Kirk o 'Field - Moray's Propaganda Victory

Statue of Darnley

Nowadays, Bothwell's is the name always associated with the murders at Kirk o' Field. This doesn't stem from the evidence of the time, but from stories conconcted by Moray and his henchmen months later, after they had seized power from Mary at the non-battle of Carberry Hill. They themselves were involved up to the eyeballs and needed to suppress the truth. Bothwell was a handy scapegoat, so they set about using torture to extract the ‘confessions’ they needed.

A tale was concocted from statements made by Geordie Dalgleish and William Powrie - Bothwell’s tailor and porter. As Gore-Brown comments, ‘the helpful hand of the examiner shows through’[12]. John Hepburn and John Hay of Talla were similarly treated to corroborate the tale[16]. The ‘official’ story goes as follows:

Bothwell’s initial plan was for a syndicate of nobles to each supply two servants who would kill the king ‘in the fields’. This perfectly reasonable idea was abandoned in favour of the use of gunpowder - a difficult and unusual way to kill one person.

Still, Bothwell had apparently brought a supply of gunpowder from Dunbar, and it was handily lying beneath his quarters in Holyrood, right under the eyes of the royal guards.

On Sunday Hay’s man found a suitable barrel for transporting the powder. The conspirators met in the Queen’s bedroom, seemingly for no better reason than to incriminate her, and then adjourned to Black Ormiston’s apartment in Blackfriar’s Wynd, where his uncle, Hob Ormiston, became involved.

Bothwell left to attend the Savoy Ambassador’s party. At ten pm, five conspirators transported the bags of gunpowder by horse to Kirk o’ Field and returned the ‘empties’ to Holyrood. With astonishing good fortune the thirty two men of the nightwatch [26] paid absolutely no attention to these carryings-on./

French Paris let them into the house and the gunpowder was piled onto the floor of the Queen’s bedroom, which was below Darnley's. Their luck held and no-one spotted them as they moved through a house they were unfamiliar with.

Hay and Hepburn stayed with the powder, the others left. Paris told Bothwell all was ready, his dirtiness being noted by the Queen.

After midnight Bothwell gathered his accomplices and led them to Kirk o’ field, giving his name to the nightwatch, as an assassin would.

At two, Hepburn and Hay lit the fuse and left, locking all the doors behind them. After 15 minutes Bothwell impatiently wanted to check the fuse, but was held back by John Hepburn. Seconds later the house blew up.

Darnley's lodging after the blast

The conspirators then bolted, giving Bothwell’s name at Hollyrood, just in case it hadn’t registered earlier in the night.

After giving this story, Hepburn, Hay, Powrie and Dalgleish were tried, sentenced, hung and quartered in one day.

French Paris was captured in October 1568. His torture produced two statements, both of which contradicted the ‘evidence’ obtained previously so he was hung without trial and his confessions discarded.[16]

Black Ormiston was executed in 1573, and his testimony supported that of Hay et al - unsurprisingly since his inquisitor was the same as theirs.

Aside from the obvious, the ‘official’ version of events contains other difficulties.

As Mahon [8] points out, gunpowder was weaker in those times than nowadays, so an explosion strong enough to completely destroy Darnley’s lodging could not have been produced by the amount of gunpowder which could have been carried to Kirk o’ Field on horseback unless the house had been undermined in some way. The reference to the Queen’s bedroom is blatantly inserted purely to incriminate her. And even if Bothwell somehow managed to fit blowing up the house into his packed Sunday schedule, the king’s unmarked body was inconveniently found outside it.

Contemporary and near-contemporary authors then came to the conclusion that Bothwell’s gang strangled Darnley and his valet as they slept [20, 28, 29, 30, 31]. They carried the bodies out of the house, then blew it up. But why bother? Gore-Brown points out the pantomime of the assassins reverently laying ‘the deceased’s slippers and dressing gown beside him before they blew up the house to tell the world they had finished!’

So what is the truth?

Bothwell had no motive to kill Darnley. He had played no part in the murder of Riccio and so had not been double-crossed by the king as the other lords had. Moray and Maitland must even have been concerned that he may have supported Darnley against them when they visited him in September 1566 to gain his signature on the bond obligating all to support the others in not obeying the king where his wishes conflicted with those of the Queen [4, 32].

Bothwell alone amongst the nobles was in high standing with the Queen and Darnley at this point - Jean Gordon had married him despite his lack of money purely to raise the fortunes of the Gordons following the disgrace of the previous Lord Huntly. Bedford noted that Bothwell was hated by the other lords [4, 25], no doubt due to his standing at court. Unlike the other Protestant lords, Bothwell had everything to lose by killing Darnley and nothing to gain.

Bothwell is usually said to have wanted Darnley dead so that he could take his place. It is implied that he and Mary were lovers, but there is no contemporary evidence of this. The ‘Casket Letters’, supposedly written from Mary to Bothwell, are generally agreed to be forgeries commissioned by Moray to convince Elizabeth I of Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s death [10, 12]. Anyway, Bothwell knew that Darnley had syphilis [1], and his disfigurement had shown he was in the end-stages of the disease [2]. If he really did want to marry the Queen, he only had to wait for nature to take its course.

Other nobles however had motives which we have seen to be only too apparent, especially to Darnley himself. Moray at least knew he was on Darnley’s hit-list [20, 25, 33, 34].

So Bothwell had no motive. As for means, gunpowder was an unlikely one for him to choose. He was a man who habitually acted alone and Darnley’s habits of hunting and swimming in isolated spots [34] afforded excellent opportunities for ambush, something with which Bothwell was familiar.

Finally, the evidence freely given by the neighbourhood women during the initial investigation clearly stated that the killers were kinsmen of Darnley. Bothwell of course was unrelated to him.

So what really happened?

One set of theories centres around the supposition that Darnley was attempting to blow up the house to kill the Queen, with or without certain nobles. He may even have intended to die at the scene himself. Mahon [8], Gore-Brown [12] and Drummond [35] all detail variations on this theme. Mary herself certainly thought that she had been the target, and her letters of Monday 10th February betray as much shock at her narrow escape as at Darnley’s demise [5].

Darnley was dismayed that Moray was regaining favour and the return of the Riccio murderers threatened his own safety [32, 36]. Getting rid of them all in one fell swoop would enable him to claim the throne as Regent for his son James. This would explain the use of gunpowder - an excellent way to claim multiple victims.

Though the casket letters are certainly forgeries, it would appear that the long (second) casket letter was constructed from a memorandum which Mary had written, possibly to Maitland [12]. In it she mentions how she had to agree to shared a lodging with Darnley to get him to agree to return to Edinburgh. She reports that he was particularly insistent upon this [10, 32, 37].

Further evidence for the theory that Darnley was behind the tragedy comes from his bizarre behaviour in leaving the house abruptly and without dressing, despite his illness and the bitter cold. There had not been sufficient commotion for him to fear immediate physical attack, since Nelson and his other servants had slept on in the house until it blew up around them. From the Cecil drawing it can be seen that Taylor had taken time to put on shoes and hat, and had brought with him a chair, a quilt and a dressing gown for Darnley. The most likely explanation for this would be a smell of smoke. Taylor didn’t hurry, since he believed he had plenty of time before the fire endangered him. Darnley left immediately, because he knew that fire would mean the imminent ignition of the gunpowder. As Gore-Brown [12] points out, if he had heard of a plot against him involving gunpowder the King would have moved lodging immediately. The only other way he could have been aware of it would be if he had been plotting himself.

James Balfour, who had offered the lodging was also in on the plot. William Drury reported to Cecil that Balfour had recently bought sixty pounds’ worth of gunpowder in Edinburgh [7, 9, 38]. His brother owned both the Old Provost’s Lodging and house next door so it would be simple for him to move gunpowder from one residence to the other, placing it in the vaults and walls. He knew the geography of both residences and Darnley would have assisted him in escaping detection.

Once the gunpowder was in place and the Queen and her entourage conveniently installed, Darnley would escape and ride to meet his father, conveniently newly arrived at Linlithgow, twenty miles away [14].

The King may have changed his mind and for whatever reason his plan did not go ahead. Someone else’s did.

Moray knew of some plot afoot and when he left Edinburgh on Sunday 9th February he commented that the night would see Darnley cured of all his troubles . Moray’s very absence implicates him - he was careful not to take an active part in any of the plots he masterminded. Even so, his name was soon being associated with the crime [9, 19, 20] and it was said that he had aimed at Bothwell’s death too [19].

Darnley was always indiscreet - at one point even telling Mary of a plot he had to kill Moray [5, 35]. Balfour was a known turn coat. It is not unlikely that Moray heard of Darnley’s plan and became determined to use the convenient gunpowder for his own purposes. He needed others to carry out his plans, so he involved Maitland, Morton. And the Douglases. The plan was now to use Darnley’s own petard to hoist him.

The possible death of Mary would be an added bonus, at least to Moray as he had always coveted her crown. Her loyal nobles such as Bothwell and Huntly were probably also targets. Those involved in the plot would understandably decline to attend the Old Provost’s Lodging - making it unlikely that Huntly, Argyll or Bothwell were involved.

However, Maitland had become close to the Queen. He gave her warning that her life was in danger, and though he didn’t specifically mention Kirk o’ Field, he advised staying at the palace that night [13, 16]. It is probably this warning which Mary discussed with Bothwell and Traquair on the evening of Bastien Page's wedding masque.

Should Mary survive the explosion, Moray’s place as her chief advisor would be secure, but for Bothwell. The attendance at Kirk o’ Field that night was uncertain, so Moray decided to set up his rival.

He probably instructed Paris to inform Bothwell of the gunpowder if Mary and her entourage were not going to be present at the time of the explosion. Paris had been used as an agent of Maitland and Moray before, when in 1565 he took part in a failed attempt to kill Bothwell [13, 39]. Now he told Bothwell of the gunpowder after his conference with Mary - Geordie Dalgleish says Bothwell was going to his bed at the time [16].

Thus informed, Bothwell went to Kirk o’Field, having no reason to hide his identity from the nightwatch. Once there, Balfour showed him the fuse leading to the gunpowder - probably the closest Bothwell got to the plot. His memoirs describe gunpowder stacked under Darnley’s bed, which suggests that having only seen a train of powder, he had no idea where it led, and had accepted the ‘official’ account [3] .

Having caught Balfour in the act of lighting the fuse, he could have arrested him there and then, but he didn’t. It has been suggested that Bothwell himself lit the fuse impulsively and in anger when he heard of Darnley’s plot [12, 35], but if either he or Mary were ever aware of Darnley’s involvement, they never mentioned it. Bothwell was always a straightforward man, and at all other times in his life, his motivations show clearly. Kirk o’ Field is the one time where this is not true.

He had no motivation to kill Darnley, yetwas at the scene and appears to have let at least one culprit go unpunished. He can only have been protecting someone, and the only person he could possibly have any reason to protect was the Queen.

Once the rebel lords gained power, they were free to edit history as they saw fit. What they could not satisfactorily explain was Darnley’s actual death. No-one could have foreseen Darnley leaving the house prior to the explosion. Once in the garden, he was strangled by the Douglases, his kinsmen on his mother’s side. This seems certain, given the stories of the neighbourhood women and the confession of the Earl of Morton [42]. He testified that he knew of Archibald Douglas’s plan to murder the king, but took no part in it. He is supported by the confession of John Binning, Douglas’ servant, and George Home of Sprott, another Douglas man [116]. So even though Bothwell was blamed for the explosion, he could not have been simultaneously lighting the fuse - a fuse which took 15 minutes to burn - and strangling Darnley.

But this didn’t matter. Moray and his accomplices, with a mixture of luck and opportunistic cunning, somehow ensured that their contemporaries accepted their version of the truth, when all the evidence pointed otherwise. History has done the rest.


1. Pearson K; ‘Skull and Portraits of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and their bearing on the Tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots’. Biometrika XX, July 1928.

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41. Spottiswoode J; ‘History of the Church of Scotland’


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