Scotlands History

Murder of David Rizzio

Within a few months of Mary's marriage, Lord Darnley’s true nature became apparent. Mary was pregnant with their child but Darnley spent his nights carousing with disreputable friends in Edinburgh’s taverns and brothels.

Mary turned to her close circle of friends for comfort. Among them was a small Italian courtier named David Rizzio. Rizzio was Mary’s private secretary. He was also an accomplished musician and singer. Rizzio sang and played cards with the Queen and the Four Marys in the evening in her chambers.

Darnley proved to be spoilt, obnoxious and violent. He grew jealous of the attention that Mary paid to Rizzio and, encouraged by a group of Protestant nobles, came to believe that his wife and Rizzio were having an affair. Darnley and the nobles plotted in secret to murder Rizzio.

On 9 March 1566 Mary, Rizzio and a small group of friends were enjoying a late supper in the small room by the Queen’s bedchamber. Darnley suddenly appeared, speaking to Mary as a group of armed nobles made their way to the Queen’s chambers. Darnley’s accomplices included Lord Ruthven who was suffering from a fever and close to death. He was pale and clammy, and wore a suit of armour beneath a cloak. Ruthven burst into the room, saying, ‘It would please Your Majesty to let yonder man Davie come forth of your presence.’

Mary immediately realised that David’s life was in danger and confronted the plotters - ‘Leave our presence under pain of treason.’ When Ruthven told Darnley to seize his wife a fight broke out. Rizzio hid behind the Queen’s dress as her friends and servants struggled with Ruthven.

The other plotters appeared and tried to stab Rizzio. Mary was six-months pregnant and believed that the men planned to kill her too. As Mary was roughly pushed aside and held by Darnley, a loaded gun was aimed at her pregnant belly to stop her from intervening.

David Rizzio was dragged screaming from the supper room and viciously murdered in the stairway outside the Queen’s chambers. He was stabbed over 50 times before his body was dumped down the stairs. Darnley refused to stab Rizzio but his dagger was left in the body to show his complicity.

In the days that followed, Mary skilfully managed to turn her husband away from the plotters. Under cover of darkness Mary and Darnley rode from Holyroodhouse to the safety of Dunbar Castle. She would never forgive her husband’s treachery.

  • Detail from a painting showing a man in Elizabethan dress being attacked while a woman is held back by other men

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