Murder at Kirk o’ Field
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. Work through the available evidence and see if you can work out what happened.
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.
This lesson has a video starter activity based on one of our documents to ‘hook’ students into the lesson tasks that follow.
This lesson involves the pupils in detective work, using three crucial sources about the murder of Lord Darnley the husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Groups of pupils can study individual sources and report back to the whole class and then together arrive at an answer to the mystery. Alternatively, pupils can work through the exercise as a self-contained study.
Source 1 is MPF 1/366, a plan of the murder scene at Kirk o’ Field church. The plan was 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.
Source 2 is SP 53/2, 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. The document shown here 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.
Source 3 is SP 52/13/71, an extract from a letter written to Mary by Elizabeth I. The extract from a letter from Elizabeth I was written to Mary on 23 June 1567, shortly after her marriage to Lord Bothwell. The letter itself was heavily edited by William Cecil, however the tone of contempt and disgust is undoubtedly the Queens. 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, James, the heir to both the Scottish and English thrones.
David Rizzio : Marys private secretary. He was murdered by Lord Darnley at the Palace of Holyrood on 9 March 1566 because it was felt he was getting too close to the Queen. It is worth noting that his name is also often spelled David Riccio.
William Cecil : An English statesman, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign.
Lord Bothwell : James Hepburn was the 4th Earl of Bothwell and the 3rd husband of Mary, Queen of Scots following the death of her husband, Lord Darnley, and Bothwells divorce from his wife, Lady Jean Gordon.
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. He was also Mary’s half brother.
Kings and Queens of Scotland
A short biography of Mary, Queen of Scots.