Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of David Rizzio

David Rizzio, National Portrait Gallery

David Rizzio, National Portrait Gallery

The murder of David Rizzio, personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, in my mind is one of the most dramatic moments in Scottish history, if not all history. Rizzio was born in 1533 in Pancalieri in the duchy of Savoy, the son of a poor musician. He had a beautiful singing voice and was in the employ of the archbishop of Turin before he made his way to the court of the duke of Savoy in Nice and a position as secretary to the duke’s ambassador, the Marquess of Moretto. In the fall of 1561, they travelled to Scotland. The Marquess was impressed with Rizzio’s musical talents and encouraged him to seek a job at the Scottish court.

Mary, Queen of Scots was an expert musician herself and just happened to be looking for a bass to sing in a quartet of French singers. Rizzio performed for the queen twice and she liked him so much she offered him a job as a gentleman of the privy chamber. While some in the Scottish court found Rizzio to be an ugly little man, others found him congenial. He had expensive taste in clothes and an overinflated sense of self importance. Mary’s secretary for French correspondence fell out of her favor in December 1564 and Mary appointed Rizzio as his replacement.

Seigneur Davie, as he came to be called, did everything in his power to garner favor with Mary. As her secretary, he was constantly in her company and continued to carry out his duties as gentleman of the privy chamber. Those seeking favors of the Queen soon learned to bribe Rizzio to get what they wanted. Some of the Scottish lords became envious of Rizzio’s influence over the Queen. Mary knew the lords took exception to Rizzio’s power in her affairs but she felt their resentment was unwarranted.

When Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley arrived in Edinburgh from England in 1565, Rizzio curried favor with him and urged Mary to marry him. Mary quickly fell in love with Darnley and they married on July 29, 1565 at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one and Mary soon came to rue her decision to marry him. Darnley proved to be weak and immature, a drinker and a womanizer, visiting taverns and brothels in Edinburgh. And he was constantly harassing Mary to give him the crown matrimonial, making him King in Scotland which she was loath to do based on his behavior. Despite all the turmoil, Mary was soon pregnant with her first child who would come to be James VI, King of Scots and King James I of England.

Some of the lords realized they could use Darnley as a weapon against Mary and worked to increase his aggravation and resentment over not being given the crown matrimonial. There were whispers and rumors that Mary’s child was Rizzio’s. Darnley’s suspicions were aroused even further when Mary spent a lot of time with Rizzio, dining and playing cards until the wee hours of the morning. He grumbled that Mary was ignoring him.

Some of the lords, including Mary’s half-brother the Earl of Moray had tangled with Mary early on and were facing forfeiture of their lands when Parliament was called to meet in March of 1565. The English ambassador, Thomas Randolph was reporting there was a plot afoot to murder Rizzio. Parliament opened as planned on March 7 and a bill of forfeit against Moray was set to pass on March 12. The conspirator’s plot was set into motion on the evening of March 9th.

Closet off of Mary's bedchamber where she and Rizzio were dining when the conspirators entered.  Photo by the author.

Closet off of Mary’s bedchamber where she and Rizzio were dining when the conspirators entered. Photo by the author.

Mary was dining with Rizzio and her half-sister Jean, countess of Argyll in a small closet just off her bedchamber upstairs in the tower of the Palace of Holyroodhouse that had been built by and named after her father, James V. The room was lit by a candelabrum on the table. Unexpectedly, Darnley entered the room, sat next to Mary and put his hand around her waist, chatting amiably, perhaps unnerving her. Even more surprisingly, a pale earl of Ruthven appeared in the door of the closet. Ruthven was deathly ill and had arisen from his sick bed, still in his nightshirt which was covered with a full coat of armor. He shouted “May it please your majesty to let yonder man Davie come forth of your presence, for he has been overlong here.”

Mary quickly realized the gravity of the situation and became alarmed. Rizzio was terrified and cringed behind Mary in the window embrasure, clinging to the folds in her skirt. Mary’s attendants sprang forward to attack Ruthven but he pulled out a pistol and gestured for them to move back. Some of the Earl of Morten’s men entered the room and overturned the table. The countess of Argyll, with quick thinking, grabbed the candelabrum so the room remained lit.

Andrew Ker of Fawdonside aimed his pistol at the Queen’s pregnant belly while George Douglas, Darnley’s uncle, grabbed Darnley’s dagger from his belt and stabbed Rizzio. In Mary’s recounting of the events, she swears this first blow was right over her shoulder. Rizzio was screaming for justice and for Mary to save him. The men dragged him from the closet into the Queen’s outer chamber and stabbed him fifty-six times. Darnley ordered Rizzio’s body to be thrown down the main staircase and taken into the porter’s lodge. The porter’s servant stripped the body of the fine clothes he had been wearing. He was quickly buried in a plot of the Canongate cemetery.

Mary Queen of Scots bedchamber in the James V Tower of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.   Photo by the author

Mary Queen of Scots bedchamber in the James V Tower of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Photo by the author

Mary was shaken, crying and in shock. She kept asking if Rizzio was dead and sent servants to retrieve a casket containing documents and a cipher from his chamber. It took several hours but the news finally came that Rizzio was dead. When she learned this, she began plotting her revenge.

Mary realized she would most likely become a captive of the guilty lords. She was sure that she and her unborn child were the real targets of the conspiracy. Darnley spent the night in his rooms below hers while she spent a sleepless night in her rooms with eighty Douglas men standing guard outside her door and at the palace gates. After a long discussion with the conspirators, Darnley realized they would never allow him to have any power. Mary needed to keep Darnley in her favor until her son was born and he acknowledged the child was legitimately his.

In what might be considered one of Mary’s finest hours, she skillfully persuaded Darnley to turn away from the plotters. Two nights after the murder, Mary and Darnley escaped through an underground passage to some horses which were supplied by loyal servants and they escaped from Holyroodhouse to the fortress of Dunbar Castle. Mary was ready to reassert her royal authority but she never forgave her husband’s treachery.

A year later, Darnley’s body and that of his servant were found in the orchard outside of Kirk O’Field in Edinburgh, apparently strangled to death after an explosion of two barrels of gunpowder. The suspicion that Mary had something to do with Darnley’s death led to her losing the Scottish throne. She was forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son in July of 1567. After escaping captivity in Lochleven Castle, she fled to England where Queen Elizabeth I held her prisoner for twenty years until she was convicted of conspiring for the overthrow and death of Elizabeth. Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 9, 1587.

Further Reading: “Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley” by Alison Weir, “The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots” by John Guy, “Mary Queen of Scots” by Antonia Fraser, “Two Queens, One Isle: The Deadly Relationship Between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots” by Alison Plowden, entry on David Rizzio in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Rosalind Marshall

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