Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Lord Darnley

Second Murder: Lord Darnley

Under the protection of Bothwell, and now safely ensconced in Edinburgh Castle, Mary was faced with a strange sort of rebellion.  The lords who had killed Rizzio asked for forgiveness, and in the interests of maintaining some measure of control of her kingdom, she granted it.  Darnley, of course, was not really forgiven, but endured as a necessary evil.  Mary began to consider the possibility of divorcing Darnley, despite the myriad complications that such an act would have.  The lords were not happy with Darnley's performance during the murder of Rizzio, so he was in the awkward position of being in no one's particular favor.

Mary and Darnley
Mary and Darnley

Bothwell assumed even greater importance as Mary's principal advisor.  When the dust had settled, Darnley, threatening to leave Scotland for France and greater security, decided to relocate to Glasgow,  He went to recover from an illness, most likely syphilis acquired during his nights of debauchery in that first year as Mary's husband. 

For some reason, Mary decided that it would be politic to minister to her ill husband, and visited him in Glasgow.  With apparent tenderness, she nursed him, and finally convinced him to return to Edinburgh.  Between the murder of Rizzio and Darnley's self-imposed convalescence in Glasgow, James had been born, and was safely looked after at a castle to the north of Edinburgh.

Mary's bedroom, Holyrood
Mary's bedroom, Holyrood

It is probable that Mary wanted Darnley closer to her so that she could keep an eye on him.  Darnley, arrogant to a fault, presumed that he was once more in her favor and could look forward to sharing her bed.  They settled on his moving to Holyrood Castle, the very locale of Rizzio's murder, and close to Edinburgh Castle.

A narrative drawing of the Kirk O'Field murder scene
A narrative drawing of the Kirk O'Field murder scene

At the last moment, Darnley decided that he would rather reside at a comfortable house that was adjacent to Kirk o'Field, some distance from both Holyrood and Edinburgh Castles.  It was a fateful decision.

The Lords of Scotland met after they learned relocation of Darnley. They were still angry over his betrayal in the plot to murder Rizzio.  Among their number was Bothwell.  They decided that Darnley must be eliminated.  Despite the last minute switch of locations for Darnley, they were able to formulate a plot that would rid them of this duplicitous and irritating young man.  They signed a bond, a statement of mutual commitment, to the effect that they would kill Darnley.

The plot was simple.  Bothwell's men, along with loyal liegemen of the other lords, would place explosives in the lower chamber below where Darnley resided in Kirk o'Field.  The fuse would be lighted and Darnley would no more be the irritant that he had become.

It is not clear if the plot included getting rid of Mary along with Darnley, but it appeared that that might be the case.  A complicating factor for the plotters was that Mary  promised Darnley that she would stay the night. But, she had previously committed to attend the wedding festivities for one of her servants at Edinburgh Castle. At the last minute, she decided not to stay with Darnley.

Late on the evening of February 13, 1563, an explosion rocked the neighborhood around Kirk o'Field.  The lodge in which Darnley had been staying was blown to bits.  However, Darnley was not a victim of the explosion.  He and three of his servants heard activity below them and outside their second-floor rooms and lowered themselves (by a rope and chair) into the courtyard outside his window. 

They escaped the explosion, but they did not escape the men of Lord Balfour who pounced upon them and strangled Darnley and one of his attendants.  At first, it was thought that Darnley had been blown into the courtyard by the explosion, but it was evident that he had no other injuries than those evidenced around his neck.

The Queen, who had retired after the wedding festivities, was aroused by Bothwell and told of the explosion.  Mary was certain that she had been an intended victim, since the charge had been set in her chamber, immediately below that of Darnley's.  Bothwell took charge of the investigation, even though he had been privy to the plot and some of his men had participated in the arduous task of hauling in the bags of explosives.

The questions immediately arose:  Who were the perpetrators?  How involved was Bothwell?  Could Mary herself been involved in the plot to rid herself of this odious husband?  How involved were the Lords — Moray, Morton, Ruthven, and others?

The infamous mermaid placard
The infamous mermaid placard

Mary committed a fateful blunder.  She didn't appear to be sufficiently mournful of the death of her husband.  Indeed, while she retired to her chamber in mourning, she seemed to exert little effort in swiftly solving the crime.  It was, after all, a case of regicide, even if Darnley had been "king" only by virtue of marriage.  It was not long before placards arose around the city of Edinburgh, accusing Bothwell and — what was worse for Mary — crude placards depicting her as a mermaid, a symbol of harlotry.



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