The Many Murders Surrounding Mary Queen of Scots (Part 2)

When we had last left Mary Queen of Scots, she was still grieving the assassination of her uncle, the Duke of Guise. However, during 1564 Mary played her part as queen well and began to also “play” politics; both with John Knox and with the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. This mostly centered around Mary’s choice of a husband. Elizabeth had proposed that Lord Dudley (Elizabeth’s supposedly secret lover) was the perfect choice of a husband for her, but Mary had her eyes set on Lord Darnley who gave her a better claim to the English throne.

Henry Stuart, otherwise known as Lord Darnley, was Mary’s distant cousin who also had a claim to the English throne as his mother was the niece of Henry VIII. Darnley met Mary Queen of Scots at Wemyss Castle in Fife, Scotland on February 17th, 1565. Darnley spent the next several weeks constantly in Mary’s company, winning her over with his good looks and charm. 

Mary wed Lord Darnley on July 29th, 1565, against the wishes of the English crown. Through their marriage Darnley was made King of Scotland, giving him the same political power as Mary, a natural born queen. At the time of her marriage, Mary seemed very much to enjoy Darnley’s presence and was genuinely attracted to him, thinking she may even have been in love, and felt she had made the appropriate decision in her choice of husband. However, not long after their wedding Darnley began to show his true colors. He began to overindulge in alcohol, he became more arrogant now that he had more political power, and he became aggressive and argumentative with everyone, especially Mary. 

The couple’s estrangement was further exacerbated by Mary’s refusal to grant Darnley the crown matrimonial, which would leave him as heir to the Scottish throne if Mary died. Darnley began to work his own political ties with both the Catholics and the Protestants, a move that led to one of the most famous murder plots in the early modern period. 

David Rizzio was the private Secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, becoming one of her close personal friends among her Mary’s. However, Rizzio was also relatively close with Darnley, supposedly becoming his lover. Rizzio became collateral damage of Mary and Darnley’s estrangement. Darnley had become convinced that Mary was having an affair with Rizzio, even though he had previously been having an affair of sorts with Rizzio. It was this jealousy that allowed some of the Scottish Lords to push Darnley to murder Rizzio, acquiring his signature on the actual murder plot. 

Sir William Allan, 1677. National Galleries of Scotland.

On March 9th, 1566, Darnley let the Lords into the private rooms outside of Mary’s supper chamber in Holyrood Palace where Mary, her ladies, and Rizzio were playing cards. When the Lords burst into the chamber and demanded Rizzio be handed over, Mary knew what they had planned and refused, using her own body to shield Rizzio from their daggers. Unfortunately, Mary was overpowered and threatened with both a gun and a knife and Rizzio was stabbed fifty-seven times. Lord Darnley refused to participate in the actual murder of Rizzio and so one of the Lords took his dagger and used it to stab Rizzio the last time, ensuring that Darnley played a part in the murder. 

During this time, Mary was pregnant with Darnley’s child, and the heir to Scotland. While Darnley had agreed to go along with the assassination of Rizzio, Mary convinced him in the days following Rizzio’s death that he should stick by his wife and future child, leading him to escape from Holyrood Palace with her just three days after the murder. Eventually they returned to Edinburgh, but their marriage had disintegrated due to Mary’s understandable distrust of Darnley. 

On June 19th, 1566, Mary gave birth to James VI in Edinburgh at Holyrood Palace. The fact that Mary now had a male heir gave her an even greater claim to the English Throne. In the weeks following the birth of her son, Darnley and Mary’s relationship deteriorated even more. The two fought constantly, with Mary even swearing at him in front of her advisors. Mary began to worry that Darnley would kidnap their son to gain more power over her and so moved James to the security of Stirling Castle where she had lived with her mother. Darnley became jealous and suspicious when Mary began to try and make amends with her advisors and lords, believing that she was gathering opponents to him. He began to act even more erratic in front of diplomats and even threatened to separate from Mary and live abroad. This would have put Scotland at risk if Darnley began plotting against Mary without her being able to keep a handle on things. Something had to be done. 

Mary saw Darnley as such a risk to her son that she sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth in England requesting that if anything should happen to her that Elizabeth act as her son’s protector. Elizabeth agreed, forming a sort of goodwill between the two queens. Elizabeth then developed a treaty in which Mary would be heir apparent to the English throne if Elizabeth died without heirs.

During these political dealings, the Scottish lords were meeting to discuss what to do about Darnley. He had fulfilled his purpose, giving Mary an heir, and had become volatile and was even a risk to Scotland. What happened to Lord Darnley next has been the subject of much historical debate, as all reports were biased, and there is no way to know the full truth. Mary was asked if she was willing to divorce Darnley, which she was. This was supposedly her only involvement in Darnley’s fate. The Scottish lords convinced Mary to pardon them for their part in the Rizzio murder in order to bring order to the Scottish court, especially as she was also brokering peace between Scotland and England at the same time. 

The Scottish lords, specifically Morton, Maitland, and Bothwell, met at Whitingham Castle in East Lothian and formed that assassination plot of Lord Darnley. Mary at this time began to fear again that Darnley was going to kidnap their son, and so she traveled to Glasgow, where he was being treated for syphilis, to bring him back to Edinburgh where she could watch him. Darnley chose to stay in lodgings right outside of Edinburgh to finish his syphilis treatment; believing himself safer than he would be at either Holyrood Palace or Craigmillar Castle. 

On February 9th, 1567, Mary and Darnley were spending time together at this house, attempting to reconcile. However, while the pair were upstairs, the cellars were being filled with gunpowder by the Scottish lords. Mary left his lodgings at around eleven o’clock that night to go back to Holyrood. It was around two o’clock in the morning when an explosion rocked Edinburgh. Darnley’s lodgings had been destroyed. However, Darnley’s dead body, along with the body of his servant, was found some distance away from the explosion, having survived the blast only to be strangled to death. It is not known who strangled Darnley, but it is thought he must have heard the fuse, realized what was happening and escaped out a window. Whoever strangled him, had done so in the garden before the explosion took place. 

Bird’s-eye view of the ‘Kirk o’ Field’, ruined church and churchyard, showing the scene of the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley; also shows Darnley’s body being borne away and a burial. 1587. British Library.

Mary was terrified that she had been the target of the assassination plot, and thus, moved into Edinburgh Castle which was more secure than Holyrood Palace. Mary was determined to find out who had murdered not only her husband, but the King of Scotland, and offered a hefty reward and a pardon to the first guilty party to come forward. No one came forward. Darnley’s family began to influence public opinion, placing fliers and starting rumors that Bothwell had been behind the murder. However, soon other rumors began filtering around Europe; that Mary Queen of Scots herself was behind the assassination of her husband. These rumors were even believed by her former mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, and her Guise family, to the point that the Kingdom of France issued an ultimatum to Mary to avenge the murder, or she would be disgraced. These rumors had also reached England. Everything that Mary had been working toward, peace with Elizabeth, inheritance of the English throne, was destroyed. Mary received a letter from Elizabeth effectively destroying the treaty that had been in the works. 

Elizabeth had also alluded that Mary should force all of the blame on Lord Bothwell, who had already been under suspicion for the murder. Mary, however, made a decision that shocked everyone; she threw in her lot with Bothwell believing that he would protect her, mostly because he had fought against her enemies for years and had a substantial army behind him, even though he was obviously on his way to making a grab for power. Bothwell went on trial for Darnley’s murder on April 12th, 1567. Bothwell was acquitted by parliament just seven days later. On this same day, he provided a bond to the Scottish lords for their approval if Mary Queen of Scots decided to marry him. 

Bothwell kidnapped Mary as she rode from Sterling, where she had seen her son for what would be the last time, back to Edinburgh. Bothwell took her to Dunbar Castle where he “ravished” her, forcing her to agree to marry him. Soon after, Bothwell attained a divorce from his previous wife, as he was a Protestant, not a Catholic. Bothwell had become too powerful for the Scottish lords to bare, and even before he married the Queen of Scotland, they plotted to kill him. Bothwell and Mary Queen of Scots were married on May 16th, 1567, just three months after Darnley’s murder. 

Soon after their marriage, Mary realized Bothwell did not really love her and was just using her for political gain. Bothwell made a mess of all political dealings and soon all of his former allies were now his enemies. Bothwell’s enemies were now gathering strength in the borderlands. For some reason, Mary decided to stick by Bothwell, even though she was miserable enough to have threatened to kill herself on multiple occasions since marrying him. Thirty Scottish lords had gathered forces against Bothwell and reversed their earlier decision, now stating that he had been behind the murder of Lord Darnley and had abducted and forced marriage on the Queen of Scots.

Mary and Bothwell gathered their forces and met their enemies head on. On June 15th, 1567, the two armies stood across from each other. The Scottish Lords issued on ultimatum; either Mary left Bothwell or Bothwell had to meet them in open combat one-on-one. Bothwell eventually agreed to fight with Morton, his former partner in Darnley’s murder, one-on-one. However, Morton was fifteen years his senior and chose a surrogate, Lord Lindsay. However, right as the fight was about to take place, Mary intervened, realizing either way she was going to be somebody’s prisoner. Mary agreed to basically be the Scottish Lords’ prisoner as long as Bothwell could go free.

Mary spent the entire ride back to Edinburgh cursing her captors and vowing to have them killed; leading to her being humiliated and placed in confinement, not at Holyrood Palace, but was taken to Lochleven Castle on an island in the middle of a loch. The lords plan was to rule as regent of Prince James while Mary was kept imprisoned. Queen Elizabeth I, however, was shocked that reigned and anointed queen should be treated in such a manner and sent letters saying as much and threatening war onto Scotland. Mary did not know of Elizabeth’s support and was forced to sign documents stating she abdicated in favor of her son and that the Scottish Lords would act as regent to Scotland. Five days later, James was crowned King of Scotland. Fortunately, after much discussion, Mary convinced her brother, Lord Moray, a Protestant, to be James’ regent. 

Loch Leven Castle, Kinross. Historic Environment Scotland.

Mary eventually escaped from Lochleven Castle on May 2nd, 1568. Mary fled south to Carlisle Castle in England where she sought Elizabeth’s support in regaining her throne. Elizabeth, however, spent many months considering, and began to worry about Mary’s previous attempts at taking the English throne. Mary was moved by English authorities to Tutbury Castle, halfway between London and Scotland. Mary was kept imprisoned, in comfortable lodgings, for several years while Elizabeth considered what to do with her. In 1571, Lord Moray, Mary’s brother and King James VI’s regent was assassinated at Linlithgow Palace by a supporter of Mary. This caused Elizabeth to again consider Mary a threat to her throne and basically condemned Mary to a life of imprisonment. 

In 1586, the Babington Plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I was unearthed, as two of Mary’s supporters plotted the assassination of the queen in order to put Mary back on the throne. Mary sent a letter agreeing to the murder of Elizabeth, stating, “Let the great plot commence.” This letter, among others, was given to Thomas Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s spies; thus, signing Mary’s death warrant. Mary was transferred to Fotheringham Castle on September 25th, 1586, and was convicted of treason on October 25th, the penalty of which was death. 

Mary, the former Queen of Scots, was executed on February 8th, 1587, at Fotheringham Castle. She had spent the previous night praying while she listening to her executioner’s block being constructed in the next room. Mary chose to leave the world as a Catholic martyr and wore a deep red gown to her own execution that was revealed just before her head was placed on the block. Before she was executed, Mary’s last words were “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum,” or “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” It took two strikes of the executioner’s axe to behead Mary and, thus, was the end of Mary Queen of Scots. 


Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2014.

Guy, John Alexander. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. United Kingdom: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Williams, Kate. The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival. United States: Pegasus Books, 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Many Murders Surrounding Mary Queen of Scots (Part 2)

Add yours

  1. Wow, that’s some pretty intense drama; “Game of Thrones” should take notes. Thanks for the two-parter, it was really interesting!


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