On this day in 1566, David Rizzio, secretary and (possibly) lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered in the queen's bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. She was heavily pregnant at the time, with the child who would later be crowned James VI and I, and it has been speculated by some that the brutal attack on Rizzio was carefully designed to induce a miscarriage in Mary.
The event was a dramatic moment in Mary's life, and is (arguably) the moment at which her fate as a doomed queen was sealed. The murder of Rizzio kick-started a sequence of events, allegations and accusations which would lead inexorably to Mary's execution after 19 years as a prisoner of the English queen, and Mary's cousin, Elizabeth I.
Here's how the events of that night, and the years afterwards, began to unravel...
Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots' second husband, was jealous of the close relationship between Mary and Rizzio. He may even have believed that the child Mary carried was Rizzio's - he certainly had a hand in plotting the attack, designed to rid Holyrood of Rizzio and frighten Mary, in what was just one of a number of efforts to destabilise her reign.
On the evening of 9 March, a posse of men, led by Lord Ruthven, stormed into Mary's chamber where she was dining with Rizzio. The men demanded that Mary give Rizzio up, but she refused, and (it is said) stood between Rizzio and his attackers. The men threatened her with a pistol, and threw her aside to get to Rizzio.
Rizzio struggled against ensuing assault and fought back, but in the end was overpowered by them. He was stabbed a total of 56 times, before his body was kicked down a staircase, and stripped of his jewellery. He was buried the same night, his body interred in an (unmarked) grave in the grounds of Holyrood Abbey - although a grave in the Canongate Kirkyard is today reputed to be Rizzio's final resting place.
The murder of Rizzio was certainly as politically motivated as much as it was personally motivated, yet Mary resisted the attempt on her life, and that of her unborn child, and stood steadfast in her position as queen. Just over a year later, in April 1567, her husband Darnley would himself be unceremoniously murdered, possibly with Mary's assistance, in retaliation for his involvement in the assassination of Rizzio.
Mary's alleged involvement in the murder of her husband - also the king, and so, technically, an accessory to the act of regicide - was the crime which led to her seeking safe haven with her cousin Elizabeth. Whether or not Mary's involvement could ever be proven, machinations and manipulations behind the scenes meant she became seem as guilty in the eyes of many - and, eventually, it was for her alleged role in the conspiracy that Elizabeth I had Mary Queen of Scots executed in February 1587.
And as to whether the child she carried - who was later crowned joint king of both England and Scotland - was truly Darnley's or that of the Italian Rizzio, perhaps we'll never know! Certainly Rizzio was variously described in contemporary sources as being 'ugly' and 'hunchbacked' - on that basis it may be best thought of as unlikely that the queen of Scotland would risk her reputation (and her marriage) by engaging him in an illicit relationship, never mind putting herself in the position of getting pregnant by him...
Visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse can still visit the chamber in which Rizzio was murdered, and until relatively recently red ink would be sprinkled on the floor of the room from time to time, so that visitors could see for themselves the stains of Rizzio's blood on the floorboards...
Learn more about the lives (and deaths) of other Scottish lords, noblemen, kings and queens, on a private walking tour of the city.
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