The Murder of David Rizzio – 9 March 1566

The Murder of Rizzio, by John Opie

On this day in history, 9th March 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary Queen of Scots was assassinated in front of Mary, who was heavily pregnant.

But who was David Rizzio and what led to his murder?

David Rizzio

John Guy, historian and author of “My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots”, describes David Rizzio as a “young Piedmontese valet and musician, who had arrived in the suite of the ambassador of the Duke of Savoy and stayed on as a bass in Mary’s choir”1. Mary obviously took a liking to Rizzio because in late 1564 she chose him to replace her confidential secretary and decipherer, Augustine Raulet, who was a Guise retainer and the only person who Mary had trusted with a key to the box which contained her personal papers. Raulet, for some reason, had lost her trust.

Rizzio was born around 1533 near Turin, Italy, and is first recorded as David Riccio di Pancalieri in Piemonte. He is known as David Rizzio, David Riccio or David Rizzo.

A Doomed Marriage

At this time, Mary Queen of Scots was in love (or perhaps ‘in lust’) with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a man John Guy describes as “a narcissist and a natural conspirator”2, a man who liked his drink and who was promiscuous. Darnley even slept with David Rizzio!3 Mary married Darnley on Sunday 29th July 1565 at her private chapel at Holyrood. The next day, heralds proclaimed Darnley’s new title of King of Scotland.

Married bliss did not last long. John Guy writes of how Darnley “was cynically exploiting religion for his own political purposes”4 and that although Mary was prepared to govern Scotland with her husband as equals, Darnley “expected her to cede all her power as a reigning Queen to him” and believed that she was “his subordinate”5. Darnley also held the view that “his authority was most clearly asserted in bed”6. He sounds a bit of a monster! By Christmas 1565 the couple were estranged, even though Mary was pregnant with Darnley’s baby. A series of rows led to Mary ‘demoting’ Darnley and changing the legend on coinage to read “Marie and Henry, by the Grace of God, Queen and King of Scotland” instead of “Henry and Marie… King and Queen…”, and also denying him of the right to bear the royal arms.

The Plotting Husband

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

Immediately after their marriage Darnley had started plotting to change Scotland’s religion, with David Rizzio acting as one of his confidantes, and “his actions put in jeopardy the religious compromise that Mary had worked so shrewdly over the past four years to establish”7. That, combined with his behaviour in the bedroom, wrecked the marriage. Ambassador Thomas Randolph reported to Robert Dudley: “I know for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage: that she hateth him and all his kin.”8

In early 1566, Darnley began plotting against Mary. Randolph reported that there were “practices in hand to come to the crown against her will”9. Darnley was plotting with his father, Matthew Stuart 4th Earl of Lennox, and William Maitland, who had turned against Mary when she had marginalized him by appointing David Rizzio as her secretary. Lennox also managed to get James Stuart, Earl of Moray, involved in the plot. The plan was complex:-
“He was to contact Moray and the exiled Lords in England, and if they would agree to grant Darnley the ‘crown matrimonial’ in the next Parliament, and so make him lawfully King of Scots, then Darnley would switch sides, recall the exiles home, pardon them, and forbid the confiscation of their estates. Finally, he would perform the ultimate U-turn and re-establish the religious status quo as it had existed at the time of Mary’s return from France… Darnley would become King with full parliamentary sanction, Moray and his allies would be re-instated as if they had never rebelled, and the Protestant Reformation settlement would be restored.”10

Mary Queen of Scots

The success of the plot rested on there being a scapegoat, “someone to blame for misleading Darnley and orchestrating the recent swing towards Catholicism”11 and who better than David Rizzio, personal secretary to the Queen and the man who Darnley had been led to believe, by Maitland, was sleeping with his wife. Darnley felt betrayed by his former lover, who was also said to be a papal agent, so it wasn’t a tough choice. As John Guy says, “almost overnight, and by a masterful propaganda exercise, the unfortunate Rizzio was transformed into the Queen’s illicit lover”. Maitland informed Elizabeth I’s chief adviser, William Cecil, of the proposed plot and Randolph informed Dudley, neither did anything to prevent it.

The Assassination

At 8pm on the night of Saturday 9th March 1566, Lord Darnley and a large group of conspirators (around 80 men) made their way through the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the Queen’s supper chamber where she was enjoying a meal with Rizzio and some other friends. Darnley entered first, to reassure his heavily pregnant wife, and then Lord Ruthven, in full armour, entered the room informing Mary that Rizzio had offended her honour. Mary asked him to leave, saying that any offence committed by Rizzio would be dealt with by the Lords of Parliament, but she was ignored and Ruthven ordered Darnley to hold her. Mary got up angrily and the terrified Rizzio hid behind her as Mary’s friends tried to grab Ruthven, who drew his dagger. Ruthven and another man then proceeded to stab Rizzio who was then hauled out of the room. Mary could not do anything to help him, she had a pistol pointed at her.

Rizzio was then stabbed multiple times, with the final blow being delivered by Lord Darnley’s dagger, although he was not the one brandishing it. Mary reported that her secretary was stabbed 56 times before the gang of assassins fled. When she confronted Darnley, wanting to know why he had been a part of such “a wicked deed”, he replied that she had cuckolded him with Rizzio and that Rizzio was to blame for the problems in their marriage. After this argument between the King and Queen, Rizzio’s lifeless body was thrown down the stairs and Mary was kept guarded, a sentry put at her door. However, the wily Queen wasted no time planning her escape. She managed to see Darnley by himself, offering to make love to him, and then “beguiled him with soothing words”12. Mary was able to persuade her husband to escape with her, which they did, escaping to the home of the sister of the Earl of Bothwell. On the 18th March, Mary entered Edinburgh with her troops which numbered 3-5000 and, after a few days, moved into the castle to prepare for the birth of her baby. Her enemies fled to England. She had won.

This has already become a rather long article, so I don’t want to go into any further details, particularly when John Guy can do it so much better than me in his biography of Mary, but, to cut a long story short, Darnley did get his come-uppance when he was murdered on the 10th February 1567 – see “The Murder of Lord Darnley”. The Earl of Bothwell was implicated in his murder and he later took Mary hostage, allegedly raping her so that she would marry him. Mary Queen of Scots married the Earl of Bothwell on the 15th May 1567.

Notes and Sources

  1. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, John Guy, p204
  2. Ibid., p211
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p236
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p237
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p242
  9. Ibid., p244
  10. Ibid., p245
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p256

22 thoughts on “The Murder of David Rizzio – 9 March 1566

  1. I am John Opie MD. My ancestor John Opie known as The Cornish Wonder was born in Travellas in Cornwall UK painted the death of the Italian Secretary. David Rizzio. The masterpiece is called the Murder of Rizzio hangs in London’s Guildhall. Art Gallery. You can look it up on line or visit the gallery. John Opie 1761-1807 painted the murder in 1787. It is a master piece. Opie lies buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral next to his friend and fellow artist Joshua Reynolds. John Opie’s talent was extraordinary. He was appointed a professor at the Royal Academy in 1806. He was survived by his wife Amelia. They had no children. John Opie MD

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