Friday, July 14, 2017

Did the Queen Kill Her Husband? The First Trial of Mary, Queen of Scots

by Barbara Kyle

Mary, Queen of Scots

The news that reached London astonished Queen Elizabeth and all her court. Her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, had been defeated on the battlefield near Glasgow and in terror had fled to England. She had arrived in a fishing boat on the coast of Cumbria with nothing but the clothes she stood up in. It was May 1568.

Mary instantly wrote to her "dear cousin" Elizabeth asking for her protection and her support. Eager for revenge, Mary wanted to rage back to Scotland at the head of an army and vanquish her enemies. Those enemies were led by her own half-brother, the Earl of Moray. 

The year before, Moray and his confederates had forced her (she said at knife-point) to abdicate and had taken over the government. He had also accused her of adultery and conspiring with her lover to murder her husband, Lord Darnley.

Welcome to the shark-infested waters of 16th-century Scottish politics.

Mary and Darnley
Darnley had indeed been murdered - the house he was staying in near Edinburgh was blown up. It had been undermined with kegs of gunpowder. Charges for masterminding the crime were laid against the Earl of Bothwell, the tough military man Mary had turned to when her marriage had soured. Many believed their relationship was adulterous. At his trial Bothwell was acquitted, thanks to Mary's support, and three months after Darnley's death she took Bothwell as her new husband.

Moray then accused Mary herself of the murder and imprisoned her. Bothwell fled to Denmark. Mary escaped, raised an army, and that's when she came up against Moray's army on the Glasgow battlefield. She lost, losing her kingdom for a second time. She was twenty-six years old.

Arriving in England as a royal refugee, Mary fully expected the support of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was often blind to reality when she had a passionate stake in a situation, and never was she more blind than when she asked Elizabeth for help.

That's because Mary's arrival in England created a terrible quandary for Elizabeth. England was Protestant, but a large, disgruntled portion of its people were Catholics who believed that Mary, a pious Catholic, should be on the throne, since they regarded Elizabeth as illegitimate and a heretic. Both queens had Tudor blood. (Elizabeth was the granddaughter of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII; Mary was his great-granddaughter.) 

Elizabeth, unmarried at thirty-five, had no children, and Mary had the best claim to succeed her. Elizabeth feared that Mary would be a lightning rod for these disaffected Catholics to rise up to depose her. If they tried, Mary could expect the backing of the mightiest power in Europe, Catholic Spain.  

Elizabeth's councillors were appalled at the thought of Mary moving freely about England to draw Catholics to her cause, and they advised her to imprison Mary. Elizabeth recoiled at that, for she took her cousin's royal status very seriously. However, she knew that Mary was a dangerous threat to her throne. So, crafty ruler that she was, she found a way forward. 

Her solution was Machiavellian - and pure Elizabeth. She let it be know that, much as she sympathized with her fellow queen, she could not support her if Mary was, indeed, an adulteress and a murderer. To discover the truth, she proclaimed, she would hold an inquiry into the charges against Mary.  

In soothing letters to her cousin she assured her that if the charges proved unfounded, as Mary vehemently insisted, Elizabeth would wholeheartedly back her in restoring her to her Scottish throne. Elizabeth's tactic was one that modern-day crafters of smear campaigns would appreciate. Dirt, once it is hurled, tends to stick. If it did, Elizabeth would be free to abandon Mary and uphold the alliance she wanted with Moray's Protestant government in Scotland. Mary, at this point, was notorious for the scandals that had swirled around her, so at the news that there would be an inquiry all of Europe waited, agog, for the outcome.

It was not called a trial, since English courts had no jurisdiction over foreign rulers, but for all intents and purposes, a trial is what it was. Elizabeth set the venue; the proceedings would take place at York, then move to Westminster. She invited the Earl of Moray to come and argue his case before her commissioners. He eagerly agreed, and set out from Edinburgh with a rookery of lawyers.

Mary was furious. She said there was only one way she would appear to answer charges made by her subjects: if they were brought before her in chains. She refused to attend the inquiry. It was one of the many impetuous decisions she made that doomed her, for by all accounts she had extraordinary charm and had she attended she might very possibly have won the commissioners' sympathy. Instead, she appointed commissioners to act in her name, Lord Herries and the Bishop of Ross. These men were staunchly loyal to her, but they did not have her "star" power.

Elizabeth appointed the Duke of Norfolk, the premier peer of her realm, to preside. But Norfolk, like just about everyone involved in this intricate piece of political theater, including Elizabeth, had a hidden agenda. Mary, ever seeking to enhance her power base in England, had made Norfolk an offer he could not resist: marriage. Secretly, in letters, the two formed a marriage plan. For Norfolk, it was the brass ring. Mary had the best claim to be Elizabeth's heir, and if she came to the throne, then he, as her husband, would be king. Norfolk, therefore, was secretly predisposed to find Mary innocent.

But then something happened that changed the course of the proceedings, and of history. Moray presented evidence to the English commissioners: eight letters written by Mary to the Earl of Bothwell while she was married to Darnley. These have become known as the "casket letters," so named because, Moray said, they were found in a small silver casket in Bothwell's house after he had fled the country. Found under a bed!

How convenient, Mary raged. She had good reason to rage, for she only heard of this development from leaks. Moray had presented the letters to Elizabeth's commissioners alone, in secret. Mary was not allowed to see the evidence that was to damn her.

And damning it was. The letters were the intimate words of a woman to her lover. She called herself "the most faithful lover that ever you had or shall have" and "I end, after kissing your hands...your humble and faithful lover who hopeth shortly to be another thing unto you for my pains...Love me always, as I shall love you." "I remit myself wholly unto your will." Worse, they indicated that Mary and Bothwell had indeed been plotting to kill Darnley. "Burn this letter, for it is too dangerous." News of the letters, carefully leaked, shocked all of Europe.

Mary swore to her dying day that the letters were forged. And the fact that she was allowed no rebuttal at the inquiry was such a miscarriage of justice, her furious commissioners withdrew in protest.

Elizabeth gave Mary one last chance to come before the inquiry and defend herself. Mary refused, sure that such a desperate move would be a virtual confession of guilt. But the damage had already been done. Mary's reputation was in tatters. Even many of her Catholic followers turned away from her. Elizabeth was satisfied. She wrapped up the inquiry without even proclaiming a verdict. She didn't need to.

Did Mary plot with Bothwell to murder her husband? We may never know. The casket letters no longer exist. Moray took them back to Scotland where they eventually ended up in the possession of Mary's son, James. He became king, and the letters were never seen again.

Mary never regained her freedom. Elizabeth kept her under house arrest for the next nineteen years. Hers was a comfortable captivity, spent in a series of old castles with a small retinue to serve her, but it was captivity nonetheless. During those nineteen years she plotted ceaselessly to take Elizabeth's crown. 

Eventually, she was part of a plot in which her own writings - irrefutable this time - proved her guilt. Elizabeth had had enough. Charged with conspiring to murder Elizabeth, Mary came to trial in October 1586. This time, it was not her reputation that was in jeopardy, it was her life. 

The trial was a mere formality, its outcome never in question. Three months later Mary was executed, beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle.

The famous rivalry between these two queens has enthralled the world for over four hundred years. It enthralls us still.

An Editor's Choice, originally published 29 April 2013.

Barbara Kyle is the author of the Tudor-era "Thornleigh" novels including,  The Queen's Gamble, The Queen's Captive, The King's DaughterThe Queen's Lady, and Blood Between Queens.

Facebook: Barbara Kyle Author Page
Twitter: BKyleAuthor


  1. When I was writing The First Marie I read a total of eleven scholarly papers and five books on the subject of the casket letters and I am no closer to having resolved their legitimacy now than when I began. I worked them the same was I worked evidence in the homicides I tried. If I were fluent in French, I still would not be able to resolve them.I studied copies in Scots (which were translations from the originals which were French, and then French copies of the originals, and they are still perplexing. Not surprisingly,English historians take a different view than those in Europe, and not just those with French sympathies. There is a theory that the letters were written to Bothwell by Anna Thronsen who was emotionally devastated when Bothwell ditched her in Flanders. There are official records in Denmark indicating that thehand-fasting was recorded in Denmark as a marriage, and letters from King Christian support that claim. They could have been written by Anna. They are full of flaws in usage that no French speaker with Marie's training would have made. Some believe they are forgeries but the more likely explanation is that they are a cut and paste job. In my bookI make Marie Flemyng the writer/editor with Morton standing over her waving acopy of the Craigmillar bond her husband Maitland signed; not too far fetched, since blackmail is a 16th century Reiver word. Others were suspected of forgery, including Maitland and Marie Beaton. Marie's handwriting was well known -she was an enthusiastic letter writer, which is what got her killed. At any rate, Barbara has done an incredible job of highlighting the issues coming out of with the hearings in York and Westminster.

  2. Interesting post. Shared.

  3. Yeah, the casket letters are one of my favorite historical puzzles. The trouble with interpreting them is, all we have are various translations (or translations of translations,) which were probably very poorly done. If Mary actually wrote them, it's anybody's guess what precisely she said in them.

    As I recall, Mary never specifically denied writing the letters. At the time of her "trial," she issued a statement saying that she never wrote to anyone anything ON THE SUBJECT OF DARNLEY'S MURDER, and so if anyone produced anything, supposedly in her hand, ON THAT SUBJECT, it was a forgery. The letters do not explicitly deal with the murder, so I think that statement was a clever bit of evasion on her part.

    It's also unclear what happened with the letters. James didn't necessarily ever get his hands on them, although he desperately wanted to. There are some accounts claiming they were extant as late as the 18th century. They may still lie hidden somewhere, for all we know.

    And wouldn't those documents be a find?

  4. IMHO Lethington forged the letters. Lady Fleming would not have betrayed Mary. And Moray certainly knew of the plot and encouraged it.

    I disagree with the statement that "At his trial Bothwell was acquitted, thanks to Mary's support". No, Mary simply never had the crown indict him. A subtelt difference perhaps but Mary was already suffering a nervous breakdown in my reading of what we know.

    Also regarding Elizabeth's "solution was Machiavellian". Nope -- Cecil all the way followed by Walsingham.

  5. IMHO Lethington forged the letters. Lady Fleming would not have betrayed Mary. And Moray certainly knew of the plot and encouraged it.

    I disagree with the statement that "At his trial Bothwell was acquitted, thanks to Mary's support". Mary was suffering from a nervous breakdown in my reading of events. The failure was to provide a Royal indictment rather than allow it to proceed as a private prosecution by Lennox.

    I also disagree that Elizabeth's "solution was Machiavellian". It was Cecil all the way followed by Walsingham.

  6. There is the scene where Bothwell and Maitland ride off to the Tollbooth with Marie looking out the window. Elizabeth'snew envoy had arrived with a request for a continuance, but Maitland would not give him access to Marie. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call what ensured a mistrial, since Lennox presented his evidence by hearsay declaration, but by the accounts I have read make it quite certain that proceedings were held at the Tollbooth that day. I am certain that Cecil and Walsingham were delighted with the entire saga. I have read most of the various critiques of the casket letters and have studied them as extensively as most any non-French linguist can, and I am ready to write them off as an unsolved mystery. I suspect they were an amalgam. Asto Marie Flemyng, there is not enough known of her to be sure of what she would do. If she were totally devoted to MarieStuart, she would have followed the lead of her brother John and her sisterAgnes and followed the queen into exile. Maitland would not have made the factual mistakes found in the letters unless, of course, he wanted them to appear as forgeries. There are confusing referenes such as that to "your uncle" that make little sense, and to events that appear to have occurred in another timeframe. They may have been a 'cut and paste job.' There is much still open to debate. debate,obvously.

  7. IMHO I don't believe Mary conspired with Bothwell in this gunpowder plot: There are various other theories including Darnley's plot to murder Mary and Bothwell, or Moray and Morton's plots to kill all 3 Darnley, Mary and Bothwell. On finding the gunpowder Bothwell foiled the plot by lighting the fuse. The casket letters were fabricated to indict Mary and Bothwell. However, we shall never know the truth.

  8. What a concise, well written description of that bit of history. England has always been fascinating to me, but Mary qos' story a bit confusing. Thanks.

  9. Thank you, I enjoyed that since the Tudors fascinate me. Was not Bess of Hardwick's husband (and, therefore, Bess?) involved in Mary's imprisonment?


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