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On this day in 1566, one of the bloodiest events in the sad life of Mary, Queen of Scots took place in Edinburgh. As she sat eating dinner in her rooms at Holyrood, a mob of men broke into the chamber brandishing their weapons at her dinner companion, her Italian secretary David Rizzio.
Rizzio was a close associate of Mary's, and she would often confide in him, leading to a degree of resentment against Rizzio from other members of the court, including Mary's husband, Henry Darnley. Was the attack on Rizzio motivated by jealousy, rage, or something more politically significant?
Is it possible that Mary herself was the intended victim? It is thought unlikely, but could be a possibility.
Mary was six months pregnant with the would-be heir to the Scottish throne, yet contemporary accounts suggest she jumped to protect Rizzio by placing herself between him and his attackers. Some historians have suggested that the attack on Rizzio was a convenient means by which Mary might be frightened witless and thus induced to miscarry the baby - as the child of Mary and Darnley, the child was more or less certain to ascend to not just the Scottish throne but that of England too, which would have been fatal to the careers of those opposed to union with England.
Except Henry Darnley himself was accused of orchestrating the attack on Rizzio. Would he really have jeopardised the life of his own son in this way? Well, possibly - it has been noted that Darnley himself had a claim on the English throne, and if Elizabeth I died without heir then both Mary and Darnley would have been possible contenders for the role. Darnely was, by many accounts, a vain and selfish man, and it is entirely possible to conclude that he would prefer to take the throne himself instead of allowing it to by-pass him and go to his son...
Others have suggested that far from being Darnley's baby, the child Mary carried was that of Rizzio himself, the product of an overly intimate relationship between queen and courtier. Murdering Rizzio and causing Mary to lose the illegitimate baby was one way of solving two problems with a single, bloody act.
Whatever the motivation, the attack left Rizzio dead from over 50 stab wounds, before his body was flung down the palace stairs and into the street.
According to legend, his body was taken and buried in the churchyard of Canongate Kirk, where a plaque continues to memorialise him. Some historians have contested this as, following the Reformation of the Scottish churches in 1560, Scotland was now a protestant church. It is not likely that the body of Rizzio - a devout Roman Catholic, as Mary herself was - would be interred in a protestant churchyard.
It is possible Rizzio's body was left here to rest before a later burial elsewhere.
Mary was indeed terrified by the events of 9 March 1566, and fled Holyrood to take shelter in nearby Craigmillar castle. Believing her husband to be behind the attack, she would later exact a bloody revenge by having Darnley himself murdered at Kirk o'Field. The child survived, and was safely delivered to Mary in June of that year. On Mary's forced abdication, the infant became James VI of Scotland, and on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 would take the throne and crown of England, the first monarch to rule the two nations jointly.
Explore Holyrood and Canongate in more detail with my private walking tours - contact me for more details!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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