A few months after Lord Darnley died in mysterious circumstances, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, who became the main suspect in Darnley’s murder. As a consequence, the Earl of Moray, the Queen’s half-brother, and the Confederate Lords rebelled against her and raised an army in Edinburgh.
On June 15 1567, Queen Mary surrendered at the Battle of Carberry Hill and was taken prisoner at Loch Leven Castle. A month later, on 24 July, she abdicated and her son ascended to the throne as James VI of Scotland, while Moray became Regent. However, rumours soon spread that the Queen’s main reason for abdicating was the discovery of some letters that incriminated her in her husband’s murder. The letters, which were written in French, were found by Earl of Bothwell’s servants in a casket. In them, Mary urged the latter to hurry up with the killing of Lord Darnley. In December of that same year, the Earl of Moray and his Privy Council made a statement to enact the Queen’s abdication. In this document, they also asserted that the letters proved Mary’s involvement in her husband’s death.
The Queen escaped to England in May of 1568 to seek the support of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. However, Queen Elizabeth, worried that Mary might overthrow her, imprisoned her and appointed a body of commissioners to investigate the accusations made by the rebel Scottish lords.
The Conference of Westminster
On December 7 1568 Moray showed the contents of the casket to the English commissioners at Westminster and signed a statement swearing that the letters were written in Mary’s handwriting. The letters, sonnets and other documents were examined and the handwriting was compared with Mary's letters to Queen Elizabeth. Still, the Queen of England had no interest in accusing Mary of murder nor in proving her innocence, so the conference was only meant to be a political show.
Even though the Casket letters were eventually accepted by Elizabeth’s commissioners as genuine, the inquiry concluded that they didn’t serve as proof of Mary’s involvement in the murder. However, nowadays the authenticity of the letters has been put into doubt. Some historians believe that the letters were a combination of Mary’s letters with false dates, additional information and misdirection, made by her enemies to destroy her.
While Mary remained in Elizabeth’s custody, her allies plotted to aid her overthrow Elizabeth. To prevent her from doing so, her enemies sought to undermine public opinion by leaking the letters to the press.
Even though the charges of murder were not proven, Mary spent 19 years of her life imprisoned. Ultimately, she was accused of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and take her throne. In 1587, she was found guilty and beheaded. By that time, the Casket letters had disappeared and were probably destroyed by her son James VI. The casket in which the letters were found is kept at Lennoxlove, in Scotland.
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