The Yorkshire king of Scotland - Henry Stuart Lord Darnley

11 October 2017
11001703036_baecb89b4d_o-54923.jpg Henry Lord Darnley
Steve Ward explores the history of Henry Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, who grew up in the Yorkshire mansion Temple Newsam.

Situated only a few miles from the bustling city centre of Leeds, in West Yorkshire, Temple Newsam House is a haven of tranquillity. Visitors come to stroll through the grounds and admire its splendour, but I wonder how many take the time to stop and consider who has walked the ground before them?

One such illustrious, or some say infamous, character was Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Darnley was born at Temple Newsam in 1545. His mother was Margaret Douglas, niece of Henry VIII. Through her, Darnley had a claim to the English throne. His father was Matthew Stuart, fourth Earl of Lennox, and this also gave Darnley a claim to the Scottish throne. It is little wonder that his parents felt that he was destined for high office.

The early years of Lord Darnley

Darnley’s early years were spent at Temple Newsam. He quickly developed a keen mind and an athletic body. He was schooled in Latin and could speak both French and Scots. He would have been taught to dance and play at least one musical instrument, as well as being able to discourse and write verses; these were requisite skills for any cultured Renaissance nobleman. Darnley was a good horseman and keen on hunting.

In 1554, he sent a letter to Queen Mary I of England explaining that he would love nothing better than to be soldier. Beautifully penned in the newly fashionable Italic hand, it portrays a maturity and eloquence far beyond his young age. A copy can be seen today in the British Library.

Darnley was tall, well over six feet, handsome, with fair hair and grey eyes. He was a witty conversationalist, a fine lute player, and a catch for any aspiring young lady at court. Margaret Douglas had plans for her son. She wanted him to make an impression on Mary Queen of Scots and, should they marry, it would strengthen his claim to the English throne.

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Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots

In February 1565, Mary met Darnley at Wemys Castle; it was love at first sight. They were first cousins and a marriage would strengthen both their claims to both the English and Scottish thrones. Their blatant liaison soon created a stir amongst the Protestant Scottish nobility, and in London. Darnley was ill shortly after their first meeting and Mary was so concerned for his health that she rarely left his side. It was a whirlwind romance and the marriage was officially declared at Holyrood Palace on 29 July 1565.

      Download our souvenir Mary Queen of Scots magazine here

Darnley, of Temple Newsam, was now king consort of Scotland, just one small step away from being a de facto King. His mother should have been overjoyed. She had set her son in a powerful position and secured his claim to the throne, but to her cost. She was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Lennox’s estates in England, including Temple Newsam, were seized by the crown.

For all his good looks and charm, Darnley was an unpleasant character. He drank, he womanised, and lived the good life. He was also outrageously jealous; quick tempered; arrogant, and boastful. From his early days in Scotland an immense hatred grew towards him.

Drama and intrigue

By 1566, Mary was pregnant with their first child. Darnley, following a debauched life and possibly riddled with syphilis, often left her alone. Mary began to rely upon her Private Secretary, David Rizzio. Although they spent much time together there is little evidence that he was the father of her child. Darnley believed otherwise and was consumed with jealousy. Encouraged by a group of Protestant nobles, he plotted to dispose of Rizzio.  

Matters came to a head on 9 March 1566. That evening, Mary, now at least six months pregnant, was in her private chamber with Rizzio and some ladies in waiting. Darnley and his conspirators burst into the room. Fearing for her life Mary ordered them to leave but Rizzio was dragged out and stabbed 56 times, and his corpse thrown down the stairs. Darnley’s dagger was left in the body but it has never been proved that he actually struck the blow. Whatever the truth of the matter, this was the beginning of Darnley’s downfall; the queen never forgave him.

On 19 June 1566, Mary gave birth to a son; the heir apparent Charles James. He would later become James VI of Scotland and, ultimately, James I of England.

Darnley was now a serious problem. Mary could not divorce him under Catholic law. An annulment of the marriage would make her son illegitimate, and therefore unable to succeed her. Possible solutions were discussed, one of which would be the convenient death of Darnley.

Events at Kirk o'Field

Although now ill, Darnley returned to Mary; not to Holyrood Palace but to a lodging house near the church known as Kirk O’Field. Mary visited him on the night of 9 February 1567 before returning to the Palace. During the early hours an enormous explosion occurred. People rushed out to find that there was barely anything left of Darnley’s lodging house. Enough gunpowder had been detonated that the house was completely destroyed. Darnley’s body was found in a nearby garden. He was in his nightgown and there were no obvious signs that he had been caught in an explosion. It was said that he looked as if he had been strangled.

With him were two servants, also dead. Nearby was found a length of rope and a chair. Had Darnley awoken and attempted to escape, and then been strangled in the garden? Why was there one solitary undamaged chair? Some said that Mary herself was complicit in the act; others that it was committed by the Earl of Bothwell, whom Mary later married.

Mary’s problem had been solved but Bothwell was arrested and tried for murder. He was acquitted through a lack of conclusive evidence. Mary’s popularity was fast waning, and after she and Bothwell married there was an uprising. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her son James, and fled to England to throw herself on the mercy of Elizabeth, who had her imprisoned for the next eighteen years. After being found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, Mary was beheaded on 8 February 1587.

Elizabeth had despised both Mary and Darnley and it is somewhat ironic that their son, James VI of Scotland, should be invited to be James I of England. In a way Margaret, Countess of Lennox had achieved her ambitions for her son. But the name of Darnley lives on through history as one of the most puzzling unsolved murder mysteries of the sixteenth century.

Download History Scotland's souvenir Mary Queen of Scots magazine here.


Steve Ward is the author of Tales from the Big House: Temple Newsam, published by Pen & Sword.

(Temple Newsam image copyright Sirenuk)