The History of Leith

August 8, 2012

The Murder of Henry, Lord Darnley, King-consort of Scotland

It was on the 31stof January, 1567, that the
weak, worthless, and debauched, but handsome,
Henry, Lord Darnley, King-consort of Scotland, was
brought to the place of his doom, in the house of
the Provost of the Kirk-of-Field.
Long ere that time his conduct had deprived
him of authority, character, and adherents, and he
had been confined to bed in Glasgow by small-pox.
There he was visited and nursed by Mary, who, as
Carte states, had that disease in her infancy, and
having no fears for it, attended him with a sudden
and renewed tenderness that surprised and—as her
enemies say—alarmed him.
By the proceedings before the Commissioners at
York, gth December, 1568, it would appear that it
had been Mary’s intention to take him to her
favourite residence, Craigmillar, when one of his
friends, named Crawford, hinted that she treated
him ” too like a prisoner ; ” adding, ” Why should I
you not be taken to one of your own houses in
Edinburgh?”
Mary and Darnley left Glasgow on the 27th of
January, and travelled by easy stages to Edinburgh, !
which they reached four days after, and Bothwell
met them with an armed escort at a short distance
from the city on the western road, and accompanied
them to the House of the Kirk-of-Field, which
the ambitious earl and the secretary Lethington
were both of opinion was well suited for an invalid,
being suburban, and surrounded by open grounds
and gardens, and occupied by Robert Balfour,
brother of Sir James Balfour of Pittendreich, who,
though Lord Clerk Register, and author of the
well-known ” Practicks of Scots Law,” had nevertheless
drawn up the secret bond for the
murder of the king.
The large and commodious house of the Duke o f ‘
Chatelherault in the Kirk-of-Fieid Wynd was about
to be prepared for his residence; but that idea was
overruled. Balfour’s house was selected ; a chamber
therein was newly hung with tapestry for him,
and a new bed of black figured velvet provided for
his use, by order of the queen. (Laing, Vol II.)
” The Kirk-of-Field,” says Melvil, ” in which the
king was lodged, in a. place of good air, where he
might best recover his health,” was so called, we
have said, because it was beyond the more ancient
city wall; but the new wall built after Flodden
enclosed the church as well as the houses of the
Provost and Prebendaries. “In the extended line
of wall,” says Bell, ” what was (latterly) called the
Potterrow Port was at first denominated the Kirkof-
Field Port, from its vicinity to the church of
that name. The wall ran from this port along
the south side of the present College Street and
the north side of Drummond Street, where a part is
still to be seen in its original state. The house
stood at some distance from the kirk, and the
latter from the period of the Reformation had fallen
into decay. The city had not yet stretched
in this direction much farther than the Cowgate.
Between that street and the town wall were the
Dominican Convent of the Black Friars, with its
alms-houses for the poor, and gardens covering the
site of the old High School and the Royal Infirmary,
ar?9 the Kirk-of-Field, with its Provost’s residence.
The Kirk-of-Field House stood very nearly
on the site of the present north-west corner of
Drummond Street. It fronted the west, having its
southern gavel so close upon the town wall that a
little postern door entered immediately through the
wall into the kitchen. It contained only four
apartments. . . . Below, a small passage went
through from the front door to the back of the
i house, upon the right-hand of which was the kit-
I chen, and upon the left a room furnished as a bedroom
for the queen when she chose to remain all
| night. Passing out at the back door there was a
! turnpike stair behind, which, after the old fashion
., of Scottish houses, led up to the second storey.
Above, there were two rooms corresponding with
those below. Darnley’s chamber was immediately
over Mary’s; and on the other side of the lobby
j above the kitchen, ‘ a garde robe,’ or ‘ little gallery,’
which was used as a servant’s room, and which had
a window in the gavel looking through the town
wall, and corresponding with the postern door below.
Immediately beyond this wall was a lane,
shut in by another wall, to the south of which
were extensive gardens.” (” Life of Queen Mary,”
I chap, xx.)
Darnley occupied the upper chamber mentioned,
while his three immediate servants, Taylor, Nelson,
and Edward Simmons, had the gallery. The door
j at the foot of the staircase having been removed,
and used as a cover for ” the vat,” or species of
bath in which Darnley during his loathsome
disease was bathed, the house was without other
security than the portal doors of the gateway.
During much of the time that he was here Mary
attended him with all her old affection and with
assiduous care, passing most of each day in his
society, and sleeping for several nights in the lower
chamber. The marks of tenderness and love
which she showed him partially dispelled those
fears which the sullen and suspicious Darnley had
begun to entertain of his own safety; for he knew
that he had many bitter enemies, against whom he
trusted that her presence would protect him.
Many persons are said to have suspected Bothwell’s
fell purpose, but none dared apprise him of
his danger, ” as he revealed all,” says Melvil, ” to
some of his own servants, who were not honest.”
Three days before the murder, the Lord Robert
Stuart, Mary’s illegitimate brother, warned Darnley
that if he did not quit the Kirk-of-Field ” it would
cost him his life.”
Darnley informed Mary of this, on which she
sent for her brother, and inquired his meaning in
her husband’s presence; but Lord Robert, afraid
of involving himself with Bothwell and the many
noble and powerful adherents of that personage,
denied ever having made any such statement.
“This information,” adds Melvil, “moved the Earl
of Bothwell to haste forward with his enterprise.”
He had secured either the tacit assent or active
co-operation of the Earls of Huntley, Argyle, Caithness,
and the future Regent Morton, of Archibald
Douglas, and many others of the leading lords and
officers of state; and in addition to these conspirators
of high rank, he had received a number of
other unscrupulous wretches, with whom Scotland
seemed at that time to abound.
Four of these, Wilson, Powrie, Dalgleish, and
French Paris, were only humble retainers; but
other four who were active in the Kirk-of-Field
tragedy were John Hepburn of Bolton, John Hay
of Tallo, the Laird of Ormiston, and Hob Ormiston
his uncle.
Bothwell artfully contrived to get the Frenchman
Paris, who had been long in his service, taken into
that of the queen about this period, and thus
render important service by obtaining the door-key
of the Kirk-of-Field House, from which impressions
were taken and counterfeits made.
If the depositions of this villain are to be
credited, it was not until Wednesday, the 5th of
February (1567), that the plot was revealed to him,
and that on seeing him grow faint-hearted at dread
of his own danger, Bothwell asked him, impatiently,
more than once, what he thought of it. ” Pardon
me, sir,” replied Paris, ” if I tell you my opinion
according to my poor mind.”
“What! are you going to preach to me ? ” asked
Bothwell, scornfully.
Paris ultimately consented to act; and it
would seem that Bothwell for a few days was undecided,
like his four chief accomplices, whether to
slay Darnley when walking in the garden or sleeping
in bed, or to blow the house and its inmates up
together. Eventually a quantity of Government
powder was brought from the Castle of Dunbar to
Bothwell’s house, near Holyrood, and Paris was
instructed to admit Hay, Hepburn, and Ormiston
into the queen’s room, below that of Darnley, from
which he, to blacken her, alleged she removed a
valuable coverlet—a very unlikely act of parsimony
on her part.
On the night of Sunday, the gth of February, all
was ready for the dreadful pro] ect. When the dusk
fell Bothwell assembled the conspirators at his own
house, and, according to the depositions of Powrie,
Dalgleish, Tallo, and others, allotted to each the
grim part he was to play. He was well aware that
the queen had dined that day at the palace, and
that in the evening she was to sup with the Bishop
of Argyle in the house of Mr. John Balfour, with
whom the prelate lodged.
At nine she left the supper-table, and, accompanied
by the Earls of Argyle, Huntley, and
Cassilis, went to visit Darnley at the Kirk-of-
Field before returning to Holyrood, where she
was to be present at a masque in honour of the
marriage of Margaret Carwood, one of her favourite
attendants.
Meanwhile, Dalgleish, Powrie, and Wilson, were
conveying the powder in bags from Bothwell’s
house to the convent gate at the foot of the Blackfriars
Wynd, where it was received by Hay of Tallo,
Hepburn of Bolton and Ormiston, who desired them
to return home.
Bothwell, who had been present with her at the
banquet of the bishop, quitted the table at the
same time as Mary, but left her and walked up and
down the Cowgate while the powder was being
received and deposited. By his orders a large
empty barrel was deposited in the Dominican
garden. Into this all the bags of powder were to
have been placed, but as the lower back door of
the Provost’s house was too small to admit it, they
were conveyed in separately, and placed in a heap
on the floor of the room beneath that in which the
victim then lay a-bed.
At length all was in readiness; the queen had
departed by torchlight to the Holyrood masque,
attended by Both well, and Ormiston had withdrawn;
but Hay and Hepburn, with their false
keys, remained in the room with the powder. Paris,
who had in his pocket the key of the queen’s room
in the Kirk-of-Field, followed her train to the palace.
If, again, any credit can be given to the confession
of Paris, he stated that on entering the
ball-room where the masquers were dancing, a
melancholy seized him, and he remained apart from
all ; on which Bothwell accosted him angrily,
saying that if he retained that gloomy visage in
Her Majesty’s presence he should make him suffer
for it. Paris then says he expressed a desire to
go to bed.
” No,” said Bothwell; “you must remain with
me. Would you have those two gentlemen, Hay
and Hepburn, locked up where they now are ? ”
” Alas !” replied the luckless varlet, who felt
himself in the power of a stronger will. ” What more
must I do this night ? for I have no heart in this
business.” ” Follow me !” was the stern command
; and at midnight Bothwell left the palace for
his own house, where he substituted for his rich
court dress of black velvet and satin one of plain
stuff, and wrapped himself up in his riding-cloak.
Accompanied by Paris, Powrie, Wilson, and Dalgleish,
he passed down a lane which ran along
the wall of the queen’s south gardens, joining the
foot of the Canongate, where the gate of the outer
court of the palace formerly stood.
Here they were challenged by a sentinel of the
Archer Guard, who demanded, “Who goes
there?” “Friends,” replied Powrie. “What
friends?” “Friends of the Lord Bothwell.”
After being passed out, they proceeded up the dark
Canongate, where they found the Netherbow Port
shut; but Wilson roused the keeper, John Galloway,
by rashly calling to him to open the gate
” for the friends of my Lord Bothwell.” ” What
do ye out of your beds at this time of night ?”
asked Galloway; but they passed on without replying.
(Depositions in Laing.)
They called at Ormiston’s lodging in the Netherbow
; but the wary laird, deeming that he had
done enough in assisting to convey the powder, declined
to do more, and sent word that he was
from home ; so passing down Todrig’s Wynd, they
crossed the Cowgate, entered the convent gardens,
and waited for Hay and Hepburn near the House
of the Kirk-of-Field. From, this point mystery and
obscurity cloud all that followed.
When left alone by the departure of the queen,
a gloomy foreboding of impending peril would seem
to have fallen upon the wretched Darnley. He read
a portion of the Scriptures, repeated the 55th Psalm,
and fell asleep, his young page Taylor watching
in the apartment near him. Thomas Nelson,
Edward Simmons, and a boy, lay in the servants’
apartment, or gallery, next the city wall.
One account has it that it was at this time that
Hay and Hepburn, concealed in the room with the
powder, by means of their false keys gained access
to the king’s apartment; that the noise of their entrance
awoke him, and springing from bed in his
shirt and pelisse, he strove to make his escape,
but was knocked down and strangled, his shrieks
for mercy being heard by some women in an ad-
I joining house ; that his page was dispatched in the
same manner, and their bodies flung into the orchard,
where they were found next morning, un-
•, touched by fire or powder, and then the house was
blown up to obliterate all traces of the murder.
This peculiar version of it is based on a dispatch
from the papal nuncio to Cosmo I., and found in
the archives of the Medici by Prince Labanoff,
who communicated it to Mr. Tytler.
Bothwell’s accomplices, on the other hand, when
brought to trial, all more or less emphatically
denied that Darnley was either strangled or assassinated,
and then carried into the garden ; Hepburn
expressly declared that he only knew that Darnley
was blown into the air, ” and handled with no
man’s hands that he saw.” Melvil says, on the
morning after the murder, Bothwell ” came forth
and told me he saw the strangest accident that
ever chanced—to wit, the thunder came out of the
lift (sky) and burnt the king’s house, and himself
found lying at a little distance from the house
under a tree, and willed me to go up and see him,
how there was not a mark nor hurt on all his body.”
(Melvil’s “Memoirs,” 1735.)
No doubt rests upon the part played by Bothwell,
however the murder at the Kirk-of-Field was
achieved.
Dalgleish, Powrie, and Wilson, were left at the head
of the convent garden, while French Paris passed
over the wall at the back of the house, and joined
the two assassins, who were locked in the room
where the powder lay. On the arrival of the daring
earl, Hepburn lighted the match connected
with the train and the powder, and having locked
the doors, they then withdrew to await the event.
Bothwell fretted with impatience as the match
burned slowly for a quarter of an hour; then, precisely
at two in the morning, it took effect.
The whole house seemed to rise, says Hay of
Tallo, in his deposition. Then, with a noise as of
the bursting of a thunderbolt, the solid masonry
of the house was rent into a thousand fragments ;
scarcely a vestige of it remained, and “great stones,
of the length of ten feet and breadth of four feet,”
were found blown from it all over the orchard.
Paralysed with fear, Paris fell with his face forward
on the earth; even Bothwell was appalled,
and said, ” I have been in many important enterprises,
but I never felt as I do now !” The whole of
the conspirators now hurried back to the High Street,
| and sought to get out of the city by dropping from
the wall at Leith Wynd, but were forced once more
to rouse the porter at the Netherbow. They then
passed down St. Mary’s Wynd and the south back
of the Canongate to Bothwell’s lodging, near the j
palace, at the gates of which they were again
challenged by the Archers of the Guard—a corps
which existed from 1562 to 1567—who asked “if
they knew what noise that was they heard a short
time before.” They replied that they did not.
Rushing to his house, Bothwell called for something
to drink, and throwing off his clothes, went
to bed.
Tidings that the house had been blown up and
the king slain spread fast through the startled
city, and George Hackett, a servant of the ^palace,
communicated these to Bothwell, whom he found
in “ane great effray pitch-black,” and excited.
Then with assumed coolness he inquired “what
was the matter ? ” On being distinctly informed,
he began to shout ” Treason!” and on being
joined by the Earl of Huntley, he repaired at once
to the presence of the queen.
By dawn the whole area of the Kirk-of-Field
was crowded by citizens, who found that the three
servants who slept in the gallery were buried in the
ruins, out of which Nelson was dragged alive.
In Holyrood the queen kept her bed in a darkened
room, while a proclamation was issued, offering
the then tolerable sum of £2,000 Scots to
any who would give information as to the perpetrators
of the crime. On the same day the body of
Darnley was brought to Holyrood Chapel, and
after being embalmed by Maistre Mastin Picauet,
” ypothegar,” was interred on Saturday night, without
the presence of any of the nobles or officers
of state, except the Lord Justice Clerk Bellenden
and Sir James Traquair.
Bothwell was denounced as the murderer by a
paper fixed on the Tolbooth Gate. But though the
earl was ultimately brought to trial, no precisely
proper inquiry into the startling atrocity was made
by the officers of the Crown.
A bill fastened on the Tron Beam, declared
that the smith who furnished the false keys to the
king’s apartment would, on due security being
given, point out his employers ; and other placards,
on one of which were written the queen’s initials,
M.R., were posted elsewhere—manifestations of
public feeling that rendered Bothwell so furious
that he rode through the city at the head of a band
of his armed vassals, swearing that he “would wash
his hands” in the blood of the authors, could he
but discover them ; and from that time forward he
watched all who approached him with a jealous
eye, and a hand on his dagger. (Tytler.)
When that part of the city wall which immediately
adjoined the hofce of the Kirk-of-Field
was demolished in 1854, it was found to be five
feet thick, and contained among its rubble many
fragments of a Gothic church or other edifice, and
three cannon-balls, one of 24 pounds’ weight, were
found in it.
In the records of the Privy Council in 1579, we
find an order for denouncing and putting to the
horn Robert Balfour, Provost of the Kirk-of-Field,
for having failed to appear before the Lords, and
answer ‘4*o sic thingis as sauld have been inquirit
of him at his cuming.” The Provost, brother of
the notorious Sir James, had been outlawed or forfeited
in 1571, as there rested upon both the charge
of having been chief agents in the murder or
Darnley.
He was ultimately remitted and pardoned, and
this was ratified by Parliament in 1584, when he
and his posterity were allowed to enjoy all their
possessions,” providing alwayis that these presentis
be not extendit to repossess and restoir the said
Robert to ony ryt he has, or he may pretend, to ye
Provostrie of ye Kirk-of-Field, sumtym situat within
the libertie of ye burgh of Edinburgh.”
In this same year, 1584, the Town Council were
greatly excited by a serious affray that ensued at
the Kirk-of-Field Port, and to prevent the recurrence
of a similar disorder, ordained that on the
ringing of the alarm bell the inhabitants were all to
convene in their several quarters under their bailies,
” in armour and good order.” And subsequently,
to prevent broils by night-walkers, they ordered
“that at 10 o’clock fifty strokes would be given on
the great bell, after which none should be upon the
streets, under a penalty of £20 Scots, and imprisonment
during the town’s pleasure.” (” Council
Records.”)
A fragment of ruin connected with the Kirk-of-
Field is shown as extant in 1647 in Gordon’s map,
near what is now the north-west corner of Drummond
Street, and close to the old University. A
group of. trees appear to the eastward, and a garden
to the north.

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