Tuesday, 7 December 2010

December 7th, 1545: The Birth of Lord Henry Darnley

Henry, Lord Darnley, was destined to become the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and thus the father of King James, the first man to unite the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland under one monarchy. Darnley and his wife Queen Mary had birthdays one day apart from each other - tomorrow, December 8th, was Mary's birthday, as I hope to post about tomorrow.

Later, Henry Darnley was known for many things - his good looks, his sexuality, his alcoholism, his temper, his narcissism and, in the end, his grotesque and mysterious murder. At the time of his birth, however, there was nothing to suggest that the baby aristocrat's prospects were anything less than golden. 

He was born at Temple Newsam House, a luxurious mansion in the north of England which had been given as a wedding present to his parents, the Earl and Countess of Lennox. The earl was technically a member of the Scottish nobility, but he had been living in exile in England ever since his disastrous support for the English invasion of Scotland had lead to him being branded a traitor. 

His wife, Countess Margaret, was a niece of King Henry VIII of England and, as such, she occupied a privileged place in the English royal hierarchy. Beautiful and glamorous, with a strong personality, Margaret had once been one of the bright young things of the court aristocracy and she had enjoyed friendships with men and women as diverse as Mary Tudor, Anne Boleyn, Mary Shelton, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. In her younger days, however, she had also been something of a scandalous figure, having embarked upon torrid affairs with two members of the ambitious but attractive Howard family. In 1536, she had fallen madly in love with Queen Anne Boleyn's uncle, Lord Thomas Howard, at precisely the time when Queen Anne's political credit was falling. Thomas had been imprisoned by the King and the poor man later died incarcerated for having dared make love to the King's niece. Margaret had apparently failed to learn her lesson from this tragic affair and a few years later, she became the lover of Queen Catherine Howard's brother, Lord Charles Howard. When this liaison was discovered in 1541, an enraged King Henry, who was ironically obsessed with the concept of female sexual purity, had Margaret temporarily detained in an abandoned convent. She only escaped further punishment because everybody's attention soon switched to the much greater scandal of Queen Catherine's adultery, later in the same year.

Sufficiently chastened by her experience this time around, Margaret re-invented herself as an icon of Catholic royal propriety and she willingly entered into a marriage with Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, the King's trusty Scottish ally - or dogsbody, depending on one's point-of-view. The baby born in 1545 (Alison Weir in her book Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley suggests it may have been 1546) was christened Henry in the King's honour and the ageing monarch also agreed to stand as godfather to the infant who bore his name. Margaret had, apparently, been forgiven.

Lord Darnley - a courtesy title borne by the eldest son and heir of the earls of Lennox - blossomed into a handsome and intelligent youth. His parents ensured he received a superb education, even sending him abroad to France once they felt his English tutors had no more to teach him. He was well-read in the Classics, History, Theology, art, music and languages (he was fluent in English, French and Latin, as well as understanding parts of Gaelic.) Whilst studying in Paris, the French writer Castelnau wrote that it was "not possible to see a more beautiful prince." Darnley stood at about 6'3" in height and he had a slim, elegant, toned physique, fair hair and a pretty, almost effeminate, face. His parents idolised him and he had a ready charm, which he used to get his own way and to get both women and men to fall for his charms. How far he managed to persuade the men to fall is still a matter of debate, although Alison Weir makes a very convincing argument that Darnley's numerous teenage sexual conquests probably numbered as many men as they did women.

Beneath the surface of beauty, charm, wealth and intellect, however, Lord Darnley hid an altogether less attractive side of his personality - as anyone familiar with the life of Mary, Queen of Scots will tell you. Although he was an intellectual, he was not clever and he possessed an explosive temper. Spoiled and entitled, he was also indecisive, selfish and deceitful. His manners appeared only in a position where he was the weaker party, when he was placed in any position of authority he exhibited "a very insolent disposition". Much worse than his promiscuity or his extravagance was his alcoholism, since there can be no real doubt that Darnley was a functioning alcoholic by the time he reached the age of twenty. 

This tragic and often contemptible youth, who began life on this day in the final years of Henry VIII's reign, in a splendid Yorkshire mansion, was to acquire some measure of contemporary importance because his good-looks and connections managed to seduce the equally beautiful Queen of Scotland. And, by her, he became the father of a future king. But Darnley's real impact on history only came on a chilly morning of February 1567 in Edinburgh, when he was found half-naked and strangled amidst the smouldering ruins of a house blown apart by gunpowder. It was only then that Henry, Lord Darnley finally became a figure of importance, acquiring a significance in death far beyond anything he had enjoyed in life, sparking one of the greatest and most devastating political scandals in history.


  1. Wonderful post! Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Lauren. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Thank you for presenting a different side of Henry Darnley. I only knew about his relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots and found him a jerk. As you have shown, however, there are many sides to a person.

  4. This is excellent, too. Too bad I can't link to every single thing you post. Boy-oh-boy, wasn't Darnley a wretch.........

  5. Wasn't he? You try to feel sorry for him, but ...it never comes.


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