This edited article about Lord Darnley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 696 published on 17 May 1975.
On a cold February night in 1567, Mary Queen of Scots bade farewell to her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, lying ill with smallpox in a little house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. As she prepared to mount her horse in the thick snow outside, a servant, nicknamed Paris, appeared at the front door, his face black with dirt.
“Jesu, Paris,” Mary exclaimed, “how begrimed you are!” Then without waiting for an answer, she turned to her attendants and gave the signal to set off down the street towards the other end of the city where they were to attend a wedding party.
Three hours later, the still of the night was shattered by a violent explosion. The little house, called Kirk O’Field, in which Mary had left her sick husband, had been blown to pieces by gunpowder. In the garden lay the bodies of Lord Darnley and his servant, Taylor.
Quickly a crowd gathered round the two bodies, and at once they noticed something curious about them. Neither showed the slightest trace of gunpowder or any injuries arising from its detonation. Both men had been suffocated.
In a muddy field nearby a slipper was found. It belonged to Archibald Douglas, Darnley’s cousin.
From that time to this people have argued whether or not the Queen was implicated in the murder. If she was innocent, they ask, who then was guilty?
To get at the truth we have to look at the principal characters in the story. There are four of them – Mary, Darnley, the Earl of Bothwell, and the Earl of Murray.
Mary had bad luck with all three of her marriages. Her first husband, Francis the Second of France, died when she was only nineteen. Five years later, in 1565, she married her cousin Darnley. Before long she discovered his true nature – arrogant, cruel and violent. For comfort she turned to her Italian secretary, David Rizzio. To the disgust of the Scottish nobility she promoted him and entrusted him with some of the most important state business. Naturally, Darnley was jealous and, together with his cousin, Archibald Douglas, he burst into the Queen’s chamber one evening and stabbed the Italian to death before her eyes. For this Mary never forgave him.
At this time Mary appointed a new councillor, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Described by a contemporary as a “fierce, stout-limbed and hazardous youth,” he was tough and courageous. As an adviser, however, he had no value at all.
Ambitious to reach the highest positions of state, Bothwell played upon the Queen’s loathing of her husband, and in time she fell in love with him, granting him everything he wished.
On the face of it, both Mary and Bothwell had good reason to wish Darnley out of the way. A third, and more sinister figure, however, has to be considered – James Stuart, Earl of Murray, and he had the strongest motive of all.
Murray was the illegitimate son of James the Fifth of Scotland, and so was half-brother to Mary. From beginning to end he was her deadliest enemy. Deprived of the throne because of his illegitimacy, he determined to achieve the next best thing, the regency. Rich, handsome and gifted, he devoted his whole career to deposing the Queen, using anyone he could as a tool, doing everything possible to discredit her and show she was not fit to wear the crown.
Murray began by prevailing upon Darnley to put an end to Rizzio, using Archibald Douglas as his intermediary. After the murder he encouraged Darnley to seek more powers from the Queen. In return he offered the support of the nobility.
When he saw that Mary was not going to give her husband increased power, but preferred to entrust state matters to her new favourite, Bothwell, Murray decided to make a friend of Bothwell.
By heaping favours upon Bothwell, Mary was making herself unpopular. Murray egged him on to ask for more responsibilities.
In the meanwhile, Darnley was becoming increasingly isolated. His wife had left him, and Bothwell was already wielding more influence than he ever had. As far as Murray was concerned, Darnley was of no further use to him. The need for his elimination had come.
At Christmas, 1566, Darnley contracted smallpox. He sent for Mary, but at first she could not come because she had had a fall from her horse. Six weeks later she visited him at Kirk O’Field.
While he was lying there, barrels of gunpowder were brought and carefully concealed in the cellar. The charge was to be detonated on Sunday evening. February 9, for the sick man was intending to travel the next day.
Paris, the servant, inadvertently discovered the gunpowder, and must have tried to dismantle the charge, getting his face black in the effort. At midnight, when the Queen and her party were leaving, he rushed to the front door to warn her. Before he could speak, she made the remark about his face, and departed.
At three o’clock in the morning the house was blown up, and Darnley was found in the garden – suffocated.
He was probably murdered an hour or so earlier. This is borne out by some women living in nearby almshouses who subsequently testified at an inquiry that before the explosion they heard him cry out, “Pity me, kinsman, for the love of God.”
The identity of the kinsman is suggested by the slipper found near the garden. It belonged to Douglas, Darnley’s accomplice in the Rizzio murder.
The question which follows is, if Douglas killed Darnley, who employed him to do so?
It would not have been Mary, for Douglas had helped to butcher her favourite Rizzio the year before. She was accused by her enemies of arranging for the gunpowder to be used for the crime, but if this was so, then the very last thing she would have done was to draw attention to the traces of it on Paris’s face.
Mary left the house at midnight for the wedding party with a number of attendants. One of these was Bothwell. When the news of the murder was brought to her, Bothwell immediately left to visit the scene, a most dangerous thing to do if he were implicated. Naturally, as the Queen’s favourite, he was suspected, but at a trial shortly afterwards the case against him collapsed through lack of evidence and he was acquitted.
A few weeks later Mary married him, made him a Duke, and put him at the head of the government. It is inconceivable that all this would have happened if he had been guilty.
The remaining person under suspicion is Murray.
We have seen the extent of his ambition – the regency – and the means he employed to achieve it. If Darnley were to be murdered, Mary or Bothwell, or both, he reckoned, would certainly be suspected – as indeed they were. Despite this, after the crime Murray drew up a petition urging the queen to “humble herself to take to husband the said earl” – in other words, to marry Bothwell. This could only have been to discredit the Queen still further.
His calculations proved right, and within months he succeeded in leading the nobles against Mary and Bothwell, and drove her off the throne. His colleagues thereupon appointed him regent.
One further thing strengthens the case against Murray – the evidence that Douglas had a hand in the murder. Douglas, who already had experience in political assassination, hated the Darnley side of the family. It would not have been difficult for Murray to get him to commit murder again.
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