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The diabolical death of Henry, Lord Darnley


It’s 450 years on 10 February 2017 that the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Henry, Lord Darnley, was murdered smack-bang (literally) in the middle of Edinburgh. By all accounts it was to have been a spectacular demise for the 21-year old king, with the house he was staying in (whilst apparently battling syphilis) blown to bits by several sturdy barrels of gunpowder. In the end his naked body was found strangled in a nearby orchard, along with that of his valet; they’d been caught in attempting to escape the house and quickly silenced.

The list of suspects read like a who’s who of the Scots nobility of the time, with Mary and her rough and ready borderer/trusted councillor Bothwell at the very top; several months later they would be married and that would basically mark the end of Mary’s brief and turbulent reign. Of course she had more reason to despise Darnley than anyone; the good-looking, buff blond boy who’d first sashayed into sight at Weymss Castle turned out in the end to be a spiteful bisexual syphilitic with a penchant for calling her out when he’d had a few too many ales. Add in the fact that he’d developed a pathological jealousy for her Italian secretary Rizzio and then helped in the plot to slay the poor little papist in Mary’s presence only added to the reasons for wanting him gone. When she gave birth to their son James – the future James VI of Scotland and I of England – she was derisory enough of the boy’s father to inform her entire court that it would be much the worse for her son because of who his dad happened to be.

After Mary’s marriage to Bothwell broke down and she fled to England, Darnley’s death was the pretext that Elizabeth I used for holding her in captivity for 19 years until her eventual execution in 1587. But did Mary really have anything to do with her husband’s death or was she merely guilty of sticking her fingers in her ears and averting her eyes at the appropriate moment?

For the prosecution

1. Darnley had threatened to impugn their son’s legitimacy; in order to save baby James’ title to the throne, he would therefore need to be silenced.

2. He couldn’t be bothered with state affairs, leaving Mary to have a stamp made bearing his signature; lazy wasn’t quite the word.

3. She herself went to Glasgow to bring him back to Edinburgh when he fell ill; to keep an eye on him, or to lure him to his death?

4. On the very night of the explosion she was meant to be staying with him at the house he was convalescing in – Kirk O’Field – but ‘remembered’ at the last minute that she had a wedding to attend.

5. Her first mother-in-law was that mistress of Machiavellian machinations, Catherine de Medici; didn’t she teach her daughter-in-law anything during those long years at the French court?!

6. Mary had also been in attendance at a conference at Craigmillar Castle wherein her lords debated what to do about Darnley and had warned them not to undertake anything that might impugn her honour – that didn’t rule out doing away with him on the quiet, though.

7. Mary pardoned Darnley’s Rizzio co-plotters even though they were baying for his blood after he’d double-crossed them during the culmination of said plot; she even gave them license to return to Scotland in the months leading up to Darnley’s death.

For the defence

1. Mary may have been suffering from postnatal depression during the plotting that led to Darnley’s death, significantly swaying her judgement if she was aware of the plot.

2. Apart from having her royal reputation to consider, it seems unlikely Mary would have undertaken anything so preposterous when she wanted to keep her cousin Elizabeth Tudor sweet and hopefully be named as her eventual heir.

3. The whole thing might in fact have been in some way engineered by Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, in attempt to further destabilise Mary’s rule and get rid of her (he’d known about the assassination plot against Rizzio beforehand, for instance).

4. It’s unclear to what extent Bothwell had a hold over Mary. How much is romance imagined by centuries of swooning female writers, and how much might in fact be the brutality of a real-life abusive relationship, with Mary powerless to stop him clearing a path to the throne as her consort.

And let’s not even get started on the convoluted controversy that is the Casket Letters…

All in all Darnley’s demise was a spectacular point in Scottish history, one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments, when you factor in the whole Bothwell business and series of calamities that Mary herself was soon to endure. But at the heart was a spoilt, politically naïve 21-year old – pretty much a child still today – but back then a grown man, thrust into the backstabbing heart of sixteenth century Scottish politics. Even if he was a brat, he didn’t deserve to die like that.

By Mickey Mayhew

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