The Unholy Alliance: Mary, Queen of Scots & Henry, Lord Darnley


I’ve been putting off writing this post because it’s a big one, but I have a feeling November and December are going to be busy months so if not now then when? Even so, we might return to Darnley’s murder and get more into the weeds of various theories later on. Today we’re going to take a look at the marriage of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary, rather famously, spent the middle of the 16th century engaged in a venomous rivalry with her cousin, Elizabeth I, which ended in her execution in 1587. Before that, however, her second marriage resulted in Darnley’s suspicious death and her forced abdication in favor of their son, James. And James, of course, would eventually succeed Elizabeth on the English throne, uniting England and Scotland under one rule.

Luckily, we’ve already covered Mary’s and Darnley’s backgrounds. Mary ascended the Scottish throne as an infant and was soon sent to live in France, married to the dauphin as a child. When Henry II of France died in 1559, Mary and her husband, Francis II, briefly ruled until Francis’s untimely death in 1560. Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, her affairs becoming more closely intertwined with those of England and her Tudor cousin, Elizabeth, who ascended her throne in 1558.

Mary in mourning for her first husband, Francis II

Darnley, meanwhile, was the eldest son of Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas. Margaret’s father was Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a Scottish nobleman, while her mother was none other than Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, sister of Henry VIII and wife of James IV of Scotland. In other words, not only were Mary and Darnley cousins with Stuart blood, but their combined Tudor lineage made a compelling claim to the English throne.

And at the start of the 1560s it was particularly potent given that Elizabeth was still unmarried. Who Elizabeth might marry was a matter of considerable importance to not only England, but all of her European neighbors, and the religious implications were paramount given the split between Catholic and Protestant power across the continent. But in the meantime, Elizabeth was able to use Mary’s marriage as a delaying tactic, dangling the option of Mary marrying a man of Elizabeth’s choice in exchange for Elizabeth acknowledging Mary as her heir so long as she remained childless.

Lord Darnley in 1555, a decade before his Scottish marriage

For Elizabeth, choosing Mary’s next husband meant ensuring that Scotland didn’t ally itself with France or Spain to the detriment of England; and for Mary, it was both personal and political – the fulfillment of what she considered her birthright and an expansion of power, but also a close kinship with a cousin. Mary, much more so than Elizabeth, was drawn to the idea that has so fascinated the world since: two “sister” queens ruling two sister countries.

Unfortunately, for all that they might have been natural allies, they were also natural rivals. When Mary was still living in France, Henry II mischievously used her lineage to pronounce her the rightful queen of England when Mary I died, thus prompting suspicion and insecurity on Elizabeth’s part. Mary, of course, was considered by many to be Elizabeth’s Catholic alternative – and one whose legitimacy had never been questioned, while the memory of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was still unpopular.

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes in 1559

But as of when Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, a young widow, she wasn’t looking for political machinations, but friendship. She was also more than willing to play ball with Elizabeth, even as a supplicant, in the hopes that her cousin would name her heir. It was only when a planned meeting between the two in 1562 was postponed indefinitely – and then more permanently so once England intervened in France’s religious wars – that Mary began to pull her punches. She lost faith in a personal relationship with Elizabeth, but she still believed that she could win out politically.

Mary agreed to let Elizabeth have a say in her next husband within reason, but Elizabeth typically dragged her feet, gave unclear direction and changed her mind. At one point – and very seriously – Elizabeth considered arranging a match between Mary and her own personal favorite, Robert Dudley. Dudley had once been the favored candidate for Elizabeth’s hand, but by 1563 the idea had largely been shelved. Elizabeth’s idea was to not only pass off her former flame to her cousin, but to bring the couple to England to live at her own court, creating a makeshift “Royal Family.” While abnormal to say the least, it’s also not difficult to see why the idea would have appealed to Elizabeth – she was a control freak. Bringing Mary and Dudley to her court, where she reigned supreme, kept both in check, under her thumb and subservient.

Robert Dudley in 1564

Dudley, for his part, had no interest and was strongly in favor of the other Englishman on the table: Lord Darnley.

Darnley and Mary had met briefly once before when Mary was still in France. They met for the second time in February 1565 in Fife and, luckily for us, Mary’s reaction was recorded: “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen.” And though it was the English government that arranged for Darnley’s trip, Elizabeth ended up feeling threatened by the match, fearing that their potential child would have too good a claim to the throne and that their own Catholicism would inspire rebellion. But before she could pull the plug, Mary took matters into her own hands – in lust, if not in love, and annoyed by the pace at which Elizabeth was handling diplomacy, Mary married Darnley at Holyrood Palace on July 29.

Darnley was invested into the Scottish peerage as the Earl of Ross and he was nominally king as Mary’s husband, but she pointedly refused to approve the crown matrimonial. Without it, his power was tied to Mary in the same way any consort’s is, the only difference being that as a man no one truly expected Darnley to take a purely ceremonial role. Unfortunately, Darnley soon proved himself wholly unfit for the role of any sort of king. In addition to being mortally offended that Mary wouldn’t confer on him what he considered his right, he also decided to take up fervent Catholicism, flying in the face of Mary’s moderate religious policy.

Mary’s second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

In the midst of all of this, even as the marriage rapidly deteriorated, Mary became pregnant. Darnley, livid over the crown matrimonial and, quite frankly, an idiot, allied himself with a group of Protestant lords who had protested his marriage only months earlier. Together they conspired to murder one of Mary’s leading Catholic councilors, David Rizzio, an act of violence that brutally went down in front of Mary during a dinner party in March 1566. Mary was essentially at the mercy of her rebellious husband and the Protestant lords, however because Darnley was not only an idiot, but also had a bit of a drinking problem, she was able to hoodwink him with a series of manipulations, not least of which was promising to sleep with him.

Within 48 hours, Mary brought Darnley over to her side and managed to escape. Soon after she was shown evidence that Darnley – in contradiction to what he told her – had played an active role in approving of Rizzio’s murder, even signing documents ordering it. From that point on, Mary considered her husband an enemy, however she was also in the last stages of her pregnancy and needed to bring about a political reconciliation first and foremost.

Mary’s son, James, as a boy

On June 19, Mary gave birth to a son, James, at Edinburgh Castle. Securing the Stuart line both empowered and undermined Mary’s position. On the one hand, it weakened the Scottish nobles who surrounded her, while on the other hand, it provided them with a legitimate alternative should they grow tired of Mary’s rule. And indeed, given the fate of Mary’s Stuart ancestors, most of whom died violently, this was a very real fear. Darnley, meanwhile, took it upon himself to dabble in a variety of half-baked schemes, not least of which was writing to Philip II of Spain that the only reason Scotland hadn’t returned to Catholicism was Mary or attempting to conquer various English-held islands.

By September he announced that he intended to formally separate from Mary and live abroad, but however personally appealing that might have been, it was too great a risk for Mary and her government to have her husband plotting outside the country.  During this, Mary and Elizabeth found common ground for the first time in years. When Mary offered to make Elizabeth her son’s protector in the event of her death, Elizabeth returned the volley by agreeing to accept Mary as heir apparent so long as both queens recognized the other’s authority. In other words, Elizabeth’s throne was safe from the threat of the Catholic Mary, while Mary, nearly a decade younger, saw a very real possibility of ruling England and Scotland one day.

1567 drawing of Darnley’s murder

But before any of this could be cemented, Darnley was murdered, blowing the agreement to pieces and abruptly ending the upswing of Mary’s rule. So, what exactly happened? And was Mary involved? The short answer is that Darnley’s murder remains a mystery second only to the Princes in the Tower when it comes to royal history, however it’s also important to note that there were three separate dynamics going on in the lead up to his death. The first was that Darnley was working to push Mary aside and govern in his son’s name. The second was that Mary’s councilors had approached her about a divorce, arguing that it was the only option left given Darnley’s out-of-control behavior. The third was that those same lords had separately hatched a plot to assassinate Darnley on the grounds divorces were lengthy and carried possible implications for Prince James.

While Mary considered divorce a viable option, in the interim her primary focus was securing the agreement Elizabeth offered. Given that Darnley was also Elizabeth’s kinsman, it was paramount that whatever difficulties the marriage had be set aside in the short-term. Thus, Darnley threatening to move abroad and becoming increasingly erratic was a problem that needed to be contained. She pushed Darnley to reconcile, even convincing him to return to Edinburgh with her, though he chose to dwell in a separate establishment because he was undergoing treatment for syphilis.

The night of Darnley’s death, February 9/10, Mary and her court were attending a masque. She left the festivities a little after midnight, leaving Darnley with his drinks. Darnley later retired with his servants. At around two in the morning, an explosion went off, covering the surrounding the area in dust and creating enough noise that everyone woke up. The bodies of Darnley and one of his servants were found in the garden, however there wasn’t a mark on either of their bodies. Darnley’s cloak was nearby, as was a dagger, though neither man had been stabbed.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

The assumption at first was that the explosion had literally shot Darnley from his bed into the gardens, but this was soon deemed impossible – their bodies were unblemished and the explosion should have incinerated them.

The exact “how” is unknown, but the “who” was easy enough to guess – a select group of Mary’s lords who either hated Darnley or worked with him to take down Rizzio and had then been betrayed by him (or both). Among those men was one of Mary’s closest and most trusted councilors, James Helpburn, Earl of Bothwell. The only question was whether Mary knew about the plot and secretly signed off on it. Historians have debated this for centuries, but personally I am of the belief that she did not – she had nothing to gain from it compared with the fallout.

The lords who engaged in the assassination didn’t think their plot through. They were so focused on getting rid of Darnley, they failed to see how the consequences would impact Mary. All of Europe knew her marriage was unhappy and then, suddenly, Darnley was violently killed? France, including her former Valois in-laws and her Guise relatives, turned on her. Worst of all, England turned its back on her, including Elizabeth who essentially tore up their tentative agreement. Elizabeth’s leading councilor, William Cecil, who had known very well what was going on in Scotland, said nothing.

William Cecil, Elizabeth’s adviser

Darnley’s parents, Lennox and Margaret Douglas, insisted that Bothwell be brought before a court, but he was acquitted in April, only increasing international outrage. A few days later, Mary went to Stirling Castle to visit her son (for the last time, unbeknownst to her), and on her way back to Edinburgh, she was “abducted” by Bothwell. I use quotes because we have no idea whether Mary was complicit in this plot or not. If she wasn’t, then she was raped, forced into marriage and made to acknowledge Bothwell as her third husband. If she was, then she and Bothwell conspired for him to divorce his wife (which he did 12 days before the abduction), ferret her away, marry and then attempt to present a united front. If she was involved, then it was an incredibly stupid plan, but Mary had good reason to believe Bothwell would be a more popular choice than Darnley had been.

Either way, the idea that the queen of Scotland had married her husband’s murderer was too much for her people and too much for Europe. Two months later she would be forced to abdicate for her infant son and by the following year she would end up in England, a refugee on Elizabeth’s charity…and we all know how that turned out.

An imagined depiction of Mary and James

These last stages of the story – Mary’s third marriage and her abdication deserve their own post, so we’ll stop there. Her marriage to Darnley was disastrous and ended violently, but it’s a perfect summary of what can be so maddening about examining Mary’s life. Was she a victim? How much agency did she have? Why in God’s name did she put herself in such positions?

Somehow the result of such a marriage would be the Stuarts’ saving grace. Prince James became James VI, who eventually did what his mother could not: establish himself as Elizabeth’s heir and unite England and Scotland under one House.


4 thoughts on “The Unholy Alliance: Mary, Queen of Scots & Henry, Lord Darnley

  1. Interesting post. I am completely fascinated by Mary’s story. In March my husband and I visited Hailes Castle which she and Hepburn supposedly stopped at for a few days on their way to Dunbar Castle.

      1. Hailes is so far my favorite “off the beaten path” find. Most tourists don’t know about it and the day we were they we had it all to ourselves. It is in the prettiest setting.

  2. Roxana.

    Please. Mary’s words about her husband are intemperate to say the least and extremely hostile. Yet she lured him out of his father’s hands and into her own with the promise of a reconciliation. Mary knew as well as her Lords that a divorce was a no go. And she she miscarried twins at Lochleven that almost have to have conceived before her marriage to Bothwell, indeed before her so called rape! Forget the questionable casket letters. What Mary did is damning. And incredibly stupid. Darnly was ill, what easier than slipping him a poisoned dose or smothering him with a pillow? That would have some plausible deniability! Who’s idea was it to blow the place sky high??

Leave a Reply