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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Shakespeare & Mary, Queen of Scots


Did Mary, Queen of Scots murder her husband?

Mary Queen of Scots
ca. 1565

A new inquiry, assembled by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, recently re-opened this very cold case.

You can read about it -- here

This panel of pathologists, explosives experts, scientists and historians concludes that Mary did not kill her husband, and is innocent of the crime.

But is Mary really innocent?

This is an interesting matter, and related to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth plays.

Let’s look at a timeline of events:

In February 1565, Mary and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley met for the first time. They fell in love rather quickly, especially after he he had fallen sick with the measles, and Mary insisted on nursing him back to health, despite the risk to her own health.

Darnley and Mary

Queen Elizabeth grew increasingly angry because she did not want Mary and Darnley to marry, since their union would present an unwelcome challenge to Elizabeth’s throne. 

Queen Elizabeth even sent Darnley’s mother, Lady Lennox, to the Tower for encouraging her son to wed Mary.

But in July 1565, only 5 months after they met, Mary and Darnley did get married.

It was an unhappy marriage from the start. He was the King of the Scots, but had no real power. It seems that his ambition to be a king outweighed his love for Mary.

Darnley was never popular in Scotland, especially in the royal court. He to like to drink and whore too much, and made many enemies.

Some Scots lords rebelled, led by the Earl of Moray — who received 1000 pounds from Queen Elizabeth to further his cause against Mary and Darnley.

In they very next month, Moray, with an army of Lords and soldiers, chased Mary and Darnley about in the Chaseabout Raid, but never faced each other in combat.

It was during this Raid that Mary probably first met James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who joined in her defense.

The Earl of Bothwell

Also, there were reports that Mary was corresponding with the Pope, Spain, and France to create what could be considered a Catholic conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth — who would do everything she could to keep Scotland from joining her enemies.

Soon after, Mary got pregnant, but Darnley suspected that he was not the real father. 

Darnley and his accomplices murdered Mary’s personal secretary, David Rizzio — in front of Mary, who was pregnant with her firstborn child, James — the future King of Scotland and England.

The Murder of Rizzio

Mary somehow convinced Darnley to join her, and abandon his accomplices, and escaped from Holyrood. At Dunbar she raised troops against the men who had killed Rizzio.

She gave birth to her son James, and was reported to say that her son would unite Scotland and England. Queen Elizabeth would find such words very dangerous.

Darnley continued to be a bad husband. He caroused and drank too much, “vagabondizing” in Edinburgh. 

Around the end of 1566 and beginning of 1567, Darnley became very sick. This illness would last several weeks, into February 1567.

His hair fell out, and he developed blue blisters. Some people believed that he may have been poisoned. It may have been syphilis.

On Mary’s advice, Darnley moved from Holyroodhouse to new lodgings at the Old Provost’s House at Kirk O’ Field, a property on Edinburgh’s south side, where the air was good and where he presumably would recover more quickly. 

Darnley did not want to move to this new lodging, but Mary insisted. She would spend hours at a time with him, while he lay sick.

Their second anniversary was coming soon, and it is possible that this occasion had something to do with Darnley’s death. 

On 10 February, around 2 o’clock in the morning, there was a huge explosion of gunpowder at Darnley’s House.

Darnley and his servant William Taylor were found dead in the garden outside the House. There was evidence that both men were strangled to death.

a crime scene sketch
Darnley and Taylor are top right

It is very likely that Shakespeare was thinking of this event when he wrote Hamlet, where the King is found dead in a garden, from poisoning.

The room under Darnley’s bedroom was the location of the gunpowder blast.

Was the gunpowder was meant to kill him, and failed — so the murderer(s) had to strangle them?

Or was the gunpowder perhaps a diversion to get him to come outside where they could be murdered?

Or had they been killed in their beds and the gunpowder was detonated to destroy the scene of the crime?

These questions may never be answered.

Later, the Earl of Bothwell claimed that he had gone to investigate when he heard the explosion. This establishes that Bothwell was at the scene.

Bothwell said that he was the one who told Mary that her husband, the King, had been murdered.

Mary herself believed that she was the real target of the attack.

It is possible that she was. 

There are any number of people who would have wanted her dead, including men like the Earl of Moray (who was conveniently away during Darnley’s murder, and who would soon be murdered by a supporter of Mary), the Pope, Philip II of Spain, Catherine de Medici (who was well known for her violent plots) and even Queen Elizabeth.

Did the Earl of Moray murder Darnley?
Did King Philip II of Spain do it?

Did Pope Pius V order the murder?
Did Queen Elizabeth order it?
Or was it Catherine de Medici?

The inquiry commissioned by the Royal Society exonerates Mary for the murder. 

I doubt very much that Mary would have strangled Darnley and his servant.

But this inquiry doesn’t seem to examine the possibility that she was behind the murder.

She may have had someone else do it for her. She may have plotted Darnley’s death.

So, if she did not do the killing, who did?

The obvious suspect is Bothwell.

Mary and Bothwell

Right after the murders, rumours spread that Bothwell committed the murders.

Anonymous posters appeared in the streets accusing Bothwell of the crime, and slandering Mary as a prostitute.

The poster, with Mary on top as a Mermaid, which means a prostitute
Darnley’s father insisted on a trial and got one. But Bothwell arrived with about 200 men loyal to him, in order to scare the prosecution into delivering a not guilty verdict — which it did. 

Bothwell was acquitted, but the court of public opinion was against him and Mary. 

In the past months, before Darnley had died, Bothwell had become very close to Mary. He was known as a ruthless and ambitious man.

It is unclear what happened next, but Mary and Bothwell rode off together. 

It is possible that he abducted her, and raped her.

It is also possible instead that she went willingly, as his lover.

Within days, Bothwell divorced his wife.

On 12 May, Mary made him the Duke of Orkney and Marquis of Fife.

Then Mary and Bothwell got married.

They married on 15 May — only three months after Darnley was murdered.

One month later, an army of angry Scots confronted Mary and Bothwell at Carberry Hill.

A sketch of the armies at Carberry Hil

This army had a banner with an image of Darnley’s almost naked dead body in the garden.

Written on the banner were the words “Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord” — which clearly indicates that this army believed that Mary and Bothwell were behind the murder of Darnley.

Mary surrendered to this army, and Bothwell fled the country, and eventually arrived in Denmark.

The fact that Bothwell escaped to Denmark, where he would eventually go insane, probably did not escape Shakespeare's attention when he wrote Hamlet.

A month after Carberry, Mary abdicated, while imprisoned at Lochleven Castle. Her son James became king.

Lochleven Castle

But right before her abdication she had a miscarriage. She had been pregnant with twins.

She was about 5 months pregnant.

So she must have conceived in February 1567.

Darnley was very sick back in February. It is hard to believe that she would have sex with him while he was suffering from syphilis, and his body was covered with blisters.

This strongly suggests that Mary became pregnant by another man that was not her husband.

Again, the obvious suspect is Bothwell.

This would also suggest that Mary willingly had an affair with Bothwell.

This would give Bothwell a very strong motive to murder Darnley.

It is very possible that Bothwell murdered Darnley with Mary’s knowledge and consent.

But even if Bothwell murdered Darnley without Mary’s knowledge, her actions after the fact made her complicit in his crime. 

It does not seem as if she made any effort to find the culprit or culprits of Darnley’s murder.

The fact that she made Bothwell and a Duke and a Marquis does not help her case.

At any point after the murder, she arguably could have had Bothwell arrested, and punished.

If Bothwell had truly abducted her and made her marry him against her will, she still seems to have made no effort to get free of him.

At Carberry Hill, there is nothing to suggest that she was unwillingly going to war against the Scottish Lords.

There is reason to believe that had she won, she would have continued to remain Bothwell’s wife.

After all, she did continue this civil war for many years after.


There is no ‘smoking gun’ evidence to completely find Mary guilty of murder, or complicity to murder.

But there is so much circumstantial evidence that it is hard to argue that she did not want Darnley dead, and that she did not plan Darnley’s murder.

As far as Shakespeare, it would seem that he took some inspiration from Mary and Bothwell for his Gertrude and Claudius, and later with his Lady Macbeth and Macbeth characters.

And from those plays, in which he punishes all four characters with death, it would seem that he considered Mary and Bothwell guilty of the crime.

What do you think?

Cheers,



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