James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

James Hepburn, the only son of Patrick Hepburn, 3rd Earl of Bothwell, and his wife, Agnes Sinclair, was born in about 1535. His parents divorced when he was a child and he was brought up by his great-uncle, Patrick Hepburn, bishop of Moray.

Hepburn was sent to Paris to finish his education. He "learned to speak fluent French, he read military history and theory in French translations from the Latin and wrote in an elegant, italic hand." He was described as being short and muscular. (1)

James Hepburn was twenty-one when in 1556 he inherited his father's titles along with the hereditary offices of lord high admiral of Scotland, sheriff of Berwick, Haddington, and Edinburgh, and bailie of Lauderdale, and also the castles of Hailes and Crichton.

Although a committed protestant Bothwell was a strong supporter of Mary Stuart and on 14th December 1557 he was appointing commissioners to negotiate the marriage contract with François, the son of King Henri II. (2) Although omitted from the will of Henry VIII, she was one of the heiresses to the English crown. Henri believed that the marriage could result in a controlling interest in the combined realms of England and Scotland. (3)

On 17th November 1558, Henry VIII's elder daughter, Queen Mary I died. She was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth. In the opinion of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate, and Mary Stuart, as the senior descendant of Henry VIII's elder sister, was the rightful queen of England. Henri II of France proclaimed his eldest son and daughter-in-law king and queen of England, and in France the royal arms of England were quartered with those of Francis and Mary. (4)

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

James Hepburn was put in charge of protecting Scotland from border raids carried out by the Earl of Northumberland. According to his biographer, Rosalind K. Marshall: "While busy ransoming Scottish prisoners taken by the English, he found time in 1559 to begin a passionate affair with Janet Beton (b. 1516), the Wizard Lady of Branxholm, a mature beauty who was forty-three years old to his twenty-four, three times married, and the mother of seven children. Always willing to promise marriage to the women he seduced, he was rumoured to have made her his wife, but if they were irregularly married he soon discarded her to concentrate on his pursuit of power." (5)

Bothwell became involved with Anna Throndsen, the daughter of Christopher Throndsen, a wealthy Norwegian noble living in Copenhagen. Bothwell seems to have spent the next three months in Flanders with Anna, who may have been pregnant and could have been the mother of his one illegitimate son, William. However, he deserted her soon after.

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Anne Boleyn

On 10th July 1559, King Henri II was killed by Gabriel Montgomery during a tournament. Mary's fifteen year old husband, François, became king of France. This development caused concern in England and urged on by William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth ordered an English fleet to cut the sea link between Scotland and France. She also issued instructions for assembling an army and after they invaded in the early months of 1560, negotiations between the countries took place. Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed in July, both France and England agreed to withdraw their forces from Scotland and leave the religious question to be settled by the Scottish Parliament. The body met in August and imposed the Reformation upon Scotland and the celebration of mass was forbidden. (6)

Queen Mary rewarded Bothwell with 600 crowns and the post of gentleman of the king's chamber. In November 1559, Bothwell suddenly left Paris, causing Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador, to warn Queen Elizabeth against this "rash and hazardous young man" whose "adversaries should have an eye to him". (7)

François developed a middle ear infection which led to an abscess in his brain. He died on 5th December 1560. His mother, Catherine de Medici, became regent for his ten-year-old brother Charles IX, who inherited the French throne. She spent her period of strict mourning with her grandmother Antoinette. In January 1561, attempts were made to arrange a marriage with Don Carlos, eldest son of Philip II, but in April this was blocked by her mother-in-law.

Mary, Queen of Scots

John Leslie invited Mary to return to Scotland to restore Catholicism to the country. He promised that George Gordon, the 4th Earl of Huntly, would raise 20,000 men to help her gain power. Lord James Stewart, Mary's illegitimate half-brother and one of the protestant leaders, promised her that she could retain a private Catholic mass if she were to work with the regime. Mary accepted Lord James's offer and Bothwell, as lord high admiral, went to France to escort her home. She arrived at Leith on 19th August 1561. Five days later she heard mass in her chapel at Holyroodhouse, protected by Lord James from the threats of more militant protestants encouraged by John Knox. She governed with the aid of her privy council, that included Lord James and William Maitland. (8)

Alan Turing
Mary, Queen of Scots by François Clouet (c. 1559)

Soon after arriving in Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, sent Maitland, her Secretary of State, to England to ask Elizabeth for the succession. Elizabeth told him that she knew no better right than Mary's, but that she did not want to nominate a successor because it would undermine her own position. Guided by Maitland, Mary presented her demands to Elizabeth as a simple clarification of the Treaty of Edinburgh. She would renounce the English throne in return for a clear promise of the succession.

Henry Darnley

Mary met Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, on Saturday 17th February 1565, at Wemyss Castle in Scotland. Both Mary and Henry were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII of England, and the widow of James IV, king of Scots. Soon afterwards, arrangements were made for the two to marry. Queen Elizabeth was totally against the match because it would unite two claims on the throne. Any children of the marriage would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. At first Elizabeth was confident that she would block it because Darnley was an English subject, and his parents were her dependants with lands in England. (9) However, they married at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565, even though both were Catholic and a papal dispensation for the marriage of first cousins had not been obtained. (10)

Alan Turing
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (c. 1560)

Mary's marriage to a leading Catholic resulted in Mary's half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, to join with other Protestant lords in open rebellion. Mary and her forces and Moray and the rebellious lords roamed around Scotland without ever engaging in direct combat. Mary's numbers were boosted by the return of the Earl of Bothwell, from exile in France. Mary's forces were greatly superior, and unable to obtain sufficient support, Moray left Scotland for asylum in England. (11)

Mary became pregnant. However, the marriage was not a happy one. According to Elizabeth Jenkins: "Marriage with a Queen and one of the most beautiful of women had been too much for Darnley's weak head. His brainless arrogance had been so much increased that he did not treat even his wife with courtesy. Mary's passion was soon extinct, and her coldness and dislike roused him to the fatuous self-assertion that had been fostered by his mother." (12)

Murder of David Rizzio

Darnley became jealous of David Rizzio, who had replaced him as her most important political advisor. According to his biographer, Rosalind K. Marshall "he was an ugly little man, full of his own importance, with an expensive taste in clothes... but Mary evidently felt that she could trust him. As her secretary he was constantly in her company... At the same time he did everything he could to enhance his own position, and the courtiers soon came to realize that if they wished for favours, they would have to bribe Seigneur Davie, as he was known." (13)

Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to Scotland, reported to William Cecil that Rizzio was a growing influence on Mary. It was decided to spread rumours that Riccio was having an affair with the Queen of Scots. It was even suggested that Rizzio was the real father of Mary's unborn child. (14) Darnley decided to join forces with a group of protestant lords who shared a dislike of Rizzio.

On 9th March 1566, about seven o'clock in the evening, Mary was at supper with Riccio in the little room adjoining her bedchamber at Holyroodhouse. "Suddenly Darnley marched in, sat down beside Mary, and put an arm round her waist, chatting to her with unaccustomed geniality. She had scarcely replied when the startling figure of Patrick Ruthven, Lord Ruthven, appeared in the doorway, deathly pale and wearing full armour... The queen rose to her feet in alarm. Terrified, Riccio darted behind her, to cower in the window embrasure, clinging to the pleats of her gown. The royal attendants sprang forward to take Ruthven, but he pulled out a pistol and waved them back. At the same moment the earl of Morton's men rushed into the supper chamber, the table was overturned... While Andrew Ker of Fawdonside held his pistol to the queen's side, George Douglas, Darnley's uncle, snatched Darnley's dagger from his belt and stabbed Riccio. According to Mary's own description of events, this first blow was struck over her shoulder... On Darnley's orders his body, with fifty-six stab wounds, was hurled down the main staircase, dragged into the porter's lodge, and thrown across a coffer where the porter's servant stripped him of his fine clothes." (15)

Bothwell and his brother-in-law had also been intended victims, but they got away through a back window. (16) It is claimed that when Mary was told the news that Riccio was dead, she apparently dried her eyes and said "No more tears now. I will think upon revenge". Riccio was buried hastily in a cemetery outside Holyrood Abbey. However, later, Mary had his body exhumed and placed in the royal vault in the abbey. She then appointed his young brother Joseph Riccio to take his place as her French secretary.

Death of Lord Darnley

Mary now joined forces with the Earl of Bothwell. She pardoned Lord Moray and the other exiles, and the people involved in the assassination of David Rizzio fled to England. Mary was now back in charge. In April 1566, Mary took up residence in Edinburgh Castle in order to await her child's birth, and on 19th June, after a difficult labour, Prince James was born. Queen Elizabeth was furious when a poet based in Paris, described James as prince of Scotland, England, France, and Ireland. (17)

Henry Killigrew noted on 24th June, 1566 "Bothwell's credit with the Queen is greater than all the rest together" and Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford confirmed this on 27th July, adding that Bothwell was "the most hated man among the noblemen in Scotland". That autumn Bothwell was seriously wounded while carrying out his duties as lieutenant on the border. Recovering at Hermitage Castle he received a visit from Mary on 16th October, presumably to discuss the perennial problem of peacekeeping along the frontier with England. "Their enemies put it about that this had been some kind of illicit assignation, but in reality the queen had been accompanied by a large number of courtiers; they included Moray, by now returned and restored following Riccio's death." (18)

After the birth of their son, James, the couple lived apart. Lord Darnley was taken ill (officially with smallpox, possibly in fact with syphilis) and was convalescing in a house called Kirk o' Field. Mary visited him daily, so that it appeared a reconciliation was in progress. In the early hours of the morning on 10th February, 1567, an explosion devastated the house, and Darnley was found dead in the garden. There were no visible marks of strangulation or violence on the body and so it was suggested that he had been smothered. Rumours began to circulate that Bothwell and his friends had arranged his death. Elizabeth wrote to Mary: "I should ill fulfil the office of a faithful cousin or an affectionate friend if I did not... tell you what all the world is thinking. Men say that, instead of seizing the murderers, you are looking through your fingers while they escape; that you will not seek revenge on those who have done you so much pleasure, as though the deed would never have taken place had not the doers of it been assured of impunity. For myself, I beg you to believe that I would not harbour such a thought." (19)

One of Mary's biographer's, Julian Goodare, claims that the murder was an "abiding historical whodunnit, generating a mass of contradictory evidence, and with a large cast of suspects since almost everyone had a motive to kill him." He points out that historians are divided about Mary's involvement in the killing. "The extreme anti-Mary case is that from late 1566 onwards she was conducting an illicit love affair with Bothwell, with whom she planned the murder. The extreme pro-Mary case is that she was wholly innocent, knowing nothing of the business. In between these two extremes, it has been argued that she was aware in general terms of plots against her husband, and perhaps encouraged them." (20)

According to the depositions of four of Bothwell's retainers, he had been responsible for placing the gunpowder in Darnley's lodgings and had returned at the last moment to make sure that the fuse was lit. According to his biographer, that there is little doubt that Bothwell played a principal part in the murder. (21) Mary's critics point out that she made no attempt to investigate the crime. When urged to do so by Darnley's father, she replied that Parliament would meet in the spring and they would look into the matter. Meanwhile she gave Darnley's clothes to Bothwell. The trial of Bothwell took place on 12th April, 1567. Bothwell's men, estimated at 4,000, thronged the streets surrounding the court-house. Witnesses were too frightened to appear and after a seven-hour trial, he was found not guilty. A week later, Bothwell managed to convince more than two dozen lords and bishops to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which they agreed to support his aim to marry Mary. (22)

On 24th April, 1567, Mary was abducted by Lord Bothwell and taken to Dunbar Castle. According to James Melville, who was in the castle at the time, later wrote that Bothwell "had ravished her and lain with her against her will". However, most historians do not believe that she was raped and argue that the abduction was arranged by Mary. Bothwell divorced his wife, Jean Gordon, and on 15th May, he married Mary at a protestant ceremony. (23)

People were shocked that Mary could marry a man accused of murdering her husband. Murder placards began appearing in Edinburgh, accusing both Mary and Bothwell of Darnley's death. Several showed the queen as a mermaid, the symbol for a prostitute. Her senior advisors in Scotland claimed that that they were unable to see the queen without Bothwell being present, and alleging that he was virtually keeping her prisoner. Rumours circulated that Mary was bitterly unhappy, repelled by her new husband's boorish behaviour, and overcome with remorse at having contracted a protestant marriage. (24)


Twenty-six Scottish peers, turned against Mary and Bothwell, raising an army against them. Mary and Bothwell confronted the lords at Carberry Hill on 15th June, 1567. Clearly outnumbered, Mary and Bothwell surrendered. Bothwell was driven into exile and Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. While in captivity Mary miscarried twins. Her captors discussed several options: "conditional restoration; enforced abdication and exile; enforced abdication, trial for murder, and life imprisonment; enforced abdication, trial for murder, and execution". (25) On 24th July she was presented with deeds of abdication, telling her that she would be killed if she did not sign. She eventually agreed to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son James. Mary's illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, was made regent. (26)

Bothwell intended to assemble a naval force to help rescue Mary, Queen of Scots, but was forced to move on when his great-uncle's illegitimate sons plotted to murder him. He sailed to Orkney and then Shetland, and when the privy council sent a naval expedition against him, he left for Norway. Stopped and taken to Bergen by a Danish warship, Bothwell was questioned by the authorities. Unknown to him Anna Throndsen was living in the town, and she immediately sued him for money she had lent him during their time in Flanders. Frederick II, the Danish king, gave orders that he was to be held in Copenhagen Castle. He was later moved to the much more secure Malmö Castle. (27)

In June 1573 Frederick II had him removed to Dragsholm Castle, where he was kept in solitary confinement, allegedly chained to a pillar half his height, so that he could never stand erect. He died there, insane, on 14th April 1578.

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Primary Sources

(1) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958)

Suspicious as this was, her behaviour atter the murder was aamning. That Bothwell had procured it was universally accepted; Mary took no steps to have the crime investigated, and when urged to do so by the wretched father, she replied that Parliament would meet in the spring and they would look into the matter. Meanwhile she gave Darnley's rich clothes to Bothwell. The tailor who altered them was heard to say, this was right enough: the victim's garments were always the hangman's perquisite.

The news of the murder reached London on February 17. Elizabeth sent Lady Howard and Lady Cecil to the Tower to break the news to Lady Lennox. The poor woman fell into such paroxysms of grief that the two ladies were alarmed; on their report, the Queen sent Dr. Huick to her. The news of conspiracy and murder against so near a neighbour at first caused a general panic; Elizabeth had the locks changed on the doors of her Privy Chamber and bedchamber.
The next reports said that after one week's retirement for mourning the Queen of Scots had announced that her health was suffering from confmement, and she had gone to a house-party at Lord Seton's castle, where the guests included Bothwell. When Elizabeth heard this, she was momentarily startled out of herself: she could not credit such idiocy; she declared it could not be true! But it was true.

The whole course of Mary's doings caused Elizabeth a painful agitation of mingled feelings. Jealous, frightened as she was of Mary's power, she was not prepared to see it thrown away by actions which discredited monarchy and seemed likely, by plunging Scotland into civil war, either to encourage rebellion or to bring in the French. Elizabeth was Mary's enemy, but she was by no means incapable of sympathy with her. When she heard how Rizzio was murdered, she exclaimed before she could stop herself, that had she been in Mary's place, she would have stabbed Darnley with his own dagger.


(1) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) John Guy, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (2004) page 90

(3) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958) page 42

(4) Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1994) page 83

(5) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) John Guy, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (2004) page 119

(7) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Julian Goodare, Mary Queen of Scots: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Julian Goodare, Mary Queen of Scots: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Alison Weir, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (2003) page 82

(11) Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots (1988) pages 151-154

(12) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958) page 123

(13) Rosalind K. Marshall , David Riccio : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1994) page 239

(15) Rosalind K. Marshall, David Riccio : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Julian Goodare, Mary Queen of Scots: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(18) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) John Guy, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (2004) page 312

(20) Julian Goodare, Mary Queen of Scots: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958) page 132

(23) Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1994) pages 314-317

(24) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) Julian Goodare, Mary Queen of Scots: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(26) Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots (1988) pages 165

(27) Rosalind K. Marshall, James Hepburn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)