The Murder of David Riccio

Four hundred years ago, writes Antonia Fraser, the young Queen of Scots, then struggling to hold her own against her factious nobles, saw a favourite servant butchered at her feet.

On March 9th, 1566, Mary Queen of Scots, six months pregnant with the future James VI, witnessed the murder of her secretary David Riccio at the instigation of her husband Henry Lord Damley and was then left to spend the night alone in the rooms still stained by Riccio’s blood.

For a parallel, one turns to Jacobean melodramas, such as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, rather than to episodes of actual history. Yet this explosion of feeling into action, violent and public though it was, had complicated and subterranean causes: and the chief actors were animated by many very different motives.

Queen Mary had married her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, son of the Earl and Countess of Lennox, on July 29 1565, only eight months before the night of the murder. She had done so against the wishes of her cousin Elizabeth of England, and those of her half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray, who headed the party of the reformed religion in Scotland, and who resented the fact that Darnley like Mary herself, was a Catholic. Mary’s motives for making this contentious match were at least partly political.

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