Mary, Queen of Scots & the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir (2003)

This book has been described as, ‘A monumental piece of historical detective work,’ and ‘An engrossing historical whodunnit combined with a richly textured portrait of an age.’ I mostly agree with these observations but it is so thoroughly researched that it does drag in places. Alison Weir makes no apologies for the long build-up to Lord Darnley’s murder as she believed it essential to look at the various characters, motives, and the sequence of events leading up to his violent death. She also looks at the relationship between Mary and Darnley and the religious factors in the background. All this takes up 511 pages and then there are sixty pages of notes and references; a twenty-two-page Bibliography, a map and a number of illustrations.

I’m not going to elaborate on the investigation into Darnley’s murder but will pick out points of interest and some make some general comments.

Mary was the daughter of James V of Scotland and his second wife, Marie de Guise, and was born in 1542 at Linlithgow Palace in Scotland. She became Queen of Scots when she was six days old following the death of her father. Henry VIII was King of England at the time and he wanted Mary to marry five-year-old Prince Edward, his son and heir, in order to unite England and Scotland under Tudor rule. A treaty was signed to that effect with the plan that Mary would go to England when she was ten and be married a year later, but Marie de Guise was opposed to the marriage and had Mary crowned at Stirling Castle. The Scottish Parliament, which was largely Catholic, renewed the ancient alliance between Scotland and France. Henry was furious and sent an army to Scotland and mercilessly devastated large areas of the country.

When Mary was five years of age she left Scotland to live at the French court which was known as a moral cesspit. She grew up in the household of Henry II with the children of his marriage to Catherine de’ Medici. When Mary was fifteen she married Francis, the fourteen year old Dauphin. They were very fond of one another and Mary was inconsolable when he died two years later.

After the death of Francis, Mary, a childless Queen Dowager, was no longer of any importance at the French court. Catherine de ‘Medici made it clear to Mary that she was no longer welcome in France. Mary seriously considered marrying Don Carlos of Spain. Her other option was to return to Scotland, which she did.

Upon her return, Mary was warmly welcomed by the people of Edinburgh and took up residence at Holyrood Castle. At the age of eighteen she married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, at the instigation of her Lords – a disastrous decision. Darnley was arrogant, selfish and lacked ‘good counsel.’ Darnley was so hated that he was assassinated when the place where he was staying was blown sky high. Mary was implicated in his murder and the only good that came of the marriage was the birth of a son, James, who later became James I of England.

The Main Characters

Mary, Queen of Scots:

‘Mary’s poor judgement repeatedly served her ill…in an age that did not understand religious tolerance, she followed a policy of reconciliation whilst making the right noises to the Pope about the restoration of Catholicism, and consequently lost credibility with both sides.’

Mary was, in many respects, unsuited for the role of Queen. Unlike her cousin, Elizabeth I, Mary was a political innocent.

Lord Darnley:

Of the eight children born to Darnley’s parents only he and his younger brother survived infancy. His parents doted on him and he was named after his godfather, King Henry VIII. Handsome, tall, athletic, and accomplished, he had had an education befitting a royal prince but he was intellectually weak and lacked judgement. Unable to keep a secret, tactless and vicious, he made many enemies. He also was a lousy husband to Mary.

Lords of the Congregation:

A group of Protestant Scottish nobles who signed a bond or covenant to establish the Protestant faith in Scotland. They included Huntly, Lennox, Maitland, Mar, Moray (Mary’s illegitimate half-brother), Morton and others. 

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell – a maverick noble; a Protestant but not one of the Lords of the Congregation. He was thought to have planned Darnley’s murder and was to later kidnap Mary, forcing her to marry him.

John Knox – a former Catholic priest who embraced the views of the Swiss reformer, John Calvin. He disapproved of Mary and inflamed the people’s wrath towards her,

‘using his vigorous style of invective to demand that the Queen, that whore of Babylon, that scarlet adventuress, be put to death as a murderess.’

Weir demonstrated that no court of law today would convict Mary of Darnley’s murder. She had Elizabeth I scheming against her, a bunch of ambitious nobles who took advantage of her inexperience, and a preacher (John Knox) and a historian (George Buchanan) who excoriated her in their speech and in their writing. She was prevented from giving evidence regarding her husband’s murder and forged letters were used as evidence against her to place the blame of Darnley’s murder upon her.

Weir’s research exposes Elizabeth’s schemes to discredit Mary and keep her own throne. The two queens never actually met and Elizabeth never allowed Mary to defend herself. John Knox was scathing in his attacks on Mary, condemning her as an adulteress and murderess; the Lords of the Congregation who were supposedly ‘the Faithful’ were a pack of Pharisees.

This book is a thorough and balanced look at Mary Queen of Scots and her times. What a time to have lived in! And what a terrible danger to have been born to the throne in those days!

In the circumstances, she must, with justice, be regarded as one of the most wronged women in history.

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