Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley

Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir
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Aug 22, 14

Read from February 11 to April 04, 2012

"En Ma Fingit Mon Commencement
In my end is my Beginning
Mary had this saying embroidered on her cloth of estate while in prison in England.


Mary was 6 days old when her father died and she was crowned Queen of the Scots. At age 15 she married Francis, dauphin of France, and he ascended the throne a year later. Just when events seemed to be going in Mary's favor Francis died after only 18 months as King. Mary was not that welcome in France due to fears she would make a play for the throne. She returned to Scotland to assume her birthright as Queen.

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Mary was the ultimate bachelorette. She launched a assiduous search across all of Europe searching for a suitable candidate. She tried several alliances, all of which fell through for various reasons. In the end she was left with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and as discombobulated as she felt her life was before, it was about to take a severe turn for the worse. Darnley on the surface seemed the perfect catch. He was tall, handsome, debonair, young man of culture and good breeding. A man not that far removed from having his own claim for the throne.

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He pressed Mary hard from the beginning to grant him crown matrimonial that would allow him to ascend to the throne of Scotland in the event of Mary's death without issue. Mary was already starting to see cracks in the veneer of her relationship with Darnley. He was not well liked. He was vindictive, arrogant, vain, violent, and immature and all of those unlikable qualities were magnified by a drinking problem. Mary, though fairly innocent politically, understood the danger of granting Darnley what he wanted and kept coming up with reasons to delay. Rumors were soon circulating that Darnley was not only being unfaithful (lock up your wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and great grandmothers when Darnley was in the neighborhood), but also plotting treason. After their son James was born Mary did try to repair her relationship with Darnley. She wanted Elizabeth, Queen of England, to recognize her as her heir. To reduce the controversy already swirling around her reign she decided that she needed to make things work with Darnley.

All that fornicating had taken it's toll on Darnley and he was suffering from the late stages of syphilis. Darnley's skull resides at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (why??) and the bone of the skull is actually pitted from the disease. When Mary does finally meet up with him again after a long separation his face is disfigured and his health is deteriorating. The first thing Darnley wants to do is hop in the sack, but Mary of course finds his condition repugnant, and probably knows enough about the contagion to know that she would be putting her future health in jeopardy. She leaves him resting at Kirk O'Field with his attendants to attend a dance at Holyrood. At 2AM the house at Kirk O'Field is blown to smithereens, not one stone left on top of another. Bodies are pulled from the wreckage, but the King is not among them. Only after searching farther a field do they find him in a garden nearby.

"They found the bodies of the twenty-year-old-King and his valet, Taylor, lying sixty to eighty steps from the house. Both were nearly naked, being clad in short nightshirts, and neither body had a mark on it. Darnley was stretched out on his back, under a pear tree, with one hand draped modestly on his genitals, while Taylor lay a yard or two away, curled up, with his night shirt rucked up around his waist and his head resting face down on his crossed arms; he had on a nightbonnet and one slipper. The were no burns, no marks of strangulation or violence on the bodies. Near to the bodies lay a chair, a length of rope, a dagger Darnley's furred nightgown.

A spy, put in place by the great spymaster Robert Cecil of England, made a drawing of the event for his master. The drawing still exists.

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And one of the grand historical mysteries of all time begins. Who killed Darnley? Why wasn't he blown up in the house? He may have heard the movement of barrels of gunpowder being moved into the floor below him. He may have smelt the burning of the fuse used to light the gunpowder. The chair and the rope could have been tools used to help him and his valet escape the house probably through a window. Once he left the house he must have been discovered by the conspirators and suffocated in such a way as not to leave any marks. The lords of the land quickly begin to jockey for position. They accuse each other of involvement in this murder most foul.

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James Hepburn Bothwell, an ambitious man, who is close to Mary is the most likely candidate to have played a hand in Darnley's death.

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He makes a play for power by kidnapping Mary and raping her, putting her in jeopardy of having a pregnancy that would forever mar her reputation. (She does later miscarriage twins.) She in desperation agrees to marry him. He is already married which for a man as ambitious as Bothwell is barely a hurdle. He offers his wife the choice of divorce or poison. Agreeing to marry Bothwell turns out to be one of the many disastrous decisions that leads to Mary's demise. A supportive Elizabeth turns away from her. The Scottish people are in an uproar, accusing her of involvement in Darnley's death. The lords choose sides and a civil war insures. Bothwell escapes to Norway. Mary is locked up in a castle and the lords begin to put pressure on her to abdicate in favor of her son. The Casket letters surface, letters supposedly written by Mary that are later determined to be forgeries. None of the letters had signatures, dates or addresses. Some of her own letters were mixed with the forgeries to try to lend credence to the whole. The evidence against Mary was always sketchy at best.

Mary escapes...to England. Why, why England Mary? She still coveted the English crown. Elizabeth at first treats her with deference, but as accusations continue to surface Elizabeth becomes more and more uneasy about her association with her cousin Mary. James Stewart, Earl of Moray, bastard brother of Mary, lacking half the genetic code he needed to be King, is named regent and baby James is crowned King. His head so small the crown had to be held over his head. Trials are conducted, servants are hanged and quartered. The real criminals continue to via for position.

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We all know what eventually happens to Mary. Alison Weir says: "In the circumstances, she must, with justice, be regarded as one of the most wronged women in history." I agree few things went right for Mary, Queen of Scotts, but she also made several terrible mistakes. She did not vet Darnley. She needed a strong man to help her control the conniving, scheming, eager lords of her realm. Darnley was nothing more than a boy and too dedicated to his personal pleasures. She herself needed to be more purposeful in her decisions. The traitors that conspired with Darnley to oust her from power needed to be dealt with more firmly. She should never have agreed to marry Bothwell. The Protestant marriage conflicted with her Catholicism and lost her support from all quarters. When she had the chance to leave Scotland she needed to go anywhere, but England.

As it turns out I believe most of the top royalty of Scotland was involved in the killing of Darnley through participation, knowledge of the event, or part of the cover up afterwards. I do believe that Mary was innocent. With her goal to be Queen of England she needed Darnley to have a chance at accomplishing that aspiration. Killing him, as satisfactory as that would be, would keep her from what she wanted most. The conspirators never escape the specter of Darnley's death either. Bothwell dies in prison in Norway. Moray is assassinated. Others are poisoned, hanged, stabbed, and bludgeoned. Payment for the murder of Darnley continued to be exacted for twenty years after his death.

Alison Weir books are compelling and meticulously researched. Her writing style and presentation make history not only accessible, but enjoyable. Weir's rendition of the evidence is balanced and even though it is hard for us not to have sympathy for Mary given that she is so fatefully conspired against from the beginning, the victim of royal paranoia, and deceived by those that she needed to trust, Weir makes a case that part of Mary's downfall can be attributed to her own lofty ambitions.
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Comments (showing 1-17)




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message 17: by B0nnie (new)

B0nnie Why not France...? her mother-in-law was the scariest person in the world, Catherine de Medici :-(


Jeffrey Keeten B0nnie wrote: "Why not France...? her mother-in-law was the scariest person in the world, Catherine de Medici :-("

Yes, there are mother-in-laws and then there is having Catherine de Medici as your mother-in-law, but in Frances Mary had lands, income, and a sympathetic Catholic population. In England the Catholics did support her which unnerved the (well mostly) Protestant Elizabeth. Mary being wooed by Norfolk did not help her cause with Elizabeth who was, with good cause, paranoid about keeping her throne. If Mary could have given up on her dream of being Queen of England and retired to the French countryside she might of survived into old age, but then history would have lost some drama.


message 15: by Rowena (new)

Rowena Great review, Jeffrey! I've been a huge fan of Mary Queen of Scots since I was a kid. I even went to one of her Scottish homes, Haggs Castle, on a school trip:)


Jeffrey Keeten Rowena wrote: "Great review, Jeffrey! I've been a huge fan of Mary Queen of Scots since I was a kid. I even went to one of her Scottish homes, Haggs Castle, on a school trip:)"

Thank you Rowena! That is so cool that you had an opportunity to visit Haggs Castle.


message 13: by Cathy (last edited Apr 09, 2013 04:32AM) (new)

Cathy DuPont Jeff:

I love this period of English history and wonderful English drama to focus on. The graphics especially the drawing by Cecil are a worthy addition to your great review.

Your five stars says a lot.


message 12: by Mark (new)

Mark Excellent review and of a woman I always see as a deeply romantic if flawed figure. Probably because of a beautiful picture of her preparing for her execution at Fotheringay which i saw when i was a lad. Can't remember by whom but these little encounters can have a huge affect on a lad, evidently.


Jeffrey Keeten Cathy wrote: "Jeff:

I love this period of English history and wonderful English drama to focus on. The graphics especially the drawing by Cecil are a worthy addition to your great review.

Your five stars say..."


Thanks Cathy nothing more fun than a historical detective story. When people feel there is a power vacuum, even in a modern day corporate structure, it is always a bit unsettling how greedy and desperate people get for power. With control of a country up for grabs allies become enemies and enemies become allies. Things like honor are casually set aside.


Jeffrey Keeten Mark wrote: "Excellent review and of a woman I always see as a deeply romantic if flawed figure. Probably because of a beautiful picture of her preparing for her execution at Fotheringay which i saw when i was ..."

She is described by several people as being very beautiful. I don't know if her beauty would have the same appeal today, but her beauty did not save her. The fact that her execution is botched as well tends to lend more sympathy. The final bit of Catholic martyrdom showing up to her execution in a velvet red petticoat was a final bit of defiance that I thought was well staged. Remarkably unlucky woman, but she ultimately wins in the fact that her descendants do claim and hold the English throne for many generations.


message 9: by Steve (new)

Steve Another great addition to the Jeffrey Keeten British History Series! Weir seems especially good with these accounts. She brings it all to life, as do you.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "Another great addition to the Jeffrey Keeten British History Series! Weir seems especially good with these accounts. She brings it all to life, as do you."

Thank you coming from the Duke of Lancaster I take that as a great compliment.


message 7: by Marita (new) - added it

Marita Interesting review!


message 6: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Great review!


Jeffrey Keeten Marita wrote: "Interesting review!"

Thanks Marita! Interesting ancient mystery for sure.


Jeffrey Keeten s.penkevich wrote: "Great review!"

Thanks S.Penk! Good to see you hanging out in the neighborhood once again!


Bette BookAddict Loved this review, JK. This is already on my tbr but just moved higher up the list.


Jeffrey Keeten Bette BookAddict wrote: "Loved this review, JK. This is already on my tbr but just moved higher up the list."

Fascinating book! I need to put more Weir on my TBR.


message 1: by Bette BookAddict (last edited Aug 24, 2014 10:57AM) (new) - added it

Bette BookAddict You do; I've read royal biographers and Alison Weir. I have to say I enjoy the Weir books more.


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