The Casket Letters

Did the Casket Letters Implicate the Queen in Murder?

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, with Mary, Queen of Scots
Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, with Mary, Queen of Scots. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Date:  found June 20, 1567, given to English investigating commission on December 14, 1568

About the Casket Letters:

In June, 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots, was captured by Scottish rebels at Carberry Hill. Six days later, as James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, claimed, his servants found a silver casket in the possession of a retainer of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. In the casket were eight letters and some sonnets.

The letters were written in French. Contemporaries, and historians since, have disagreed as to their authenticity.

One letter (if genuine) seems to back up the charge that Mary and Bothwell together planned the murder of Mary's first husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, in February of 1567.  (Mary and Darnley were both grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, first Tudor king of England, and sister of Henry VIII. Mary was the daughter of Margaret's son James V by her first husband James IV, killed at Flodden. Darnley's mother was Margaret Douglas who was Margaret's daughter by her second husband, Archibald Douglas.)

Queen Mary and her husband (and first cousin) Lord Darnley were alienated already when he died in suspicious circumstances in Edinburgh on February 10, 1567.  Many people believed that the Earl of Bothwell had arranged for Darnley to be murdered.  When Mary and Bothwell married on May 15, 1567, suspicions of her complicity became stronger.

A group of Scottish lords, led by Mary's half-brother who was the Earl of Moray, rebelled against Mary's rule.  She was captured on June 17, and forced to abdicate on July 24. The letters were supposedly discovered in June, and played a part in Mary's agreement to abdicate. 

In testimony in 1568, Morton told the story of the discovery of the letters.

He claimed that a servant of George Dalgleish had confessed under threat of torture that he'd been sent by his master, the Earl of Bothwell, to get a casket of letters from Edinburgh Castle, which Bothwell then intended to take out of Scotland.  These letters, Dalgliesh said Bothwell had told him, would reveal the "ground of the cause" of Darnley's death. But Dalgleish was captured by Morton and others and threatened with torture. He took them to a house in Edinburgh and, under a bed, the enemies of Mary found the silver box.  On it was engraved an "F" which was assumed to stand for Francis II of France, Mary's late first husband. Morton then gave the letters to Moray and swore that he had not tampered with them.

Mary's son, James VI, was crowned on July 29, and Mary's half-brother Moray, a leader of the rebellion, was appointed regent. The letters were presented to a Privy Council in December 1567, and and a statement to Parliament to confirm the abdication described the letters as making it "most certain that she was privy, art, and part" in the "actual devise" of the "murder of her lawful husband the King our sovereign lord's father."

Mary escaped in May 1568 and went to England.

Queen Elizabeth I of England, cousin on Queen Mary, who had by then been informed of the content of the casket letters, ordered an investigation into Mary's complicity in Darnley's murder. Moray personally brought the letters and showed them to Elizabeth's officials. He appeared again in October 1568 at an investigation headed by the Duke of Norfolk, and produced them at Westminister on December 7.

By December of 1568, Mary was a prisoner of her cousin. Elizabeth, who found Mary an inconvenient competitor for the crown of England. Elizabeth appointed a commission to investigate the charges which Mary and the rebel Scottish lords levied against each other. On December 14, 1568, the casket letters were given to the commissioners.  They had already been translated into the Gaelic used in Scotland, and the commissioners had them translated into English.

The investigators compared the handwriting on the letters to the handwriting on letters Mary had sent to Elizabeth.  The English representatives in the inquiry declared the casket letters genuine.  Mary's representatives were denied access to the letters. But the inquiry did not explicitly find Mary guilty of murder, leaving her fate open.

The casket with its contents were returned to Morton in Scotland.  Morton was himself executed in 1581. The casket letters disappeared a few years later. Some historians suspect that King James VI of Scotland (James I of England), son of Darnley and Mary, may have been responsible for the disappearance.  Thus, we only know the letters today in their copies.

The letters were at the time subject to controversy. Were the casket letters forgeries or authentic? Their appearance was very convenient for the case against Mary.

Morton was among the Scottish rebel lords who opposed the rule of Mary. Their case for removing Queen Mary and installing her infant son, James VI of Scotland, as ruler -- with the lords as de facto rulers during his minority -- was strengthened if these letters were genuine.

That controversy continues today, and is unlikely to be resolved. In 1901, historian John Hungerford Pollen looked at the controversy.  He compared letters known to be genuinely written by Mary with the copies known of the casket letters. His conclusion was that there was no way to determine whether Mary was the original author of the casket letters.

As historians still contend over Mary's role in planning Darnley's murder, other more circumstantial evidence is weighed.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Casket Letters." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-casket-letters-3529589. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 7). The Casket Letters. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-casket-letters-3529589 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Casket Letters." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-casket-letters-3529589 (accessed November 20, 2017).