The Compressible Scots

by R. P. LISTER

R. P. LISTER is best known for his light verse, but he often indulges his readers with equally enjoyable prose.

DAVID RIZZIO, or Riccio, an Italian musician, born about 1533, rose to some eminence in the service of Mary Queen of Scots and perished in the act of providing history with one of its rarest mysteries.

In describing Rizzio’s murder as a mystery I am not, of course, referring to any controversies about the motives for it, or the exact manner of it, or which person or persons struck the fatal blow. There is some doubt on all these points, but that kind of mystery is a commonplace.

History, in fact, is stuffed with people, like the Princes in the Tower, the Duke of Clarence, and Cleopatra’s little brother Ptolemy, who happened to perish when no representative of the press was present, so that their ends have a vagueness less common in this documented age. The affair of Rizzio is a different matter. Its eyewitnesses may disagree in detail, but their accounts all have this in common: that they describe, circumstantially, an event that cannot possibly have taken place. The things they disagree about are all more or less credible; the thing they all vouch for is a manifest impossibility.

It is unnecessary to go into the motives for the murder. These were political, reasonably uncomplicated, and, given the circumstances of the time, quite natural. We may proceed at a bound to the evening of the 9th of March, 1566, when the Palace of Holyrood was invested by a troop under the command of the Earl of Morton. Mary, unaware of the presence of this troop, which had assembled for the deliberate purpose of doing away with Rizzio, went to supper in her private supper room. This room opened off her bedroom, which in turn opened off the Presence Chamber. A private staircase led up from the ground floor and opened into Mary’s bedroom close by the door of the supper room.

With the Queen at supper sat Rizzio and the Duchess of Argyle. Some accounts maintain that the Commendator, or Master of the Household, and the Captain of the Guard, whose name was Erskine, were also there. It was, at all events, described as a merry supper party; and merrysupper parties of five are more common than merry supper parties of three. Three persons at a supper party may be cordial but are with difficulty merry. However, let us compromise, and say that four persons were present. In addition there might be a few serving men or maidens going in and out.

To these persons was added Darnley, thus bringing the numbers up to at least five. Darnley came in by the private stair, slightly drunk, and sat down by the Queen. The next to appear was Lord Ruthven. This ancient and venomous Lord stood with drawn sword by the arras at the head of the private stair. The implication is that at this moment he was standing in the bedroom, and not in the supper room: probably he had intended to enter the supper room but found it impossible to do so.

Mary ordered Lord Ruthven to leave; but as he seemed unwilling, her companions rose to eject him. All Ruthven said was: “ Lay no hands on me, for I will not be handled.”

Ruthven was a sick man, and his brusqueness may be excusable on these grounds. Besides, he had come to murder Rizzio, and there was no point in his going away. And at this moment a band of twenty armed men rushed into the room. It is here that the improbable turns to the impossible, oven to the miraculous. The supper room was already packed to bursting point. It should be made clear, for those who have not visited Holyrood, or examined it closely with these events in mind, that the supper room measures nine feet by seven. The bedroom is twenty-two feet by eighteen and a half; but it had a very large bed in it. There must have been some kind of table in the supper room. Round this table the Queen, the Duchess of Argyle, the Commendator or Erskine or both, Darnley, and Rizzio were compressed in an inextricably mingled mass.

Ruthven could not get into the room. It is just conceivable that the twenty armed men might, somehow, pack themselves into the adjacent bedroom, with Ruthven. They certainly could not draw their weapons, nor wield them if they were already drawn. Rizzio was over by the window in the supper room, crouching down behind the Queen’s skirts. He was completely safe. Nobody but Darnley could get within six feet of him, and Darnley could not move his arms.

And yet Rizzio was murdered. Moreover, whether or not he was actually murdered there, the first blows were certainly struck in the supper room. We are told, from all sides, that the supper table overturned. This is outrageous; it could not possibly overturn, jammed up as it was against the Commendator and the Duchess of Argyle. However, the Duchess of Argyle got the idea that it was going to overturn, and somehow she got hold of a candle and held it up over her head so that they should have enough light to murder Rizzio by if they could only get near him. This was not her intention; she wanted evidence. But the other candles had gone out, probably from lack of oxygen, and she would have done better to let hers go out too.

It was by the light of this candle that the subsequent events were seen. They were seen, and recorded, by supporters of both part ies; apart from the fact that it describes something that could not have taken place, the evidence is perfectly clear. Not one, but several, of the armed men from the bedroom now proceeded to enter the supper room. Their very names are attested by both parties. Ruthven himself was one of them. It is calmly reported that he took the Queen in his arms and put her into the King’sarms,entreating Her Majesty not to be afraid. . . . He assured Her Majesty that all that was done was with the King’s own deed and assent. This is, of course, nonsense. Ruthven was a sick man. Hercules could not have forced Mary through the throng into Darnley’s arms; it has to be assumed that she was in them already, having no room to be anywhere else, and that Ruthven, pressed up against them, shouted some kind of apology into her ear above the wild hullabaloo that must have prevailed.

Ruthven was not the only one. The Earl of Morton was in the room, and so was George Douglas. Then, we are told, Faldonside held his pistol at the Queen’s breast. She told him to fire if he did not respect her child. Faldonside did not fire. The whole incident was probably quite unintentional on his part, and he would have explained this if he had been able to get a word in. Similarly, Bellenden made a thrust at her with his rapier, which was struck down by a page. How did the page get in? He must have been there all the time, presumably under the table.

There are now at least ten, and possibly eleven or twelve, persons in the supper room. Since it could not hold half of them, it is hardly any further strain on the imagination to picture Rizzio being dragged out, between their legs, and through the compressed mass of armed men in the bedroom, to the Presence Chamber. Here he was finally dispatched, if he had not been dispatched already, and they finished off the night’s incredible business in a rather commonplace way by cutting him up and throwing the pieces into the courtyard.

It is, as we have said, an event unique in history. There is no doubt whatever that it took place in the manner described; there is, simultaneously, no possibility whatever that it did take place in the manner described. One can only stand, mystified, in the Queen’s private supper room and speculate on the infinite compressibility of sixteenth-century Scotsmen.

The ceiling of the supper room is, bv the way, rather low, and this despite the fact that the floor level was lowered about nine inches or a foot (the exact figure is disputed) in the time of Charles the Second. One can only imagine that Charles had this done in order that, if the need to murder an Italian secretary should arise again, the armed men could at least be passed in over the supper party’s heads.