Murder at Kirk o’ Field

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, The Stuarts, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What does the document show happened to Lord Darnley? How did Lord Darnley's death change history?

Potential activities: Take a look at documents held by the National Records of Scotland on the life of Mary Queen of Scots.

Download: Lesson pack

What happened in 1567?

Early in the morning of 10 February 1567, Kirk o’ Field house in Edinburgh was destroyed by an explosion. The partially clothed bodies of Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and his servant were found in a nearby orchard, apparently strangled but unharmed by the explosion.

Suspicion immediately fell upon Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, one of her closest and most trusted noblemen. Although Bothwell was considered to be the lead conspirator, he was found not guilty at his trial in April, 1567. Mary married Bothwell the following month, just three months after Darnley’s murder.

Darnley’s death remains an unsolved historical mystery. Use this lesson to see if you can work out from the original documents what happened to Lord Darnley.


History Hook – Starter Activity

1. This section of the plan shows the bodies of Lord Darnley and his servant in the garden.

  • why are the men half naked?
  • how did the bodies get there?
  • what might the chair have been used for?
  • are there any obvious marks on the bodies?
  • who do you think the dagger belonged to?
  • how do you think they died?

2. This section shows Lord Darnley being carried away and the funeral of his servant.

  • where are the men taking Lord Darnley’s body?
  • why do you think the soldiers were there?
  • where is Lord Darnley’s servant being buried?

3. This section shows the site of Darnley’s death.

  • judging from the ruin, how big was the explosion?
  • the ruins of Kirk o’ Field House have been labelled the site of the murder – do you think this is really where he was killed?

4. This is the Infant James – Lord Darnley’s son and heir to the throne.

  • the infant James is saying ‘Judge and revenge my caus, O Lord’ – what do you think this means?
  • James would have only been a one year old baby at this time. What is the artist trying to suggest about the death of Lord Darnley?
  • from what you have found out so far, how do you think Darnley died?

5. This is a letter allegedly from Mary Queen of Scots to Bothwell.

  • if the letter is really from Mary to Bothwell, who is the ‘he’ Mary keeps referring to?
  • what does Mary want Bothwell to do with the letter?
  • what warnings does Mary give Bothwell?
  • who is his ‘humble and faithful lover’?
  • what could Mary mean when she says ‘who shortly hopes to be another thing unto you’?
  • does the letter show Mary plotting with Bothwell to kill Darnley (give reasons to back up your answer)?
  • why do you think Bothwell did not burn the letter as Mary asks?
  • do you think we can trust this letter as evidence?

6. This is a letter from Elizabeth I to Mary.

  • do you think Elizabeth was happy with Mary’s marriage to Bothwell?
  • what do you think was the Queen’s mood when she wrote this?
  • why do you think the letter has been crossed out and changed so much?
  • who do you think might have made the changes?
  • do you think Elizabeth herself would have written this letter, or would someone have done it for her?

7. Based on the evidence you have looked at, write a statement summing up how Lord Darnley died and who you think was responsible.

8. What do you think about the evidence you have? Do you think a conclusion based on this evidence can be trusted – if not, why?


The story of Mary Queen of Scots and her marriage to Lord Darnley shows both the romantic and the brutal side of politics in the 16th century.

In 1565 Mary married Lord Darnley, a Catholic, and great-grandson of Henry VII. Although handsome and elegant, Darnley was weak, vain and spoilt. He soon made himself very unpopular among the Scottish nobles and Mary soon grew to hate his bullying ways. She began to spend most of her time with David Rizzio, her secretary, and this stirred the jealousy of Darnley.

On 9 March 1566 Mary was having supper with David Rizzio when her husband burst in. Rizzio was dragged from the room and killed. Over 50 dagger wounds were counted on his body. Meanwhile Mary was held captive by her husband and forced to make him king in his own right. Mary had few people to turn to during this time except James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell.

On 16 June Mary gave birth to a son: James. Mary and Darnley seemed to have made up. Their son´s birth was very important because not only was he heir to the Scottish throne, but he was also the heir to the English throne.

Early the following year, Mary managed to persuade Darnley that she had forgiven him for the murder of Rizzio. Darnley was sick and decided to stay at at Kirk o’ Field House in Edinburgh. On the night of 10 February, Mary left to attend a wedding party while Darnley stayed at home. At about two am, a massive explosion reduced Kirk o’ Field House to rubble. Darnley was killed, but not by the explosion. He was found half-naked – not in the rubble of the house, but in the garden outside the town walls. Something had frightened him so badly that he had escaped from the house before it exploded, but someone saw him fleeing, caught up with him, and strangled him.

The list of suspects was long, because Darnley had many enemies. However, many people suspected that Mary and her friend Earl Bothwell had arranged the murder. When Mary married Bothwell three months later it looked as though the suspicions were right. The Scots rose in rebellion. Mary was driven out to England and her infant son James was made king. Elizabeth I took her prisoner – and a prisoner she stayed for the next 19 years.

Meanwhile, in 1568, a group of Scottish Earls ‘found’ a number of letters in a silver casket, supposedly written by Mary to Earl Bothwell. The letters seem to show that Mary was in love with Bothwell and was planning to murder her husband.

Teachers' notes

This lesson contains a History Hook starter video to hook students into the lesson.

This lesson allows students to explore three crucial sources about the murder of Lord Darnley the husband of Mary Queen of Scots. The first source is a plan of the murder scene at Kirk o’ Field church drawn for William Cecil shortly after the murder. The murder aroused obvious interest in England. Darnley had once been Elizabeth I’s suitor and was her cousin.

The second source is an extract from the longest of the “casket letters” written sometime between 1566 and 1567. Produced by the Earl of Moray as evidence of Mary’s complicity in the murder of Darnley, the originals of the letters have always been doubtful. This document is a copy made in 1568 to present before a commission set up at Westminster to investigate the case. It is poor copy, roughly translated from French and giving only excerpts from the original. Currently, historians believe the Casket Letters were fakes – a botch job of various letters, some perhaps written by Mary, others fabricated.

The third source is an extract from a letter written to Mary by Elizabeth I in June 1567, after her marriage to Lord Bothwell. The letter itself was heavily edited by William Cecil, however the tone of contempt and disgust is undoubtedly that of the Queen. She felt that Lord Bothwell was guilty of the death of Lord Darnley, and despite Mary having held an inquest and exonerated him, she should have devoted more time to catching the killer(s) of her husband. Elizabeth was also unhappy about Mary’s marriage to a divorcee, and was concerned for the upbringing of Mary’s son.

All documents are provided with transcripts. Students can work through the questions individually or in pairs and report back to the class.

Here are some further details about some of the characters involved in these events.

David Rizzio: Private Secretary to Mary, murdered by Lord Darnley at Palace of Holyrood, 9 March 1566. It was felt he was getting too close to the Queen.

William Cecil: English statesman, chief advisor for Queen Elizabeth I for most of reign.

Lord Bothwell: James Hepburn was the 4th Earl of Bothwell. Mary, Queen of Scots’ third husband following the death Lord Darnley.

Earl of Moray: Moray was the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland and Lady Margaret Erskine, daughter of John Erskine, 5th Lord Erskine. He was Regent of Scotland from 1567 until his assassination in 1570 and Mary’s half- brother.


Sources 1a-d: A plan of the murder scene at Kirk o’ Field church. Catalogue ref: MPF 1/366

Source 2: Extract from the longest of the “casket letters” written 1566- 1567. Catalogue ref: SP 53/2

Source 3: Extract from a letter from Elizabeth I to Mary. Catalogue ref: SP 52/13/71

External links

Mary, Queen of Scots
More documents on Mary Queen of Scots from National Records of Scotland

Mary Queen of Scots Report: Horrible Histories

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 1 & 2:

Significant People, Elizabeth I & Mary Queen of Scots

Key stage 3:

The Elizabethan religious settlement and conflict with Catholics (including Scotland, Spain and Ireland)

Key stage 4:

Edexcel GCSE History Early Elizabethan England, 1558–88: The problem of Mary, Queen of Scots

OCR GCSE History: The Elizabethans, 1580–1603: Mary Queen of Scots

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, The Stuarts, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What does the document show happened to Lord Darnley? How did Lord Darnley's death change history?

Potential activities: Take a look at documents held by the National Records of Scotland on the life of Mary Queen of Scots.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

Elizabethan propaganda

How did England try to show Spain planned to invade in 1588?

God blew and they were scattered

Did God really help the English defeat the Spanish Armada?

Elizabeth I’s monarchy

Rule of a ‘weak and feeble’ woman?