As evening descended on Holyrood Palace, 9th Match 1566, a band of assassins burst into the chambers of the heavily pregnant Mary Queen of Scots and, before her eyes, brutally murdered David Rizzio, her secretary. His blood still stains the floor where he was slain, and his ghost is said to haunt the 16th Century tower where the deed took place.  In addition, Rizzio the only spirit said to walk Holyrood’s corridors.

Rizzio’s Ghostly Companions

Holyrood Place is located at the opposite end of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle, and is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. If the rumours are true, Rizzio is not the only sceptre to inhabit the palace. Strangely, the ghosts all share connections with either Mary Queen of Scots or her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England. ‘Bald Agnes’ Sampson was brutally tortured at James’ command and executed as a witch. The restless soul of Lord Darnley, one of the main players in Rizzio’s killing, is said to roam the rooms he once occupied, after his gruesome death, one year after the murder of Rizzio.

Who was David Rizzio?

David Rizzio di Pancaliere in Piedmonte was an Italian courtier, born near to Turin, to a musician father. His family were descendants of the Counts of San Paolo et Solbrito. His musical skills led to his being retained by the Archbishop of Turin and later he travelled to Nice to seek a position in the Court of Savoy. He first arrived in Scotland as a member of a diplomatic mission from Savoy in 1561. Rizzio was an excellent singer and lute player, and he befriended three valets de chambres, Mary’s French musicians.  They needed a bass voice to make up a quartet and persuaded Mary to employ him.

Rizzio suddenly found himself on the rise! Gaining Mary’s favour, he became her confidante and then in December 1564, became Mary’s secretary dealing with her French correspondence. This was despite Rizzio’s inability to write good French to the extent that Mary often had to redraft her letters. Queen or not, Mary must have felt piteously lonely, for she had been sent to France as a child where she had been raised as a practising Catholic. Following the death of her husband, the Dauphin, she returned to a very different Scotland. The country had become Protestant, following the strict black and white rules of the Calvinistic faith. The flamboyant and cheerful musician must have contrasted radically with the austere facade of John Knox’ followers. Is it any wonder that a friendship began to blossom between two fellow Catholics in the Scottish court?

David Rizzio and the Scottish Courtiers

Despite his popularity with the Queen, Rizzio was not well-liked by the Scottish aristocracy. Rizzio loved extravagant clothing about which George Buchanan spitefully proclaimed, ‘his appearance disfigured his elegance’. It seems likely that Rizzio was a hunchback and even the musician’s friend, James Melville, described him as a merry fellow but hideously ugly, being deformed. The Scottish courtiers regarded him as a ‘sly crafty foreigner’ and gave him the derogatory epithet Seigneur Davie. Of course, the main problem the courtiers had with Rizzio was his religion and some even suggested that he was a Papal spy.

Rizzio and Darnley

Following Mary’s marriage to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley at a Catholic ceremony in 1565, a number of lords led by her half-brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray rebelled in Ayrshire.  Mary’s army crushed the uprising on 26 August 1565: an event which became known as the Chaseabout Raid. The Earl of Moray fled to England. Meanwhile, Mary placed proposals before Parliament to have the other conspirators brought to trial for treason.

Darnley and Rizzio soon become friends: both were Catholic, played the lute and both needed allies in the Scottish court. Soon their relationship moved beyond friendship. He was admitted to Darnley’s ‘table, his chamber and his most secret thoughts’. They would even ‘lie in one bed together’.

By early 1566 relations between Mary and Lord Darnley were becoming very fraught. Darnley’s character flaws were becoming more and more obvious to all: he was a narcissist, a drunkard, a natural conspirator and was promiscuous.  Mary was prepared to govern Scotland with her husband as equals but Darnley ‘expected her to cede all her power as reigning queen to him’ and believed that she was ‘his subordinate’.

As Mary and Darnley’s relationship deteriorated, Rizzio grew in Mary’s favour. In turn, Darnley was known to be increasingly jealous of the closeness between Mary and her Italian secretary. Meanwhile, a group of those waiting to be tried for treason played on Darnley’s jealousy, convincing him that he was being cuckolded by the Italian. Egotistical and inexperienced, Darnley was like putty in the hands of the ruthless, power-hungry men who were closing in on him. He would become their most powerful weapon. The conspirators entered into a written bond with Darnley, for what amounted to a coup against Mary. Under its terms Rizzio would be murdered; Darnley would be crowned king rather than just consort; the outlawed lords would be pardoned, those exiled to England allowed to return; and Mary’s power would be greatly reduced.

Rizzio’s Murder

On the evening of Saturday 9 March 1566, Mary, at the time six months pregnant with the future King James VI, was having dinner at Holyrood Palace with a small group including Rizzio. Five lords burst into the chamber. Rizzio was hauled out of the room, and at the top of a nearby staircase was stabbed 57 times, with Lord Darnley’s dagger being left in his body. His body was stripped of its jewels and clothing, then thrown down the stairs.

It would have been easier for the conspirators to achieve their objective away from Edinburgh and there were ample opportunities to do so. It seems that their main aim was to cause the Queen to miscarry through pure shock. With the backward medical practices of the time, a mid-term miscarriage invariably led to the mother’s death. Unbeknownst to Darnley, the conspirators would never have allowed him to take the throne. Rather he would have become the scapegoat for this treasonable plot while Moray would have swept to power. However, Mary was stronger than they gave her credit for.

A Failed Plan

The rest of the plan failed. Mary knew her life was under threat. She took advantage of Lord Darnley’s weakness by offering him forgiveness if he helped her escape from Holyrood Palace. Darnley helped her ride to safety at Dunbar Castle. Here they were met by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, with an army of 4,000.  Mary subsequently used these troops to hunt down those involved in the coup.

Poor unfortunate David Rizzio was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Rumour suggested he was the father of Mary’s child. It seemed unlikely. Mary and Darnley were still on amicable terms when James was conceived. It was in the months that followed that their relationship deteriorated rapidly. Besides, it seems unlikely that Mary would have been attracted to the musician. With his deformity, he was a foot shorter than Mary.

Darnley’s ego became his downfall. A year later his residence was blown up. When his body was found it appeared as though he had been strangled. The mostly likely culprit was Bothwell, but did he do it with Mary’s blessing? We will never know.