Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Lord Darnley

Some Conclusions

No problem exists with the murder of Rizzio.  Eye-witness accounts tell of Lord Ruthven and the other lords slaughtering the little Italian before Mary's very eyes with the complicit Darnley looking on.

The murder of Lord Darnley is a more difficult matter.  Moray, Morton, Maitland, and another less important lord, Balfour, were involved.  Bothwell, although protesting his innocence, was, at the very least, in on the plot.  It was probably Balfour's men who strangled Darnley after he escaped the blast in his night shirt.

And what of Mary?  She had been seeking the possibility of divorce from Darnley.  Lord knows she had reasons aplenty to want to get rid of him.  But the conclusion of most authors (and mine as well) is that she understood the rules of kingship (or queenship) well enough to know that the murder of a queen's husband would produce more problems than it would solve.  It is possible that she wasn't unhappy that Darnley was done in, but, more likely, she entered into a period of depression and seclusion after his death because she recognized the problems ahead.  In this emotionally debilitated state, and after having been raped by Bothwell, she drifted into marriage with him in a sort of desperate move.  Even the Casket Letters prove nothing.  The verdict on Mary, with respect to the murder of Darnley, is that she was innocent of the plot and guilty only insofar as she inadvertently encouraged his removal by voicing her exasperation with him.

David Rizzio
David Rizzio

Mary Queen of Scots was an ineffective ruler, even in the short time she actually held power in Scotland.  She certainly was a failure in her selection of men.  Rizzio, upon whom she depended, became an arrogant obstacle to her establishing reasonable working relations with the Lords who had ruled Scotland before her return from France.  Darnley was not only a scheming, ambitious, self-indulgent husband who sought to rule Scotland (and, eventually, he hoped, England as well), but as divisive as Rizzio when it came to establishing a working government with the lords.  And Bothwell, essentially an adventurer, was as ambitious as Darnley, but more ruthless and more prone to intrigues and plots.

Against this dismal picture we have Mary the woman.  She was intelligent, charming, beautiful, and loyal.  Most of all, she was tragic, because she was "... born to supreme power [and] wholly unable to cope with its responsibilities."  (Wormaid, 1988)  

As was suggested earlier, what would have happened if Mary had been able to prevent the murder of Darnley?  It is possible that, if Darnley had lived, some accommodation could have been fashioned between Mary and Darnley.  Perhaps Darnley would have eventually died from "the pox" acquired from the whores of Edinburgh.  Even if he had lived and he and Mary were able to rein in the ambitions of the Scottish lords, the outlook for the two of them was promising.  If nothing more had gone amiss, and Mary had been able to stay alive until 1603 (when she would have been sixty-one), undoubtedly she and not her son would have been Elizabeth I's successor.  And even if she had died before Elizabeth, her son, James (who eventually was Elizabeth's successor) might not have been a Protestant, but a Roman Catholic, like his mother.

The possibilities of all these "what-ifs" point out that the murder of Lord Darnley was not an isolated or trivial matter.  Its consequences were as dramatic as the actual events.



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