Dragsholm Castle in Denmark: prison of the 4th Earl of Bothwell, third husband of Mary Queen of Scots

18 March 2019
Dragsholm-Castle_LoneAthanasakis-1600px-41453.jpg Dragsholm Castle
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell was imprisoned at Dragsholm Castle from 1573 until his death on 14 April 1578. We explore the castle's history and discover what life would have been like there in the sixteenth century, when it was a state prison.

"How noble and stately the ancient, memorable Manor must seem. The whitewashed walls light up with a friendly smile (...).

However, to believe, on such a fleeting Impression, that one now knows Dragsholm, would be mistaken. Behind the smile lies something serious, behind the white surface of the walls lurk deep scars of past conflict and destruction.

He who gets to know Dragsholm properly, will stand face to face with the distant past, its strivings, struggles and suffering, and the Middle Ages will meet him in one of its strangest monuments."

Danske Slotte og Herregaarde (Danish Castles and Manors), 1944.

The origins of Dragsholm Castle

Dragsholm Castle lies alongside the bay of Sejerøbugt, on the banks of the Lammefjord in Odsherred. The castle’s name derives from its geographical location. Vikings and other mariners before them preferred to avoid sailing right around the Sjællands Odde peninsula, and instead dragged their ships over land and into the calm waters of the fjords.

In the Viking age, the tongue of land that connects Odsherred with the rest of Zealand was approximately 200 metres wide, and was named for its function: “Draugh”, a place of portage. The castle is named in the oldest sources according to its location by the “dragging-place”, or portage. In slightly later sources, the name is changed to Dragsholm – the islet by the portage. The islet was located slightly west of the portage in a wet area consisting of lakes and waterlogged meadows. The only access route to the castle, then and now, was from the north.

The original building was a so-called ‘palatium’, or bishop’s palace. There are only a few historical sources for the original Dragsholm, but some traces in the masonry enable a reasonably secure determination of the castle’s year of construction, and its layout. The Bishop of Roskilde, Peder Sunesen (bishop from 1191 to 1214), installed trios of windows in an ambulatory in Roskilde Cathedral of the same kind that can be seen in the now walled-up window in the castle’s south wing.

The bishop visited Tournai in what is now Belgium in the late 1100s, and found inspiration here for the window sections in both Roskilde and the original great hall of Dragsholm Castle. By this means, Gothic inspiration was brought to Denmark – but the semi-circular Roman arches were retained.

The original Dragsholm Castle was built in around the year 1215 by the Bishop of Roskilde and was rebuilt in the 15th century as a Renaissance palace and fortress. Following the Count’s Feud (1534-36) during which Dragsholm was besieged and bombarded for four months by the army of Count Christoffer, the Count lost both the war and the battle against Dragsholm, which was able to withstand the ravages of war, as the only castle in Zealand to do so.

The feud's victor, Duke Christian, was crowned Christian III in 1536. It was he that introduced the Reformation into Denmark in 1536 and confiscated the property of the bishopric; Dragsholm became Dragsholm Castle.

Content continues after advertisements

A prison

Under the ownership of Christian III, Dragsholm Castle was used as a prison for noble and ecclesiastical prisoners. Among the first prisoners was Roskilde’s last Catholic bishop, Joachim Rønnow, who was kept incarcerated there until his death. There was little hope for anyone imprisoned here during the years of Christian III; those who were sent here were considered dead in the eyes of the state, and waited only to die.

The wretched prisoners could not have dreamt of the luxury enjoyed by those who enjoyed the true hospitality of the castle, as one chronicler described:

For while serving as a prison, Dragsholm was also the setting for the fine life of the lord of the estate. The King came to visit, and there were hunting parties in the castle hall, weddings in the chapel, and balls in the Great Hall. The guests ate saddle of venison and drank spiced wine, danced and courted, and if occasionally a half-smothered wail could be heard from behind the walls, it interrupted neither the cheerful laughter nor the tender kisses. It might after all just be a calving cow, or a stallion whinnying in the stables. Dragsholm does not smile again, but it looks like life; happiness and wretchedness sleep under the same roof, and in the winter nights the storm rides in from the Kattegat and covers it all, howling in the chimneys, and then it is already out over the wide Lammefjord, and then Lammefjord has already dried out, and the tears have dried away, and what does it matter now who shed tears of joy, and who shed tears of misery?”

Thorkild Hansen: Jens Munk. 1965 (translation by Dragsholm Castle).

The Earl of Bothwell at Dragsholm Castle

One of the most high profile prisoners was undoubtedly James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. After Mary's abdication, Bothwell fled overseas and ended up in Bergen, as the prisoner of the King of Denmark, Frederik II.

Frederik II was at war, and is torn between his blood ties to Mary Queen of Scots and the need to show loyalty to his Protestant allies. Fortunately for him, the problem solved itself when Mary, held prisoner in England, dissolved her marriage to Bothwell, making him merely a problem to be got rid of from Frederik's perspective.

A dispatch order is the last source we have to Bothwell whilst he was still alive. He arrived at Dragsholm in 1573 and would endure five years of imprisonment for his death:

“On 14 April 1578, Bothwell died at Dragsholm. As was customary for state prisoners, his body was carried to the promontory that juts into the fjord a mile or so from the castle and buried at the parish church of Fårevejle. (…) Dragsholm Castle is now a hotel, where Bothwell’s ghost is said to walk at night. Such was the ironic end of a man who altered the course of history and aspired to be buried amongst kings.” John Guy: My Heart Is My Own. 2004. Reproduced by permission of the HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Bothwell's coffin was opened for the first time in 1868 and a very well-preserved body was found, which subsequently rapidly decayed and, for a period of time, until 1973, was open to public viewing under a glass lid. Then, in response to a request from the descendants of the Hepburn family, the newly-crowned Margrethe II had Bothwell buried in a zinc-lined coffin within a sarcophagus of oak, and here he remains.

Other noble prisoners at Dragsholm Castle

Bothwell was not the only nobleman unfortunate to end up in this state prison. Erik Munk was brought here as a prisoner not long after he had been ennobled by Frederik II for his deeds during the Seven-Year War against Sweden. He was renowned as a hard man and was sentenced in 1586 for maltreating his tenants and sent to Dragsholm Castle. He unsuccessfully attempted to escape with one of his fellow prisoners, Eiler Brockenhuus and later wrote several letters in which he pleaded with the king to be released, but without luck. In 1594 he hung himself, and was buried under the gallows, close to the north wall.

Erik Munk’s fellow prisoner and would-be escapee Eiler Brockenhuus, was a landlord of the aristocracy who was accused and convicted of the most bizarre crimes. He killed his mother, had a child with his sister and later killed them both. He then plotted to kill the King and blew up a chimney sweep in an attempt to test the effect of gunpowder in a chimney.

On another occasion he played dead and, to everyone’s horror, rose from the casket in the middle of his funeral. He spendt 25 years as a prisoner at Dragsholm Castle, despite pleading with the king as Munk had done.

Dragsholm Castle in later years

Frederik Christian Adeler and his wife, Henriette Margrethe von Lente, took over Dragsholm Castle in 1694 and turned the Renaissance castle and fortress into a baroque palace and stately home. In 1836, the heiress to the castle, Bertha Henriette Frederikke Løvenskjold, married Georg Frederik Otto von Zytphen. Baron Zytphen-Adeler was an active man and became known as a pioneer in agriculture.

At Dragsholm Castle he focused on the living conditions of the tenant farmers, and experimented with new technology. He and Bertha were ahead of their time, establishing a profit sharing scheme, setting up a kindergarten for the children of their farmers, and introducing steam-powered machinery.

During the 20th century the castle functioned variously as a summer boarding house, a billet for the Danish Resistance Movement and was occupied by German forces in the Second World War. A complete restoration began in 2002 and in 2015, following repair works after a serious fire in 2014, the castle celebrated its 800th birthday with several thousand guests in attendance, followed by being awarded a Michelin star in 2017. In 2018 Dragsholm Castle joined Relais & Châteaux, an association of hotels and restaurants that embraces the elite of the hotel and restaurant world.

Further reading

My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by Dr John Guy

Dragsholm Castle today

Today, Dragsholm Castle is a beautifully-restored luxury hotel. You can enjoy a stay at one of Denmark's oldest castle and experience its history for yourself. There are 34 guest rooms and two award-winning restaurants.

The historic building stands in the surroundings of Denmark's only UNESCO-recognised Geopark and is within easy reach of a range of attractions and activities. The team aims to give every guest at Dragsholm Castle a total experience – an experience of the castle as part of Danish history, cultural history and agricultural history.

Find out more on the castle's website.


With thanks to Dragsholm Castle for their help in the preparation of this history. Images from top copyright Lone Athanasakis; Kirstine Fryd; Aedler image Dansk Adels Aarbog, 1906.