These three sixteenth century men had a lot in common, though the first had royal blood, the second noble blood, and the third was a foreign commoner. What they had in common was Mary Queen of Scots. All four would have spectacular or gruesome ends.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat who married as her second husband the ill-fated Mary Stuart, whose first husband had been a king of France.This matrimony produced a son, the future King James VI of Scotland and First of England – founder therefore of the reigning Stuart dynasty. Darnley was tall, athletic and handsome, but weak in mind and spirit. At his marriage to Mary he was Earl of Ross and Duke of Albany, both ancient Scots titles dotted about in the works of Shakespeare. This young man quite liked his very tall wife (Mary was six feet high in her silk stockings), but then he liked all women equally, and spent much time in bedchambers other than his wife’s. He was arrogant, debauched and made a present to his wife of a venereal disease. He was, like so many ladychasers, insanely jealous, and it was his jealousy of Mary’s young Italian secretary, David Rizzio, that caused his downfall.
Rizzio was born in 1533, and became an advisor and private secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, entering her service in 1561 when he was but twenty-eight years old. It is said that it was his advice that led Mary to marry Lord Darnley; certainly at this time Darnley and Rizzio were friends. Unfortunately the friendliness dimmed because people suspected Rizzio of being an agent of the Pope’s, and it was certain that Darnley had a hand in Rizzio’s assassination in 1566. Darnley, who was not entirely of sound mind, believed Rizzio’s many enemies’ tales of the secretary’s influence over the Queen. One evening in Holyrood Rizzio was dragged shouting for help from the Queen’s presence and done to death with knives. The body was hastily buried without the benefit of clergy.
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell was one of the greatest nobles at the Scottish court. He was yet another advisor to the Queen, while she was married to Darnley. He was, rare for a Scots nobleman, a Protestant. It was Bothwell who orchestrated the abduction and subsequent murder (using gunpowder) of Darnley, but a year later he was acquitted in court of the murder, to the great surprise of the watching Scottish people, who disliked Bothwell intensely, and with good cause. He obtained a quick divorce, easier when you are not Roman Catholic, became Duke of Orkney and Shetland, and married Mary as her third husband. But this was altogether too much for other nobles, and they rose against him in the Battle of Carbury Hill (June, 1567). In this sanguinary conflict Mary’s and Bothwell’s forces were defeated, and Bothwell ran away to become a pirate. Sadly for him he was caught by the King of Norway, who arranged for him to be starved in a watery prison cell, tied to a post, his limbs chewed by rats or his flesh torn off by hungry sea crabs. He was just forty-two.
Mary Queen of Scots, as we all know, was beheaded after a death warrant had been signed by Queen Elizabeth I, who was her cousin. When the royal head was off Elizabeth maintained that she had signed the warrant under duress from Cecil, her chief councillor. This macabre sixteenth century tale should, perhaps, have been a play by Kit Marlowe, except for the fact that, give or take a few added myths, it is all true.