Lord Darnley: On the 450th Anniversary of his Murder

Two boys stand against a backdrop of a Tudor Hall. Darnley is on the right and much older, and places a hand on his younger brother Charles.
‘The Sons of the Earl of Lennox’ by Hans Ewouts c.16th Century – Lord Darnley is on the right

Megan Jones explores the life of Lord Darnley – who was born at Temple Newsam – on the 450th anniversary of his murder.

Henry Stuart was born in December 1545, at Temple Newsam House. His mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, was the daughter of Archibald Douglas, sixth Earl of Angus, and Margaret Tudor. His grandparents famously had a tumultuous relationship, and Darnley would unfortunately inherit their volatile approach to marriage.

Margaret, his grandmother, was a Tudor: the daughter of Henry VII, the sister of Henry VIII, and the wife (in her first marriage) to King James IV of Scotland. By this reckoning, Henry Stuart had claims to the thrones of both Scotland and England; and as an English-born Catholic male, presented a threatening alternative to Queen Elizabeth I.

Marriage to Mary Queen of Scots

Sticking with the tradition of the day, Darnley made a powerful move in marrying his first cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on 19 July 1565. On first sight Mary had declared him ‘the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen’, and their marriage meant they were both high in the line of succession for the English throne: cue panic for the Elizabethan Protestants in England, who were starting to get nervous about their heirless Queen.

One of the most amazing pieces we have here in the collection is the impression of a wax seal, pictured below, accompanied by a note that reads: ‘This impression taken from a seal given to Mary Queen of Scots by Lord Darnley’. The seal impression makes the history of Mary and Darnley – whose story, 450 years on, you could be forgiven for thinking was a great work of fiction – entirely tangible.

A small box with the wax seal impression of a seal given to Mary by Darnley. The seal is accompanied by a note that says 'This impression taken from a seal given to Mary Queen of Scots by Lord Darnley'
Wax Seal Impression, taken from a seal given to Mary Queen of Scots by Lord Darnley c. mid 16th century

The initial happiness of their marriage was unfortunately short-lived. Darnley’s personality began to unravel: he was arrogant, unpopular with other nobles and often violent as a result of his drinking. As a result, Mary refused to grant Darnley the ‘Crown Matrimonial’, which would have made him the successor to the throne if she died childless. Luckily, Mary soon became pregnant with the future James VI and I of Scotland and England.

Half-portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. The middle-aged female subject is facing towards the right of the viewer and has her left hand resting on a red clothed table. She is wearing a dark coloured outfit and is set against a dark backdrop.
Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, c. 1559-1587

On 9 March 1566 Darnley  reached the peak of his villainy, when he and his associates murdered Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio in front of the Queen (who was 7 months pregnant at the time). Rizzio was rumoured to be the father of Mary’s unborn child, and such rumours would not do for Darnley (though his own promiscuity was widely known). The murder also served as part of Darnley’s insistence on being granted the ‘Crown Matrimonial’.

Of course, Lord Darnley denied any involvement.

Murder

Lord Darnley’s body was discovered on the 9 February 1567. Whilst staying in lodgings at Kirk O’Field, two explosions went off in the small room under where Darnley had been sleeping.

Although Lord Darnley died that evening, his body was found the next morning in the orchard outside the lodging: dressed only in his nightshirt, his body had no signs of injuries from the explosion. Darnley had likely been strangled, and the explosion employed as a cover.

Although Darnley had many enemies, the likely suspect was James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who had been enjoying a suspiciously ‘close relationship’ with the Queen. Sure enough, soon after they fled the scene, Bothwell and Mary married. This marriage would become her downfall, and after a long imprisonment over a plot to kill Elizabeth I, Mary was executed in 1587.

A slippery character if ever there was one, the story of Darnley’s life is as erratic as his personality. Had he had a more positive temperament, without so many enemies it is more than likely that he would have lived beyond the age of 21, and possibly maintained his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots. Without her marriage to Bothwell, Mary might not have been executed: and the course of British history may have taken a different route. And it all started with a birth at Temple Newsam.

By Megan Jones, Social Media Placement

For more information about Temple Newsam, visit our webpage here.

 

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