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David Rizzio and Mary Queen of Scots
Murder at Holyrood
By David Tweedie
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Tweedie
All rights reserved.
Mary's Glittering Court
She was brocht up in joyusitie ...
(John Knox, 1561)
The early life of Mary Queen of Scots is well chronicled. Ascending the Scots throne at the age of six days on the death of her father, James V, she was sent to the French court as a child of 5 to escape English attention, and there she grew up among the lovely châteaux built by the Valois kings along the banks of the River Loire. Her sheltered upbringing was very different from that of her cousin, Princess Elizabeth of England.
The infant queen spent many happy hours with her mother's family; educated with all the privileges of a princess of France; the little girl was then betrothed to François, the Dauphin of France, and the heir to his father, King Henri II. She was to be yet another link in the chain of the auld alliance forged between France and Scotland on the anvil of English aggression. And the wedding in April 1558 when she was aged 15 was an outward celebration of the traditional alliance.
But the untimely death of the young King François II in 1560 forced Mary to accept the invitation of the revolutionary Protestant regime, which was governing Scotland in her name, to come home in the summer of 1561.
* * *
Fully to understand the special place of David Rizzio in Mary's story, we must look back a little into her early life.
Mary was born on 8 December 1542, the only legitimate child and heiress to the King of Scots, James V. Her mother was French, a daughter of the noble and influential family of Guise. She had many illegitimate half-brothers and sisters, of whom the most interesting, and influential, was Lord James Stewart.
Queen Mary of England had died lamenting the loss of her stronghold at Calais to a French army, which was commanded by Mary Stewart's formidable uncle, the Duc de Guise. When they learnt of her death on 17 November 1558, the Dauphin and Dauphiness, Mary and François, put in their own claim to the English throne, and were also persuaded by the King of France, Henri II, to insert the royal arms of England within their own quarterings in heraldic assertion of their rights to that crown.
Mary Stewart's claim to the English Crown came from her descent, in the female line, from Henry VII, since she was his great-granddaughter, by her grandmother Margaret Tudor. The lure of this inheritance, as the legitimate offspring of the marriage between the thistle and the rose, was to be a guiding star for most of her life. Her earlier ministers, Lord James Stewart and William Maitland, were always pressing for her to be accepted as heiress to the English throne in default of legitimate issue to Elizabeth. The prospect of English acres, and English gold, was bound to hold a certain appeal to needy Scots lords. For the moment Mary was well content for her agents to argue her cause in London as they saw fit. And Elizabeth, in turn, was only too glad to procrastinate. She claimed to need legal advice on Mary's claim, and said that 'she had ordered some of the best lawyers in England diligently to search out who had the best right, and she heartily wished it might be found to be her good sister, rather than any other'.
But Mary's child husband, by now François II, was frail and sickly, and in consequence it may very well be that he was insufficiently mature to consummate their marriage. Whether this was so or not, his sudden death on 6 December 1560 made her person available for yet another dynastic marriage. The marriage of a ruling prince was always of concern in the politics of Renaissance Europe, and her fate was no different.
This terrible personal disaster meant that there was now no place for her in France. She was forced to return to her native land, to become 'une reine française en Écosse'. She did, however, keep her royal title as a dowager Queen of France, and was a very rich one at that. Already an heiress of Scotland, under the terms of her marriage settlement she was entitled to a life interest in the revenues of the duchy of Touraine in Poitou, which amounted to 60,000 livres a year. This French income, although sometimes erratic in payment, was to be a huge support for the rest of her life.
* * *
The Reformation had come to Scotland by the time Mary Queen of Scots landed in Leith out of an early sea mist on the morning of 19 August 1561. But she found the Protestant triumph was not quite as complete as the religious extremists might have hoped. Most of the Highlands and Lowlands still revelled in their unstable and tribal ways, while such central control as there was over the various wild and disparate regions that made up her realm was in the hands of her half-brother Lord James Stewart, and his Protestant faction.
Lord James acquired the earldom of Moray within the year, and was to be referred to as Moray from then on. As a character he was clever, ambitious both for himself and for his gospel; he may well have been right when he thought that he was better qualified to sit on the throne than his legitimate sister.
If he did aspire to the throne of his Stewart fathers, he grew up nonetheless knowing that it would never be his, since, in the expressive Italian of the day, he was bastardo. King James V left many illegitimate children, but Moray, now aged 30, was the best of the flock, an intelligent man very much in his prime. The great Protestant Reformer John Knox held him in high opinion, and thought him a 'man whom all the Godly did most reverence'.
Moray was Mary's elder half-brother by eleven years; born in 1531, he was at least two years older than his rival Rizzio. The difficulty was his birth. His mother, Lady Margaret Erskine Douglas, was already married to Robert Douglas of Lochleven at the time of his conception. Lady Margaret was herself a daughter of the Earl of Mar, and took pride in her status as one of the many mistresses of the King. James openly acknowledged the boy, and arranged for him to be granted the revenues of the Priory at St Andrews when only a child of 7. He also petitioned Rome for authority to dispense with the illegitimacy, which might otherwise bar his son's appointment to any more church livings. Lord James, for he took his father's names and was granted the honours of a younger son of a Scots earl, was sent to university at St Andrews. When old enough to fight he served bravely in various border skirmishes against the auld enemie in the summer of 1557. By then he appeared to be in every respect a loyal subject to the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise.
But by now he had experienced a religious conversion. All the evidence suggests that his faith was sincere. It was this driving force, combined with his semi-royal status, that gave him such authority over the Protestant militants, who under the banner of their faith had risen in rebellion against Mary of Guise. From now on he worked in coalition with William Maitland of Lethington to argue that the country must follow a Protestant, and therefore a pro-English policy.
Despite his handicap, it is hard to avoid the conclusion he aimed to fill the vacuum left by the death of the Regent, Mary of Guise. For the moment his policy appeared to be to rule in the name of his younger sister, whether she was around or not, just as the Duke of Northumberland had hoped to rule England with his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne as a puppet. He would help her keep the Crown, but only on the condition that she acted, like a Japanese Mikado, as the figurehead for his grouping of Reformers and sympathisers. Since so many of her supporters disagreed, a battle for supremacy became inevitable.
Indeed, at first he appeared to be a dutiful subject to his sister. It was Moray who went to France to invite her home in the spring of 1561, it was Moray who kept the door against the mob at the riot during her first mass, and it was Moray who supplied the strategic skills that led to the downfall of the Gordons in 1562. It was no accident that he then acquired vast lands and estates in the Gordon country by way of reward for his part in the victory, which also brought him ennoblement in his own right as Earl of Moray.
The chief of the Gordons, George, the Earl of Huntly, was one of Moray's staunchest opponents, and Knox was not alone when he discerned the threat he represented. Ensconced in his heartlands deep within his mountain fastness, Huntly had led the opposition to the pro-English policy of Moray's council. He was something of a gambler, and played for high stakes. In the summer of 1561 he tried to persuade Mary to sail direct from Calais and disembark in Aberdeen. There he would muster 20,000 men, so that together they would drive the Protestants into the sea and restore the old faith.
'Huntly says the Queen has only to give the word, and he will have mass celebrated all over the kingdom in spite of the heretics' was how the Duke of Savoy's ambassador, de Moretto, described his conceits to the Spanish ambassador, Quadra, when they met after his return from the Scots court. But such optimism was misplaced in the light of Moray's ambitions to the contrary. And sometimes, when down in Edinburgh, Huntly would even condescend to attend Knox's sermons, where he would show his irritation with the preacher by pulling his bonnet down over his eyes, picking at his nails and muttering 'when these knaves have railed their fill, then they will hold their peace'.
* * *
The return of the Queen meant there were now many new excitements and opportunities in Edinburgh, and not only at court. Despite the grumbles and protests of the radical reformers, Mary was determined to keep her private Roman Catholic clerical establishment, which was one of the terms guaranteed by Moray to the Protestant Lords in the agreement for her homecoming from France.
So as a result the traditional Catholic offices could once more be heard in the old abbey church by the palace at Holyrood, even though the Protestant minister at St Giles, John Knox, continued to rail at 'Baal's bleating priests', as he called the clergy who had returned with the Queen. All Saints' Day, 1 November 1561, saw a near riot when the royal mass was celebrated with special ceremony. Knox complained about it bitterly. With the other Protestant ministers, he protested vehemently to the Privy Council and demanded public celebration of the mass be stopped in accordance with the laws enacted by the Reformation Parliament only the year before, but which Mary steadfastly refused to approve.
* * *
Just as electric storms trigger displays of northern lights in high latitudes, the brief intervention of David Rizzio into the early councils of Mary served only to illuminate the limits of her power. An immigrant Italian from Piedmont, Rizzio was to end his days as her first minister, dedicated to the ideal of an independent Scotland, in communion with Catholic Europe.
Many years later Mary wrote a long letter to Cosimo de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in which she set down all she knew about her 'special servant', as she fondly called David Rizzio. He was born about 1533, in the small village of Pancalieri, some twenty miles south of Turin, in the duchy of Savoy.
The wealthy republic of Venice, on the other side of the Italian peninsula from Savoy (Piedmont), was reputed to run the best diplomatic service in Europe. Venetian laws said that, while an ambassador must always be a patrician, his secretary might come from inferior stock – that is, from the upper plebeian class. This echoed the Rizzio family background. The Rizzios seem to have originated from the cultured Piedmontese bourgeoisie, and were a product of the prosperous local economy, with a tradition of working in the service of the state. Indeed, a generation earlier, one Giovanni Angelo Rizzio, or Riccio, as the name was sometimes spelt, served as first secretary to Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and this Giovanni corresponded on more than one occasion about King Henry VIII's 'great matter', the divorce from his queen, Catherine of Aragon.
David Rizzio's father taught music and was careful with his savings. We know nothing about his mother. The immediate family included a younger brother, Joseph. His father was sensible enough to see the benefits of a good humanist education, and happy to invest in the future of his children. He encouraged his boy, David, to take up music, and probably sent him on to study at one of the great north Italian universities, Bologna, Ferrara, Padua or Siena. Padua seems the most likely, as it was not too far from Venice. The university already had links with Savoy, and it may be relevant that a Piedmontese 'nation' had been set up there in 1534 to look after the Savoyard students. Using family connections, the older Rizzio then found a place for his son at the court of his sovereign, the Duke of Savoy, which rotated between Chambery and Nice, since Turin itself was under French occupation. To spend time in the household of a great ruler was itself an education, and to be at an Italian ducal court was no bad vantage point to learn the ways of the world and see the arrangements made to comfort and entertain a Renaissance prince.
Suitably polished from his time at court, and well bolstered by his classical learning, the musical youth next came to the attention of the church authorities as a potential candidate for the priesthood. He knew his Latin and was schooled in the humanities. He had a voice and could sing the mass. However, his personal faith was never deep enough to press him forward to take the final vows. Instead he found a patron on this earth. The young man had caught the interest of the Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Caesar Usdimo, who recognised his promise and took him under his wing.
Cardinal Usdimo came from one of Savoy's leading families, the Cibos. Among the Cibo cousins were the Solartos. This family link gave Rizzio his opportunity. Western Europe then enjoyed a rare moment of peace, and once again travel was possible. Robertino Solarto, the Marquis de Moretto, who headed the house of Cibo, lived near the Rizzios, and in the summer of 1561, Emmanuel Philibert, the Duke of Savoy, chose him to head the mission he was sending to distant Scotland.
The return of the Queen of Scots to her capital had aroused European interest, which was why the Duke of Savoy, no mean general himself, decided to send an experienced agent to assess matters. Not much news about events in this remote northern land trickled back to Italy, though the Grand Duke of Tuscany did own a modern, and rather inaccurate, map of the British Isles by Egnacio Danti, which hung on the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
De Moretto was a veteran diplomat. In time he was to become Savoy's expert on Scotland and would revisit Edinburgh again. The ostensible object of this mission was to persuade the Queen of Scots to be represented at the long-running conference on the reform of the worldwide Catholic Church, which was about to reconvene at Trent. He also brought secret instructions to encourage the young Queen to accept the Spanish candidate, Alfonso d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, as her next husband, for it was inconceivable she either wanted, or would be allowed, to stay long unmarried. The question of her choice of husband was to be the critical issue for the rest of Rizzio's life.
* * *
And so David Rizzio, ambitious, personable, well educated and intelligent, arrived in Edinburgh early in the month of December 1561. He was about 28 years old. Someone, probably Cardinal Usdimo himself, suggested that de Moretto take him along as an attaché or secretary in his entourage. With no call to the church, and keen for a more adventurous life than his father's, he leapt at the prospect of the northern pilgrimage. Italian family ties are strong, and de Moretto was happy to have one of the cardinal's protégés with him on the long journey.
By contemporary standards the embassy of Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, to the court of Mary Queen of Scots was quite a modest affair. We do not know the precise numbers involved, but the Duke's ambassador would certainly have travelled with numerous attendants, including a train of cooks, grooms, muleteers, musicians, postilions and other domestic servants.
Their odyssey took them two to three months. To start with they rode slowly across France to Paris, crossed the Channel and continued on post horses up through the midlands of England. It was then about seven days' riding along the muddy and rain-sodden Great North Road, up through small market towns such as Royston and Grantham, until they reached the newly strengthened border fortress at Berwick-upon-Tweed. From there another two short winter days along the coastal paths past the castles at Dunbar and Tantallon brought them to the city gates of Edinburgh.
Excerpted from David Rizzio and Mary Queen of Scots by David Tweedie. Copyright © 2011 David Tweedie. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote on the Text,
One Mary's Glittering Court,
Two Religious Frenzy,
Three English Policy,
Four The Courtly Singer,
Five The New Secretary,
Six The Arrival of Lord Darnley,
Seven The Fall of Moray,
Eight Bothwell to the Rescue,
Nine Rizzio Resplendent,
Ten1 The Fatal Conspiracy,
Eleven Mary's Account,
Twelve The English Exult,
Thirteen The Queen's Lover?,
Fourteen The Legend of Rizzio,
Note on Principal Sources,