When the enormous explosion woke Mary, she sent Bothwell and the captain of the guard to find out what had happened. What they came back to report apparently horrified her.
The House in Kirk O’field had been blown to smithereens and everything within 100 yards covered in a layer of dust. The Old Provost Lodge where Darnley had been staying was reduced to rubble. Clearly here was a murder, most horrid, a carefully planned murder of an anointed king, an absolutely shocking event, an absolutely shocking event which would race around the courts of Europe with a speed that would embarrass any rat heading drain-wards.
Curiously, though, Darnley’s body was not found in the rubble. Instead it was found outside the town wall of the Provost’s lodge, along side his servant William Taylor. Neither body bore any marks of violence. It’s something of a mystery, but the most likely explanation is that the basements of the lodge had been stuffed full of gunpowder; but that Darnley was in some way alerted before the gunpowder went off, and escaped his room; But that his murders caught up with him and William Taylor, and smothered them.
So, who was responsible then? Suspicion immediately fell on Bothwell, whose close associate James Balfour had supplied the gunpowder, and whose servants had been seen in the vicinity of the house, rolling barrels about. I mean that’s clearly not conclusive, barrel rolling has been a happy way of passing the time here during lockdown, but it is highly suggestive just before a very large explosion; and Bothwell had risen very fast in the Queen’s favour, and was now her right hand man – and an unpopular one at that. But Cecil’s agent Drury, who investigated as thoroughly as he could, and quite successfully, also pointed the finger at Morton. You might remember that while David Rizzio was being stabbed to death, one of Morton’s associates had held a gun to the queen no less; that person’s name was Andrew Ker. And according to Drury, Ker had been seen in the vicinity of Kirk O’Field the night of the explosion. Of course, whoever actually orchestrated the deed, most of Mary’s great men were implicated by the Craigmillar conference – Moray, Maitland, Huntly as well as Morton and Bothwell.
The following days as the news spread, many assumed initially that Mary herself had been the intended target, and indeed this was Mary’s own initial assumption, an assumption that would cloud her thinking and actions. And cloud was a bad thing at this point, because Mary faced the defining moment of her reign, as the sympathy for her quickly began to turn into suspicion.
Heads of governments around Europe were horrified, but particularly important to Mary were three players – and Mary was well aware of their importance. In France, she instructed her ambassador to make sure of Catherine de Medici’s support. It was more easily said than done; the story was spreading that she was ‘the motive principal of the whole of all, and all done by your command’. Catherine now wrote urging Mary to take immediate action, find the culprit and punish him, to make it absolutely clear that she was not implicated. The implication being that she might be. The 2nd group from whom Mary must have wished for support, were the Guise – but her Guise family deserted her, and refused to communicate with her, and moved quickly aside as though there was a bad smell emanating from her direction. It was a betrayal that cut particularly deep.
But the third cut was probably worse – from Elizabeth. Elizabeth also did nothing to actually accuse Mary, but her letter seems unusually straightforward and from the heart than the normal, sometimes byzantine work of diplomacy. When she wrote that
I will not conceal from you that people are for the most part are saying that you will look through your fingers at the deed instead of avenging it…I beg you to take this thing so far to heart that you will not fear to touch even whom you have nearest to you if he was involved
This came together with the discontinuation of negotiations about the recognition of Mary’s right to succession in England, which seemed to have been unusually close to being successful – that ship now firmly sailed from the harbour, there to be torpedoed and sent to the bottom, presumably with Cecil dancing a little jig as it disappeared beneath the waves. There’s also some evidence of Cecil’s super active information service – the letter spookily used the same words of ‘looking through your fingers’ as had been used at Craigmillar, and the inclusion of ‘ those nearest to you’ should probably be read as Bothwell. Jus’ sayin’
There’s a certain lack of trust and personal feeling in the letter which comes across as a pretty strong rebuke – and it cut Mary to the quick. She was furious and refused to send a reply by Elizabeth’s special envoy; she stopped writing to the Guise, and its impossible not to feel sympathy for her situation, acutely aware of her vulnerability following the horror of Rizzio’s murder, deserted by those she valued. She looked around her for friends – and of those around her, it seemed to her that only Bothwell fit the bill. She had raised and rehabilitated him; he was active, bold and positive, in control of her military power; surely he was the one who could shore up her government.
It seems reasonably clear that Mary almost certainly was not aware of this plot; at Craigmillar Maitland had carefully taken the discussion away from her, once divorce was ruled out. The famous Casket letters later produced have been carefully analysed, and historians have pointed to the substantial fiddling and changes which makes them deeply unconvincing – there’s really no evidence Mary was involved in the plot. But, certainly what is clear that it Mary had to act now in its wake with complete proprietary, and with super convincing action to root out and punish the perpetrators; if she handled this crisis firmly and with authority, she would have every chance of riding out the storm – and if she could, then the world might well be her lobster – she’d no longer be tied to the barking Darnley, she had her heir. No longer tied to the Lennox faction, she could rise above and provide the careful, impartial leadership she’d managed to provide earlier in her reign.
Well, this was a ball that Mary comprehensively fumbled, and broke most of the rules. In terms of pursuing the perpetrators there was a reward offered for information leading to the apprehension of the criminals, but really little else was done. The sheriff of Edinburgh was in fact Bothwell, who did little, and what he did was ineffective – unsurprisingly of course. And Mary broke the rules of grief and mourning. I mean yes, the odd modern historian huffs that for her to be condemned for not grieving was terribly hypocritical, but it was also toweringly unwise and unworthy of a talented and intelligent ruler. On the day after her husband had been murdered, instead of closing down in the required period of mourning she went to her servant’s wedding. Not cool. There were none of the trappings of mourning and when the black taffeta finally went up the world was unconvinced. And worst of all, when she needed to be around convincing the world of her zeal, she left Edinburgh and took a break at Seton, home of the father of Mary Seton one of the four Mary’s.
Placards started appearing around Edinburgh voicing the peoples’ suspicions that Bothwell was the guilty party. To a degree, this reflects genuine popular feeling, which was for the first time seriously swinging against Mary. It also reflects the impact that the factionalism of the lords had in Scottish politics – the suspicion is that many placards were placed there by Lennox, concerned win revenge for his son, and to recover the position from which Bothwell had pushed them. But the placards didn’t just point the finger at Bothwell – their iconography pointed at the collusion of Mary with Bothwell, and accused Mary of being a whore. The result was that a warrant was issued for one of Lennox’s servants, James Murray – he escaped but it looked awful – nothing was being done about the king’s murder, but hey, put up a naughty placard about the queen and all hell was let loose.
Under the pressure, Mary tried to recover her position. The trouble was that she was now fatally reliant on Bothwell, who she trusted and held the keys to such military force she possessed, and she heaped rewards on him to keep him on side. But clearly, she must do something. So Bothwell’s trial was announced by the Council on Good Friday to be held on 12th April – after all the messing about this was suddenly lightening fast and to many it seemed that there would be lack of time to gather evidence – and the result would be a show trial. Lennox in particular bent Cecil’s ear, and Cecil wrote to Mary asking for a delay – which Mary avoided, pretending to be asleep and unavailable when the letter reached her on the day of Bothwell’s trial. Lennox was right – the trial was a sham, and Bothwell acquitted. Mary’s reputation was pretty much on the floor.
On 16th April 1567, Mary, Bothwell and the Lords rode up Canongate in Edinburgh to open parliament. Bothwell was full of swagger, and rumours were rife that he would marry Mary – though there was an obvious problem that Bothwell was already married, to Huntly’s sister. In the meantime, this was pay back time for the conspirators – Morton, Argyll and Huntly had their rights to their ancestral lands confirmed, Argyll also got some of Darnley’s lands. Bothwell helped himself to Dunbar castle.
On the last night of parliament, Bothwell gathered as many of the lords as he could and got many of them to sign a remarkably outrageous statement, if I may use the word outrageous in a supposedly balanced history podcast. He set up shop in Ainslie’s Tavern in Edinburgh and presented them with a bond in the form of a petition to their queen. It basically confirmed Bothwell’s innocence in Darnley’s murder, told Mary that she really should get married again, and by the way she should really marry a local lad, and if she did James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell was a jolly good candidate. Though you know, nobody thought to ask Bothwell’s wife, Lady Jean Gordon to comment or sign the bond. Why don’t we quote a bit of the bond, which even to a republican in the 21st Century sounds more than a little cheeky
weighing and considering the time present, and how our sovereign the Queen’s Majesty is now destitute of a husband, in which the whole solitary state the commonwealth of the reign may not permit her highness to continue and at endure, but at some time her highness in appearance may be inclined to yield unto a marriage…may it move her majesty so far to humble herself, as preferring one of her native born subjects unto all foreign princes, to take to husband the said earl…
well, ‘may not permit’ golly. Off with his head! Actually in his bustling arrogance and confidence, Bothwell had boobed a little; I mean it was a good win for Bothwell, signed by 8 Bishops, nine earls and 7 barons, but he presented it after Parliament had handed out the goodies. And so he lost a couple of the fishes – Maitland, Atholl and Argyll all refused to sign, and Moray had very wisely left the country to go to France, on the principle that when the going gets tough, the tough get going but the wise take to their beds for a while. There was then the start of the sign of a rift among the magnates, but never mind – the likes of Morton, and Huntly were happy to sign up to an agreement that they assumed would then include them – that they would all be part of a government that then held Mary in thrall. Bothwell had other plans.
Mary’s attitude at this point is difficult to know; her normal stream of letters dries up. The only letter she wrote was to the Papal Nuncio. The recent parliament had passed an Act concerning Religion which had made the monarch’s official religion protestant – she wrote to stress that her personal; convictions remained Catholic. But later she would explain her following actions in this way, that her country
Being divided in factions as it is cannot be contained in order unless our authority be assisted and set forth by the fortification of a man
It’s a very revealing statement that supports the idea that it is at least partly gender politics that made Mary’s job so hard; that and the extreme factionalism. It seems likely that Mary was now seriously under the influence of Bothwell, if only because he had access to military power, and seemed to be loyal. Together with the Ainslie bond, it trumpets an attitude that Early Modern Scottish society believed now that marriage was not just the Queen’s preference, but that rule by the Queen alone was inadequate, as Knox had indeed already trumpeted. The question I suppose is whether or not they believed that because they always had, or because trust and confidence in the Queen had evaporated.
Because evaporate it had; Mary had always been confident of the love of her subjects, for good reason – they did indeed love a queen of majesty, compassion, charm with an instinct for conciliation. But both Catholics and protestants had been shaken by her wobble on Religion with Darnley, her seeming complicity in the murder of her husband, and now her closeness to Bothwell. As illustration, when Mary went to Stirling castle to see her son, the castellan the Earl of Mar refused to allow her in with any more than 2 people. Mary was incandescent and lit up the castle like a thousand candles, but Mar stood his ground – he did not trust Mary enough to be sure that she would not take her son to join Bothwell. It’s a sorry situation.
There is a line of thought that by this time Mary was indeed in love or infatuated with Bothwell, and that what follows was driven by her emotions; but this seems unlikely, or at least unnecessary. On the 19th April, armed with the signed Ainslie bond, Bothwell had approached Mary and proposed marriage. I assume Mary at some point pointed out that surely Jean Gordon would have words on the subject, but she refused on the ground that there was too much scandal still about the death of husband. Mary’s wits were still with her, and if she’d lost her head for Bothwell, surely, she’d have conceded at this point – and yet she did not.
The bunny that was Bothwell was not happy, but the bunny had a plan B. On her way to Edinburgh from Stirling, Mary was overtaken and ambushed by a force of 800 men. Out from this army came Bothwell who grabbed her horse by the bridle and insisted she come with her. There was nothing Mary could do – what she could do, she did, sending the few servant she had with her to raise the alarm in Edinburgh and send assistance. But she had no choice then but to go with Bothwell to his castle at Dunbar. When she was there, it’s highly probable that Bothwell raped her.
Now this seems incredible, and historians and indeed contemporaries struggled to believe it – after all, this was an anointed queen. And anyway, Mary would seemingly make no attempt to escape, and would go on to marry the bloke. So surely it can’t really have been rape. But many did believe; certainly, the writer James Melville who was with Mary believed it writing that
He had ravished her and laid with her against her will
And that Bothwell had been boasting that he would have her whether she ‘would or would not’. There are plenty of lines of thought. One was that in some slightly weird way, Mary was impressed with Bothwell’s dynamism in seizing her in the ambush, and this lead to great sex. I leave that for you consider, I may be the wrong person to ask. Another theory that she was in love with the bloke anyway, and so it wasn’t rape, that was just a later cover story; evidenced that she made no attempt after the rape to escape or get help. But as we’ve seen, there had been no sign of any great personal feeling when he’d asked and been rejected. The more mainstream now is that once seized, Mary really had no choice. Her reputation was in ruins so many would believe that she was in cahoots with the man; she was massively vulnerable, as was her son. Here’s this powerful man with the requisite military muscle – she must throw her lot in with him, and he would be the husband that resurrected her rule. John Guy though doesn’t believed the rape story and reckons that ‘it is entirely out of character that she would ever have married Bothwell if he had raped her.’
But Kate Williams makes the point that `We have a much greater understanding of sexual assault and consent these days; many victims panic or fear that if they do not submit, they will be killed’. She makes the point that women who had been raped were often expected to come to terms with their rapist and marry them. It may be that, since she had showered Bothwell with gifts and preferment, that in this hideous situation Mary the conciliator blamed herself and thought she may have given him the wrong idea.
I think you should choose, but there is no doubt that while Mary had already showed extraordinary courage and ingenuity in previous crises, she was short of options, alone, vulnerable and in a life-threatening situation. And so she decided to submit. Had she but known it there was plenty of support amongst some in Edinburgh who believed that their monarch had indeed been seized, assaulted and was now being coerced against her will – but Bothwell controlled all communications in and out of the castle. So, she agreed to marry him.
On 16th April Bothwell now galloped to Edinburgh to persuade his wife to agree to a divorce – and you have to assume this had been discussed already, however much of a gamble and chancer Bothwell was. Jean Gordon filed for divorce that same day, and by 3rd May, the decree of divorce was issued by the court.
Bothwell could now see the luscious grapes of power hanging in reach of his outstretched fingers. On the 6th may, Bothwell and Mary rode into Edinburgh in triumph – but the crowds were sullen, and Mary and Bothwell visibly displeased at their reaction – but really, they could hardly have expected a hero’s welcome – very few thought the idea of this marriage deserved any more than the grapes of wrath. The Kirk of St Giles were ordered to read the banns of marriage, and John Craig the minister refused twice and when forced preached a sermon condemning the marriage. The change since Mary’s 2nd marriage could not be more stark. Mary’s life was focussed down now on survival, she made no effort to contact Catherne de Medici or the Guise or Elizabeth and reconcile them to the marriage. Elizabeth wrote to her though, appalled
To be plain with you, our grief has not been small; for how could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such a haste to marry a subject who, besides other notorious lacks, public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband
Nonetheless, Mary and Bothwell were married on 15th May, but there was no banquet and dancing afterwards – it had all been too rushed. On the wedding night a placard was nailed to gates of Holyrood. It read
As the common people say
Only harlots marry in May.
Mary was gutted. She’d always been supremely confident of her bond with the ordinary Scot, and that relationship now seemed broken. And she was increasingly desperate in her marriage – while outwardly she kept up appearances, in private she and Bothwell argued furiously; Mary’s view of herself and her authority once again differed from that of her husband who saw himself as boss in the male tradition. Mary was heard repeatedly to say ‘I wish I were dead’ and once asked loudly for someone to give her a knife so she could kill herself. This was not the Mary of the Chaseabout raid or of the aftermath of Rizzio’s murder.
Now, back to the other lords. As far as they were concerned the plan of the Ainslie bond had been a joint one, with no element of ambush or rape. Most of the lords were genuinely horrified by Bothwell’s actions and outraged at the rape, although Maitland and Huntly stayed with the queen at Holyrood. It must be said that most of the lords were equally outraged and motivated at the way in which Bothwell had effectively seized power for himself without them. Morton, Argyll, Atholl and Mar took the lead, a new bond was agreed, announcing the arrival of the so called Confederate Lords, swearing to free their queen from captivity, denying any claims of rebellion, and establishing a rival court at Stirling. It was now clear that if Bothwell wanted to be king, he would need to fight for it.
By 22nd May 1567, things were clearly coming to a head, and Mary issued a proclamation to muster troops to combat the army being assembled by the Confederate Lords. By the 10th June, Mary and Bothwell had retreated to Borthwick castle, and Mary was besieged by the lords – while Bothwell had snuck out round the back to gather the royal army. While he was away, Mary engaged the Confederate lords in a slanging match from the walls of the castle; as Cecil’s agent Drury recorded, the lords assailed her with
Divers undutiful and unseemly speeches to be told, which poor princess, she did with her speech defend, wanting other means for her revenge
Mary had lost none of her courage, though the mystique of monarchy seems to have blown away like mist on the wind. Still, the old Mary was still alive; she gave her enemies the slip again, fleeing Borthwick in disguise and meeting with Bothwell. Full of fury now and calling supporters to assemble at Musselburgh, Mary was now dressed in someone else’s clothes, someone rather shorter, and looking not much like the queen of the presence chamber. She was now certainly aware that she was pregnant again though she’d lose the child – Cecil certainly knew by this stage. And she was full of fire to fight for her throne. On 15th June the armies of both the Confederate Lords and Mary faced each other near Carberry Hill.
It was a long hot day, full of negotiations, and at one point an agreement for Bothwell to fight a duel to decide the outcome seemed likely. But over time, Mary’s army melted away, until Mary intervened and cut a deal – she’d surrender to the Lords as long as Bothwell was allowed to go free. Bothwell rode off towards glorious Kirkaldy, cradle of Scottish civilisation, and Mary went to face the music, head held high. ‘Burn the whore! Burn the murderess!’ came shouts from the ranks of Atholl’s men. She was taken to Edinburgh, while the devious Maitland now fished with the French Ambassador to try and stitch up a deal; how would it be, he said, if the lords ruled in the name of Prince James while Mary was imprisoned or exiled? The runes were that as long as England did not intervene, France would go along with it. But, as the ordinary people of Edinburgh began to come round to Mary’s side again, Mary was spirited away to Lochleven, Morton’s castle in the middle of the loch. It was now clear that, far from a moral crusade against the dreadful murder of Darnley and to free their queen, the lords had finally had it with Mary, and intended to hold her in thrall themselves.
In July 1567, Elizabeth sent Throckmorton to negotiate with the Lords. She was scandalised at Mary’s imprisonment, an anointed monarch for crying out loud whatever next? Throckmorton was not welcomed by the lords; but Elizabeth was threatening war over Mary’s incarceration. Repulsed, Throckmorton turned to Cecil, and received a very different brief. Cecil’s terms were that Mary should only be freed if stripped of her authority, and authority vested in a revival of the republican ‘States of Scotland’ similar to the situation following the death of Mary of Guise, until James reached his majority. Cecil knew who his friends were and did not want Catholic Mary back, and was confident the lords would raise James as a protestant. Typically, he represented this in biblical terms, annotating a document with the words ‘Athalia was killed so that Josiah could be king’. It’s possible Cecil was simply talking about dethroning Mary – it’s also possible he also had her death in mind. Certainly, he would pursue that policy against his mistress’s wishes over the next 20 years. Convinced only that her death would bring security from Catholic plotting to restore her, and a Catholic alliance to restore the old religion in England. As I say, Cecil was a worrier, but to be fair later events would prove that he was right to worry.
The Lords gave re-assuring words for Elizabeth, but on 24th July 1567, Mary was presented by the Lords with 3 papers to sign; one abdicating in favour of her son. Secondly appointing Moray as regent, and thirdly appointing Morton as interim regent until Moray returned. Exhausted and alone, Mary signed, declaring bitterly
When God shall set me at liberty again, I shall not abide these for it is done against my will.
Five days later James was crowned king at a poorly attended ceremony; crowds on hearing the news were deeply unenthusiastic. Whatever their affiliation, most people probably now wanted stability. On 22nd August, Moray was declared Regent. In London when Elizabeth heard, she called Cecil in and did the verbal equivalent of sticking a spit bar up his clothes and slowly roasting him over an open fire for failing to do anything to help an anointed monarch who in Elizabeth’s view was responsible to nobody except God. Cecil crept back when it was finished, and wryly remarked that experience suggested Elizabeth’s anger with him would probably take 3 to 6 weeks to reside.
Mary, however, was far from beaten, and nor was her cause. She tried multiple attempts to escape the castle, and was able to find people still loyal to her to help. In March 1568 for example, she disguised herself as a Laundress but was recognised by one of the boatmen. On 2nd May, the escape plan worked, as Mary Seton stayed behind to impersonate her and kid her captors she was still there. Mary was free, and set up a rival court at Hamilton. Within days lords and troops flocked to her side; Huntly, Seton and the Hamiltons, the family of the Duke of Chatellerault, declared for her, as did Argyll. Within days, she had an army of 6,000, and was persuaded to put all her money on red, and march on the new Regent, Moray.
By battle let us try it
Mary should have won the resulting battle of Langside; Moray’s army was but 4,000 strong. But the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong – though it is normally, it has to be said. Mary’s commander fell ill on the morning, and Moray’s commander executed an excellent ambush – in less than an hour, Mary had been defeated.
Mary fled and on 16th May 1568, took a boat across the Solway firth to England, writing a note to Elizabeth asking for aid as she set up shop in the jewel of the north, Workington. When it reached the English court, her letter went off like an Exocet.
 Guy, J My Heart is my Own’ p310
 Guy, John My heart is my own p328
 Williams,K ‘Rival Queens’ p194