Darnley was a good looking young man. Admittedly before he’d originally arrived, the Scottish envoy in London, James Melville, had rather dissed the lad to Elizabeth, seeking to re-assure her that Mary would no way prefer him to Dudley – ‘more like a woman than a man’ he said, and certainly from his picture he does look as though he was in touch with his feminine side. But in February when Darnley arrived to greet Mary for the first time, Mary was impressed. He was 19 years old, tall, good looking, something of a stunner basically, and on his best behaviour – deferential and courteous, Mary declared him the ‘properest and best proportioned young man she’d ever seen’.
It’s very unlikely that Elizabeth and Cecil wanted Mary to marry Darnley – indeed Cecil even convened a meeting of the Council on how to present it. But Elizabeth’s obsession with keeping her heir unresolved, and Cecil’s obsession in keeping Mary from the English throne rather pushed Mary and Darnley together; when Elizabeth finally wrote in 1565 concerning the terms on which Mary might marry Dudley she point blank refused to discuss Mary’s right to the English Throne. Mary was livid, and according to Moray did ‘nothing but weep and write’.
So Mary, already open to Darnley’s charms, started having fun with the lad by April 1565. Snippets of fun and games come back from court – Mary and Darnley partner a game of Billiards against Ambassador Randolph and his not so secret lover Mary Beaton, one of the four Marys. When Darnley fell sick with boils and rashes – probably an early sign of the Syphilis btw Mary moved him into the royal apartments and nursed him herself, an extraordinary honour and tongues were wagging. As tongues will. It became an open secret; or indeed an open, since Mary invited Moray to sign a document declaring his support for the marriage. It was the trigger for a breach between them; Moray refused, saying the marriage was too rushed; he was duly banished in disgrace from court.
Mary was emotionally committed by now, despite the pressure from Elizabeth to renounce Darnley; and she raised his him up with positions that would give him a suitable status to marry the queen – Mary knighted him, and then made him Earl of Ross. Which would surely make anyone happy – but not the young lad, interestingly for the future. Mary had agreed to make him Duke of Albany – a title traditionally reserved for those of the royal family; but she held it for a while, to see how Elizabeth would respond to her latest letter. The message came to Darnley by the Councillor Lord Ruthven, and Darnley lost it, drawing his dagger on Ruthven in his fury at the delay. It was a sign of things to come.
The answer when it came from Elizabeth was a recall for Lennox and Darnley to return to England. Mary was furious, burst into tears and took to her bedchamber for two weeks. When she came out, she ordered Lennox and Darnley to stay right where they were. And then she hauled Elizabeth’s special envoy, Throckmorton, over the hot coals of her fury, detailing the honesty and good intentions of her, Mary’s actions, and contrasting them with Elizabeth’s dithering, backsliding and lack of respect for her status. It was a bit difficult to argue with her.
Now sadly, the wheels were beginning to come off the Darnley bus. Mary worked hard to build support for him among the lords – but as quickly as her charm won people round, Darnley’s lack of it lost them. Darnley’s Dad had given him a new lick of paint before they came up, in the sense of coaching him not to be too much of an arse, but now it was flaking off and the bare metal was beginning to show through. He’d tried to impress Knox by coming to his sermons at St Giles – but then ruined the effect by declaring he preferred English Cathedrals to the Scottish kirk, giving rise to fears about Darnley’s Catholicism. Darnley openly goaded Moray, making it clear that he, Darnley would rule the roost after the marriage, and that he should prune Moray’s over extensive lands. He was frequently drunk and was suspected of sexual licence, and sleeping with Mary’s confidential secretary, a man called David Rizzio. Gender politics were asserting themselves too – not content with demanding to be made Duke of Albany, Darnley demanded to be made a king in full, the crown matrimonial, equal with Mary, so that he and Mary would rule jointly, not with Darnley simply as a consort.
It’s possible that as early as June, Mary was seeing that she’d made a mistake with this young man’s character. But it was too late – Mary could not back out now, not without losing face. In July, Darnley was made Duke of Albany, and the banns of the marriage read. Later in the month, Mary persuaded the Privy Council to give Darnley the crown matrimonial, in a day long debate.
Hatred of Darnley though was growing – a plot to seize Darnley and Lennox, send they back to Elizabeth and force Mary to submit was rumoured. But nothing daunted, on 29th July 1565 Mary and Darnley were married. And there was much rejoicing; or as Knox put it rather more sourly
During the space of 3 or 4 days there was nothing but balling, dancing and banqueting
And Knox was not a man for balling dancing and banqueting. Or not for dancing and banqueting anyway.
But despite all the festivities, there was a slightly hollow ring to it all. Of the barons, only the earls of Morton and Atholl were genuinely engaged, full supporters of Darnley. Argyll, Chatellerault and Moray were all absent, already in correspondence with Elizabeth seeking support for a rebellion. On the Monday following, the announcement of Darnley’s title of kind was made; in the court there was a resentful silence, and no on cheered. Except for Lennox, who cried God save your Grace. Then he would wouldn’t he, he was afterall the lad’s Dad. In August an envoy arrived from Elizabeth to tear a strip off Mary, accusing her of spreading and encouraging factionalism in her realm, livid with the marriage. But any strip tearing was to be done by Mary, who gave the envoy a grade A lecture and told him to tell Elizabeth to stop interfering in Scottish affairs.
Mary was full of confidence – she was married, had a king at her side to give her emotional support, advice and military support, and she had declared her independence from Elizabeth. She boldly declared Moray an outlaw, and put him to the horn – and then set out to catch him.
Moray had hoped to recreate the rebellion of 1559 against Mary of Guise, and included in his plan an optimistic hope that the English would provide troops. But for Elizabeth and even Cecil, providing troops and public support for a rebellion against a French Regent was a completely different proposition to supporting rebellion against an annointed Queen, and a queen supported by Scots. They were right; despite the protestant link, Moray, Chatellerault and Argyll looked unpatriotic in their English alliance against Mary their queen.
Mary was in her element. She now heartily hated Moray, thought her half brother had betrayed her, and wanted to see him brought low; she would destroy him militarily, and attaint all his lands and titles in Parliament when it met in March the following year. And troops flocked to her banner – when she left Edinburgh, she had behind her 10,000 men.
She would also be joined by two men she had previously banished – James Hepburn, the swashbuckling daring military Earl of Bothwell, and George Gordon, restored to his lands as Earl of Huntly. It’s could be describes as the greatest comeback since Lazarus for the two of them. Bothwell must have attracted her because he was virulently anti English, and a brave, daring military adventurer – a good man to have on your side in a fight. He also hated Moray, and d’you know what? Moray hated him right back. Mary also had Huntly re-instated; because he could bring her men from the north, and could provide a tool to rub out the power of his neighbour in the north – who was – you guessed it, Moray. As I think I may have mentioned, when Mary had removed the Huntly’s 2 years previously, she’d never really followed up to replace an alternative at the head of their networks and affiliations; so George Gordon found his return relatively easy. Mary rode out from Edinburgh with a steel cap and guns at her side, with Darnley in tow – towards Ayrshire where Moray had last been heard of.
In Ayrshire, there were elements of a movement towards a pear shape going on. With the refusal of England to send troops, the popularity of Mary threatening to send Moray and Argyll’s rebellion toastwards. Moray and all the rebel lords except Argyll had met up at Ayr, but when they heard Mary was heading their way, pistols cocked, they decided to give her the slip and head for Edinburgh. Which gives this campaign the name of the ‘Chase about raid’. Moray had hoped he could half inch Edinburgh while Mary was chasing him. The plan didn’t work out – Edinburgh stayed loyal and trained its guns on Moray, and they legged it back westwards again. Only just missing Mary who was on her way back to Edinburgh. It’s all a bit like a Gerard Hoffnung sketch.
Argyll meanwhile started his own campaign in the western Isles where he was taken on by the Lennoxes and Athol, until Argyll was boxed in and neutralised. Mary headed off to Moray’s base in Fife and a war of words ensued – Moray claiming that Mary had proclaimed Darnley king without parliament, and therefore trodden all over the rights of the nobility, and that the protestant religion was in danger – fears that Mary mocked. By now, 17th September, Bothwell had returned and was promoted to the Council by 28th. His elevation to Lieutenant-General of the army annoyed both Darnley and Lennox; another pair of sharp elbows had arrived at the crowded trough of power. By the start of October, Bothwell was on his way to Dumfries to confront Moray – but there was no fight. Bothwell’s army was overwhelming. Moray slipped over the border into England. When he reached the court he was on the one hand given a full dressing down by Elizabeth – tell me again what you think of rebellion against an anointed monarch? – but on the other hand was given leave to stay as long as he needed.
So, Mary. Well she was full of beans, and never more powerful. In December she had the heralds demand Moray’s presence at the parliament in March 1566 at the Mercat cross in Edinburgh – everyone knew he could of course not come, and Mary prepared with some delight to confiscate his land and titles. She had chased her enemies and brought them down. Chatellerault and the Hamiltons crept back and asked for pardon. She had two new allies in Huntly and Bothwell. And she’d seen off Elizabeth, refusing to be a subordinate – and into the bargain, she was pregnant, with child, in the family way, there was a bun, ladies and gentlemen, in the oven. By taking the initiative with the rebels Mary was now supreme, and stood on the doorstep of a long, peaceful and happy reign. The end, roll credits.
This vision of Mary’s future is of course, sadly fake news. And anyway, my grandmother told me that pride goes before a fall, and no one ever argued with a grandmother and got away with it. So what went wrong? The lion’s share of blame goes to the most despised figure of Darnley; to be joined by the increasingly despised figures of Mary’s great men who, it is said, proceeded to betray her, to chase their own power and ambition, and exploit the weakness of her position as a woman. Both these may be partly true – but there was a political mote in Mary’s eye to boot.
But there’s no doubt that Darnley’s behaviour was of the type generally described by the more serious historian as those of a plonker. His drinking got worse, so that Mary asked him to moderate his drinking at one feast, and left the table in tears when Darnley snarled at her in reply. He began to insist that as the man, it is he that should be in control and Mary should be the subordinate; when Mary pardoned Chatellerault, he was furious and demanded that she not exercise such authority again. He started corresponding directly with Philip II, seeking an alliance and therefore very publicly supporting Catholicism, no longer attending Knox’s sermons, attending mass and so on. Mary was sick of his pretensions and arrogance – and by February 1566 was quite publicly estranged from her husband. Darnley had turned out to be a massive disappointment.
And yet Mary herself let her success go to her head. Pardoning the Hamiltons was in fact part of a bigger picture – as quickly as Mary had raised Lennox up, she was now distancing herself, and marginalising them – Lennox found himself out of the centre of counsel, and his local rivals in the Clyde pardoned – namely, the Hamiltons. There was more than a hint of truth in Elizabeth’s criticism that Mary was encouraging and fanning factionalism. She too began to put aside the agreement she’d made with Moray to celebrate mass only at Holyrood and maintain the existing status quo between protestant and catholic. She began also publicly support Catholicism; she tried to take Bothwell and Huntly and get them to attend mass with Darnley. She and Darnley held a mass for 300, where Mary promised that ‘she will have the mass free for all men that will hear it’. At the same time, Catherine of Medici, previously a supporter of the French Huguenots appeared to be trying to mend fences with the Catholic Hapsburgs, so look the poor old protestants were already in a tizzy, fearing an international coalition. Mary and Darnley’s sudden enthusiasm for an outward display of Catholicism put them in a panic, and made them distrust Mary’s promises. Meanwhile Mary’s success in pursuing a marriage in opposition to Elizabeth’s wishes made her jettison her clever and subtle diplomacy with England.
Instead she began to get imperial pretensions. At an official party, in honour of visiting Ambassadors, she hung a picture of Elizabeth in the great hall. During the feast, Mary rose and addressed them all, and in the full glare of publicity declared, and I quote
There was no other queen of England but herself
Nuclear. Thermonuclear. I visualise Cecil rushing off to the toilet when Randolph’s report came in, to have a good think.
Mary now also called Darnley’s bluff – she was sick of his appalling behaviour which was messing up the royal reputation, and she was alarmed at what he might do once he gained the crown matrimonial at the parliament and became her equal in authority. So now she withdrew her promise to give him the crown matrimonial and equal status. A new coin minted rather amusingly represented Mary as a crowned Palm tree – and Darnley as a tortoise climbing it’s trunk. And Mary refused him permission to quarter the royal arms on his own. Few Hectors have been so unhappy.
All of this fuelled fears among the lords and the Privy Council; fears that today’s favourite would be on tomorrow’s discard pile. Fears that Catholicism would be restored in Scotland. That war would come with England. Added to this was fear that Mary was preferring her own household servants to her counsellors, a worry that grew on focus on Mary’s confidential secretary, David Rizzio. Rizzio was a musician and singer, who had come to court and obtained a position in Mary’s Privy Chamber by the end of 1561. He did his very best then to make himself pleasant and useful to the queen, as you would. Mary already drew a bit of flack for having so many French and Italians in her household, and when she grew to dislike her French confidential secretary, she replaced him with David, which didn’t help. Rizzio was constantly in the queen’s presence, and his closeness to the queen gave him power which he exploited; Lords soon began to realise that if you wanted access to the queen, you’d better speak to seigneur Davie. Along with a bit of grease to you know, oil the wheels. With such access, Rizzio grew rich, and spent his money on fine clothing, the most fashionable and finely embroidered doublets, the latest Nike trainers. The lords grew to hate him, a process I believe we have seen many times repeated in many ways – a parvenu, given power envied by the lords, who resented the success of someone with his background. James Melville wrote
‘Some of the nobilite wald glowm upon him and some of them wold schulder him and schut [shove] him by when they entrit in the chamber and fand him alwais speaking with hir Majestie’
Mary saw this and asked Melville to befriend Rizzio who she saw as innocent. In truth she did not realise the danger both he and she were in.
On 9th March 1566, 3 days before the parliament met that would strip Moray of his lands, Mary was in her royal apartments when Darnley appeared, puting his hand on her waist and spoke to her. Nothing seemed out of place, until Lord Ruthven, dressed in armour strode into the room – and demanded that Davie Rizzio come forward. Mary turned to Darnley, who said he knew nothing. Ruthven went on, pouring out the lords’ resentment of Rizzo accusing him of dishonouring the queen – basically of having had sex with her – and turning her mind from her rightful advisors. Ruthven told Darnley to look after the queen, and Rizzio panicked, hiding behind her. Chaos followed – Ruthven drew his dagger, his fellow conspirators’ men burst into the room, a knife was plunged into Rizzio over Mary’s shoulder, so that she ‘felt the coldness of the iron’. Ruthven pulled Mary out of the way and into Darnley’s arms – but Mary tried to put herself in between the killers and Rizzo, while Rizzo begged Mary to save him. It was to no avail; one conspirator held a gun to the queen of Scotland, while Rizzio was dragged from the room, and daggers, raised and fell, raised and fell until 56 wounds had been struck and Rizzio lay dead and bloody. As Darnley continued to deny any knowledge, one conspirator took his dagger and thrust it into Rizzo’s body to give the lie to his claims. In the chaos, Huntly, Athol and Bothwell legged it, fearing they would be next. Mary was harangued by the Earl of Morton, locked in her chambers and a guard placed on the door.
Well, by ‘eck, what had happened here? Mary was the victim of a vast conspiracy. At its heart were Morton and Maitland, both worried about their access to power, and in Maitland’s case the move towards Catholicism. From behind the scenes was Moray in England, desperate to stop his lands being forfeited by act of parliament. Morton may have been the prime mover in the plot, identifying Darnley’s weakness of character – here was a chance to make Darnley king, set Mary aside, and for the likes of Morton to dominate and rule through Darnley. The conspirators played on the weak Darnley’s fears – convincing him Mary had an affair with Rizzio, almost certainly untrue, feeding his resentment of Mary’s refusal to make him her equal. All of this, they said, would be put right by the murder of Rizzo, and capture of the queen to be forced to do their bidding. They soon had their man – Darnley foolishly signed a bond pledging himself to the plot. Moray returned secretly to Edinburgh, and the plot went forward. The following day, Darnley ordered the parliament dissolved. It appeared the coup had been stunningly and completely successful.
Well, how extraordinary. They had not, however, taken account of Mary’s courage and resourcefulness; and nor had they plumbed the depths of Darnley’s weakness and general lack of feck. The lords were worried about what might happen in the future – so Darnley was set to get Mary to sign bonds pardoning the conspirators, sort of insurance. But Mary worked on Darnley’s fears herself. Look, she said, these lords will dump you the moment I am out of the way, do not be a dipstick. The way to rule Scotland is to rise above faction. She said she realised he was an innocent pawn – at which point her nose grew a little longer – and that together they could escape to Dunbar, meet up with Huntly and Bothwell, and descend on the conspirators with fire and brimstone. Her eloquence and force of character won Darnley over. That night, Darnley and Mary escaped and rode to Dunbar, a five hour ride particularly gruelling for the pregnant queen.
Bothwell and Huntly had been busy – and on 18th March 1566 Mary was able to enter Edinburgh at the head of 5,000 troops. Once again Mary had out witted her opponents. In a daring move she offered a pardon to the Chase about Raid rebels – and realising the game was up, Moray and Argyll accepted immediately, so splitting the rebels. The wrath of Mary then descending on the conspirators. Maitland was not removed from the post of the queen’s secretary, but was heavily forfeited of land. Morton and Ruthven fled along with others; it was Morton that Mary held as the principal.
Mary had won through by enormous daring, and again, by seizing the initiative. But the Rizzo plot both demonstrated that a rot had grown at the centre of her rule, and it would get worse. Darnley in particular was a marked man. By his betrayal of the conspirators, particularly Morton, he had betrayed his Douglas kindred, who suffered the most from Mary’s retribution. Mary herself realised that her position was not strong enough to reverse religious policy, and that she needed English support. She reversed these policies, and swapped the Rizzio conspirators for the Chase about Raid rebels – all of which was extraordinarily confusing to her friends and unsettling. Serious damage had been done, and although the reasons were legion – magnate greed and ambition, the fear of access, the influence of religious differences, Darnley’s appalling treachery and weakness; the impact of Gender in believing that Mary could be set aside in favour of her male consort; yet Mary’s switching of favourites, imperial ambitions and religious policy must take part of the blame.
From the trough of magnate concern though, Mary did a fine job in the short term of pulling herself out of the hole. She recognised that a return to the policy of reconciliation was necessary if she was to thrive and put the Rizzio affair behind her. She accepted the Chase About Raid rebels fully into her confidence, and then a bit more slowly most of the Rizzio murderers. Bothwell was strongly opposed to the return of Maitland, but Moray and Argyll both lobbied Mary, and eventually she relented, and Maitland was re-instated to royal favour, and married Mary Fleming, one of the four Marys, in January 1567. By December 1566, even Morton, the heart and brains of the Rizzio plot in Mary’s view, even Morton’s lips were given access to the royal ear, and his exile in England finished. Mary resumed her consiliar approach, and reversed her active display of Catholicism – though her tick of a husband kept writing absurd letters to Catherine of Medici and Phillip II proposing a Catholic revival; opinion seems to be that Mary did not know of these letters.
The most dramatic next event of 1566, though, was the birth of a son to Mary and Darnley, Charles James, to become James VI in the fullness of time. And once again Mary’s stock and reputation climbed; the birth was clearly a sign of divine favour, and evidence of her queenly duty. In December at Stirling, Mary staged a magnificent baptismal celebration at with a tournament and fireworks and feasting. James was baptised according to Catholic rites, but the protestant lords were allowed to absent themselves and not pressured into going. Things were definitely on the up; maybe everyone could move on from the Rizzio murder in some semblance of normality.
The one fly in the ointment was Darnley. In some ways, Darnley appears to have realised his unpopularity, sticking close to Mary now, taking mass every day. But his erratic behaviour was insupportable, his unpopularity with both lords and public towering and a drag on the regime, his semi secret dealings with foreign powers just an embarrassment. He even had a plan to descend on Scarborough and the Scilly isles to raise a Catholic revolt in England. Which is genuinely potty noggin, they are hundreds of miles apart. And who starts a rebellion in the Scilly Isles? Or Scarborough for that matter – though the donners in Scarborough are excellent by the way. Something had to be done, and this was a council matter, not just a worry in the mind of his wife and Scotland’s ruler. On the way to the Baptism of James in December 1566, Mary stopped and stayed at Craigmillar castle, for a conference with many of her lords. Preparations for the baptism were discussed, which is you know, normal. But discussions also seem to have been carried on about what to do about Darnley. What seems to have happened was that Moray and Argyll fell to talking about the Darnley problem, and then popped along to Argyll’s room to continue chewing of the cud, as you do. Then they sent for Huntly and discussed the cut of his jib, and finally went to have a chat with the Flashman of the piece, Bothwell. Off they all then went to see Mary. Their first proposal was for Mary to get a divorce, but Mary would not hear of it, because she wanted to do nothing that might affect the legitimacy of her son. They probably went further and suggested some ways of coercing Darnley by force to behave himself; Moray was not there, sensibly standing aside, but the lords were confident that Moray would ‘look through his fingers’ – or turn a blind eye you might say. Mary refused to hear of it. Maitland, pulled the lords away to continue the discussion elsewhere, promising they’d plan nothing ‘that was not good and approved by parliament’.
But Maitland was not known as Mr Machiavelli for nothing – and a further conversation took place with Moray also there. Legend has it that a bond was signed…but no copy has been found, so that’s possibly baloney. But the agreement was to solve the Darnley problem by ridding Mary permanently of this turbulent Darnley.
After the Baptism, Darnley fell ill, and stayed at his Dad’s place near Glasgow, covered with horrible boils, from his syphilis. In January, Mary travelled to Glasgow to bring him back, but not to stay with her at Holyrood – he really was horribly ill, and baby James was there. He needed the air outside the city, so he stayed in a house in the area of Kirk O’ Fields. There he stayed, and Mary visited and nursed him. On the night of 9th February, everyone crowded into Darnley’s for a night of chatting and drinking; until Mary remembered that she’d promised to go to one of her servants’ wedding the following day. So everyone upped sticks. Darnley was a little peeved – he wanted Mary to stay. History does not record Mary saying ‘I can’t stay Henry dear, you face looks like a pizza’ but maybe she thought it. Anyway, she stuck to her guns and left, giving the lad a ring as a sign of her affection. As she left, she noticed one of Bothwell’s servants outside oddly enough – absolutely covered in dirt. Mary laughed and asked him why he was so dirty, and then set off back to Holyrood Palace.
A few hours later, early in wee hours of 10th February, Edinburgh was shocked by the sound of an enormous explosion, waking the whole neighbourhood – and waking Mary herself. What, she might ask had happened?
 Dawson J ‘Scotland Reformed’ p256