To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You

Natasha sheldon - March 20, 2018

On July 29, 1565, Mary, Queen of Scots married her cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley in the Queen’s Private Chapel at Holyrood. Darnley and Mary shared the same grandmother, Margaret Tudor, making both contenders for the English crown. Darnley also had Scottish royal connections, through his descent from a daughter of James II of Scotland. However, while he may have had the blood, Darnley had none of the judgment required of a king. By the end of his two-year marriage, he had managed to alienate the Scottish nobles and his wife with his intemperate behavior and his desire to be the sole King.

In March 1566, Darnley and a group of Scottish nobles murdered Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio in front of her in an attempt to destabilize the Queen. The plan backfired, and in the aftermath Darnley betrayed his confederates, earning their hatred as well as losing him the last fragments of his wife’s love and trust. Any number of people could have instigated his murder on February 9th, 1567. However, it brought down Mary, who was believed to have conspired to murder Darnley with Earl of Bothwell so that they could marry. The death of Darnley, however, was part of a much more complicated scheme than this. So who did kill Lord Darnley- and why?

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
Anonymous portrait of Lord Darnley. Wikimedia Commons

The Makings of a Murder

In December 1566, Darnley had decamped to Glasgow due to his alienation at court. Meanwhile, Mary began to seek ways to be legally rid of her husband. James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell and the Queen’s closet adviser, suggested she recall her half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray from exile to help. Moray, with William Maitland, the Secretary of State promised Mary a divorce. However, when Maitland suggested ‘other means’ could be employed and that ‘Moray would look through his fingers“, Mary made it clear that Darnley must be removed legally and in a way that kept her conscience clear.

Immediately afterward, Maitland, Bothwell, and other Lords met at Craigmillar castle to plot Darnley’s murder. These Lords included Bothwell’s confederates George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, and James Balfour. Patrick, Lord Lindsey the absent Earl of Moray’s brother-in-law and Moray’s friend Earl of Argyll were also present. James Douglas, the Earl of Morton and Patrick, Lord Ruthven, members of the Rizzio plot completed the company. Initially, the plan was to stab Darnley. However, Bothwell suggested they should cover their tracks by using a gunpowder explosion to make Darnley’s death look like an accident.

On February 1st, 1567, Lord Darnley moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh at the suggestion of his wife. It seemed the Queen had undergone a change of heart regarding her husband. Darnley had been suffering ostensibly with smallpox but more likely syphilis since January. He chose to convalesce at a house at Kirk O’Fields, a mile from Holyrood on the edge of the city. Mary had the house prepared with furnishings from Holyrood and a bedroom for her just below Lord Darnley’s so she could stay with him overnight. It seems the royal couple might reconcile.

Darnley was due to move back into Holyrood on Monday 10th February. In the meantime, Bothwell acquired keys to Kirk o fields and reputedly hid the gunpowder at Holyrood. The date chosen for the murder was February 9th. Mary had a full social calendar for that day. One of her pages was marrying before the Lenten prohibitions were in place, and she and her Lords were due to attend an official dinner at Canongate. Both events would ensure the Queen was away from Kirk O fields while preparations were made- and crucially when the explosion took place.

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
Holyrood Palace in 1649. Wikimedia Commons

While the Queen was away, the gunpowder was moved over two journeys by horseback, in full view of the town watch and deposited in a pile on the floor of Mary’s chamber. After a brief evening visit to Darnley, at 10 pm Mary returned to Holyrood for the wedding masque. Here, she spent the night. In the meantime, Bothwell returned to Kirk O’Fields to oversee the lighting of the fuse, dropping the incriminating keys down a well, before departing. The resulting explosion was heard across Edinburgh and completely demolished the house. However, it did not kill Lord Darnley. His unmarked body was found, dead in the garden, strangled.

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Unknown artist. From the Scottish National Gallery. Wikimedia Commons

Queen Mary and Bothwell Accused

From the start, it was clear that Darnley’s death was the product of the conspiracy of several Lords. However, the same accounts work hard to cast the Earl of Bothwell as the prime mover of the murder. Indeed, Bothwell was tried for the murder and found not guilty in April 1567. This acquittal only served to solidify existing suspicions about the Queen’s involvement. Bothwell might have had ambitions to be King, but it was Mary who brought Darnley back to Edinburgh after months of seeking a way to be rid of him.

The Queen’s relationship with Bothwell was undoubtedly suspicious. In the wake of the Rizzio affair, the couple had become close. It was Bothwell who had raised an army in Mary’s defense. In the months that followed, Bothwell was the only one of her Lords Mary could trust. Within days of the murder, placards began to appear around Edinburgh branding the Queen a whore. They accused Mary and Bothwell of the crime and an affair. These accusations were made harder to refute by the fact that, three months after Darnley’s death, Mary and Bothwell married, sparking a civil war and Mary’s abdication.

Mary may have developed a romantic attachment to Bothwell. Or she may have decided to cement an alliance with her main supporter as her hold on power began to unravel. The suggestion that she sanctioned the murder of Darnley does not survive scrutiny. Mary had stipulated to Maitland that any removal of her husband had to be legal and leave her untainted. This was because she knew the eyes of Europe- particularly those of Elizabeth I, who was also Darnley’s cousin- were watching. Mary also knew that the murder of a man by his wife- even if that wife were a sovereign queen would not be countenanced by the male-dominated world about her.

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
Mary Queen of Scots. Google Images.

As for her reasons for returning Darnley to Edinburgh, these may have been duplicitous, but it was duplicity motivated by self-preservation. Darnley’s father was Earl of Lennox- and Glasgow was at the heart of Lennox territory. Soon after she began her plans for divorce, Mary learned that Darnley was using his haven as a base for further plotting. Having learned of Mary’s plans for divorce, Darnley began to attempt to blacken her name in Catholic Europe by portraying her as a ‘bad’ Catholic. This, he hoped would stall any divorce and strengthen his case for the sole crown of Scotland.

Mary traveled to Glasgow to manipulate Darnley back into compliance as she had so many times before by playing the role of “a most natural and loving wife” as Darnley described her in letters to his father. By bringing him back to Edinburgh, Mary could keep a closer eye on him. It was later implied Mary deliberately placed him in the house at Kirk O’Fields. However, this was Darnley’s choice- not his wife’s. In the wake of Mary’s abdication, evidence was manipulated or fabricated to implicate her and shift the emphasis onto Bothwell. The reason for this deception was central to the whole purpose behind Darnley’s murder.

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
The supposed casket that held the so-called Casket Letters. Google Images

The Motives Behind the Murder

The death of Lord Darnley was not an end in itself. Instead, it was a catalyst for the Protestant Lords, aided by William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief adviser, to bring down Mary and ensure that, if she lived, she would be so discredited that no foreign power would move to help her regain her throne. For a deposed Mary Queen of Scots suited both English and Scottish Protestants. It meant that Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray could steer Scotland entirely into a protestant reformation– an outcome equally desired by Scottish and English Protestants alike.

Once the murder was achieved, the Protestant Lords worked to bind Mary and Bothwell so close together that the Queen would be implicated in the killing. The placards calling Mary a whore were the first stage. Then the protestant lords encouraged Mary not to look too deeply for evidence against Bothwell. This made it look like the Queen had shielded him when he was acquitted. Bothwell then reputedly kidnapped and raped the Queen. This was probably a sham arrangement. However, certain Protestant Lords sanctioned the marriage because it would save the Queen’s honor. The stage was set.

Extra evidence for the queen’s complicity in the murder was acquired from depositions under torture of nine of Bothwell’s kin and servants who were accused of laying the powder. They told how Bothwell ordered the powder to be set in the Queen’s bed-chamber. This was critical information as it implicated Mary. However, aside from the fact a pile of gunpowder in the Queen’s room would have been noticed, forensic experts have established that to bring the house down, the powder needed to be placed in the cellar.

To Kill a King: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You
The Death of Mary, Queen of Scots by Scipione Vannutelli, 1861. Google Images.

The final blow to Mary’s reputation was the casket letters, which were used to show the Queen’s complicity in her husband’s murder. They were produced in York in October 1568 at a meeting to secure a treaty between England and Scotland. The whole affair aimed to leave Mary thoroughly discredited and without hope of support to regain her throne. Mary’s councilors were denied access to the letters, and they were declared genuine. However, Elizabeth I decided the case against Mary was not proven. This meant the Queen of Scots could be held in limbo, neutralized to Scottish satisfaction and satisfying Elizabeth’s scruples against shedding her blood.

The Protestant Lords had won. They had made their case successfully against Mary and Bothwell, even if posterity views it differently. However, who did kill Lord Darnley? Bothwell may have been complicit in the explosion. But did he ultimately end Darnley’s life? It seems not. For on the night of the murder, women from nearby houses claimed they heard their King call out ‘pity me, kinsmen, for the sake of Jesus Christ.” The kinsmen in question were Darnley’s distant relatives from the Douglas clan and known associates of the Protestant faction of Scotland.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our Sources:

Mary Queen of Scots, Antonia Fraser, Arrow Books, 1998.

The Murder of Lord Darnley, British Heritage Travel, June 12, 2006

A Sixteenth-Century Murder Mystery: Who Killed Lord Darnley? Professor Sue Black FRSE, Professor Niamh Nic Daeid FRSE, Professor Richard Shepherd, Dr. S. Karly Kehoe and Mr. John Dunn. Reported by Kate Kennedy, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, September 24, 2015

Was Mary Queen of Scots involved in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley?, Mary Queen of, March 18, 2014