth I of England. However, the English plot would really only have worked had the Queen also been killed. Perhaps she was the intended victim, but when she didn’t return to the house, Darnley became collateral damage – and the scene in the orchard, which was drawn in an illustration for Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster in Scotland, a deliberate attempt at killing the queen ‘politically’ by implication. If that indeed was the plan, then it worked spectacularly well. Elizabeth feigned abhorrence at the murder and telegraphed to the world that Mary was behind the plot. This suited the English camp very well, for it could eliminate a Catholic heiress, paving the way for a Protestant succession in her son, the future James VI. As it did.
Kirk o’ Field
For me, it’s either this English plot in cahoots with Moray – who following Mary’s later forced abdication would indeed become regent (until he too was murdered); or it was Bothwell acting alone or jointly. Bothwell stood trial on the 19th of April, but was acquitted. Less than a week later he ‘abducted’ the queen – whether she played the victim in this is still very controversial, as is her alleged rape by Bothwell as a way of securing a marriage, and perhaps even the crown-matrimonial. Either way, this marriage was the final straw for both, and Mary was forced to abdicate in a coup and eventually fled to England. She would be executed by Elizabeth in 1587. An action, which the English queen was hesitant to go through with, as the beheading of an anointed monarch could set a bad precedent – a lesson brutally learned by Mary’s grandson, Charles I at the hands of Oliver Cromwell.
We will probably never know who killed Lord Darnley, or why . . . or if he was even the actual target of the mysterious events that took place that cold winter’s morning in Edinburgh 450 years ago, and upon which history would turn. There were a lot of actors at play, scheming court intrigue and private vendetta muddying the waters, and all amid a whirlwind of religious unrest, political aspiration often prosecuted at the end of a sword, and shadowy interference from London. Yet it remains a fascinating case, and another bizarre chapter in the crazy life of Mary Queen of Scots.