10 February 2022
The ‘tragedy’ of Lord Darnley
Following a large explosion at Kirk o’ Field outside Edinburgh at two o’clock on the morning of 10 February 1567, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was found dead in a nearby garden. Darnley is one of the most notorious figures in Scottish history. He was king consort of Scots, and his mysterious death caused a sensation both at home and abroad. Within days, painted placards were set up and handbills distributed in Edinburgh, openly accusing his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, and James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, of being lovers and of orchestrating Darnley’s murder.
Poem by Robert Sempill, The testament and tragedie of King Henrie Stewart, 1567: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 26r
The sensational news was reported even further, when broadside ballads began appearing in print penned by Robert Sempill. Intended to be sung to popular tunes, one of the first of these ballads, The testament and tragedie of vmquhile [the deceased] King Henrie, was printed in Edinburgh by Robert Lekpreuik. This survives in a unique copy currently on display in the British Library's exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. Taking the form of a a rhetorical device known as a prosopopoeia, by which Darnley’s ghost is represented as recounting his life, Darnley narrated how ‘Scotland I socht, in houpe for to get [Mary]’. Finding him ‘Sa perfyte, plesand, and sa dilectabill’, Mary married him, making Darnley king. Darnley claimed he was popular with the common people, while doing all he could to please and serve his wife: ‘Hir for to pleis I set my haill consait [conceit]:/ Quhilk [Which] now is cause of my rakles [reckless] ruyne’. Blinded by passion, he renounced his protestant faith and began attending catholic mass daily with Mary. Consequently, Darnley was damned, having ‘for hir saik denyit the God deuine [divine]’. His honour was diminished, his word doubted, his supporters deserted him. He became, by turns, depressed, anxious, angry and lethargic.
But all was not as Sempill depicted. While Darnley had charmed and dazzled Mary on his arrival in Scotland from family exile, once married to her in July 1565 he proved an arrogant, jealous and unreliable drunkard who alienated almost everybody, including his new wife. After Mary declined to grant him equal authority with her, Darnley’s resentment focused on her Italian favourite, her secretary David Rizzio, whom he accused of being her lover. On 9 March 1566, he participated in Rizzio’s brutal murder at Holyroodhouse in Mary’s own presence. Then, three days later, he betrayed his co-conspirators by helping her escape captivity shortly after midnight. Mary had won Darnley over by explaining ‘how miserably he would be handled, in case he permitted thir lords to prevail in our contrare [against her]’ (Alexandre Labanoff, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Marie Stuart, reine d’Écosse, 7 vols. (London, 1844), 1, p. 347). Fearing for his safety, at first Darnley kept in Mary’s favour, hearing mass with her daily. But in the months that followed his behaviour became more difficult and unpredictable, driving them further apart, even after the birth of their son, Prince James, in June. At the end of the year he sought safety in Glasgow with his father, but fell ill on the way, probably as a result of syphilis. Mary visited him while he convalesced, persuading Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he was lodged at Kirk o’ Field at the beginning of February 1567.
Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, by an unknown artist, February 1567: The National Archives, MPF 1/366/1.
On 10 February 1567, in the early hours before Darnley’s intended return to court, Kirk o’ Field was destroyed by gunpowder. The discovery of Darnley’s body alongside that of one of his servants, William Taylor, without a mark on either of them, only deepened the mystery. A shocked Mary ordered an immediate investigation, offering a reward to anyone coming forward with information about the murderers.
Surviving accounts, depictions and depositions make it possible to reconstruct how Darnley was murdered. On realising that the house was surrounded by conspirators, Darnley and Taylor appear to have lowered themselves out of a first-floor window onto a gallery below using a rope and chair. They then made their way through a door in the town wall on to Thieves Row, only to find themselves surrounded. Eyewitnesses overheard Darnley plead for his life. Taylor and he were almost certainly suffocated, then Kirk o’ Field was blown up.
Drawing of a placard depicting Mary, Queen of Scots, as a mermaid ensnaring James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, represented as a hare, February 1567: The National Archives, SP 52/13/60
Despite ordering the investigation into Darnley’s murder and passing an act of parliament against placards and handbills, anonymous public attacks on Mary and Bothwell continued. One placard even portrayed Mary as a mermaid (prostitute) ensnaring Bothwell, depicted as his heraldic beast the hare, within her net. Mary wrote to Darnley’s father, Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, promising ‘a perfite triall to be had of the king our husbandis cruel slauchtir’.
Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, 21 February 1567: Cotton MS Caligula B X/2, f. 408r
After Bothwell, the principal suspect in Darnley's murder, was acquitted in a rigged trial on 12 April, Lennox pursued a blood feud against him that culminated in Mary’s deposition from the throne three months later. Popular print would prove critical in turning public opinion against the queen, with Lennox recruiting Robert Sempill, Scotland’s foremost satirist, to write a series of widely read and sung broadside ballads in support of his cause. Darnley was a deeply divisive figure during his lifetime, but in death he became, in Sempill’s words, ‘the Sacrifice’ that sparked rebellion. Although cheap print, to be thrown away or recycled once read, Sempill’s Testament and tragedie is now as rare and precious as many a manuscript, not least for the impact it had on its first audience.
Group portrait of James VI, Matthew Stewart and Margaret Douglas, earl and countess of Lennox, and Lord Charles Stewart (‘The Memorial to Lord Darnley’) by Livinus de Vogelaare, 1567: Royal Collection Trust 401230 / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022
Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
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