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February 9, 1567 – Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley) Murdered

Drawing of the Kirk o'Field after Darney's murder (made for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in England)
Drawing of the Kirk o’Field after Darnley’s murder, by an unknown artist (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was the second husband of Mary of Scotland, and the father of her son, James VI of Scotland/James I of England. The circumstances surrounding his death continue to provoke speculation and debate. But let’s back up a little for context…

Mary and Darnley were actually cousins, sharing a grandmother in Margaret Tudor, and both had strong claims to the throne of England. That was arguably what made Mary want to marry Darnley, and indeed their son would end up as King of England once Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, died. On that basis, the marriage was a strong success.

Unfortunately, it also launched the downhill trajectory of Mary’s life. She found out after marrying him that Darnley had a violent streak, a terrible temper, and a drinking problem. He was also wildly unpopular with her nobles. Mary started to avoid him, turning instead to her private secretary, the strongly Catholic David Rizzio, for advice. This disconcerted her Council, who were all Protestant, and they recruited Darnley (who hated Rizzio for having more influence with Mary than he did) to join them in “removing” Rizzio (who was stabbed 56 times… all in the pregnant Mary’s presence).

In the aftermath, Mary no longer trusted Darnley. She bided her time, giving birth to their son (and securing the succession…) and then started to rally her nobles behind her. In the weeks leading up to his death, Darnley was recovering at his parents’ home from a bout of smallpox (some speculate syphilis). Mary persuaded him to move to the Old Provost’s lodging at Kirk o’Field, not far from the court, presumably to start bringing him back into things. She then visited him on February 9, presumably as part of a reconciliation. That night, well after she left, two explosions rocked the manor, from barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in the small room under Darnley’s bedchamber. These should have killed him, except that he must have suspected something was up because he tried to escape before the barrels were detonated. His nightshirt-clad body (along with that of his valet, William Taylor) was found outside, near the property fence, surrounded by a cloak, a dagger, a chair, and a coat. A post-mortem revealed that Darnley had been smothered.  

So who did it? Short answer is that many people suspected the Earl of Bothwell, many people believed Mary knew of the plans. Given that she dragged her feet on bringing Bothwell to trial and soon after married him while pregnant with his twins, I do go along with that theory….but that is a topic for another (longer) blog post. (In the interests of fairness, others have suggested that the Scottish nobles did it or even the English government).


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February 9, 1567 – Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley) Murdered
Published inOn This Day

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