Whom could she marry without a diplomatic mess? A Spaniard? But France and England would protest, and Protestant Scots would rage. A Frenchman? But England would oppose, even to war, any renewal of the Scottish-French alliance. An Austrian—the Archduke Charles? But Knox from the pulpit already thundered against union with a Catholic “infidel,” and Elizabeth let Mary know that marriage with a Hapsburg—old foes of the Tudors—would be construed as a hostile act.
In a moment of passion Mary cut the diplomatic knot. Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, who held himself to be the next in line to Mary for the Scottish throne, had lost his estates by supporting Henry VIII against Scotland, and had fled to England to elude the Scots’ revenge; now (October 1564) he thought it timely to return. Soon thereafter came his nineteen-year-old son Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who through his mother was (like Mary) descended from Henry VII of England. Mary was charmed by the beardless youth; she admired his skill at tennis and on the lute; she forgave his vanity as the due of his good looks, and rushed into love before she could discern his lack of mind. On July 29, 1565, over the protests of Elizabeth and half her own Council, Mary made the lad her husband and named him king. Murray retired from the Council and joined the enemies of the headstrong Queen.
She enjoyed a few months of troubled happiness. Her need for love had mounted in her four years of widowhood; it was pleasant to be desired! She gave her love unstintedly, and without stint she lavished gifts upon her mate. “All dignities that she can indue him with,” reported Elizabeth’s ambassador, Thomas Randolph, “are already given and granted. No man pleases her that contenteth not him…. She hath given over unto him her whole will.”26 Good fortune turned the boy’s head; he became dictatorial and insolent, and he demanded joint powers of rule with the Queen. Meanwhile he caroused, drank heavily, alienated the Council, had fits of jealousy, and suspected Mary of adultery with David Rizzio.
Who was Rizzio? An Italian musician, he had come to Scotland in 1561, aged twenty-eight, in the train of the ambassador from Savoy. Mary, fond of music, attached him to her service as organizer of musical fetes. She enjoyed his wit, his quick intelligence, his varied Continental culture. As he knew French and Latin well and wrote a fine Italian hand, she used him also as secretary. Soon she let him draft as well as write her foreign correspondence; he became an adviser, a power; he shared in directing policy; he ate with the Queen; sometimes he sat closeted with her far into the night. The Scottish nobles, seeing themselves superseded, and suspecting Rizzio of serving the Catholic cause, plotted to destroy him.
At first Darnley himself had been captivated by the clever Italian. They had played together, slept together. But as Rizzio’s functions and honors grew, and Darnley’s foolishness reduced him to political impotence, the affection of the King for the servant-become-minister descended the gamut of feeling to hatred. When Mary became pregnant Darnley thought she was bearing Rizzio’s child. Randolph believed it; and, a generation later, Henri Quatre quipped that James I of England must be “the modern Solomon,” since his father was the harpist David.27 Having warmed his courage with whiskey, Darnley joined with the Earl of Morton, Baron Ruthven, and other nobles in a plot to murder Rizzio. They signed a “band” pledging themselves to uphold Protestantism in Scotland and to give Darnley the “crown matrimonial”—full rights as Scotland’s king—and the right of succession should Mary die. Darnley promised to protect the signers from the consequences “of whatever crime,” and to restore Murray and other banished lords.28
On March 6, 1566, Randolph revealed the plot to Cecil.29 On March 9 it was carried out. Darnley entered the boudoir where Mary, Rizzio, and Lady Argyll were at supper; he grasped and held the Queen; Morton, Ruthven, and others rushed in, dragged Rizzio from the room over Mary’s helpless protests, and stabbed him to death on the stairs—fifty-six wounds for good measure and sure. Someone rang the town tocsin; a crowd of armed citizens marched on the palace, proposing to cut Mary “to collops,”30 but Darnley persuaded them to disperse. All that night and the next day Mary remained in Holyrood Palace, a prisoner of the assassins. Meanwhile she played upon Darnley’s terror and love, and he helped and accompanied her when, on the following night, she escaped and fled to Dunbar. There, vowing revenge, she issued an appeal to all loyal supporters to come to her defense. Perhaps to divide her enemies, she recalled Murray to her Council.
The most effective of those who offered her protection was James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell. A strange and fateful character: not handsome, but strong of body, passions, and will; an adventurer on land and sea, skilled with sword and rapier; cowing men with his cool audacity, alluring women with his talk, his recklessness, and his reputation for seducing them; but also a man of superior education, a lover of and author of books in an age when many a noble Scot could not write his name. At first the Queen had disliked him, for he had spoken ill of her; but that is one way of winning a woman’s interest. Then, seeing his martial qualities, she had appointed him Lieutenant of the Border; hearing of his familiarity with ships, she had made him Lord Admiral; learning of his desire for Lady Jane Gordon’s hand, she promoted their marriage.
Now, fearing the assassins of Rizzio and suspecting her husband’s complicity, she turned to Bothwell for protection and advice. She did not take to him precipitately, but his masculine qualities of courage, vigor, and confidence were those that her feminine nature had longed for and had not found in Francis II or Darnley. She noted how respect for his sword and his troops drove the conspirators into hiding or submission; soon she felt secure enough to return to Holyrood. Though Knox had approved the murder of Rizzio, Mary quieted the ministers for a while by making better provision for their maintenance. The common Scots, never in love with the lords, sympathized with her, and for a few months more she enjoyed a general popularity. “I never saw the Queen so much beloved, esteemed, and honored,” wrote the French ambassador, “or so great harmony among her subjects.”31 Nevertheless, as she approached her confinement she was obsessed with the thought that she would be murdered or deposed in her helplessness.32 When she safely gave birth to a boy (June 19, 1566), all Scotland rejoiced, as if foreseeing that this lad would be king of both Scotland and England. Mary was in apogee.
But she was miserable with Darnley. He resented her renewed trust in Murray and her rising admiration for Bothwell. There was talk that Bothwell would kidnap the royal infant and rule in its name.33 Darnley accused the nobles of killing Rizzio and claimed innocence; in revenge they sent to the Queen proof of his participation.34 Argyll, Lethington, and Bothwell proposed to the Queen that she should divorce him; she objected that this might endanger the succession. Lethington replied that they would find some means of freeing her from Darnley without prejudice to her son. She did not approve; she offered rather to retire from Scotland to let Darnley rule; and she ended the interview with a caution: “I will that ye do nothing whereby any spot may be laid to my honor or conscience; and therefore, I pray you, let the matter be as it is, abiding till God of His goodness put remedy thereto.”35 Several times now she talked of suicide.36
In or about October 1566, Argyll, Sir James Balfour, Bothwell, and perhaps Lethington signed a pact to get rid of Darnley. The Earl of Len nox got wind of the plot and warned his son; Darnley, who had been living apart from Mary, joined his father in Glasgow (December 1566). There he fell ill, apparently from smallpox, though rumors of poison rose. Meanwhile Mary’s developing intimacy with Bothwell put her under suspicion of adultery; Knox openly called her a whore.37 She seems to have approached Archbishop Hamilton about arranging a divorce of Bothwell from his wife. She offered to visit Darnley; he sent her an insulting reply; she went to him nevertheless (January 22, 1567), asserted her fidelity, and reawakened his love. She begged him to return to Edinburgh, where, she promised, she would nurse him back to health and happiness.
Here the “Casket Letters” enter upon the scene, and the rest of the story hinges in part on their authenticity, which is still in dispute after four hundred years. They were allegedly found in a silver casket which was presented by Mary to Bothwell and was taken from a servant of Bothwell on June 20, 1567, by agents of the nobles who were then seeking to dethrone the Queen. The casket was opened on the following day by Morton, Lethington, and other members of the Privy Council. As exhibited soon thereafter to the Scottish Parliament, and later to the English commission that tried Mary in 1568, the contents were eight letters and some fragmentary poems, all in French, undated and unaddressed but allegedly from Mary to Bothwell. The lords of the Council swore to the Scottish Parliament that the letters were genuine and had not been tampered with; Mary claimed that they had been forged. Her son apparently considered them authentic, for he destroyed them;38 only copies remain. Continental rulers, shown copies, acted as if believing them genuine.39 Elizabeth at first questioned, then hesitantly accepted, their authenticity. Our first impulse on reading them is to doubt that a woman meditating the murder of her husband would so carelessly and extensively express her intentions in letters entrusted to carriers who might be intercepted or corrupted; it appears improbable that letters so incriminating to Bothwell should have been preserved by him; and it is equally improbable that anyone in Scotland, even the clever Lethington (who is especially suspected), could have forged any substantial part of these letters in the single day between the capture of the casket and the display of the letters to the Council or the Parliament. The most incriminating letter—the second—is strangely long, taking up ten pages in print; if it was forged it is a most remarkable forgery, for its emotional content seems as true to Mary’s nature as its writing is like her hand. It shows Mary as a pitying, hesitating, and ashamed accomplice in the murder of Darnley.I
The ailing, fearful, trusting King allowed himself to be carried across Scotland in a litter and placed in the old parsonage of Kirk o’ Field on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Mary explained that she could not at once take him to Holyrood, lest he infect their child. For two weeks he lay there. Mary visited him daily and nursed him so sedulously that his strength returned, and he wrote to his father (February 7, 1567), “… my good health is the … sooner come through the good treatment of … the Queen, which I assure you hath all this while, and yet doth, use herself like a natural and loving wife. I hope yet that God will lighten our hearts with joy that have so long been afflicted with trouble.”41 Why she should have nursed him back through tedious weeks if she knew that he was to be killed is part of the mystery of Mary Stuart. On the evening of February 9 she left him to attend the wedding of one of her maids at Holyrood. That night an explosion occurred in the Kirk o’ Field house, and in the morning Darnley was found dead in the garden.
Mary at first behaved like an innocent woman. She mourned and lamented and vowed vengeance; she had her room draped in black and curtained from the light, and she remained there in darkness and solitude. She ordered a judicial inquiry, and proclaimed a reward in money and land for information leading to the capture of the criminals. When placards appeared on city walls charging Bothwell with the murder, some implicating the Queen, a proclamation called upon the accusers to come forth with their evidence and promised the informers protection and rewards. The author(s) of the placards refused to appear, but the Earl of Lennox urged the Queen to bring Bothwell to trial at once. Bothwell seconded their demand. On April 12 he stood trial; Lennox, either lacking proofs or fearing Bothwell’s soldiers in the capital, remained in Glasgow; Bothwell was acquitted, and the Parliament officially declared him innocent. On April 19 he persuaded Argyll, Huntly, Morton, and a dozen other nobles to sign “Ainslee’s band,” attesting their faith in his innocence, pledging themselves to defend him, and approving his marriage with Mary. She now favored Bothwell publicly and added to the many costly presents that she had already given him.
On April 23 she visited her son at Stirling; she was fated never to see him again. On her way back to Edinburgh she and Lethington were waylaid by Bothwell and his soldiers and were carried by force to Dunbar (April 24). Lethington protested; Bothwell threatened to kill him. Mary saved him and he was released; thereafter he joined the enemies of the Queen. At Dunbar negotiations were resumed for Bothwell’s divorce. On May 3 he and Mary returned to Edinburgh; she declared herself free from constraint; on May 7 he was granted a divorce, and on the fifteenth, her Catholic confessor having refused to marry them, they were married according to the Protestant rite by the once Catholic Bishop of Orkney. Catholic Europe, formerly devoted to Mary, now turned against her as a lost soul. The Catholic clergy of Scotland stood aloof from her; the Protestant ministry called for her deposition; the populace was hostile; a sympathetic few attributed her reckless infatuation to a love potion given her by Bothwell.
On June 10 an armed band surrounded Borthwick Castle, where Mary and Bothwell were staying. They escaped, Mary dressed as a man. At Dunbar Bothwell gathered a thousand men, and with them he and Mary sought to force their way back to Edinburgh. They were opposed at Carberry Hill (June 15) by an equal force bearing a banner painted with figures of Darnley dead and the child James VI. Bothwell offered to settle the issue by single combat; Mary refused to allow him; she agreed to surrender if Bothwell were permitted to escape; later she claimed that the rebel leaders had promised loyalty to her if she joined them peacefully.42 Bothwell fled to the coast and made his way to Denmark; there, after ten years of imprisonment by the Danish King, he died at the age of forty-two (1578).
Mary accompanied her captors to Edinburgh amid cries of soldiers and populace: “Burn the whore! Burn her!” “Kill her!” “Drown her!”43 She was placed under guard in the provost’s house; under her window, where she appeared disheveled and half clad, the crowd continued to threaten her with the coarsest epithets. On June 17, over her wild protests, she was removed to a remote and more secure imprisonment on an island in Loch Leven, a lake some thirty miles north of the capital. There, according to her secretary Claude Nau, she gave birth prematurely to twins.44 She sent an appeal to the French government; it refused to interfere. Elizabeth instructed her envoy to promise Mary protection and to threaten the nobles with dire punishment if they should harm the Queen. Knox called for Mary’s execution, and predicted that God would scourge Scotland with a great plague if Mary should be spared.45 On June 20 the lords secured the Casket Letters. She appealed to the Parliament for a hearing; it refused, on the ground that the letters sufficiently disposed of her case. On July 24 she signed her abdication, and Murray was made regent for her son.
For almost eleven months she remained a captive in Lochleven Castle. Gradually the rigor of her confinement was relaxed; she ate with the family of William Douglas, lord of the castle; his younger brother George fell in love with her and helped her to escape (March 25, 1568). She was captured, but on May 2 she tried again and succeeded. Protected by young Douglas, she reached the mainland, where she was met by a party of Catholics. They rode through the night to the Firth of Forth, crossed it, and found refuge in the home of the Hamiltons. In five days six thousand men gathered there, sworn to set her again on the throne. But Murray called the Protestants of Scotland to arms; at Langside, near Glasgow, the two forces met (May 13); Mary’s ill-disciplined army was overwhelmed. She took flight once more and rode wildly through three nights to Dundrennan Abbey on Solway Firth. Now she returned to its donor the diamond that Elizabeth had once given “her dearest sister,” and she added a message: “I send back to its Queen this jewel, the token of her promised friendship and assistance.”46 On May 16, 1568, she crossed Solway Firth in an open fishing boat, entered England, and left her fate to her rival.