Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was the king consort of Scotland throughout his marriage to the notorious Mary, Queen of Scots. Although his flirtation with power was relatively brief, he still managed to find himself at the heart of two of the bloodiest and most brutal scandals of his time. To top it off, his tragic demise became a mystery of epic proportion.
1. He Had Broken Family
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was born in 1545 to Matthew Stuart and Lady Margaret Douglas, and to be frank, his family life was already a hot mess. At the time of his birth, his parents were already separated by political turmoil. His mother was in Scotland while his father was in exile in England. Although his beginnings were tumultuous, they were nothing compared to what life had in store for him.
2. He Was Torn Between Allegiances
Darnley grappled with lofty expectations right from the get-go. Through his parents, he had legitimate claims to both the English and Scottish crowns and the hopes of a unified United Kingdom rested squarely on his infantile, narrow shoulders. Ultimately, however, the tension between Catholic Scotland and Protestant England would tear Darnley apart. And we mean that almost literally.
3. He Was A Wordsmith
With all these anxieties weighing on his weary mind, Darnley’s education was of national importance. Fortunately, the boy actually seemed to be quite gifted and extremely intelligent. He excelled in linguistics and became adept at Latin. But that wasn’t all. He also practiced Gaelic, English and French. Sadly, no amount of flowery language could save him from what fate had in store.
4. He Was An Athlete
Darnley was something of a golden boy in his youth—a fact that would likely contribute to his giant ego later on. Not only was he good with the books but he excelled in athletics as well. Darnley was an expert horseman, hunter, and hawk trainer, and became adept at wielding various arms. From the outside, at least, he seemed to be quite the catch.
5. He Had Great Hair
Things definitely went south for Darnley in the end but he was full of noble gallantry in the beginning. Writing to his first cousin once-removed, Mary I of England (aka Bloody Mary), Darnley said, “every haire in my heade for to be a wourthy souldiour.” Modern English translation: “even the hairs on my head make for great soldiers.” Or something like that.
6. He Was Between An Elizabeth And A Mary Place
By the time that Darnley was old enough to start acting on his royal ambitions, he had stiff competition. As descendants of the infamous Henry VIII, both Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots had already exerted their claims to their respective birthrights. Darnley found himself caught between two very powerful queens. But you know what they say: if you can’t beat them…join them.
7. He Was A Captive
When Mary, Queen of Scots ascended to the throne in France, Darnley’s father saw an opportunity. Instead of fighting his son’s rival claimants—who had already taken their crowns—he was going to play nice. He offered the 14-year-old Darnley as a hostage to Mary in exchange for lifting his exile from Scotland. His plan worked better than even he could have expected.
8. He Was A Guest Of Dishonor
Mary refused to restore Darnley’s father to his former glory, but she certainly didn’t leave Darnley empty-handed. She extended an invitation to her coronation in France to the young boy and paid him 1,000 crowns. The little tyke must have left quite the impression on the 17-year-old Mary because it wasn’t long before they became practically inseparable.
9. He May Have Committed Regicide
Less than two years into their marriage, Mary Queen of Scots’ husband, King Francis II, passed away. Immediately, the Catholics smelled something fishy and began pointing fingers at the Protestants, accusing them of having poisoned Francis II. But no one benefited more from the untimely events in France than Darnley because Mary returned to Scotland…single.
10. He Had An Unusual Wedding Planner
Darnley wanted to marry Mary in order to strengthen his claims on the English and Scottish crowns. But he couldn’t just conspire openly. Under interrogation, a Catholic spy admitted to arranging a marriage between Darnley and Mary in order to undermine Elizabeth. Fortunately for Darnley, Elizabeth couldn’t tie the spy back to him and let everyone keep their heads—at least, for the time being.
11. He Got A Lousy Promotion
After uncovering the spy’s plot, Elizabeth did the unexpected. Instead of punishing Darnley and his supporters for their treacherous scheme to undermine her reign, she flipped the script and elevated Darnley at court. She might have been trying to appease Darnley but he wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less than a crown of his own. And he knew just how to get one.
12. He Kept Dangerous Company
If Elizabeth couldn’t see the danger that Darnley presented, then other people did. Darnley’s tutor, John Elder, wanted to see the Scottish lad installed on the throne in England. According to one English nobleman, Elder’s ambitions made him “as dangerous for the matters of England as any [he] knew.” He wasn’t wrong.
13. He Made Devious Travel Plans
Darnley wasn’t making much progress in England. But, with Mary back in Scotland, he knew that there was an opportunity to snag at least one crown. In 1565, having just turned 19, Darnley left London and returned to his homeland to woo Mary, Queen of Scots into handing over her crown. The next two years proved to be brutal, if not downright bloody.
14. He Seduced A Queen
Darnley’s charms worked better than even he could have hoped for. Upon his arrival in Scotland, Mary immediately fell under his “golden boy” spell. One of the diplomats at court noted, “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen.” Darnley may have been a total looker, but Mary had no idea what lurked beneath his charm.
15. His Dreams Were In Reach
In no time at all, Darnley had managed to make Mary fall madly in love with him. The two became joined at the hip and spent immeasurable amounts of time together. And that’s when the rewards started rolling in. Mary began to shower Darnley with gifts of lordships and earldoms. The crown that he had coveted for so long was finally within his grasp. But not everyone was happy for Darnley.
16. He Engagement Caused A Stir
Back in England, Elizabeth received word about Darnley’s and Mary’s growing romance. While other people were busy buying the couple wedding gifts, Elizabeth wanted to ensure that the marriage would never take place. She demanded that Darnley return to England at once. Needless to say, Darnley wasn’t going anywhere until he had his crown.
17. He Manipulated Two Queens
Clearly, over the course of their whirlwind romance, Darnley managed to wrap Mary around his finger. Instead of sending him back to England as Elizabeth had commanded, Darnley had Mary dispatch an envoy to England. Together, they managed to royally anger Elizabeth, who responded with a sassy reply conveying her “small satisfaction.” With Mary under his thumb, Darnley was finally ready to make his move.
18. He Was Only Given Lip Service
Darnley’s marriage to Mary would only have made him king consort—and he wanted to be king in his own right. He managed to convince Mary to proclaim that after their marriage, the government they formed would be in both their names as king and queen. But Darnley made a terrible mistake. He didn’t follow that age old advice: always get it in writing.
19. He Skipped Out On His Bride
If Mary’s love for Darnley was blind then their marriage night was definitely an eye-opener. As it turns out, there was one thing that could separate the love birds—religion. Right after attending their wedding ceremony, Darnley skipped out on their nuptial mass. Darnley hadn’t wasted any time showing his true colors and he would live to regret it.
20. His Efforts Were In Vain
Mary and Darnley didn’t have much of a honeymoon at all. In fact, by the time they were walking back down the aisle, they were probably wondering what they had done. Once Darnley began showing his narcissistic and obnoxious personality streak to his new wife, the jig was up. Mary immediately figured out that he had only married her for the crown. And she was going to make him work for it.
21. He Forced His Father To Flee
Darnley might have started counting his chickens before they hatched—or wearing his crown before his coronation. The newly minted king consort’s heavy drinking and vicious outbursts became too much even for his own father, forcing him to leave the Scottish court. It’s too bad because he could have used a friend in the coming year.
22. His Dreams Faded Away
In light of his uncontrollable temper and drink-fuelled outbursts, Mary refused to give Darnley the one thing he wanted most. The Queen of Scots denied Darnley the Crown Matrimonial—the Scottish law that would have allowed him a co-equal reign as her spouse. Just when the crown seemed within reach, it slipped away…and would only continue to evade him.
23. He Was Not A Happy Daddy
Even though Darnley and Mary fell out of love—five minutes after they said their “I dos”—they still managed to perform their marital duties. Less than two months after their marriage, Mary became pregnant. With an heir on the way, Darnley’s claim to both the Scottish and English thrones became weaker. You know what they say: desperate times call for…bloody measures.
24. He Maybe Wasn’t The Father
Considering the fact that Darnley and Mary had been behaving more like rival royals than supportive spouses, Mary’s pregnancy was certainly questionable. As such, rumors began to fly around the whole United Kingdom. Courtiers in Scotland and England speculated that Mary wasn’t pregnant with Darnley’s child but with the child of her private secretary, David Rizzio. This betrayal, however, didn’t sit well with Darnley…not at all.
25. He Wasn’t Gay—Or Happy
In the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots, the characters of Darnley and Rizzio carry out their own secret romance. But history says otherwise—and the truth is just as sordid. In real life, Darnley loathed Rizzio with every fiber of his being. He was intensely jealous of his wife’s exotic private secretary. And he wasn’t shy about expressing his hatred for Rizzio either.
26. He Saw Blood Red
Darnley watched from the sidelines as Mary and Rizzio grew closer and his crown slipped further way. Finally, he understood that the only way to get the crown would be to take it. Either out of jealousy of Rizzio or to punish Mary for not giving him the Crown Matrimonial, Darnley and a cabal of Protestant conspirators came up with a bloody plot to get rid of Rizzio.
27. He Disrupted A Quiet Dinner
A six-month pregnant Mary was having dinner with Rizzio and another lady from her court when Darnley and his conspirators kicked in the door and burst into the room. They demanded that Mary hand over Rizzio but she refused. The cowering Rizzio took refuge behind Mary. But not even she could protect him from Darnley’s homicidal wrath.
28. He Butchered His Enemy
Darnley and his conspirators ripped the frightened Rizzio away from Mary and proceeded to drag him into an adjoining chamber. As Mary screamed, Darnley unleashed all of his uncontrollable rage and pent-up anger on Rizzio in one of the most brutal knife attacks ever. When Darnley finally calmed down, Rizzio had 56 knife wounds. But that wasn’t all.
29. He Threw Out The Trash
Darnley and his conspirators didn’t even try to conceal the utter brutality of their senseless attack. After they slayed Rizzio, they proceeded to strip his corpse of its clothes and jewels and throw him down a staircase. Darnley had passed the point of no return. He might have drawn blood first, but he wouldn’t be the last.
30. He Was The Subject Of Fake News
Rumors of Darnley’s horrifying actions spread rapidly but not exactly accurately. In England, Elizabeth heard that Darnley had dispatched of Mary instead of Rizzio in a coup and “admitted the exiled heretics, and seized the kingdom.” Oddly enough, the truth coming out would only make Darnley’s situation even more precarious.
31. His Friends Betrayed Him
In the chaos that ensued—and to escape Mary’s wrath—Darnley’s co-conspirators fled to England. While there, they heard the false rumors and quickly told the truth—or, more accurately, bent it in their favor. Darnley’s “friends” blamed him for the whole thing and said that he had been motivated by his “quarrel” with and “hatred” of Rizzio.
For poor Darnley, justice—or explosive retribution—was coming.
32. His Wife Outsmarted Him
In his rage and jealousy, Darnley had miscalculated. If he had expected his actions to frighten Mary into giving him the Crown Matrimonial, then he was very, very wrong. Instead of reacting with fear, Mary stood up to Darnley. She disgraced her husband and began putting together a terrible plot of her own to end all of his scheming.
33. He Pretended To Play Nice
For the sake of their kingdom, Darnley and Mary tried to keep up appearances. In 1566, after the birth of their son, James VI, the royal couple went on a hunting trip together. But Darnley’s insistence on the Crown Matrimonial and his increasingly erratic behavior made reconciliation impossible…not to mention, the image of her best friend’s bloody, crumpled corpse at the bottom of a stairwell.
34. He Became A Recluse
In light of his grisly actions and insatiable ambitions, Darnley was increasingly out of favor at court. At James VI’s baptism, a French ambassador noted that Darnley was “lodged in the castle” but that he had stayed in his rooms the whole time. Apart from his dwindling political power, there may have been another very good reason for his seclusion.
35. He Fell Mysteriously Ill
Around the time of his son’s birth, Darnley began to suffer from an unknown illness—I believe the clinical term is a guilty conscience. Joking aside, Darnley may have had either smallpox or syphilis. Mary showed a suspicious amount of caring for her husband in his sickened state and was nursing him back to health at Kirk o’ Field.
However, her ministrations might have been a part of her master plan for revenge.
36. He Was Home Alone
Darnley was probably grateful to have his wife at his side as he suffered in his sickbed. But he should have been suspicious instead of thankful, especially on the night of February 9, 1567. Conspicuously, Mary had to leave Darnley at Kirk o’ Field to attend a marriage ceremony. It was a rather convenient excuse considering what happened next.
37. He Slept On Dynamite
Darnley was—presumably—sound asleep at two in the morning on February 10, 1567. Soon enough, however, the entire neighborhood would be woken by a terrifying sound. Someone had secretly placed two barrels full of explosives right underneath Darnley’s bedchamber. In an instant, two giant blasts reduced Kirk o’ Field to rubble. But something didn’t add up.
38. He Was A Homewrecker
The explosion that destroyed Kirk o’ Field was so powerful that neighbors all around heard the giant blast. One witness described it as, “a force and vehemency, that of the whole lodgings, walls and other, there is nothing left which is not ruined and struck down in fragments to the very foundation stone.” Of course, Darnley couldn’t have survived such an explosion. Or…could he?
39. He Escaped The Blast
It stands to reason that the force of the explosion would have launched Darnley’s body far from the blast site. But that’s not what witnesses discovered when they arrived to investigate. They found Darnley’s lifeless body at a nearby orchard, fully intact and dressed in his nightgown, apparently unscathed from the massive explosion. There was, however, evidence of something terribly sinister.
40. His Demise Is An Enigma
Darnley’s only injuries had nothing to do with the massive blast. Apparently, he had either been strangled or smothered. But that only presented more questions: who had strangled him, where had they strangled him, and how had he escaped the explosion? The only clear thing was that someone had gone out of their way to ensure that Darnley wouldn’t live to see the light of day.
And the few clues discovered? Well, they only prompted more questions.
41. He Left A Few Clues
When witnesses stumbled onto the scene, they didn’t have many clues to work with. They found Darnley’s body along with his servant’s body, a chair, a coat and, not to put too fine a point on it, a cloak and a dagger. From this, we deduce a mystery even too great for Sherlock Holmes. Little did those unwitting witnesses know, however, they might actually have been mingling with the perpetrators.
42. She Saw His Executioners
One witness named May Crokat, who lived nearby Kirk o’ Field, had a close encounter with one of Darnley’s attackers. After hearing the explosion, she ran out of her bedroom and onto the street where she saw 11 men fleeing the scene. She stopped one of them to ask about the explosion but received no answer. That man might have been investigators’ only lead. Of course, there was one prime suspect.
43. His Wife Wanted A Divorce
Not long before the explosion at Kirk o’ Field, Mary had held private discussions with powerful lords at Craigmillar Castle. She was trying to find a way to divorce Darnley but ultimately decided that she didn’t want to risk making her son illegitimate. That didn’t mean that she didn’t end up finding another, more permanent, way of getting rid of Darnley.
44. He Plotted Revenge From The Grave
Just because Darnley was in the grave didn’t mean that he had to stop causing trouble in Scotland and England. Three months after his incendiary demise, Mary remarried to the Earl of Bothwell. Bothwell was another prime suspect in the Kirk o’ Field explosion. After all, the men spotted fleeing the scene were his men. To make matters worse, Mary and Bothwell left a paper trail.
45. His Wife Wrote Love Letters To Someone Else
The attack on and sudden demise of Darnley left the English just as confused as the Scottish. Then, about one year after the explosion at Kirk o’ Field, revealing letters came to light in London. The “Casket letters”, allegedly written by Mary, proved that Mary and Bothwell conspired to carry out the attack. Others asserted that the letters were forgeries.
But then the question remained: who forged them?
46. He Lost His Head
Even in the grave, Darnley wasn’t satisfied with leaving behind just one mystery. In 1668, mobs opened Holyrood Abbey where Darnley’s remains were resting. But that wasn’t the last time. About a hundred years later, mobs raided the abbey once again and literally ran off with Darnley’s skull. But don’t worry, this mystery does indeed have a solution.
47. He Was All Broken Up
Karl Pearson—a mathematician and biostatistician—theorized that Darnley’s missing skull could be in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum. There was just one problem. The Luftwaffe raids over England during WWII had reduced the skull to fragments. What was it with Darnley and explosions? Anyhow, there would finally be some justice in Darnley’s life—or, afterlife as it were.
48. He Came Together
Modern facial reconstruction technology provided some much-needed answers. Researchers were able to recreate the fragmented skull and render a likeness of the face that they compared to portraits of Darnley. The rendering bore a striking resemblance to the once ambitious Lord. But even after all of that, Darnley might have missed out on his true calling in life.
49. He Was A Poet, Would You Know It
Unlike his shocking demise, Darnley’s mastery of linguistics was no mystery and he may have authored one of the poems included in the Bannatyne Manuscript—a collection of the best Scottish and English poems from the 15th and 16th centuries. Perhaps, in the end, he was meant to be king of words—a king of the bards.