The Death of Lord Darnley

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy. And recently Katie and I had been talking about the Tudors and the Stuarts, which is one of our favorite times in history.

Katie Lambert: And we couldn't move on from that though before we talked about this one last great story.

Sarah Dowdy: And that is the death of Lord Darnley, which was under very mysterious circumstances.

Katie Lambert: He's the indolent, arrogant, drunken syphilitic, jealous, plotting husband of Mary Queen of Scots, and he's murdered. In fact, the house that he's staying in blows up in the middle of the night and his nearly nude body is found nearby in an orchard.

Sarah Dowdy: And this murder leads to the forced abdication of Mary, her decades long imprisonment in England by her cousin Elizabeth, and ultimately her execution.

Katie Lambert: So our question today is, who did it? And why?

Sarah Dowdy: And our main suspects are Mary, a group of Scottish Nobles and Darnley himself.

Katie Lambert: So why are there so many opinions about this murder? That's what we have to talk about before we can get into it.

Sarah Dowdy: What's the historical perception of Mary that's so skews the evidence surrounding this murder?

Katie Lambert: And that's the thing, because historical perceptions of Mary are very subjective, and they've also changed over time. Scottish Calvinists saw her as an adulteress and murderess, while Catholics and loyalists saw her as a wronged Queen and later a martyr.

Sarah Dowdy: She obviously becomes the hope of the Counter Reformation against Elizabeth. After he death, her son, who's not the King of Scotland and the King of England, tries to refurbish her image a little bit as well as that of his father, Lord Darnley. By the 18th Century, she's almost seen as a victim of her own passions, that she was brought up in this frivolous French court and just didn't know how to behave herself.

Katie Lambert: Then Antony of Fraser published a definitive biography of her in 1969, which is on my Amazon wish list, if you'd like to buy it for me. That put her in a much more favourable light, saying that she was a victim of the ruthless men around her.

Sarah Dowdy: So that's what we have to deal with going into this murder and seeing how it's been handled by contemporaries and by historians over the years. But central to the guilt, at least during Mary's time, were the Casket Letters and it was eight letters and a series of irregular sonnets that, if real, would make Mary guilty as sin.

Katie Lambert: But they've long been argued to be a mix of forgeries combined with real letters of Mary's that have been manipulated. And they were also lost a very long time ago.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, we don't those any more. They disappeared some time during James' rule. Once again, when he's trying to clean up the image of his parents a little bit! Something happens to these letters.

Katie Lambert: So most of our evidence comes from hostile later sources. So again, not so trustworthy!

Sarah Dowdy: But we should give you a little background. We gave you some in our podcast on Mary and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, but basically she's the widowed Queen Consort of France, and Queen of Scotland in her own right. When she returns to Scotland she falls in love with her handsome young cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who's a fellow claimant to the British throne. His father, Matthew Stuart, the 4th Earl of Lennox, actually had a pretention to the Scottish throne, while his mother, Margaret Douglas has a claim to the English throne because she's the granddaughter of Henry VII. So he's got some interesting claims in his own right.

Katie Lambert: Right. And as far as Elizabeth and the English Privy Council are concerned, the union between the two of them would be dangerous to the common amity of the countries.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, Elizabeth doesn't want Tudor claimants uniting their causes.

Katie Lambert: But nevertheless, on July 29th, 1565, they are married by Catholic rites, which start off offending people from the very beginning, especially the Scottish Protestant Ministry.

Sarah Dowdy: And Darnley, who, you know, I guess when you first meet him must seem very handsome and suave and personable, turns out -

Katie Lambert: Don't be fooled.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Turns out to be just indolent and drunk and arrogant and very jealous of Mary's somewhat unseemly relationship with her secretary! It's unlikely that Mary and David Rizzio, her Italian secretary were having an affair, but it didn't look good, and Darnley really didn't like it.

Katie Lambert: And so he comes up with this plan, which again, we mentioned in the other Mary Queen of Scots podcast, to murder Rizzio in front of pregnant Mary, hoping that she will become sick, maybe even die, that she'll miscarry and that while she's out of commission, he can take the crown matrimonial.

Sarah Dowdy: And even these hardened Scottish nobles, who are always plotting or trying to kill somebody, are kind of shocked that he wants to do this in front of her, but agree and they even promise him the crown matrimonial, which is what he wants the whole time.

Katie Lambert: And it's unrealistic. That's never going to happen. Mary finds out pretty quickly from him that he was involved in the plot, he names all his co-conspirators. She can't ever really trust him again after this. But despite, you know, this awful event in their already bad relationship, they kind of have to make nice for the baby that's on the way.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. And Mary draws up a will upon entering her confinement during her pregnancy, and she leaves everything but very specific bequests, to her unborn child. Most of those requests are to her husband, Lord Darnley, lots of jewellery, including her red enamelled diamond wedding ring. So she's probably trying to make sure that he'll be secure in the future should anything happen to her, which isn't the kind of thing you're doing if you're trying to kill someone.

Katie Lambert: If you're going to kill somebody down the road. And she does openly leave some nice stuff though to the future suspected murderer or Darnley, James Hatburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, including a mermaid set in diamonds. And I love this detail, but back then a mermaid often meant a siren, and it was kind of synonymous with a prostitute and Mary is not likely to have referred to herself as a prostitute in her own final will. So maybe this is a warning to Bothwell about his involvement with women other than his wife.

Sarah Dowdy: But Mary does give birth to the child James, and most important at this time, she has to get Darnley to publicly recognize this child as his.

Katie Lambert: And this is so embarrassing for her.

Sarah Dowdy: Right, and not say Rizzio's. Like he has to say in front of witnesses and so does she, that this is his child. She really has to spell it out.

Katie Lambert: Darnley kisses the child and she has to go even further than getting that recognition from him and says, "and I am desirous that all here bear witness, for he is so much your son that I fear it will be the worse for him hereafter. Which is the sad premonition from Mary on the birth of her son and heir that she's already feelings this bad?

Sarah Dowdy: And Darnley's behaviour doesn't improve after James' birth. He goes out very late at night carousing and they have to open the gates for him, which of course puts everyone at the castle at risk, including Mary and little James.

Katie Lambert: Mary a nd James, yeah. And he goes off by himself to bathe in these secluded places. He's such a strange guy. In - this is exposing him to all these Lords who are not a fan of him. He's English, he's pretentious and he's exposed all his co-conspirators in the Rizzio Plot. So he's just putting himself out there where he could get killed, and Mary begs him not to put himself so indiscriminately into the power of his enemies, and that's a quote. She's worried about him too, not just for him.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. She thinks maybe his conspiracies haven't quite ended and that he's possibly plotting against her, that he wants to kidnap the child. So she keep James in a cradle beside her own bed.

Katie Lambert: Which is very unusual, usually you would establish a household for James. Darnley at one point even threatens to leave the country, which would be absolutely humiliating for Mary. It would imply that either he had done something wrong or she had done something wrong. And she's just horrified by this prospect. And she gets really, really sick and wants to make sure that the throne will pass to James, not Darnley and makes that very clear. And even slips into a coma and goes stiff at one point. Everybody thinks she's dead. And the truth is at the time she almost wishes she were dead, because things are so hopeless in her marriage.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. So she has to figure out the problem of Lord Darnley. How can she end this marriage? Because annulment based on Consanguinity, them being related would seriously have questioned the legitimacy of James, which is something she absolutely doesn't want to do. And divorce would have had each of them acknowledging the validity of a Protestant divorce, and as she is very Catholic, and this is important to her, she doesn't want to do that either.

Katie Lambert: And a Catholic church sanctions separation based on Darnley's carousing, his infidelities, would have had them both still united in the eyes of God and unable to remarry. So here is Mary, faced with the prospect of having this husband for the rest of her life. He's actually a few years younger than her, so it's very likely that he would survive her.

Sarah Dowdy: And he is terrible.

Katie Lambert: And there's no good way to get rid of him. There is the suggestion that she could arrest Darnley and charge him with treason. Because even though he's her Lord as her husband, she's his Queen. And the only problem with this is there is a catch in Scottish law that makes it impossible for the King of Scotland, which even though Darnley is not the crown matrimonial, he's just kind of a figurehead King, he can't be charged for treason. So also even if he could be, how embarrassing is it to charge the father of your child with treason just as all these foreign diplomats are coming into the country to witness the baptism and have this great celebration. So she doesn't have any good options here.

Sarah Dowdy: No, so she and her advisors come together at the Craig Miller Conference to discuss again the problem of Darnley. And Mary expresses that she's worried about the effects divorce would have on James' legitimacy.

Katie Lambert: Annulment.

Sarah Dowdy: And her chief advisor, William Maitland, who is a long-time supporter of Mary but also not afraid to call her out, tells her, "Madam, fancy you not we are here of the principle of your Grace's nobility and counsel, that shall find the means that you're Majesty should be quit of him without prejudice of your son." So that sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook and it is. It's roundabout language and it's like, wait, okay, are we talking about divorce here or are you talking about something else? Is this tricky language to suggest murder? And Mary must have understood Maitland's meaning.

Katie Lambert: Right. She catches his drift, and she says, "I will that you do nothing by which any spot may be laid to my honour or conscience. And therefore I pray you rather let the matter be and the estate as it is, abiding till God and His goodness put remedy thereto than you believing to do me service may possibly turn to my heart and displeasure."

Sarah Dowdy: So this is basically saying, don't do anything, just let's see what God does. Let's wait until Darnley dies.

Katie Lambert: Right, and it would hurt and displease me if you did anything like, oh, I don't know, murder my husband and do it.

Sarah Dowdy: Well in - when Katie and I were talking about this earlier, I think you rightly suggested, well, was she just playing along here? You know, like, oh, don't do anything, you know, wink-wink. But I think that one thing we can't afford to lost sight of her is that Mary isn't a private citizen who can make these choices based on love or revenge or just I've got to get rid of this guy. She's an anointed Queen whose lifelong ambition is to have the English succession settled on her. And she's not likely to lose sight of that lifelong goal just in this moment of panic.

Katie Lambert: Right. But regardless of what she wanted, the Lords draw up a bond for Darnley's murder. So the stage is set here. Darnley is in trouble and he already knows he is, because the Exile Lords, the co-conspirators who he betrayed to Mary during the Rizzio murder, return to Scotland. Darnley is not a very smart guy, but he's smart enough to get out of Edinburgh. He returns to the Lennox home base in Glasgow, his families strong, you know, strong home base, and on the way there he falls ill with smallpox supposedly, in quotes.

Sarah Dowdy: It's really syphilis which he probably caught in France as a young teen. And when his body was exhumed, yay exhumation, in 1928, his skull was examined and showed pitting caused by syphilis and Mary must have understood what this was, and I'm sure that really didn't help her revulsion.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, so not only has your husband murdered somebody in front of you, he's got syphilis.

Sarah Dowdy: That's just grand.

Katie Lambert: And so we know already from the Craig Miller Conference, Mary knows about the plotting of the Lords against Darnley. But she also gets wind that Darnley is continuing to plot against her, past the Rizzio murder. And she can't bear the suspense anymore of having him isolated down in Glasgow where he's got more support than anywhere else in Scotland. So she goes down to visit him, he's sick, try to bring him back to Edinburgh. And this is often a charge levelled against her, that she's luring him back to his death in Edinburgh. And okay, on the one hand, yeah in Edinburgh he's closer to all these angry Lords who want to kill him, but on the other hand he wants to kill her.

Sarah Dowdy: Right, so keep your enemies closer, and she does. She gets Darnley back where she wants him and sees him installed in Kirkfield at the Provost Lodging. She's just a short walk away from him, about 10 minutes. And it's Darnley who wants to be at Kirkfield at Collegiate Church. She wanted him at a more fortified location, but he said no.

Katie Lambert: And there are always these kind of amazing superstitious type things surrounding Darnley in our podcast, but a raven accompanies them back from Glasgow and was seen perched on the roof of the old Provost Lodging where Darnley was staying.

Sarah Dowdy: He did not say never more as far as we know. But it seems like relations between the two are improving while he's there. She visits him daily, they sit up late talking. She even stays over a couple of nights, and while it's not likely that she's rediscovered her love for him or anything, she's at least trying to make a peace with him or make sure he's not a threat to her anymore.

Katie Lambert: Yeah to de-militarize him almost, and bring him back over to her side at least just kind of calm him down so he's not causing all this trouble. And also he's and important part of her claim to the English succession. A lot of English Parliament actually think that he has a better claim than she does. So making nice with him, especially when they have this one-year old son, is a good idea.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. Both personally and politically! And as far as he goes, things are starting to seem okay with the Lords too. They even come and visit him, even Bothwell.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. Another charge levelled against her, is this al fake just to make her look good when he's murdered?

Sarah Dowdy: So as far as the night of the murder itself goes, Mary is visiting Darnley, but she's supposed to go to the wedding festivities of one of her maids of honour. So she leaves.

Katie Lambert: And she is clear that she is not returning to the house later than night. Darnley I think is a little upset about that. But she'll be staying at Holyroad House, because she has to get up early in the morning. So after the wedding festivities she'

s not going to be back Sarah Dowdy: Later that night the house explodes and Darnley is found dead of strangulation or maybe post-explosive asphyxiation. So who are our suspects in this murder, Katie?

Katie Lambert: Well we're starting off with Darnley himself. So maybe Darnley wanted to murder some of the Lords and the Queen all in one go and steal baby James and rule as some sort of Regent. But the flaw in this plan is he would have had to have expected the Queen and the Lords to return after the wedding mass, and Mary made it quite clear that she was going back to Holyroad House, not the Old Provost Lodging. There was another side to the Darnley pl ot. Maybe the Lords discovered it and they turned the tables on him somehow. But our prime or at least our most famous suspect is Mary. And in a way there is a really damning case against her.

Sarah Dowdy: Right, because of course she had a very unhappy marriage with Darnley. He was a pretty awful guy, and she took him from this strong family base in Glasgow to Edinburgh where, of course, he was in more danger. And she'd also favoured Bothwell, even after he suggested murdering her husband. There's not evidence to suggest they had an affair at the time, but a lot of people thought that they did. So that's something to keep in mind.

Katie Lambert: It's also likely that these improved relations between Darnley and Mary would have eventually led to resumed conjugal relations, which Mary obviously wouldn't have been very enthusiastic about, considering her husband was sick with syphilis. And then the worst part of the evidence is she leaves the house two hours before it explodes. That's not going to help your case very much. But there are a lot of flaws with all of this evidence.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. There's no evidence, first of all, that Mary ever considered freeing herself from Darnley by any other than legal means.

Katie Lambert: Well yeah, she was looking into annulment and to divorce and even to, you know, can we charge him with treason? But she was not supporting murder.

Sarah Dowdy: And when she took him to Edinburgh, as we mentioned before, it was because she knew that he was plotting against her and she wanted him where she could keep an eye on him.

Katie Lambert: So yeah, she's bringing him closer to his enemies, but he's also her enemy in a way.

Sarah Dowdy: She was also hoping for a settlement on the English succession issue. And things were looking pretty rosy with that at this time. I know Elizabeth wasn't happy with the match between Darnley and Mary initially, but because there was some British support of Darnley, it wasn't looking like a bad claim any more.

Katie Lambert: So why would she kill Queen Elizabeth's cousin.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He only strengthens her claim. You don't want to make Queen Elizabeth angry and bring all the suspicion on herself. And then the point of her continuing to favour Bothwell after he suggested murder, well so did her chief advisor Maitland, and so did her bastard half brother Moray. She makes it clear to these guys that she doesn't approve of murdering Darnley. But what is she going to ditch all her nobles because they're suggesting it? Nobody in Scotland likes Darnley. In Alison Weir's book on the Darnley Murder, her picks for murderer are Sir William Maitland and James Stuart or Moray, who of course was Mary Queen of Scots' brother. And that would rid Scotland of Darnley, who was this Catholic activist and then hopefully implicate their enemy, James Hepburn, who we've been referring to as Bothwell.

Katie Lambert: And Bothwell's actually involved in the plot himself. He's - what he's hoping to get out of it is a marriage to Mary after Darnley's dead. So I don't know how he thinks the cards are going to fall with the other Lords. But he's got something he wants to get out of it, and the other guys are hoping it'll all fall on him.

Sarah Dowdy: So rather than being a crime of the heart, as so many in history have painted this, Mary trying to get back at her horrible, horrible husband, we don't like him. It was really more of a politically motivated crime.

Katie Lambert: But regardless of who committed the crime, what Mary did next did not look good at all. So Bothwell's acquitted in a sham trial, then he kidnaps and rapes Mary after she refuses to marry him. And then, you know, we think of Katherine Hepburn's Mary Queen of Scots and the grand romance between Mary and Bothwell. Was there one? I mean we don't know, but after he raped her, she really didn't have much of a choice but to marry him. Because a pregnancy would have been far to precarious for her crown to bear, her already shaky, shaky claim to the throne.

Sarah Dowdy: Right. Mary Queen of Scots is cursed with a wide variety of terrible men in her life. But Bothwell divorces his first wife and they marry May 15, 1567 in a Protestant ceremony.

Katie Lambert: And by this point Mary is really on the brink, physically and mentally, after Darnley's murder. She doesn't seem like the adulteress who murdered her husband to marry her lover Bothwell. She's even seen crying the day after her wedding to Bothwell. So it doesn't seem like something she's getting into willingly.

Sarah Dowdy: No, especially if he is this awful rapist. Clearly she doesn't want to be in this relationship and her husband's just been murdered. So you have to have a little pity for Mary Queen of Scots.

Katie Lambert: But a coalition of Protestant and Catholic nobles revolt after this. And you can imagine something that actually unites the Scottish nobles must be really something. But the Queen's forces meet the rebels at Carberry Hill near Edinburgh and refuse to fight, so she surrenders on the condition that Bothwell be allowed to escape.

Sarah Dowdy: He gets out into Northern Scotland and then to Denmark, where he's taken into custody by King Frederick II. And after the collapse of Mary cause in Scotland, Bothwell placed in solitary confinement in a cast. Their marriage is annulled in 1570 and he dies insane five years later.

Katie Lambert: Well Mary of course eventually flees to England and is held captive there for 18 years, partly based on the Darnley murder and dies at the block for plotting against Cousin Queen Elizabeth on February 8th, 1587.

Sarah Dowdy: So there is no happy ending for this story, although it seems the case isn't entirely closed. So if you have some ideas about what happened, please e-mail us at or check out the blogs on the home page at

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an e-mail to And be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the home page.