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The Palace of Holyroodhouse, where David Rizzio was Killed
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, where David Rizzio was Killed

David Rizzio lived from 1533 to 9 March 1566. An Italian musician, he became a private secretary and confidante of Mary Queen of Scots before being murdered at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh by a group of Protestant lords including the Queen's husband, Lord Darnley. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

David Rizzio, sometimes known as David Riccio, was the son of a musician in the Italian town of Turin. His musical skills led to his being retained by the Archbishop of Turin, then at the Court of Savoy. Rizzio first came to Scotland as a member of a diplomatic mission from Savoy in 1561. He caught the attention of Mary Queen of Scots, and stayed at the Scottish Court, first as a musician, then as Mary's confidante and her Private Secretary dealing with French correspondence.

Mary was walking a tightrope in the post-Reformation Scotland of the day. As a Catholic Queen of a Protestant country she was widely suspected of trying to subvert the Reformation. And having a Catholic like David Rizzio as a close adviser only served to give a point of focus to Protestant concerns. He came to be widely disliked by many who saw his influence with the Queen as extremely unwelcome: including some who claimed he was a Papal spy.

Following Mary's marriage to Lord Darnley at a Catholic ceremony in 1565, a number of lords under her half brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray rebelled in Ayrshire. They were put to flight by an army that marched out of Edinburgh under Mary's command on 26 August 1565: an event which became known as the Chaseabout Raid. The Earl of Moray had fled to England, but in March 1566 Mary placed before Parliament proposals to try other lords involved in the abortive uprising for treason.

By early 1566 relations between Mary and Lord Darnley were becoming very fraught as the latter's character flaws became more and more obvious to all, finally including Mary herself. For his part, Darnley was known to be increasingly jealous of the closeness of the relationship between Mary and David Rizzio. A group of those due to be tried for treason played on Darnley's jealousy, convincing him that he was being cuckolded by David Rizzio (he probably wasn't) and entered into a written bond with Darnley for what amounted to a coup against Mary. Under its terms Rizzio would be murdered; Darnley would be crowned king rather than just consort; the outlawed lords due to be tried would be pardoned, and those in England allowed to return; and Mary's power would be greatly curtailed.

On the evening of Saturday 9 March 1566, Mary, at the time six months pregnant with the future James VI, was having dinner at the Palace of Holyroodhouse with a small group including Rizzio, when five lords burst into the room. Rizzio was dragged out of the room, and at the top of a nearby staircase was stabbed 57 times, with Lord Darnley's dagger being left in his body.

The rest of the plan failed. Mary took advantage of Lord Darnley's weakness by offering him forgiveness if he helped her escape from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which he did, helping her ride to safety at Dunbar Castle. Here they were met by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, with an army of 4,000: which Mary subsequently used to hunt down those involved in the coup.

And David Rizzio? He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some have suggested that he, rather than Lord Darnley, was the real father of Mary's baby, but that seems unlikely: at the time the baby was conceived Mary's wedding with Darnley was still only a few months old and the problems that were to beset it had yet to emerge. David Rizzio was buried in Canongate Kirkyard.

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