Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 31

When Elizabeth received news that this union was determined upon, she gave way to all the weakness of an envious woman. She remonstrated against the match, though, in fact, Mary could scarcely have made a choice less dangerous to England. She called Lennox and his son Darnley from Scotland — a mandate which they refused, or delayed, to obey. She committed the Countess of Lennox, the only one of the family within her reach, a prisoner to the Tower of London. Above all, she endeavoured to disturb the peace of Scotland, by stirring up to insurrection those among the Scottish nobility to whom the match with Darnley was distasteful.

The Queen’s brother, the Earl of Murray, was by far the most able and powerful of those who were displeased by Mary’s marriage. Darnley and he were personal enemies; and besides, Murray was the principal of the Lords of the Congregation, who affected to see danger to the Protestant religion in Mary’s choice of Darnley for a husband, and in the disunion which it was likely to create betwixt Scotland and England. Murray even laid a plan to intercept Darnley, seize his person, and either put him to death, or send him prisoner to England. a body of horse was for this purpose stationed at a pass under the hill of Bennartey, near Kinross, called the Parrot-well, to intercept the Queen and Darnley as they returned from a Convention of Estates held at Perth; and they only escaped the danger by a hasty march, commenced early in the morning.

After the marriage, Murray and his confederates, who were the Duke of Chatelherault, Glencairn, Argyle, Rothes, and others, actually took up arms. The Queen, in this emergency, assembled her subjects around her. They came in such numbers as showed her popularity. Darnley rode at their head in gilded armour, accompanied by the Queen herself, having loaded pistols at her saddle-bow. Unable to stand their ground, Murray and his accomplices eluded the pursuit of the royal army, and made a sudden march on Edinburgh, where they hoped to find friends. But the citizens not adopting their cause, and the castle threatening to fire on them, the insurgents were compelled to retreat, first to Hamilton, then to Dumfries, until they finally disbanded their forces in despair, and the leaders fled into England. Thus ended an insurrection, which, from the hasty and uncertain manner in which the conspirators posted from one part of the kingdom to another, obtained the popular name of the Run-about Raid (or ride).

Elizabeth, who had encouraged Murray and his associates to rise against Mary, was by no means desirous to have the discredit of having done so, when she saw their attempt was unsuccessful. She caused Murray and the Abbot of Kilwinning to appear before her in presence of the ambassadors of France and Spain, who, interfering in Mary’s behalf, had accused Elizabeth of fomenting the Scottish disturbances. “How say you,” she exclaimed, “my Lord of Murray, and you his companion? Have you had advice or encouragement from me in your late undertaking?” The exiles, afraid to tell the truth, were contented to say, however falsely, that they had received no advice or assistance at her hands. “There you indeed speak truth,” replied Elizabeth; “for neither did I, nor any in my name, stir you up against your Queen; your abominable treason may serve for example to my own subjects to rebel against me. Therefore get out of my presence; you are but unworthy traitors!” Mortified and disgraced, Murray and his companions again retired to the Border, where Queen Elizabeth, notwithstanding her pretended resentment, allowed them privately means of support, until times should permit them to return into Scotland, and renew disturbances there.

Mary had thus overcome her refractory subjects, but she soon found that she had a more formidable enemy in the foolish and passionate husband whom she had chosen. This headstrong young man behaved to his wife with great disrespect, both as a woman and as a queen, and habitually indulged himself in intoxication, and other disgraceful vices. Although already possessed of more power than fitted his capacity or age, for he was but nineteen, he was importunate in his demands for obtaining what was called in Scotland the Crown Matrimonial; that is, the full equality of royal right in the crown with his consort. Until he obtained this eminence he was not held to be King, though called so in courtesy. He was only the husband of the Queen.

This crown matrimonial had been bestowed on Mary’s first husband, Francis, and Darnley was determined to be possessed of the same rank. But Mary, whose bounty had already far exceeded his deserts, as well as his gratitude, was resolved not to make this last concession, at least without the advice and consent of the Parliament.

The childish impatience of Darnley made him regard with mortal hatred whatever interfered with the instant execution of his wishes; and his animosity on this occasion turned against the Italian secretary, once his friend, but whom he now esteemed his deadly foe, because he supposed that Rizzio encouraged the Queen in resisting his hasty ambition. His resentment against the unhappy stranger arose to such a height, that he threatened to poniard him with his own hand; and as Rizzio had many enemies, and no friend save his mistress, Darnley easily procured instruments, and those of no mean rank, to take the execution of his revenge on themselves.

The chief of Darnley’s accomplices, on this unhappy occasion, was James Douglas, Earl of Morton, chancellor of the kingdom, tutor and uncle to the Earl of Angus (who chanced then to be a minor), and administrator, therefore, of all the power of the great house of Douglas. He was a nobleman of high military talent and political wisdom; but although a pretender to sanctity of life, his actions show him to have been a wicked and unscrupulous man. Although chancellor of the kingdom, and therefore bound peculiarly to respect the laws, he did not hesitate to enter into the young King’s cruel and unlawful purpose. Lord Ruthven, a man whose frame was exhausted by illness, nevertheless undertook to buckle on his armour for the enterprise; and they had no difficulty in finding other agents.

It would have been easy to have seized of Rizzio, and disposed of him as the Scottish peers at the bridge of Lauder used the favourites of James III. But this would not have accomplished the revenge of Darnley, who complained that the Queen showed this mean Italian more civility than she did to himself, and therefore took the barbarous resolution of seizing him in her very presence. This plan was the more atrocious, as Mary was at this time with child; and the alarm of agitation which such an act of violence was likely to produce, might endanger her life, or that of her unborn offspring.

While this savage plot was forming, Rizzio received several hints of what was likely to happen. Sir James Melville was at pains to explain to him the danger that was incurred by a stranger in any country, who rose so high in the favour of the prince, as to excite the disgust of the natives of the land. A French priest, who was something of an astrologer, warned the secretary to beware of a bastard. To such counsels, he replied, “that the Scots were more given to threaten than to stride; and as for the bastard (by whom he supposed the Earl of Murray to be meant), he would take care that he should never possess power enough in Scotland to do him any harm.” Thus securely confident, he continued at court, to abide his fate.

Those lords who engaged in the conspiracy did not agree to gratify Darnley’s resentment against Rizzio for nothing. They stipulated, as the price of their assistance, that he should in turn aid them in obtaining pardon and restoration to favour for Murray, and his accomplices in the Run-about Raid; and intimation was despatched to these noblemen, apprizing them of the whole undertaking, and desiring them to be at Edinburgh on the night appointed for doing the deed.

Queen Mary, like her father, James V, was fond of laying aside the state of a sovereign, and indulging in small private parties, quiet, as she as she termed them, and merry. On these occasions, she admitted her favourite domestics to her table, and and Rizzio seems frequently to have had that honour. On the 9th of March, 1566, six persons had partaken of supper in a small cabinet adjoining to the Queen’s bedchamber, and having no entrance save through it. Rizzio was of the number. About seven in the evening, the gates of the palace were occupied by Morton, with a party of two hundred men; and a select band of the conspirators, headed by Darnley himself, came into the Queen’s apartment by a secret staircase. Darnley first entered the cabinet, and stood for an instant in silence, gloomily eyeing his victim. Lord Ruthven followed in complete armour, looking pale and ghastly, as one scarcely recovered from long sickness. Others crowded in after them, till the little closet was full of armed men. While the Queen demanded the purpose of their coming, Rizzio, who saw that his life was aimed at, got behind her, and clasped the folds of her gown, that the respect due to her person might protect him. The assassins threw down the table, and seized on the unfortunate object of their vengeance, while Darnley himself took hold of the Queen, and forced Rizzio and her asunder. It was their intention, doubtless, to have dragged Rizzio out of Mary’s presence, and to have killed him elsewhere; but their fierce impatience hurried them into instant murder. George Douglas, called the postulate of Arbroath, a natural brother of the Earl of Morton, set the example, by snatching Darnley’s dagger from his belt, and striking Rizzio with it. He received many other blows. They dragged him through the bedroom and antechamber, and despatched him at the head of the staircase, with no less than fifty-six wounds. Ruthven, after all was over, fatigued with his exertions, sate down in the Queen’s presence, and, begging her pardon for the liberty, called for a drink to refresh him, as if he had been doing the most harmless thing in the world.

The witnesses, the actors, and the scene of this cruel tragedy, render it one of the most extraordinary which history records. The cabinet and the bedroom still remain in the same condition in which they were at the time; and the floor near the head of the stair bears visible marks of the blood of the unhappy Rizzio. The Queen continued to beg his his life with prayers and tears; but when she learned that he was dead, she dried her tears. —— “I will now,” she said, “study revenge.”

The conspirators, who had committed the cruel action entirely or chiefly to gratify Darnley, reckoned themselves, of course, secure of his protection. They united themselves with Murray and his associates, who were just returned from England according to the appointment, and agreed upon a course of joint measure. The Queen, it was agreed, should be put under restraint in Edinburgh castle, or elsewhere; and Murray and Morton were to rule the state under the name of Darnley, who was to obtain the crown matrimonial, which he had so anxiously desired. But all this scheme was ruined by the defection of Darnley himself. As fickle as was vehement, and as timorous as he had shown himself cruel, Rizzio was no sooner slain than Darnley became terrified at what had been done, and seemed much disposed to deny having given any authority for the crime.

Finding her weak-minded husband in a state between remorse and fear, Mary prevailed on him to take part against the very persons whom he had instigated to the late atrocious proceeding. Darnley and Mary escaped together out of Holyrood-house, and fled to Dunbar, where the Queen issued a proclamation which soon drew many faithful followers around her. It was now the turn of the conspirators to tremble. That the Queen’s conquest over them might be more certain, she pardoned the Earl of Murray, and those concerned in the Run-about Raid, as guilty of more venial offences than the assassins of Rizzio; and thus Murray, Glencairn, and others, were received into favour, while Morton, Ruthven, and his comrades, fled in their turn to England. No Scottish subject, whatever his crime, could take refuge there without finding secret support, if not an open welcome. Such was Elizabeth’s constant policy.

Queen Mary was now once more in possession of authority, but much disturbed and vexed by the silly conduct of her husband, who absurdities and insolences were not abated by the consequences of Rizzio’s death; so that the royal pair continued to be upon the worst terms with each other, though disguised under a species of reconciliation.

On the 19th of June, 1566, Mary was delivered of a son, afterwards James VI. When news of this even reached London, Queen Elizabeth was merrily engaged in dancing; but upon hearing what had happened, she left the dance, and sate down, leaning her head on her hand, and exclaiming passionately to her ladies, “Do you not hear how the Queen of Scots is mother of a fair son, while I am but barren stock!” But next morning she had recovered herself sufficiently to maintain her usual appearance of outward civility, received the Scottish ambassador with much seeming favour, and accepted with thanks the office of god-mother to the young Prince, which he proffered to her in the Queen Mary’s name.

After a splendid solemnity at christening the heir of Scotland, Queen Mary seems to have turned her mind towards settling the disorders of her nobility; and, sacrificing her own justifiable resentment, she yielded so far as to grant pardon to all those concerned in the murder of Rizzio. Two men of low rank, and no more, had been executed for that crime. Lord Ruthven, the principal actor, had died in England, taking and writing as composedly of “the slaughter of David,” as if it had been the most indifferent, if not meritorious, action possible. George Douglas, who struck the first blow, and Ker of Faldonside, another ruffian who offered his pistol at the Queen’s bosom in the fray, were exempted from the general pardon. Morton and all the others were permitted to return, to plan new treasons and murders.

We are now come, my dear child, to a very difficult period in history. The subsequent events, in the reign of Queen Mary, are well known; but neither the names of the principal agents in those events, nor the motives upon which they acted, are at all agreed upon by historians. It has, in particular, been warmly disputed, and will probably long continue to be so, how far Queen Mary is to be considered as a voluntary party or actor in the tragical and criminal events of which I am about to tell you; or how far, being innocent of any foreknowledge of these violent actions, she was an innocent victim of the villany of others. Leaving you, my dear child, when you come to a more advanced age, to study this historical point for yourself, I shall endeavour to give you an outline of the facts, as they are admitted and proved on all sides.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, a man in middle age, had for several years played a conspicuous part in those troubled times. He had sided with the Queen Regent against the Reformed party, and was in general supposed to be attached rather to the reigning Queen, than to any of the factions who opposed her. He was head of the powerful family of Hepburn, and possessed great influence in East–Lothian and Berwickshire, where excellent soldiers could always be obtained. In his morals Bothwell was wild and licentious, irregular and daring in his ambition; and although his history does not show many instances of personal courage, yet in his early life he had the reputation of possessing it. He had been in danger on the occasion of Rizzio’s murder, being supposed, from his regard for the Queen, to have been desirous of preventing that cruel insult to her person and authority. As this nobleman displayed great zeal for Mary’s cause, she was naturally led to advance him at court, until many persons, and particularly the preachers of the Reformed religion, thought that she admitted to too great intimacy a man of so fierce and profligate a character; and a numerous part among her subjects accused the Queen as being fonder of Bothwell than she ought to have been, he being a married man, and herself a married woman.

A thoughtless action of Mary’s seemed to confirm this suspicion. Bothwell, among other offices of authority, held that of Lord Warden of all the Marches, and was residing at the castle of Hermitage, a royal fortress which belonged to that office, in order to suppress some disorders on the Border. In October 1566, attempting with his own hand to seize a Border freebooter called John Elliot of the Park, he was severely wounded in the hand. That Queen, who was then at Jedburgh holding a court of justice, hastened through woods, morasses, and waters, to pay a visit to the wounded warden; and though the distance was twenty English miles, she went and returned from Hermitage castle in the same day. This excursion might arise solely from Mary’s desire to learn the cause and particulars of a great outrage on her lieutenant; but all those who wished ill to her, who were a numerous body, represented it as expressing her anxiety for the safety of her lover.

In the mean time, the dissension between Darnley and the Queen continued to increase; and while he must have been disliked by Mary from their numerous quarrels, and the affronts he put upon her, as well as from his share in the murder of Rizzio, those who had been concerned with him in that last crime, considered him as a poor mean-spirited wretch, who, having engaged his associates in so daring an act, had afterwards betrayed and deserted them. His latter conduct showed no improvement in either sense or spirit. He pretended he would leave the kingdom, and by this and other capricious resolutions, hastily adopted and abandoned, he so far alienated the affections of the Queen, that many of the unscrupulous and plotting nobles by whom she was surrounded, formed the idea, that it would be very agreeable to Mary if she could be freed from her union with this unreasonable and ill-tempered young man.

The first proposal made to her was, that she should be separated from Darnley by a divorce. Bothwell, Maitland, Morton, and Murray, are said to have joined in pressing such a proposal upon Queen Mary, who was then residing at Craigmillar castle, near Edinburgh; but she rejected it steadily. A conspiracy of a darker kind was then agitated, for the murder of the unhappy Darnley; and Bothwell seems to have entertained little doubt that Mary, thus rid of an unacceptable husband, would choose himself for his successor. He spoke with the Earl of Morton on the subject of despatching Darnley, and represented it as an enterprise which had the approbation of the Queen. Morton refused to stir in a matter of so great consequence, unless he received a mandate under the Queen’s hand. Bothwell undertook to procure him such a warrant, but he never kept his word. This was confessed by Morton at his death. When it was asked of him by the clergyman who received his confession, why he had not prevented the conspiracy, by making it public? he replied, that there was no one to whom he could confess it with safety. “The Queen,” he said, “was herself in the plot; and if I had told Darnley, his folly was so great that I am certain he would have betrayed it to his wife, and so my own destruction would have been assured.” But though he did not acknowledge more than I have told you, Morton was always supposed to have been one of the active conspirators; and it was universally believed that a daring and profligate relation of his, called Archibald Douglas, parson of Glasgow, was one of the actual murderers. While these suspicions hung over Morton himself, he seems to have had no reason for believing Mary’s guilt, excepting what Bothwell told him; while he admits that Bothwell never showed him any warrant under the Queen’s hand, though he promised to do so. It seems probable that Maitland of Lethington also knew the fatal and guilty secret. Morton and he, however, were both men of deep sagacity. They foresaw that Bothwell would render himself, and perhaps the Queen also, odious to the nation by the dark and bloody action which he meditated; and therefore they resolved to let him run on his course, in the hope that he would come to a speedy fall, and that they themselves might succeed to the supreme power.

While these schemes were in agitation against his life, Darnley fell ill at Glasgow, and his indisposition proved to be the small-pox. The Queen sent her physician, and after an interval went herself to wait upon him, and an apparent reconciliation was effected between them. They came together to Edinburgh on the 31st January, 1566–67. The King was lodged in a religious house called the Kirk of Field, just without the walls of the city. The Queen and the infant Prince were accommodated in the palace of Holyrood. The reason assigned for their living separate was the danger of the child catching the small-pox. But the Queen showed much attention to her husband, visiting him frequently; and they never seemed to have been on better terms than when the conspiracy against Darnley’s life was on the eve of being executed. Mean while Darnley and his groom of the chamber were alone during the night time, and separated from any other persons, when measures were taken for his destruction in the following horrible manner:—

On the evening of the 9th February, several persons, kinsmen, retainers, and servants of the Earl of Bothwell, came in secret to the Kirk of Field. They had with them a great quantity of gunpowder; and by means of false keys they obtained entrance into the cellars of the building, where they disposed the powder in the vaults under Darnley’s apartment, and especially beneath the spot where his bed was placed. About two hours after midnight upon the ensuing morning, Bothwell himself came disguised in a riding-cloak, to see the execution of the cruel project. Two of his ruffians went in and took means of firing the powder, by lighting a piece of slow-burning match at one end, and placing the other amongst the gunpowder. They remained for some time watching the event, and Bothwell became so impatient, that it was with difficulty he was prevented from entering the house, to see whether the light had not been extinguished by some accident. One of his accomplices, by looking through a window, ascertained that it was still burning. The explosion presently took place, blew up the Kirk of Field, and alarmed the whole city. The body of Darnley was found in the adjoining orchard. The bed in which he lay had preserved him from all action of the fire, which occasioned a general belief that he and his chamber-groom, who was found in the same situation, had been strangled and removed before the house was blown up. But this was a mistake. It is clearly proved, by the evidence of those who were present at the event, that there were no means employed but the gunpowder — a mode of destruction sufficiently powerful to have rendered any other unnecessary.


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