Magazine article The Spectator

A Hot Head and a Cool One

Magazine article The Spectator

A Hot Head and a Cool One

Article excerpt

David Crane



In the early hours of 10 February, 1567, the city of Edinburgh was woken by the sound of a massive explosion 'that shook the whole town'. 'The King's lodging,' wrote George Buchanan, one of the most implacably partisan of Mary, Queen of Scots' enemies, 'was, even from the very foundation, blown up in the air.' Among the ruins were found two shattered bodies, but no trace of the young king. Then, three hours later, searchers came across two near-naked corpses, untouched by the explosion, lying in an orchard nearby. One was the king's valet's; the other, dressed only in a short night-shirt, was that of Robert Darnley, son of the Earl and Countess of Lennox, grandson of Margaret Tudor, great-grandson of Henry VII, and husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

'Who murdered Darnley?' Alison Weir asks, and if page 259 seems a bit late to be posing the question, there has never been any shortage of suspects. In the immediate aftermath of the crime suspicion rapidly attached to Mary herself, but as Weir shows in her exhaustive study the whole truth remains as elusive as ever.

This is far too long a book - the wretched Darnley can't be worth this much of anyone's time - but as a piece of dogged detective work there is no arguing with it. At the beginning of her search Weir herself believed in Mary's complicity, but, in the course of sifting evidence and judging the bias inherent in virtually every contemporary account of Darnle's murder, she has brought herself round to a very different conclusion.

She still sees that the circumstantial case against Mary is strong - from this distance the only wonder is that there should be anyone who did not want a hand in Darnley's death - but the case she makes in Mary's defence is one that is likely to carry readers along with her. It is clear from Mary's role in the Babington plot that she was as capable as anyone of the lies, murder and treason that form the staple of this story, but, as Alison Weir sympathetically points out, the ageing woman, embittered by 18 years of imprisonment and disappointment, who plotted her cousin Elizabeth's death was not the young girl who had once charmed the French court and captivated even her opponents.

But then nobody comes out of this book well, and the real problem with it in fact and one Weir can do nothing about - is the sheer irredeemable awfulness of 16th-century Scotland. The English might be forgiven for thinking that the Scots have traditionally reserved their worst for them, but, compared to the way the Scots have always treated each other when they have had the chance, seven or eight hundred years of good, neighbourly hostility pales to nothing.

And even by the standards of the Stuart royal line the factionalism, greed, venality, savagery, malice, bigotry, treachery and poisonous ambition that blighted the brief reign of Mary stand out. Alison Weir does her very best to make the motives and concerns of those involved intelligible, but for all the serious achievements of this book, 500-odd pages of internecine hatreds relieved only by the occasional walk-on part for an English spy, syphilitic bishop or meddling nuncio will have readers south of the border down on their knees and praying for the triumph of Scottish nationalism. …

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