Hot on the trail of a Royal assailant

WITH its irresistible mix of deception, betrayal, intrigue and blue blood, the strangulation of Lord Darnley has remained one of Scotland’s most enduring murder mysteries.

But now fresh light has been cast on the blood-soaked drama that has baffled historians for 450 years - thanks to a fire in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

The body of Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, was found in the early hours of 10 February, 1567, after an explosion at his Kirk o’Field house in the Cowgate area of the city. He was discovered suffocated next to his valet in a nearby garden.

Mary married James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell - who was implicated in the murder of Darnley - three months later.

Historians have clashed over the extent of Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s murder. Now, according to one expert, accounts of the crime may have to be rewritten because of research done in the aftermath of the fire in Edinburgh’s Old Town last year.

The buildings involved were so badly damaged that some had to be demolished. This opened up to scrutiny an area that had not been exposed for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists and a genealogist have examined the site and compared it with archives. Investigations are continuing, but early results suggest that histories of Darnley’s murder may need to be revised, along with other records.

The genealogist Rob Maxtone Graham believes there is a need for a review of previous work, including an examination of exactly where Darnley may have been killed. Mr Maxtone Graham said he believed there was "a big unstitching job" to be undertaken on a trail of evidence going back over five centuries. But he conceded that other experts may need to be convinced.

The genealogist said he had been trying to identify who had been residing in the Cowgate about 500 years ago.

"We had come up with an incredible number of people who were living there," he said. "They were buying and selling the land, and there was a fair amount of philandering. At the last minute, it occurred to me that one of the clerics’ houses could well have been the site of Darnley’s murder.

"I have come up with evidence that the house where Darnley was blown up may be within the block between Edinburgh University and the Cowgate; the block affected by the fire. Darnley’s house abuts the Flodden Wall, but my early findings put it in a different place to that previously stated.

"This could have all sorts of consequences surrounding Darnley’s murder. How he was murdered has led to all sorts of speculation, from him being stabbed, strangled or suffocated with a vinegar-soaked hanky.

"This different location could have all sorts of consequences as to who was around the house at the time and who was running away from which close at the time of the explosion."

Darnley married Mary in 1565. Like Mary, he was descended from the Tudor King Henry VII, and by marrying him, she enhanced her claim to the throne of England.

But Darnley proved vain, jealous, petulant and stupid, and soon began to gamble, drink heavily and womanise.

The Protestant lords, realising how easily Darnley could be manipulated, talked him into participating in the grisly murder of Mary’s Catholic Italian private secretary, David Rizzio, whom they believed to hold too much influence at court.

On 9 March, 1566, Darnley and a group of nobles burst into a private apartment at Holyrood Palace, where the pregnant Mary was presiding over a supper party, and dragged Rizzio into a nearby room. There they stabbed him, in full view of the queen, 56 times.

Bothwell, who was also a target that night, climbed out of a window of the palace, leapt on a horse and escaped to the safety of his castle at Dunbar. Fearing for her life, Mary persuaded Darnley that the Protestant nobles were only using him and talked him into accompanying her to Dunbar as well.

From there, Bothwell and Mary assembled a force of 8,000 men and marched on Edinburgh, putting the conspirators to flight.

The lords later signed a bond agreeing to kill Darnley. Sensing danger, Darnley fled to Glasgow, where an apparently friendly Mary joined him. She later brought him back to Edinburgh and installed him in the house in the Old Town.

On the night of 9 February, 1567, with Mary absent, a group of nobles, including Bothwell, blew up the house where Darnley was staying. He escaped through a back window but was captured, strangled and stabbed. A few days later, placards went up all over Edinburgh blaming Bothwell and Mary for the murder.

Dr Julian Goodare, a lecturer in history at Edinburgh University, said the location of Darnley’s house had always been thought of as underneath the Old College part of the university.

But he added: "I’m trying to think how this new location for the house that was blown up might affect who did it. I suspect it might not affect it very much."

Back to the top of the page