Monday, February 20, 2012

March 9, 1566 – David Rizzio Defends Mary, Queen of Scots

The life of Mary I of Scotland was surrounded by intrigue from the beginning. Less than a week after she was born as the only legitimate offspring of James V to survive, her father died, leaving the infant Mary as monarch in 1542. At fifteen, she was married to Francis II of France (two years her junior), strengthening the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland that had gone on for more than 250 years. Francis soon became king, but his reign lasted only a year before illness took him. The throne passed to his younger brother Charles IX, while real power was held by the Queen Consort, Catherine de Medici. Mary returned to presumed security in Scotland while France descended into the Wars of Religion between the Huguenots and Catholics. Meanwhile, England faced its own religious turmoil during the years of Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Protestant Elizabeth I. Mary Stuart claimed the throne of England herself through the Third Succession Act, though Henry VIII’s last will had excluded the Stuarts.

Scotland also felt the tension between the Catholics and Calvinist Protestants. Mary was a devout Catholic, but she tolerated Protestants and had a majority of them in her privy counsel. In 1562, she allied herself with the Earl of Moray (her illegitimate half-brother) to break the Catholic rebellion in the Highlands led by Lord Hunt. While she settled into power in Scotland, tensions with her cousin Elizabeth in England remained troubled. Mary refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, which her secretaries had approved and would limit the alliance between Scotland and France while acknowledging Elizabeth as the rightful queen of England. Visits between the queens were canceled, and Mary turned down Elizabeth’s suggestion that she marry the Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Instead, to secure her position in Scotland at the cost of outraging Elizabeth, she married her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565.

The marriage proved a bad match. Although initially filled with affection, the two soon turned to jealousy. Darnley demanded more and more power while despising Mary’s relationship with her secretary, David Rizzio, an Italian courtier she had met while in France who used his talent in music to work his way into courtly politics. Rumors swarmed around Rizzio and Mary, fed further by the general dissatisfaction among the increasingly Protestant Scottish lords with their Catholic queen. Finally Darnley chose to act, joining with the rebelling lords who had been beaten down at the Chaseabout Raid in August of 1526 to overthrow Mary. While soldiers stalled guards, Patrick Ruthven, Darnley, and others burst into Mary’s supper chamber where she was meeting with Rizzio. The Italian jumped to his feet and defended the seven-month-pregnant queen even before they could make their demands known. Mary’s screams from Holyroodhouse Palace awoke the people of Edinburgh, who arrived by the hundreds with makeshift weapons. The rebels found themselves surrounded, and, while Rizzio fought single-handedly to keep the lords at the narrow point of the doorway, Mary ordered the people of Edinburgh to free them.

The conspirators were captured and executed, wiping out a generation of rebels. Darnley was stripped of his title and imprisoned for life in Edinburgh Castle. Their marriage could not be annulled as James VI arrived that June and would be declared illegitimate without Darnley as his father (though it was widely believed that James VI was in fact Rizzio’s, even to the point Henry IV of France noted that he could only hope that “he was not David the fiddler's son"). Moray, who had fled Scotland after Chaseabout, was spared and even pardoned by Mary upon his return. Many called for him to lead a new rebellion to support the Protestants, but Mary managed to convince him of her intentions to keep Scotland religiously tolerant, meeting with popular preacher John Knox even though he routinely rebuked her habits of dancing and lavish living. Moray would serve as her secretary of domestic affairs while Rizzio continued his position as secretary of foreign matters, primarily continuing diplomacy with France and other Catholic nations.

In 1569, the Rising of the North began in England as Catholics supporting Mary were eager to overthrow Elizabeth. While the rebellion was put down by Elizabeth and the Earl of Sussex, Mary was implicated in sending support to the rebels. The tensions grew worse as the rebellion had prompted Pope Pius V to excommunicate Elizabeth and declare Mary the rightful queen. Plots to assassinate Elizabeth, such as that headed by Roberto di Ridolfi, prompted swift action, such as the execution of the Duke of Norfolk. Many in Mary’s camp wished to go to war, but she realized doing so would prompt another Protestant uprising, and so she remained neutral, even after the Anglo-Spanish War broke out in 1585. Her neutrality proved beneficial to Scotland, whose economy improved while the English and Spanish badgered one another in the Atlantic.

Mary I died in 1596, giving James VI reign over Scotland after a mixed Catholic-Protestant upbringing. Elizabeth followed her cousin in death in 1603, leaving behind a declaration that the Stuarts would be cut out of English succession, akin to her father’s will the generation before, as Mary had never ratified the Treaty of Edinburgh. Due to numerous deaths of relatives during Elizabeth’s long life and the invalid marriage of Lady Catherine Grey to Edward Seymour, the crown was passed to the unmarried Anne Stanley with Robert Cecil as Secretary of State. Queen Anne was courted by numerous Europeans, including a planned match with Ulrik of Denmark, but would ultimately marry an Englishman in 1607, Grey Brydges, 5th Baron Chandos. Their first son, Robert, died in 1611, and the surviving George, born in 1620, assumed the throne upon his mother’s death in 1647. With a stable English line of succession, England lived through the seventeenth century quietly other than colonial wars with the Spanish, French, and Dutch, with whom they fought as each gradually spread into North America.

Scotland, meanwhile, erupted in civil wars as lords contested James’ beliefs on absolute rule as outlined in The True Law of Free Monarchies and Basilikon Doron. While many considered him a great patron, others blamed him for the constant bankruptcy of Scotland.


In reality, Rizzio hid behind Mary’s skirts. The queen attempted to defend him, but she was forced at gunpoint to give him up and dismiss the attention roused from Edinburgh. Rizzio was stabbed more than fifty times in front of the pregnant queen, who fell into a stupor that some hoped would kill her out of shock. She recovered to escape and raise armies in a tumultuous rule that would caused her to flee to protection and then imprisonment under Elizabeth, who had her executed because of the Ridolfi Plot in 1570.


  1. On Today in Alternate History, we have published a cheeky reversal of this article called Mary, Queen of Scots defends David Rizzio.


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