The Seedy Plots That Overthrew Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and James Darnley. Unofficial Royalty

From Love, to Hate, to Murder

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, became Mary’s second husband, and king consort of Scotland, from 1565 until his demise two years later. Darnley had accomplished little of note in his brief life before his violent death at age 22. His single legacy was to impregnate his wife with the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England. The Scottish royal couple’s sole offspring succeeded queen Elizabeth I to the English throne, and gave rise rise to the Stuart Dynasty, which first united England and Scotland.

Darnley resented that his wife was queen, while he was a mere consort, with no independent power. He became even more resentful when Mary removed from circulation the currency that had his head on it. Darnley eventually focused his rage on Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, whom he accused of turning the queen against him, as well as being her lover. The accusation was rich, considering that Darnley was himself infamous as Scotland’s most debauched and promiscuous nobleman. Indeed, his list of alleged lovers included David Rizzio.

Whatever the truth, if any, of a three way bisexual love triangle between Mary, Darnley, and Rizzio, the royal marriage soured within a year, and by 1566, the queen and her husband were estranged. So Darnley began plotting against Mary, who by then was pregnant. His nebulous plan was to push the queen out of the way, and take her place on the throne as king of Scotland in his own right. Whether or not he had ever been Darnley’s lover, Rizzio stuck with Mary when the rift opened up between the queen and her husband.

The Murder of David Rizzio. National Galleries of Scotland

Rizzio’s loyalty to the queen further incensed Darnley. When rumors began making the round that the child growing in Mary’s womb was actually Rizzio’s, Darnley ire grew. Eventually, the snickering at court and throughout Scotland about Darnley being a cuckold proved too much for the king consort’s pride and fragile masculinity, so he decided to do something about it. That something turned out to be one of the era’s most shocking public murders.

Darnley conspired with a cabal of aristocrats, including his father and other nobles, to effectively carry out a Protestant coup against Mary, with David Rizzio playing the role of scapegoat. Accordingly, on the evening of March 9th, 1566, Darnley at the head of a group of 80 armed men, forcibly seized Mary’s palace in Edinburgh, then burst into the queen’s dining room, where she was supping with her confidants, including her private secretary. There, Mary was publicly accused of dishonoring her husband by cheating on him with her secretary. In the ensuing fracas, which entailed the queen being held with a pistol pointed at her head while her secretary attempted to hide behind her, Darnley and his henchmen proceeded to stab David Rizzio to death.