Why did Mary Queen of Scots marry the Earl of Bothwell?

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell
James Hepburn
4th Earl of Bothwell

Historians have puzzled long and hard to establish Mary Queen of Scots‘s motive for marrying the Earl of Bothwell after the murder of her husband Lord Darnley. Contemporary evidence from several sources suggests that she had taken part in a long-running affair and became involved with him in a crime of passion. The principal sources of this evidence are the Casket letters, which are now seen to be demonstrably fraudulent and inconsistent, and Buchanan‘s Detectio, which is little more than a collection of unverified tittle-tattle.

The fact that the two principal sources of evidence can be seen to be falsified does not necessarily mean that the story of a crime of passion was not true. A review of the verifiable evidence is needed to establish an alternative scenario. The key questions that need to be answered, are:

  1. Why did Mary arrange Bothwell’s trial as a whitewash, when she was told from several sources that he was implicated in her husband Darnley’s murder, unless she were involved with him in a crime of passion? and
  2. Why did the Scottish Lords persuade Bothwell, a man who they hated, to marry Mary, when they knew it would make him the dominant figure in Scotland to their own detriment?

Some of the evidence for a crime of passion is quite plausible. We know that Mary wanted to be rid of Darnley: he was behaving objectionably; he was regularly visiting male brothels in Edinburgh; she was aware that he had arranged Riccio’s murder; she knew he was plotting to overthrow her rule to promote his own claim to both the Scottish and English thrones. She thus approached her senior advisers to seek a divorce, but quickly learned that a Catholic divorce could not be achieved without an annulment. This would prejudice Prince James’s legitimacy, which she was not prepared to countenance. Another problem with divorce was that it would leave Darnley free to carry on his plotting.

When Mary met with her senior advisers at Craigmillar, they agreed to look into a divorce, but it is clear that they privately realised that it would be much safer to murder him. Mary must have been aware that murder was contemplated as she made clear that she did not want anything done which sullied her honour. The advisers concluded that, if Darnley were to be murdered, she could not be told.  The obvious solution was to seek the repatriation of Darnley’s fellow conspirators in Riccio‘s murder. Although he had signed a bond to provide them with protection, he had revealed their names, resulting in their exile to England. If they returned, they would want him dead. As the Lords spokesman, William Maitland, her Secretary of State undertook to arrange her divorce in return for her agreeing to repatriate the conspirators. Naively, she fell for it. The Lords now authorised Bothwell, the soldier among them, to meet up with the returning exiles and to co-ordinate the murder plan with them. They also signed a bond with Bothwell for his protection. He duly went to Whittinghame to meet with the Earl of Morton, the leader of the conspirators, as he was returning from England.

William Maitland of Lethington
William Maitland of Lethington

We know that Mary continued to contemplate divorce and approached Archbishop Hamilton for papal help, but he eventually advised that it could not be achieved on an acceptable basis. All the plausible evidence is that Mary now decided to make the best of her marriage, but realised that she needed to keep Darnley under close scrutiny. By retaining him as her husband, there might be more children, and Darnley’s own claim to the English throne greatly enhanced her own.  By this time he was recuperating from syphilis by staying with his father, the Earl of Lennox, in Glasgow, and Mary went there to persuade him to return with her to Edinburgh. It has been argued that her motive was to bring him back to place where it was much easier to arrange his murder, but there is no evidence that this was her motive. It was Darnley, himself, who chose Kirk o’ Field as a place to recuperate, and Mary spent two nights there in his company. She wanted  to be reconciled with him so that they could resume conjugal relations once he was restored to health. Casket letter II, most of which was a genuine letter, makes clear that this was her objective and her later action in kissing and fondling him at Kirk o’ Field implies that she wanted him back as her consort (but perhaps under some form of house arrest).

The motive of a few of the Lords at Craigmillar now becomes much more devious. At some point after their meeting and before Darnley’s murder, it can be deduced that some of them concluded that Mary should also become a victim as part of the process of murdering Darnley. In this way Mary, as a Catholic could be removed from the Scottish throne, and removed as the dynastic heir in England. It can be assumed that the Earl of Moray, who wanted to become Regent for Prince James, and William Cecil, who wanted to prevent Mary succeeding Elizabeth, were behind it. It is known that Cecil in England took a detailed interest in the murder plan and almost all the evidence of what happened found its way into his papers. There was a fundamental snag that Bothwell, who was tasked with organising the murder was loyal to Mary and was most unlikely to agree to her becoming a victim; nor was the Earl of Huntly, another of the Lords at Craigmillar, as he was a Catholic. It can also be surmised that the security arrangements for Mary would make murdering her at Kirk o’ Field much more problematic. Another solution was needed.

Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh
Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh

Maitland’s motives are far more difficult to dissect. He was described by Buchanan as a chameleon-like, and his loyalties seem schizophrenic. With his political persona, he supported Moray and Cecil, but as he was about to marry Mary Fleming, one of Mary’s ladies in waiting, it has always been assumed that he was personally loyal to Mary. He indisputably became loyal to her, once she was imprisoned in England, but all the evidence indicates that before this he was at the heart of the scheming to bring down both Mary and, before that, her mother Marie of Guise. It was he, when acting as Secretary for Marie of Guise before Mary’s return to Scotland, who concluded that she was bringing French troops and advisers to Scotland, not to protect the Kingdom for her daughter, but to subsume Scotland under French control. He resigned from her service to persuade the Protestant Lords (‘the Lords of the Congregation’) to take up arms against her. It was he, after Marie’s death, who encouraged Elizabeth to marry James Hamilton Earl of Arran. Arran was second in line to the Scottish throne after his father, the Duke of Châtelherault, and Maitland’s plan was for him to claim the Scottish Crown by deposing the Catholic Mary, who was still in France. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was not prepared to risk the wrath of the Catholic superpowers in Continental Europe, and she turned down the proposition. It was Maitland who incited Darnley to murder Riccio, who was usurping Maitland’s position in Government,  and he was certainly aware of (even if he did not instigate) the plan for the murder to take place in the presence of the pregnant Mary, the shock of which might result in her death after a miscarriage. All the plausible evidence of Darnley’s murder shows that Maitland was at the heart of the plan to bring down Mary as well.

Neither Cecil nor Moray were in Edinburgh over Darnley’s murder (Moray was trying to keep his hands clean). If Mary’s demise could not be achieved as part of the plan at Kirk o’ Field, another solution was required. It seems to have been Maitland who came up with the complex scheme that was adopted. All the evidence suggests that it was preplanned. The fact that it succeeded is a tribute to his perverse skills. None of the three had any respect for Bothwell who had supported Marie of Guise against both the Lords of the Congregation and the English, but Maitland had a particular grouse. Bothwell had been slow to restore his estates at Haddington after the lifting of Maitland’s attainder.  (Maitland had been attainted for his perceived part in Riccio’s murder.) As part of the process of bringing down Darnley and Mary, Maitland also wanted to bring down Bothwell. His plan has to be admired for its cunning. He would encourage Bothwell in the plan to murder Darnley and would defend him from being implicated (in accordance with the understanding reached at the Craigmillar). He would then persuade Mary to marry him to protect her throne. On the face of it, he was promoting his enemy, Bothwell, to become the most powerful man in Scotland to the detriment of Moray and himself. Yet the real objective of the marriage was to give credence to a story that Mary had been involved in a long-running affair with Bothwell and condoned his crime of passion. There is no verifiable evidence of an illicit relationship before the murder, and the story would only become credible if they agreed to marry. There were a number of serious hurdles to overcome: Bothwell needed to be exonerated from any involvement in the murder; both he and Mary had to agree to marry; he required a Catholic divorce; once married, the Lords would need to take up arms against Mary and Bothwell  with sufficient force to defeat them; and there would need to be compelling evidence of a long running affair and a crime of passion for use in an investigation, although nothing could have been further from the truth.

Maitland was always good at organising matters without giving any appearance of his own involvement. He joined Bothwell for his meeting with Morton at Whittinghame, where Bothwell tried to pass responsiblity for arranging the murder onto Morton, but Maitland advised him to let Bothwell take charge. Morton was able to use the excuse that the terms of his release did not permit him to come within seven miles of Edinburgh and was in no position to organise it. He was also briefed on Maitland’s secret plan and needed to keep his hands clean, as he would be required to share control of Government with Bothwell afterwards (although they were not natural allies). In Moray’s absence, Morton was undoubtedly the best person to maintain control of the disparate Scottish lords to ensure that they worked together. All the evidence of Darnley’s murder at Kirk o’ Field was extracted from Bothwell’s henchmen under torture. It can be seen that great efforts were made to show that they were involved with Bothwell in every stage of the murder plan without other assistance. Yet they had insufficient men to surround  Kirk o’ Field on their own. In reality, Bothwell spent the whole of the day before the murder in Mary’s company and was safely in bed at Holyrood when the explosion took place. A considerable number of both Morton’s and Bothwell’s henchmen were involved. They were all carefully briefed on their roles, but neither Bothwell nor Morton were there. Yet later depositions air-brushed out  the involvement of anyone other than Bothwell and his own men.

Within days of the murder taking place, placards appeared in Edinburgh saying that Bothwell had undertaken it and that Mary was implicated with him. It was soon being said that they were involved in a crime of passion. As such a story would have required Cecil’s prior approval from London, it has to be assumed that it was preplanned. Some of the later placards contained classical analogy. Mary was depicted as mermaid, the symbol for a prostitute, above a hare, which was Bothwell’s crest. This was rather sophisticated stuff; it could have been put together by Maitland, but is more likely to have emanated from Cecil’s spies.

Mary was bombarded with advice to hold a proper enquiry. Both Elizabeth and Lennox told her to investigate rumours that Bothwell was involved, but she did not order a detailed investigation. It can be surmised that Maitland and Morton strongly discouraged it, not wanting their own part in the conspiracy to come to light. Mary herself dared not lose the one man that she had always trusted, on what were likely to be trumped up charges. Bothwell had been with her for the whole of the day beforehand and was assuredly in his bed at Holyrood when the explosion occurred. Mary was convinced that he could not have been involved and was happy to condone a whitewash from her own knowledge of his movements. Although Bothwell faced trial, no evidence was submitted and he was cleared.

The next step was to persuade Mary to marry Bothwell. This was made easier, when Bothwell, who was involved in an unhappy marriage to Jean Gordon, showed his great enthusiasm. After his acquittal, he arranged a dinner for the Lords at Ainslie’s Tavern in Edinburgh, at which both Maitland and Morton were present. Towards the end, he proposed that he should marry Mary for the good of Scotland and asked the guests to sign a bond to support him. Maitland managed to avoid doing this despite his apparent agreement, but it was signed by the other guests including Morton. Nevertheless, they realised that if Bothwell, the man that the other lords hated, were to be exonerated and to become Mary’s consort, he would become the most powerful figure in Scotland. The objective was to make  a crime of passion seem more realistic, so that Mary  was implicated and Moray could be returned to authority as Regent for Prince James. Cecil could then blacken her name to prevent her being nominated as Elizabeth’s heir. Of course, the story would never carry any credence, unless Mary could also be persuaded to marry Bothwell, and there is no evidence that she ever loved him after her passion for Darnley. Gaining her agreement was central to the success of the plot. All the evidence suggests that it was Maitland, with encouragement from Moray and from Cecil in London and from Morton, who instigated this devious plan. It can be no surprise that Cecil took an extraordinary interest in what was going on and all the depositions used as evidence found their way to London into his records.

On the day after the dinner, Maitland went with Bothwell to see Mary, who was at Seton to show her the bond signed by the Scottish lords, but she turned down the marriage proposal. It was now that Maitland used all his persuasive powers to win her over to the advantage of the match. Mary also received great encouragement from other advisers. On 24 April 1567, Bothwell abducted Mary as she was returning to Edinburgh from a visit to see James at Stirling. He took her to Dunbar, where he at last persuaded her that her best course was to marry him for their mutual security. He then persuaded her to consummate their relationship, so that it could not be undone for fear that she might be pregnant.  It is often suggested that she was raped, but she never claimed this. It was consensual. Bothwell now went about gaining a divorce from his Catholic wife and threatened Archbishop Hamilton to get his way. As soon as Mary was committed to marriage, the Scottish lords combined into a group of ‘confederates’ to oppose the couple. Maitland incurred Bothwell’s wrath, by trying to dissuade her from the marriage only a few days after giving so much encouragement.

Nothing was going to stop Bothwell now, and he duly married Mary in Edinburgh on 15 May 1567. The confederates immediately took up arms against them in the name of Prince James to avenge Darnley’s death. They met at Carberry Hill where Bothwell with far fewer men was obliged to negotiate. If there had been any truth in the crime of passion story, the confederates would have arrested both Mary and Bothwell there and then, but Bothwell was permitted to leave the field and to escape. They could not bring him to trial as this would reveal the murder conspiracy in which many of them were involved. Although Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven and forced to abdicate, she did not face trial (on the pretext of saving her face), as she too could demonstrate that the evidence was a tissue of lies.

Mary duly escaped from Lochleven and made her way to England, expecting to be restored by Elizabeth to her throne. That was the last thing that Cecil wanted and she was retained under house arrest. There now had to be an investigation and Maitland was put to work by Moray to concoct evidence of the crime of passion. The resultant ‘Casket’ letters can be shown to be inconsistent with the various depositions from henchmen (taken under torture) and were very obviously fabricated. A bit later, George Buchanan, who had not been in Edinburgh, wrote his Detectio, which was full of tales to imply that Mary had been involved in a long-running affair with Bothwell. While this confirmed the crime of passion story, it would never stand up to close examination. Elizabeth chose to ‘huddle’ this evidence up, realising that it was unsupportable but continued to hold Mary, tarnished in reputation under house arrest. With Maitland’s plan having been achieved, he was influenced by Mary Fleming to show great support for Mary, but was powerless to arrange her restoration.