Medieval Serial Killer or Werewolf?

In the present day, in general, society looks back at the Middle Ages and sees things like a belief in witchcraft, werewolves, and even sea monsters as confusing and even childish. How could they have truly believed in any of this? That is what this blog post will be discussing; the truth behind the legends. 

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Christianity had brought forth a more widespread belief in God and the devil. Medieval authorities were still executing people for witchcraft, but a different form of the witchcraft than we think of today. Instead of flying broomsticks, the witchcraft of the Middle Ages was causing harm through occult means. This was known as maleficium in Latin which translates today to “mischief.” So authorities were persecuting individuals for their crimes of maleficum; not necessarily because they thought they were our stereotypical version of witches. 

The concept of a werewolf was thought of in a similar fashion as they were being influenced by Satan to commit wrongdoings. However, throughout the Middle Ages many, including priests, physicians and monks, believed that lycanthropy (becoming a werewolf) was actually a form of madness or mental illness. Paul of Aegina, a Byzantine physician, wrote:

“Those suffering from lycanthropy go out during the night imitating wolves in all things, and lingering about tombs until morning. You may recognize these person by these marks; they are pale, their vision feeble, their eyes dry, tongue very dry and the flow of the saliva stopped; but they are thirsty, and their legs have incurable ulcerations from frequent falls. Such are the symptoms of the disease. You must know that lycanthropy is a species of melancholy.”

Between 1450 and 1650, there was a sort of werewolf “epidemic” in Europe, similar to the witch hunts of the same period, although on a much smaller scale. During this period there were at least 300 werewolf trials throughout Western Europe (compared to the tens of thousands of witch trials), most of them located in France and Germany, that can be argued to have truly just been trials of medieval and early modern serial killers. Here are some of the stories of serial killer werewolves.

In the late sixteenth century, Peter Stubbe was a resident of Bedburg, Germany. Peter was a friendly face within the community and would check in with his neighbors and friends on a  regular basis. While reports from after his arrest point to him being greatly inclined to evil throughout his youth and that he had given both his soul and body to the Devil, this was most likely untrue as he had been an upstanding member of society (or so they thought). In 1589, Stubbe was accused of making a deal with the devil to transform himself into a werewolf. In truth, Stubbe was arrested for the rape, murder and cannibalization of eighteen victims, including two pregnant women. 

The sixteenth century report of Stubbe’s crimes claims that through his pact with the devil he was given a magic belt that would transform into a werewolf so he could more easily murder and eat his victims. Stubbe was seen escaping from his last murder by two hunters, who apparently saw him in his human form because he had slipped the belt off during his attempted escape. Stubbe was apprehended by the hunters and taken to the town magistrates.

On October 18, 1589, Peter Stubbe was executed. His body was laid on a breaking wheel and in ten places his flesh was pulled from his bones with red hot metal pinchers. His arms and legs were then broken with a hatchet and his head was struck from his body. They then burned his body. 

A little over sixty years earlier, in France, two men were also accused of being werewolves. Pierre Bourgot and Michel Verdung were known as the Werewolves of Poligny. It was claimed that they had also made a deal with the Devil so that they could transform into werewolves and indulge in their homicidal tendencies. Supposedly, the pair killed a woman who was in her garden, a four year old girl who they later ate, and two other young girls whose blood they drank. Both men were arrested and executed in 1521 for their crimes. 

Another man, Jacques Roulet, was arrested after murdering and cannibalizing a fifteen year old boy outside of Angers, France. Unlike the previous werewolf stories, during his trial Roulet claimed he used a magical ointment to transform into the murderous beast. He also confessed to the murder of several children and adults. Roulet was originally sentenced to death but in 1599 he pleaded insanity, which was accepted by the French parliament.

A more well-known story of a “werewolf” was the Beast of Gevaudan. This happened much later in history, after the medieval period, between 1765 and 1767. Gevaudan was a rural region in the South of France. What makes this story stand out from the others, however, was that the best may actually have been a wolf, not a man. In May of 1764, the Beast of Gevaudan made his attack on a young girl tending to a herd of cattle. The girl was unhurt, but described the beast as “like a wold, yet not a wolf.” On June 30th, just a month later, the beast committed his first fatal attack on a fourteen year-old sheep shepherdess. 

Throughout the rest of that summer the beast attacked and ate many young women, and a few young adult men. Many hunters attempted to catch the beast but to no avail. In January of 1765, a young boy, Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the wolf-like beast but he and his friends fought it off until it retreated back into the forest. King Louis XV heard of the boys bravery and rewarded him with a funded education. The King then sent hunters into the woods to catch and kill the beast.

In the late summer of 1765, a large wolf was shot and killed in the Gevaudan region that was believed to be the beast. The wolf was stuffed and sent to royal court in celebration. However, not long after, the attacks started again. The attacks continued throughout the year until the next summer when another wolf was shot and killed. This time human remains were found inside the wolf and the animal had non-wolf like features as his first victim had described. After it’s death the attacks stops, but no one knows whether it was truly a wolf or a werewolf.

Historians have argued that the beast may have been a Eurasian wolf, a dog wolf hybrid, a hyena, and even a lion. Others have argued that it was actually a serial killer, not an animal at all, that committed the attacks as most of its victims were decapitated. Unfortunately, we will never know. 


Schulte R. (2009) “The Persecution of Men as Werewolves in Burgundy.”  Man as Witch. Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Vronsky, Peter. Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present. United States: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018.

Book Review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Madam was released in February 2021 as Phoebe Wynne’s first novel. I picked up this book because it seemed like it had everything I loved: the Scottish highlands, a female protagonist, “dark academia,” and an intriguing mystery. And I was right, it truly did have everything I loved (*SPOILER* Except murder, but you know, you can’t have it all). I flew through the pages of this one. 

Set on the rocky coastline of the Scottish highlands, Phoebe Wynne’s boarding school for girls has a gothic and isolated aura to it. The way Wynne slowly provides insight into the disappearance of the previous Head of Classics at the school and the almost creepy personality of the schools girls had me guessing (wrong) the entire read. Rose, the books’ protagonist, and new Head of Classics was likable and I enjoyed seeing the boarding school through her eyes. Rose’s students provided an important aspect of the book, giving slow hints at the what was really going on at the school in unsettling ways and I’m surprised to say I didn’t guess the dark truth at any point during my read.

The only thing I disliked about the novel was how Rose wasn’t quite reacting how I would have imagined in the situations she was in; yes, she tried to rail against the patriarchy and educated her students about feminist ideology through Classics, but she didn’t do much to save herself.

The ending of Madam was a shock that I didn’t see coming but was the perfect ending in my opinion.

This gothic mystery is perfect for fans of The Historian and The Secret History. I highly recommend giving Madam a read.

Rating 4.5/5.0.

Gilles de Rais: A Medieval Serial Killer

The late medieval period saw the death of thousands of people through plague, famine, and war; and while this period also saw an expansion in trade and commerce, and philosophy, science and the arts, I would like to focus on a byproduct of these tragedies: Gilles de Rais. 

Gilles de Rais was born sometime in the early 1400s in Champtocé-sur-Loire, France. He was born into a life of feudal lordship, a life of education and of wealth. Both of his parents died when he was just a child and at the age of eleven he was taken in by his grandfather Jean de Craon, one of the richest lords in the Anjou valley. Jean de Craon was a greedy and cruel man who taught his grandson to be the same. For example, when Gilles was just sixteen years old, his grandfather took two young women captive. He threatened to sew the older, Beatrice, into a sack and have her thrown into the river to drown. The two girls were put up for ransom and when three soldiers came to claim them, they were also imprisoned by Craon’s soldiers and thrown into a deep pit where one dies. Eventually the elder sister was released once the ransom had been paid, while the younger sister was forced to marry on of Craon’s soldiers. Gilles witnessed and took part in all of this cruelty, along with many more throughout his childhood with his grandfather.

Gilles de Rais’ grandfather also left him with a lot of time to himself at a young age. So not only was he witnessing cruelty and even murder, he was also not being raised in a family setting. Shortly after the kidnapping of the two sisters, Craon successfully arranged that Gilles de Rais marry Catherine de Thouars of Brittany who was a very wealthy heiress. They had a daughter, Marie in 1434. 

When Gilles was in his early twenties he was made leader of an Angevin army during the Hundred Years’ War. It was at this time that he met Joan of Arc, who requested he fight in her regiment due to the way he fought with fury and bloodlust. His success in the battle lead him to receive the highest military honor in France; the Marshal of France. Soon after Gilles became Marshal, the power went to his head and he began spending his inheritance recklessly and living in extravagance. His grandfather, Jean de Craon, was so disappointed that when he died he left his sword to not Gilles, but his younger brother, Rene. 

This slight seems to have resonated with Gilles. After he retired from the military in 1435, he began to put more significance in religion and in trying to save his dwindling fortune. He funded the construction of a private church, which he named the Chapel of Holy Innocents. This chapel became home to a choir of young boys from the local area, all of whom were hand selected by Gilles himself.  It was at this same time that he began to toy with occult; searching for men who could practice alchemy and demon summoning for him. It is thought this was to save his fortune; but a darker truth would come to light later. 

While Gilles had attempted to disappear from public life after he retired from the military, rumors were circulating about him throughout France. Young boys had been going missing around Gilles castles and the locals believed he and his servants were involved. The disappearances began in the early 1430s. It wasn’t until 1440, however, that people came forward, claiming to have seen Gilles’ servants disposing of the bodies of young children. Gilles de Rais was arrested in September of 1440 for an unrelated kidnapping of a priest. 

Gilles was tried for heresy, sodomy, and murder. Under threat of torture, and possibly due to a guilt, Gilles immediately confessed to all charges. He claimed that the killings began in 1432, the year his grandfather died. He would make his servants kidnap young boys, usually members of the choir, and have them brought back to his castle in Champtocé-sur-Loire. One room was dedicated to torture. It was in this room that Gilles would torture these young boys for hours, with the help of two companions, and then kill them in a variety of ways from blunt force to the head to strangulation to decapitation. After he had killed them, he would drink himself into sleep and his servants would clean the room and dispose of the bodies. 

The parents of the children who had disappeared, witnesses to the servant dumping bodies, and even his accomplices testified against him. During his trial, Gilles himself testified that: 

“…when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed.”

While Gilles admitted to the murder of over a hundred boys aged between 6 and 18, it is thought that the number may be closer to two hundred. 

Gilles de Rais was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death. On October 26th, 1440, Gilles de Rais was executed by hanging and burning with tears running down his face in a show of guilt and Christian piety. Gilles accomplices were also executed in the same manner; but Gilles was executed first as he asked not to see them die.

Some historians have argued that Gilles de Rais may not have been guilty of being a serial killer and was set up by either the Catholic Church or the French monarchy, most likely to get his wealth and lands. However, there is no proof of this and due to his confession most historians believe he was guilty.


Bataille, Georges., Rais, Gilles de. The trial of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Amok, 1991.

Benedetti, Jean. The Real Bluebeard: The Life of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Sutton, 2003.

Parsons, Ben. “Sympathy for the Devil: Gilles De Rais and His Modern Apologists.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies 37, edited by Gusick Barbara I. and Heintzelman Matthew Z., 113-38. Rochester, NY; Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2012.

Penney, James. “Confessions of a Medieval Sodomite.” In Perversion and the Social Relation: Sic IV, edited by Rothenberg Molly Anne, Foster Dennis, and Žižek Slavoj, 126-58. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Medieval Murdered Saints: Godelieve of Gisel and Guinefort

During the medieval period, sainthood and sanctity became an important component of religious worship, especially within the Catholic Church. In the early medieval period, saints were venerated by local churches through spontaneous acts or popular acclaim justified by miracles performed by the saints. Beginning in the late tenth century, the veneration of saints and the cult of saints that followed were increasingly sanctioned by Catholic bishops. According to Michael Goodich:

“One of the most effective means of harnessing popular energy to the papal cause was a vast proliferation of saints’ cults, dedicated to men and women sympathetic to the Roman viewpoint. With the aid of such cults, and the organizations which supported them, the church hierarchy could control and oversee a form of religious enthusiasm which might otherwise find more destructive channels.”

However, between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Catholic Church developed a papal process which delegated who could be venerated by as a saint. After 1200, this process became known as ‘canonization.’ This new formalized papal process was due to the papacy’s increasing ambition to authorize the establishment of new cults, thus preventing saint’s cults from arising and challenging the authority and power of the Catholic Church as an institution.

One of the female saints who was venerated during the late eleventh century was Godelieve of Gisel. The life of Godelieve of Gisel reflects the way women were valued during the medieval period. Godelieve’s vita was written by Drogo of Sint-Winoksbergen at the end of the eleventh century, about ten years after her death. This vita aided in the process of veneration or canonization, as it described Godelieve’s life and the events that took place that made her worthy of sanctity. What makes Godelieve unique is that she is the only married female martyr to be canonized as a saint by a medieval pope. 

I have struggled to find details about Godelieve’s life, other than in the works have been cited at the end. The Vita Godeliph written by Drogo is hard to access and so I have made do with the information I have found. Godelieve’s story is one of abuse and murder, but also one of miracles. Godelieve of Gisel was born sometime between the year 1040 and 1050 at Londesvoorde Castle in France. Godelieve was a a very beautiful young woman and was sought after by many suitors, however, she was also very pious and faithful to God. The Count of Bourgogne who was the ruler in that region arranged her marriage to Bertolf of Gistel against her wishes. Godelieve was most likely married when she was quite young, by modern standards. Bertolf and Godelieve’s marriage was an unhappy one. 

Soon after they were married, Bertolf punished her by ordering his servants to only allow her to eat bread and water. Godelieve demonstrated her kindness by sharing her meager meals with the poor. Drogo wrote in her vita that Bertolf was a cruel and abusive husband and even possessed by the devil; inflicting abuse on Godelieve, possibly blaming her for his own sexual dysfunction. Eventually Godelieve escaped and ran back to the home of her father, Hemfrid. However, Hemfrid feared for his daughter’s future and took her back to Bertolf to continue to act as his wife. Unfortunately, Hemfrid’s fears were not unfounded but were also misplaced. When Godelieve returned, Bertolf ordered two of his servants to murder her and she was strangled in her bed and then thrown into a pool of water to make it look as if she was drowned. 

Saint Guinefort is another unique saint for the medieval period and for the Catholic Church in general. In 1260, the Catholic Church heard of miracles being performed by a Saint Guinefort in southeastern France. Saint Guinefort was supposedly healing sick children and was being worshipped by the local women. The papacy decided to send the Dominican Inquisitor Stephan of Bourbon to investigate the holy man. However, when Stephan arrived he found that the followers of Saint Guinefort were not worshipping a holy man but a greyhound. 

Guinefort was a greyhound who was owned by a knight who lived in Lyon. According to Stephan’s report to church, 

“In the diocese of Lyons, near the enclosed nuns’ village called Neuville, on the estate of the Lord of Villars, was a castle, the lord of which and his wife had a baby boy. One day, when the lord and lady had gone out of the house, and the nurse had done likewise, leaving the baby alone in the cradle, a huge serpent entered the house and approached the baby’s cradle. Seeing this, the greyhound, which had remained behind, chased the serpent and, attacking it beneath the cradle, upset the cradle and bit the serpent all over, which defended itself, biting the dog equally severely. Finally, the dog killed it and threw it well away from the cradle. The cradle, the floor, the dog’s mouth and head were all drenched in the serpent’s blood. Although badly hurt by the serpent, the dog remained on guard beside the cradle. When the nurse came back and saw all this she thought that the dog had devoured the child, and let out a scream of misery. Hearing it the child’s mother also ran up, looked, thought the same thing and screamed too. Likewise the knight, when he arrived, thought the same thing and drew his sword and killed the dog. Then, when they went closer to the baby they found it safe and sound, sleeping peacefully. Casting around for some explanation, they discovered the serpent, torn to pieces by the dog’s bites, and now dead. Realising then the true facts of the matter, and deeply regretting having unjustly killed so useful a dog they threw it into a well in front of the manor door, threw a great pile of stones on top of it, and planted trees beside it, in memory of the event.”

This well became a sort of shrine for Saint Guinefort, the holy greyhound. When women would go to the shrine with their sick children they would, supposedly, be miraculously healed. 

When Stephan of Bourbon realized that Saint Guinefort was a dog, he reported back to the Catholic Church, who then required him to destroy the shrine and stop the local people from worshipping him. Stephan disinterred Saint Guinefort’s remains and had them destroyed. He then burned down the trees that surrounding the well that made up the shrine. 

While Stephan of Bourbon can be seen almost as a villain in this story, his report to the church shows that he was very sympathetic to the plight of the holy dog stating that Guinefort’s death was a “unjustly killing of dog so useful” and that it was a “noble deed and innocent death.” Stephan of Bourbon’s report back to the church, which was describing how he destroyed the shrine and cult of saints, was what made it so Saint Guinefort survived throughout history and is still known today as the holy greyhound. 


Stephen of Bourbon (Etienne de Bourbon), “De Superticione” in “De septem donis Spiritus Sancti”, or “Tractatus de Diversis Materiis Praedicalibus”, in Anecdotes Historiques, Legends et Apologues Tires de Receuil inedit d’Etienne de Bourbon, ed. Albert Lecoy de La Marche (Paris: La Société de l’Histoire de France, 1877), pp.314-29.

Goodish, Michael.  “The Politics of Canonization in the thirteenth century: lay and Mendicant saints.” Saints and their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History. Pg. 169-187.

Klaniczay, Gábor. ‘The Power of the Saints and the Authority of the Popes. The History of Sainthood and Late Medieval Canonization Processes’, in Church and Belief in the Middle Ages: Popes, Saints, and Crusaders (Amsterdam, 2016).

Kienzle, Beverly Mayne and Nancy Nienhuis. “Battered Women and the Construction of Sanctity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17, 1 (Spring 2001): 33-61.

Rist, Rebecca. “The papacy, Inquisition and Saint Guinefort the Holy Greyhound.” Reinardus. Yearbook of the International Reynard Society 30, no. 1 (2018): 190-211.

Salih, Sarah. “Saints and sanctity in medieval England.” British Library. Jan. 2018. 

Venarde, Bruce. “Drogo of Sint-Winoksbergen, Life of St. Godelieve,” Medieval Hagiography. (Jan. 2018). 

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet came out in 2020 and quickly became an award winning novel by Maggie O’Farrell; and it’s easy to understand why. Hamnet was named the Best Book of 2020 by the Guardian, the Financial Times, Literary Hub, and NPR. Without giving any spoilers, Hamnet follows the life of the children and wife of William Shakespeare during the 16th century and includes a story of how Hamlet came to be; out of plague, out of love and out of grief. 

O’Farrell provides a unique perspective on life in the early modern period, and an especially unique perspective on the Shakespeare. The story is told through the eyes of Shakespeares wife, Agnes (otherwise known as Anne Hathaway), and his son Hamnet. While, at first, the switching of viewpoints was a bit frustrating for me, after a few chapters both perspectives really drew me in.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the depth present in the novel; I was expecting historical fiction that centered around Shakespeare and his family and his plays. What I got was something even greater. While Hamnet is historical fiction, it is relevant even today. It examines the realities of life, of love and marriage, and of grief. You don’t need to be a lover of Shakespeare, or even historical fiction, to fall in love with Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet because it is truly extraordinary and one of the best books as of late. I highly recommend it.

Rating 5/5.

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.

Book Review: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (2005)

Spoilers present!

Labyrinth came out in 2005 as the first novel in the Languedoc Trilogy. The novel is set in both the the present day and in the 13th century, specifically during the Albigensian Crusade in France. Labyrinth could be called a mix of thriller and fiction, weaved together with history. The story itself focuses on the findings of an archaeological dig outside of Carcassonne, France and on the search for the Holy Grail. The story provides an interesting twist on the quest for the Holy Grail and appeals to lovers of historical fiction and mystery lovers alike. 

The two heroines of the story, Alice and Alais, are tied together through time, however, I, personally, had trouble following how and why Alice became aware of the connection. While I enjoyed having both perspectives, I found that the transitions between the two heroines were slightly choppy, possibly because I set the book down for so long between reading. The love story between Alice and Will also seemed a bit contrived and sudden, as they only really saw each once throughout the book. 

The conflict between the Catholic Church and the Cathar “heretics” is narrated nicely, and Mosse’s skill at easily tying the story into the political and religious battle of the Middle Ages is evident throughout the book. The description of the Noblesse and how the Eygyptian hieroglyphics tied into the history and translation of the books needed to be a bit more in depth, but also a bit more comprehensible, also possibly because of my gaps between reading. 

I did enjoy the ending of the book, as I only guessed what would happen over the course of the last couple of chapters, not from the beginning as sometimes happens, even though the way the books and Holy Grail became entombed seemed an interesting way to end a novel about an archaeological dig in that same cave. Overall, I would recommend Labyrinth to fans of historical fiction and mysteries, especially those set in France. 

Rating 3.5/5.

The Many Murders Surrounding Mary Queen of Scots (Part 1)

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland only six days after her birth at the death of her father King James V. Mary was born at Linlithgow Palace a short distance from Edinburgh on December 8th, 1542, while her father lay dying in Falkland. Even before her birth and her father’s death, Scotland was seemingly in peril at the uncertainty of the monarchy. Henry VIII, the current King of England, sought to conquer Scotland in order to have total control of the British Isles. A victory that would help him in his quest for control of France as well. Just weeks before his death, James V had suffered a crushing loss at the Battle of Solway Moss; a loss that resulted in the captured of up to 1200 Scots as England’s prisoner, include 23 Scottish nobles and lairds. It was this loss that fractured the psyche of James V and caused him to shut himself away at in his Falkland Palace. Learning that his newborn child was a girl instead of the male heir he wished for did not help his mindset and he died locked away without having ever set eyes on his daughter. 

Mary Queen of Scots’ reign was as tumultuous as her first days on Earth. Her first several years of life were spent in the care of her mother Mary de Guise at Sterling Castle in Scotland. Once she was actually crowned Queen of Scotland a little before her first birthday, Mary de Guise, after playing her political enemies against each other, renewed the Scottish alliance with France. This alliance infuriated the then English King, Henry VIII, who had long hoped to take control of both Scotland and France. He had also hoped to contract a marriage alliance between Mary and his son Edward. It was this “treachery,” as he saw it, concocted by Mary de Guise, that led him to invade Scotland, attempting to both destroy the port of Leith and take Edinburgh Castle. Instead of taking Edinburgh Castle, however, the English troops burned the city of Edinburgh, as well as other smaller outlying towns, and ransacked Holyrood Palace. Fortunately, Mary de Guise and her infant queen were heavily protected miles away at Stirling Castle. 

Mary, Queen of Scots by Braun & Co (circa 1560) NPG D21633 © National Portrait Gallery, London

During this time, Cardinal David Beaton had been jockeying to become the regent for Mary Queen of Scots. However, on May 29th, 1546, after he ordered the execution of a powerful Protestant preacher for heresy in a terrifying spectacle of gunpowder, Beaton was assassinated. His assassination was carried out by a group of Protestant lairds from Fife who had become unhappy with Beaton’s level of power. After sneaking into St. Andrew’s Castle, the lairds cornered Beaton in his bedroom, stabbed him to death and then hung his naked body on the castle walls for all to see. Beaton’s assassination was a major turning point for Scotland, as it signaled both a shift towards Protestantism and had a destabilizing effect on the nation. 

After Henry VIII died in January and Francis I died in March of 1547, the new King of France Henry II began negotiations to betrothe the dauphin of France, Francis, to Mary Queen of Scots. By the summer of 1548, the treaty between France and Scotland was ratified and the now five year old Mary was sent to France. The young queen was made to feel at home in France and eventually became comfortable being away from both Scotland and her mother. 

In 1551, after spending a year in France with her mother, Mary de Guise, touring the French countryside, an attempt was made on her life. One of the men who had attacked St. Andrews Castle at the urging of the English, and who had been imprisoned in France until his sentence was up, had joined the Garde Ecossaise to exact revenge on Scotland’s monarchy. This assassin made his way to Mary’s apartments and planned to subdue her cook so that he could poison her as she ate her favorite dessert. Luckily, the assassination plot was revealed and never came to fruition, and the would-be-assassin was tried and executed. 

Several years later, King Henry II of France was killed after a jousting accident in which the lance splintered into his brain. This left the young Francis and Mary to take the throne. In 1559, Francis was named King of France and Mary was named Queen of France. She was now a queen of two countries at the young age of seventeen. However, due to her young age, the death of her mother, and the ambitions of her uncles, one of the most prominent being a bid for the English throne, Mary was more of a pawn than a queen in her own right. 

Mary’s status as Queen of France lasted a little under a year and a half. Her husband, Francis, died on December 5th, 1560 from what historians have argued was either an ear infection or possibly a brain tumor. Francis’ death left Mary with no real place in France and so in 1561 she set sail for Scotland. Upon reaching Scotland, she found a country that was considered uncivilized to the life she had known in France. Mary was forced to land in Leith without her royal attire or horses and so her homecoming lacked the pomp and circumstance she had planned for as queen.

In 1563, another one of Mary’s relatives was killed; her uncle, the Duke of Guise. The duke was assassinated during the siege of Orleans, having been shot three times by a Huguenot. Mary was particularly impacted by his death as he had been her favorite uncle since childhood and had grown up under his mentorship in France. It was after the Duke of Guise’s death that Mary began to feel very much alone…


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.

Welcome to Medieval Murder!

Welcome to Medieval Murder, the blog where you can read about medieval history topics from the early medieval period all the way to the early modern period! Most blog posts will focus on medieval murder in some way or another but all medieval topics are fair game!

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