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Monday, June 17, 2013

Shakespeare and the Battle of Carberry Hill

On 15 June 1567, the Battle of Carberry Hill took place.



A sketch of the Battle drawn at the time


Mary, Queen of Scots had just married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell on 15 May.

She married Bothwell shortly after visiting her only child, James, who was not yet one year old.


Mary and Bothwell



This marriage enraged the Scottish lords, who already suspected Bothwell and Mary of conspiring to murder her husband, Henry Stuart,  Lord Darnley. 

He had died under very suspicious circumstances only a few weeks before, in February 1567.

The Scottish lords wanted to take revenge for Darnley’s murder, and to stop Mary and her much disliked new husband from ruling the country.

Mary had her supporters, and altogether her forces numbered just over 2,000.

The Scottish lords and their men numbered about 2,000.



The army of the Scottish lords

These armies faced each other in the field.





Bothwell offered single combat to any of the Scottish lords. Several lord took him up on his offer, but he refused them.

Not only did Bothwell not accept any challenger, but as the day dragged on, it became clear that he was intending to escape alone and abandon Mary!

He did just that -- he rode off, and left her.

It was the last time they saw each other.

The Scottish lords took her into custody and put her in Lochleven Castle for the time being, where they put pressure on her to abdicate.

Mary was pregnant at this point, with twins. Historian Antonia Fraser claims that the twins were conceived with Bothwell.

Within a year, by 1568, Mary would divide the country and a war would start over her that would last for 5 years.

William Shakespeare was only 3 years old in June 1567.

While it is doubtful that he would have known much of anything at such a young age, it is equally doubtful that, as he grew older, he didn’t hear every last story about Mary.

When Mary was executed in 1587, Shakespeare would have been 23 years old, and this was around the same time that he was arriving in London to start his career.

By the time he was 23, Shakespeare would have heard all of the stories of the controversial Mary, the tragedy of Darnley’s murder, the notorious Bothwell, and the child at the center of the entire story, James -- who would later become King of England and Scotland.

In 1587, Shakespeare was 23 years old and James was 21.


Shakespeare was a writer, whose profession demanded him to explore the lives of kings and queens, heroes and villains. It would have been natural for Shakespeare to imagine what kind of man James was and what kind of man he would become.

Shakespeare must have thought of James. He might have asked himself what kind of man was James? Was he good or was he bad? Was he anything like his mother, or not?

If he was anything like his mother, it could have dire consequences for Scotland.

Shakespeare might have asked himself what James thought of Mary's execution. Would it have changed James? Made him angrier, even vengeful? What form would that vengeance take? Or would James rise above the controversial life and death of his mother, and rule as a benevolent monarch?

Shakespeare may have imagined that perhaps one day he would meet this James, Mary's son, in person, and perhaps even perform a play for him.

It might not have dawned on Shakespeare in 1587 that James would or could one day become King of Scotland and England.

Little did Shakespeare know that it would in fact happen -- James would be crowned in 1603.

Little did Shakespeare know that James would make him the official royal playwright -- Shakespeare would become a King's Man.

Little did Shakespeare know that James accession in 1603 would have dire consequences not just for Scotland but for England as well.

Because little did Shakespeare know that the Battle of Carberry Hill, like the Battle of Langside, and all of the other slings and arrows that Mary suffered, were battles that were never resolved in the heart of James, and they haunted him his entire life.

I will be exploring more of this history, of Mary, Bothwell, and James -- and what it meant to Shakespeare personally -- in my forthcoming version of Othello.

Cheers,