Did Mary, Queen of Scots, play a role in the death of her second husband, Lord Darnley? The mystery may never be solved. What would prompt a Queen, carrying the child of her husband, to kill him? According to history, the reasons are varied and some even say, sound. The evidence that put her life on the line lies within the mysterious Casket Letters.
Mary, the only child of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, ascended to the throne of Scotland at six days old. Marie de Guise sent her infant daughter, Mary, to France to be raised in the French court, while she ruled Scotland as Queen Regent until Mary became of age.
At 16, Mary wed Louis, the dauphin of France, aged 15, as arranged by her mother and Henri II, King of France. Months later, Henri died due to injuries from a lance wound to the eye. Louis, the eldest child of the King and Catherine de Medici, took the throne. An odd pair—Mary, vivacious, beautiful and tall, and Louis small, awkward, and fragile—the two had great affection for one another. At Louis’s death a year after their marriage, Mary went into deep mourning.
Widowed, the teenaged Mary left France, the only home she’d known, and returned to Scotland. Required by her status to produce an heir, Mary needed to wed, again. The obvious choice–her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Both the same age, the two got along well at first, but Darnley’s fondness for drinking and other women didn’t set well with Mary. Also, he craved power and demanded she grant him the Crown Matrimonial. Knowing that to meet his demands would make Darnley King of Scotland at her death, she refused.
During her unhappy marriage to Darnley, Mary befriended the Italian courtier, also her private secretary, David Ricco. Unhappy in her marriage, yet faithful to her duties, Mary became pregnant with Darnley’s child. Jealous of their relationship, Darnley accused Mary of an affair with Ricco, claiming she carried Ricco’s child and not his. At a small dinner party Mary hosted for her ladies-in-waiting and Ricco, Darnley had Ricco savagely stabbed over 50 times, while some of Darnley’s men held Mary at gunpoint. The incident made it impossible for Mary to continue with Darnley.
After the birth of her son, James, Mary sought help from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and other Scottish nobles to remove Darnley from power, and Mary’s life. Divorce not an option for Mary, a Catholic Queen, she had to come up with something else. Darnley got wind of Mary’s plans and fearing for his safety, fled to Glasgow to hide out at his family’s estate. He soon became ill, with what might have been small pox or syphilis. Poison could not be ruled out, either.
Mary pleaded with him to come back to Edinburgh. He agreed to stay at Kirk O’Field, a former abbey at the outskirts of the city. Mary visited him daily while he recuperated, and it looked as if there might be a reconciliation. However, on a February morning in 1567, Darnley was found dead in the gardens of the estate. An explosion devastated Kirk o’Field the night before. Mary, her half-brother James (Earl of Moray), and Bothwell were implicated in the murder. Bothwell stood trial. Acquitted in the absence of evidence, he declared his aim to marry the Queen of Scots, and received support from several lords and bishops.
Bothwell and Mary eventually married, 12 days after Bothwell’s divorce from his wife. Again, Mary suffered an unhappy union, and the marriage proved unpopular with both Catholics and Protestants. It is unclear whether Mary loved Bothwell or not, if he somehow coerced her to marry him, or if she came to the marriage as a willing partner. Some records indicate that Bothwell raped her after he abducted her from Stirling castle, some time before they wed.
The Peerage, twenty-six confederate lords, turned against Mary and Bothwell, and raised an army against them. Mary and Bothwell attempted to confront the lords with force, but Mary’s troops deserted. The lords granted Bothwell safe passage from the battlefield, but they took Mary to Edinburgh, and forced her to abdicated to her one-year-old son, James.
Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, assumed the role of Regent, and to keep his power, turned against Mary. He handed over over “the Casket letters” to Queen Elizabeth, who now had the upper hand in her quest for Scottish rule. The Casket letters consisted of 8 unsigned letters from Mary to Bothwell, two marriage contracts, and love sonnets, nestled in a foot long silver casket bearing the monogram of King Francis II, Mary’s first husband.
Elizabeth wrote to Mary, imploring her for the truth. Mary denied writing the documents, but the situation did not help Mary’s cause, and many thought the letters proof of her plotting with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Years later, on 11 August 1586, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, (the Babbington Plot) Elizabeth had no choice and had Mary arrested. With the controversy of the Casket letters, and then the possibility that Mary might have plotted against the Queen of England, Mary stood as a constant threat to Elizabeth’s power, her throne, and her very life. In February of 1587, Elizabeth order Mary’s execution—a gruesome beheading that took several strokes of the axe.
Did Mary have a hand in the death of Lord Darnley? If so, one could hardly blame her after the brutal murder of her friend and confidant, Ricco. Mary’s upbringing might lead people to believe she knew all to well the importance of maintaining royal power at any cost. She grew up in the court of Henry II, under the care of Catherine de Medici, France’s most famed wicked woman. Yet, no matter how fierce her desire to maintain control of her crown and her country, Mary never demonstrated the same ruthlessness of d’Medici, or even her own husband, Darnley.
Perhaps in his eagerness to wed the Queen, Bothwell used her to plot the death of her husband, and then take power himself. Did Mary love Bothwell, or did he serve as a means to an end? Did someone in Mary’s confidence betray her with the mysterious Casket letters? Historical data is never perfect. The mystery of the Casket letters and their implications in Mary’s guilt will, most likely, never be solved.