David Riccio di Pancaliere in Piedmonte was an Italian courtier, born near Turin, a descendant of the Riccio Counts de San Paolo et Solbrito. As a young man, he went from Turin to Nice to seek a position at the court of the Duke of Savoy. On finding no opportunities for advancement, he was admitted, in 1561, to the train of Robertino Solaro, Count Moretta, who had been appointed as the Duke’s ambassador to Scotland. On arrival in about 1562, he sought employment with Mary Queen of Scots. Although there was no official post available, he was an excellent singer and lute player, and he befriended three valets de chambres, who had travelled with Mary from France as her musicians. As they needed a good bass voice to make up a quartet, they persuaded Mary to employ him. Melville described him as a merry fellow, but hideously ugly being deformed (probably a hunchback), but he had a love of extravagant clothing. George Buchanan spitefully claimed that ‘his appearance disfigured his elegance’. Yet he was an amusing raconteur, both loyal and discreet.
In December 1564, Mary dismissed her French secretary, and his departure opened the door for Riccio’s appointment. His inability to write good French, so that Mary often had to redraft the correspondence, did not seem to concern her. He soon controlled access to her and freely accepted bribes, which no doubt financed his extravagant wardrobe. As he grew arrogant and greedy in his new role, her Scottish courtiers considered him a ‘sly crafty foreigner’, and referred to him derogatorily as Seigneur Davie. It was even suggested that he was a Papal spy, but no evidence for this has been established. After his murder, £2,000 was found among his possessions, which could not have been amassed from his salary of £80 per year.
By the time of Lord Darnley’s arrival in Scotland in 1565, Riccio was one of Mary’s closest confidantes. Darnley and Riccio soon became friends, perhaps because they were both accomplished players of the lute. Riccio badly needed allies and their friendship blossomed out of mutual self-interest. Riccio needed the Earl of Lennox and Darnley to protect his position, while he did what he could to promote Darnley as Mary’s husband. He was admitted to Darnley’s ‘table, his chamber and his most secret thoughts’. They would even ‘lie in one bed together’, which must be construed as evidence of a homosexual relationship.
The lords opposing the Darnley marriage became shocked at the triangular relationship developing between Mary, Riccio and himself. With Riccio increasing in influence, he encouraged Mary to wrest dominant control of her Government from the Earl of Moray and William Maitland. He persuaded her that marriage to Darnley would free her from their control. According to George Buchanan, who was close to the Lennoxes, Riccio ‘was also assiduous in sowing seeds of discord between Darnley and Moray’. As Mary became disaffected with them, she sent Maitland on missions abroad to promote the marriage, giving Riccio the opportunity to usurp Maitland’s position by acting as Secretary of State. He was appointed to the Privy Council and Mary can be blamed for an unforgivable lack of judgement in allowing a Court musician of doubtful integrity to take the role of her most trusted and experienced adviser. Yet she remained on close terms with him. It is said that Mary’s betrothal ceremony to Darnley (after which they were permitted to have sex) took place in Riccio’s apartments at Holyrood ‘with not above seven persons present’.
As soon as Darnley was married to Mary, Government members had two things in common; they were Roman Catholic and friends of Darnley. Riccio fitted easily into this group, but none of them was a substitute for Moray or Maitland. Although Riccio acted as her Secretary of State, he was never formally appointed. Yet he became the King’s ‘only governor’, who ‘works all’ in his counsels. He took advantage of the King’s absences on hunting trips by arranging a steel imprint of his signature, which he could use as his signatory. Mary trusted him; he had done much to clear the obstacles for her marriage, and she enjoyed his company when the King was away. He was sociable, often playing cards or making music with her late into the evening. As Mary’s relationship with the King deteriorated, her friendship with Riccio grew. While she may have been misguided in promoting him, it is unlikely that there was anything improper about their association. She was pregnant and quite unwell during the autumn of 1565 and spring of 1566, and he was no Adonis, being a hunchback nearly a foot shorter than herself with an ‘illfavoured’ face. Yet it suited Mary’s enemies to suggest that there was more to their relationship than met the eye, and both Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador, and Maitland saw it as dynamite if the King should gain wind of it. Randolph, who later described Riccio as a ‘filthy wedlock breaker’, implied something much darker in Moray’s defection from Mary than his personal ambition and hatred of the King, but would not put his thoughts in writing. It has been construed that Moray believed that Mary was involved in an affair with Riccio, but there is no evidence to support one, and it is certain that she was only looking for companionship.
Elizabeth I in England did what she could to encourage Moray’s rehabilitation, but Moray had to deal with Riccio. He offered him £5,000 to obtain his pardon. Riccio, who was already seeking agreement from Parliament to sequester all the dissident nobles’ estates, demanded £20,000. The Protestant lords wanted a scapegoat for the move towards Catholicism, and Riccio was the obvious candidate. It was thought that he ‘had secret intelligence with the Vatican’. Yet, with Mary being more isolated, she relied on him all the more. He had ‘the whole guiding of the queen and country’. He saw to it that Maitland remained side-lined and blocked Moray’s recall from exile. Maitland was not about to accept the loss of his position as Secretary of State without a fight. He too promoted the story of Riccio having an affair with Mary, believing that he had usurped his rightful role. He was the architect of the plans to murder him and to remove Darnley from the throne. He realised that his own rehabilitation depended on breaking this stranglehold of Catholic ministers round the Queen. That would require Moray’s reinstatement, but he had begun to despair of how to achieve it. Quite apart from his desire to be restored as Secretary of State, he saw Riccio’s removal as an essential step in stopping any further deterioration in the power of the Protestant nobility. On 9 February 1666, he wrote to William Cecil, the English Secretary of State, saying:
All may be reduced to the former estate if the right way be taken . . . I see no certain way unless we chop at the very root – you know where that lieth, and so far as my judgement can reach, the sooner all things be packed up the less danger there is of any inconveniences.
He was seeking Cecil’s blessing to arrange Riccio’s murder.
There has been much debate on precisely what Maitland meant by chopping ‘at the very root’. Given his close association with Mary Fleming, one of the Maries, it is unlikely that he sought at this stage to topple Mary or even to seek her assassination. Yet it is more certain that the King had his father’s support to use the murder of Riccio as a means of bringing down the Queen. After the plot had been put together, Randolph wrote to Cecil;
I know that there are practices in hand contrived between father and son to come by the Crown against her will. I know that if that take effect which is intended, David, with the consent of the King shall have his throat cut within these ten days. Many things grievouser and worse than these are brought to my ears, yea, of things intended against her own person.
Maitland’s played on the King’s ambition to be granted the Crown Matrimonial. He implied that it was Riccio, who was stopping Mary from offering him than coveted status. He also suggested that Mary’s close friendship with Riccio was more than that of Queen and Secretary, even questioning the paternity of Mary’s unborn child. Rumours reached Catherine de Medici in France that the King had returned late one evening to Mary’s apartment to find the door locked. After shouting to gain entry he found Riccio in a nightshirt quailing in a cupboard. This seems highly unlikely, as Riccio would hardly have survived such an encounter, and the King never reported it, even when he needed to justify the murder. Randolph and the Earl of Bedford, who wanted to make the most of any adulterous innuendo, claimed ‘that David had more company of her body than he, for the space of two months’. Although a sexual liaison seems unlikely, there is no doubt that the King became inordinately jealous of their close association. Despite their initial friendship, he now believed that Riccio was usurping the position of political influence that should have been his own.
As soon as the King had been hooked into the plan, he looked to his Douglas kinsmen to manage matters, and the Earl of Morton and Lord Ruthven made the arrangements. Morton saw it as an opportunity to achieve a powerful position and had was persuaded by Maitland to play on the apparent slur against Douglas honour caused by the Queen’s friendship with Riccio. Yet he realised that Moray’s rehabilitation would be needed to gain the nobility’s more general support.
Both Randolph and Bedford were well aware of the arrangements. Randolph provided Cecil with full details of the plan and advised that Moray intended to arrive in Edinburgh on the day following the murder. Most people seemed to know what was going on. This was not simply a plan to murder Riccio, its objective was to discredit the King and restore Moray and Maitland to authority. It might even result in the wayward King and Queen being placed under house arrest.
Lacking any appreciation for his own shortcomings and ‘infatuated by his own arrogance’, Darnley blamed Riccio for causing him to be frozen out of Government. He wanted the Crown for himself and wanted revenge. The disaffected nobles were only too willing to encourage the murder.
His youth and inexperience would render him as wax in the hands of the ruthless, power-hungry men who were closing in on him, and as such he would prove their most dangerous weapon.
He believed that the Crown Matrimonial would make him the dominant force in his partnership with Mary. Even without it, the Lennoxes were positioned to claim the Crown for themselves, should Mary die without an heir. With the Duke of Châtelherault in exile in France, they had only to cite his illegitimacy. Those encouraging him willingly pampered to these ambitions. Their aim was to bring down Mary’s Catholic advisers, thereby regaining liberty of religion and their estates. The King’s involvement conveniently offered immunity from prosecution. Yet they would never allow him to govern except as their puppet.
Although Maitland had originally orchestrated the plan, he was careful to avoid being in the vicinity when the crime was committed. He made a point of dining at Holyrood with the nobles in the Queen’s party on the night of the murder. This of itself can be seen as suspicious and implies that he was attempting to keep them out of the way. The other conspirators, particularly the King, all named him afterwards for his intimate part in it, resulting in the attainder of his estates.
Lady Antonia Fraser has pointed out that, if their objective were only to murder Riccio, it would have been relatively easier to achieve this away from Edinburgh and there were ample opportunities to do so. Morton’s original plan was to seize Riccio in his quarters at Holyrood. Yet it seems that the King was not averse to the consequential death of the Queen and her unborn child. By committing the crime in her presence, there was a realistic expectation of the shock causing her to miscarry, and a miscarriage in mid-pregnancy invariably led to the death of the mother. Even Randolph understood this objective. The King arranged for the murder to take place at a private supper party held by the Queen at Holyrood. Although the other conspirators would never permit it, he believed that he would be promoted to the throne, if Mary died. They played along with his treasonable plan, as it would provide legitimate grounds for his future deposition. If Mary survived the plot, the conspirators had decided to imprison her at Stirling until her child was born. By implicating Darnley, Moray had every hope of being swept to power.
The conspirators did not trust the King and insisted on him signing a bond. They did not want him to deny any knowledge of the plot afterwards, or to ‘allege that others persuaded him to the same’. On 1 March, he signed a document acknowledging that he was the chief author of the plan to murder the ‘wicked, ungodly Riccio’, even though ‘the deed may chance to take place in the presence of the Queen’s majesty’. He assumed full responsibility for this, despite the apparent concerns of Morton and Ruthven. It was also signed by all those taking an active part including Morton and Ruthven. They were not to ‘spare life or limb in setting forward all that may bend to the advancement of his [the King’s] honour’. The bond confirmed that the King would be offered the Crown Matrimonial, in return for him pardoning and protecting them and permitting the return of the exiles. He gave assurance that Protestantism would be maintained, despite his public shows of Catholicism. He was completely two-faced.
On the morning of 9 March, the King played tennis with Riccio, presumably to allay any suspicions, and in the evening Mary held a small family dinner at Holyrood in a small room next to her bedroom. Riccio arrived bedecked in a gown of furred damask over a satin doublet and russet velvet hose. He wore a cap, which he failed to remove, as he should have done, in her presence. Much to the surprise of the guests, the King joined them and sat down beside Mary. He was affable enough and well received, but suddenly Ruthven appeared wearing a helmet with armour under his cloak. He demanded that Riccio, who cowered for protection behind the Queen, should be handed over. Mary, demanded to know Riccio’s offence. He told her: ‘He hath offended your honour, which I dare not be so bold as to speak of.’ He also accused Riccio of hindering the King’s grant of the Crown Matrimonial, and of banishing many of the lords with a plan to forfeit their estates. Mary replied that, if Riccio had done wrong, he should stand trial. She asked the King if Ruthven was acting at his bidding, but he denied any involvement. Members of the dinner party tried to seize Ruthven, but he drew a pistol and advanced with his dagger on Riccio, who was still hiding behind Mary in the window recess. Ruthven manhandled the Queen out of the way, telling her that he was acting with the King’s assent. Other conspirators appeared and one seized the King’s dagger, thrusting it at Riccio so close to the Queen. Melville claimed that the dagger was left ‘sticking in him’. On his knees and clawing at the queen’s skirts, Riccio cried out: ‘Justice! Justice! Save me, my Lady! I am a dying man. Spare my life!’ Yet the King bent back his fingers, while others dragged him out of the room.
Riccio seems to have been dragged through the Queen’s bedchamber and into the presence chamber, where armed men were waiting. They were ‘so vehemently moved against David that they could not abide any longer’. Morton and more than a dozen supporters savagely stabbed him to death. There were between fifty-three and sixty wounds found in his body. The conspirators left the King’s dagger embedded in Riccio’s side. Darnley arranged for Riccio’s lacerated body to be removed from the presence chamber. It was thrown down the stairs and laid across a wooden chest in the porter’s lodge. The porter removed the King’s dagger and stripped off the rich clothing. On the following day, his remains were quietly buried in the Canongate cemetery near the door to Holyrood Abbey. Mary later arranged for his body to be reburied with full Catholic rites in ‘a fair tomb’ at the Abbey Church at Holyrood.
Despite Riccio’s death. None of the plot’s objectives were achieved. The King did not gain the Crown Matrimonial. Mary did not suffer a miscarriage, but managed to separate the King from his fellow conspirators and, with help from the Earl of Bothwell, escape to Dunbar. It was now Bothwell rather than Moray who had the Queen’s ear. Mary was unable to accuse Darnley of his treasonable involvement without prejudicing the legitimacy of her unborn child, but the remaining conspirators were attainted and sent into exile. Although there was no concrete evidence of Maitland’s part, he too was attainted and retired to the north.