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?
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.
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.