The Legitimacy of the Letters

Dr John Guy explores the Casket Letter's that were used as evidence to imprison Mary Queen of Scots.

In June 1567, Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by her enemies and soon forced to abdicate. After eleven months in a turret of the island-castle of Lochleven near Kinross, she escaped, raised an army, but lost the battle of Langside and so fled on a fishing boat across the Solway to seek Queen Elizabeth’s aid. Her plea went unanswered: she was kept under guard until October 1568, when a special tribunal was set up – ambiguously called a ‘conference’ to avoid the use of the word ‘court’ – to examine whether she was complicit in her second husband Lord Darnley’s murder.

The Casket Letters are eight ‘letters’ Mary was said to have written to her alleged lover, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, while Darnley was still alive. Supposedly, they proved three things: adultery with Bothwell, before and after Darnley’s murder; involvement in Darnley’s assassination in February 1567 in a gunpowder plot at Kirk o’Field on the outskirts of Edinburgh; collusion in an alleged ‘abduction’ of Mary by Bothwell that was staged to justify their own marriage three months after Darnley’s death.

News of a dramatic discovery had seeped out shortly after Mary had reached Lochleven. James Stuart, Earl of Moray, Mary’s illegitimate half-brother and her nemesis in Scotland, a staunch Protestant unlike the Catholic Mary, began to claim that his sister was an accessory to Darnley’s murder and the ‘proof’ was a letter she’d written to Bothwell from Glasgow. At first, Moray claimed to have just one letter. Then, after his allies ransacked Mary’s apartments at the Palace of Holyrood, a silver box or ‘casket’ was said to have been discovered, allegedly containing all eight letters. Having trumpeted their existence to the world, Moray was strangely reluctant to produce these momentous documents. Instead, he kept them hidden until, grudgingly, he finally tabled them at Elizabeth’s tribunal after the English Queen insisted that they be compared with genuine letters from Mary kept in the English archives.

Letters InLine 01

One of the biggest challenges facing Mary’s biographers is that the original Casket Letters, which were all in French, have disappeared. They are now known only from transcripts, or from Scots or English translations, variously made at the time the originals were examined in England, or else from later printed copies. After they were scrutinized by Elizabeth’s tribunal, the originals were returned to Moray, who took them back to Scotland, where they soon vanished from sight. Their impact can, however, be judged from the surviving transcripts and translations, because several of these versions have notes or qualifying comments on them. Added by Elizabeth’s chief minister, Sir William Cecil, or by his clerks, the annotations make it crystal clear that Cecil, a committed Protestant, loathed Mary and longed for Moray’s version of events to be vindicated.

None of the Casket Letters was signed even though Mary is otherwise known routinely to have added her signature to her personal letters, even those that she’d dictated to a secretary. None is directed to a named addressee, another aberration from the norm. Moreover, several letters end abruptly as if they’ve been artificially truncated, and only one carries a date and a place of writing. There are fistfuls of inconsistencies and discrepancies in names, dates and circumstance. There are also unexplained page and line breaks in several of the transcripts, along with numerous jolts and starts in the writing, raising suspicions that several words or even whole pages or paragraphs have been omitted and additional words or phrases inserted.

All eight letters are controversial: three would be conclusive if written by Mary to Bothwell at the times they were said to have been written. In my 2004 biography of Mary, I made a close analysis of them, concluding that Mary wrote whole chunks of at least five of the letters, but of those, three were demonstrably intended for Darnley when he was plotting against her, while another two are variants of a single genuine letter to Bothwell deliberately misdated by Mary’s enemies to make it seem incriminating. A short letter marked ‘From Glasgow, this Saturday morning’ is from start to finish one of Mary’s genuine letters, but it was written at a different time and at a quite different place to that alleged by her accusers, and to an unknown recipient. The jury is still out on the longest, most sensational of the letters, which purports to link Mary directly to a plot to murder Darnley and describes her longing to be back in her lover Bothwell’s arms. Here a conclusive verdict cannot be reached without recourse to the lost original, but a mass of evidence points in a single direction: some 1500–1800 words are likely to be genuine, but another 1000–1200 are forged interpolations.

In other words, the Casket Letters were a fix by Mary’s enemies to destroy her, an ingenious, devious one. Moray and his allies knew that they’d never get away with outright forgeries. To satisfy Elizabeth and establish Mary’s guilt, they needed carefully to select pages of genuine letters that, once mixed up and doctored, would seem to clinch what they sought to prove. This hypothesis explains the curious incongruities. It also explains why the most damning passages are relatively brief. If they were filled in using blank spaces on the existing sheets, Moray could be fairly confident that they would pass undetected. As Mary was well known to scribble her letters, and also to use the most expensive sheets of paper as profligately as only a queen might be expected to do, it could prove to be a risk worth taking.

Letters InLine 02

Elizabeth wanted her fellow monarch exonerated and restored as Scotland’s queen. She disliked and distrusted Moray, and did not believe the Casket Letters were genuine. Besides, she did not think it right for one sovereign to sit in judgement upon another. In her own words, the purpose of these hearings was ‘to understand truly and plainly the state of the cause of the Queen of Scots’, but ‘without prejudicing one side or the other’.

Mary, as a crowned queen, refused to appear before the tribunal and, under the rules of procedure that Cecil established, Moray did not table the originals of the Casket Letters until her legal team had withdrawn. Elizabeth, balking at that and believing that Mary had every right to put her side of the story, said that if Mary declined to appear before the tribunal to answer Moray’s charges, she would adjourn it indefinitely. By Christmas 1568, Mary had not been found innocent, but neither had she been convicted.

What Elizabeth could never bring herself to do after that was to meet Mary to hear her arguing her case in person. Perhaps she feared being upstaged; perhaps she feared losing her temper; perhaps she just couldn’t allow herself to be seen talking to someone who might be a murderess.

Unrelentingly lobbied by Cecil and his allies, Elizabeth kept Mary a prisoner in England for the next 19 years. The tribunal’s judges were sworn to secrecy. Despite this, Cecil leaked the Casket Letters in 1571. He arranged for his ‘tame’ printer, John Day, to publish them clandestinely as an appendix to an anonymous tract given the tortuous but unambiguous title A Detection of the Doings of Mary Queen of Scots, touching the murder of her husband, and her conspiracy, adultery, and pretended marriage with the Earl of Bothwell.

Quite simply, Cecil rewrote Mary’s story by issuing the Detection. Far too few people today fully appreciate that the lingering debate over the Casket Letters isn’t just about the kaleidoscope of Scottish politics, Mary’s strengths and weaknesses of character, her taste in husbands, or solving the mystery of who killed Darnley; it’s a debate about the way our national history has been scripted and by whom. When, in 1570, Cecil finally confronted Mary face to face at Chatsworth in an attempt to soften her demands to be allowed to return as queen to Scotland, he piously claimed how Elizabeth had ‘always forborne to publish such matters as she might have done to have touched the Queen of Scotland for murder of her husband’. If Elizabeth had such reservations, Cecil never did. Like Tony Blair, he knew that ‘History will judge’, and so had the Casket Letters printed as if they had all along been the genuine article in order to shape it.


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© John Guy 2016. John Guy’s ‘My Heart is My Own’: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots is published by Harper Collins



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