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Murder of Lord Darnley

by Doug MacGowan

He lived like a king, but died like a peasant.

The mysterious death of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, puzzles Scottish history researchers to this day.

lord darnley

A contemporary portrait of Lord Darnley

Darnley came from a family that gave him claims to both the Scottish and English thrones via family ties with James II of Scotland and Henry VII of England. Darnley, in his younger years, enjoyed the childhood of the privileged few of the 16th century.

In February of 1565, at the age of 20, he traveled to Scotland and met the queen, Mary. She was smitten, and one chronicler said she “took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen.

Mary apparently continued to be smitten, as they were married that July and he became King of the Scots.

It was soon apparent that he would not handle himself regally. He made enemies at every turn with his bad temper, arrogant manner, and drunkenness. Even Mary tired of his company and the couple were often apart, although they got along well enough to produce a son — James — who would later rule both Scotland and England.

Their rocky marriage continued. As Mary was a Roman Catholic, divorce was out of the question. She may have turned to another solution.

In February of 1567, the royal couple were staying at Kirk o’ Field, a large church house in Edinburgh. In the early hours of the 10th, there were two huge explosions which were heard for miles around. The Kirk was nearly destroyed. It was later determined that two barrels of gunpowder had been secreted under Darnley’s bedroom, where he was recovering from smallpox (although other sources say he had syphilis).

People came from all over the vicinity to see the catastrophe.

But Darnley’s body was not found in the rubble. After some cursory searching by the crowd, a soldier found the remains of Darnley and a servant on the grounds of the Kirk. It was apparent to everyone that the death wounds inflicted on Darnley and his servant were not from the explosion. The two men had clearly been strangled after the gunpowder had done its work.

Suspicion ran rampant. The noble families of Scotland wanted answers. That soldier who had come across the bodies was initially found innocent of the assassination, but then, on second thought, was brought to trial, found guilty, and summarily executed.

And where was Mary? She had been living at the Kirk along with Darnley, but (perhaps too conveniently) was away at a wedding on the fateful night.

The facts cannot be ignored: somebody placed the gunpowder under Darnley’s room. Shortly before it was set to explode, Darnley apparently learned of the threat and fled into the night (his body was found clothed only in a nightshirt), where somebody overpowered and strangled him.

The case has not closed.

The guilty parties could have been any of a number of Scottish nobles (with the Queen possibly in collusion) who were unhappy with the power Darnley wielded or who just didn’t like the man. Later researchers would dismiss the notion that the executed soldier had any involvement in the murder of Lord Darnley.

Mary would soon have her own problems, as she would flee to England only to be imprisoned by Elizabeth I and eventually executed in 1587.

Whatever she knew about the death of her husband, she took it to the grave.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley” Wikipedia, pulled 6/12/12
Lord Darnley” NNDB website, pulled 6/12/12
“The Murder of Lord Darnley” trot website, pulled 6/12/12

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