David Rizzio

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Seventeeth century portrait, traditionally said to be of David Rizzio, private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots.[1] Contemporary accounts describe him as ugly, short and hunch-backed.[2]

Davide Rizzio, sometimes written as Davide Riccio or Davide Rizzo (c. 1533 – 9 March 1566), was an Italian courtier, born close to Turin, a descendant of an ancient and noble family still living in Piedmont, the Riccio Counts de San Paolo et Solbrito, who rose to become the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, is said to have been jealous of their friendship, because of rumours that he had made Mary pregnant, and joined in a conspiracy of Protestant nobles, led by Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven, to murder him. The murder was the catalyst for the downfall of Darnley and had serious consequences for Mary's subsequent career.[3]


Rizzio (whose name appears in Italian records as David Riccio di Pancalieri in Piemonte) went first from Turin to the Court of the Duke of Savoy, then at Nice. However, finding no opportunities for advancement there, he found means to get himself admitted into the train of the Count de Moretto in 1561, who was about to lead an embassy to Scotland.[4] The Court in Scotland had no employment for Rizzio, and dismissed him. He ingratiated himself with the Queen's musicians, whom she had brought with her from France. James Melville, a personal friend of Rizzio, said that "Her Majesty had three valets in her chamber, who sung three parts, and wanted a bass to sing the fourth part". Thus, he was drawn into her court (Hawkins, 1778).

He was considered a good musician, and an excellent singer, which first brought him to the attention of the cosmopolitan young Queen. Towards the end of 1564, having grown wealthy under her patronage, he became the Queen's secretary for relations with France, after the previous occupant of the post retired there. This post attracted a quarterly salary of £20.[5] Ambitious (seeing himself as all but a Secretary of State), a Catholic and a foreigner to boot, Rizzio, it was felt, was too close to the Queen. Rumours became rife that Mary was having an adulterous affair with Rizzio.


The Murder of Rizzio, by John Opie

Jealousy precipitated his murder in the Queen's presence, in her supper chamber ("a cabinet abowte xii footes square, in the same a little low reposinge bedde, and a table"[6]) in the Palace of Holyroodhouse after the royal guards were quickly overpowered and the palace was turned over to the control of the rebels. The Queen was seven months pregnant (with James VI) at the time. Having burst into the Queen's private dining room, the rebels, led by Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven, demanded Rizzio be handed over. The Queen refused. Rizzio then hid behind Mary, who having tried desperately to protect him, was herself threatened at gun point. The hysterical screams of the Queen and Rizzio travelled out of the palace and alerted the people of Edinburgh.[citation needed] Several hundred local men poured out of the local taverns and ran to Holyrood with makeshift weapons, but with a gun held at her side, the Queen was forced to go to the window and dismiss them.[citation needed]

After this violent struggle, Rizzio was stabbed an alleged 56 times,[7] before being thrown down the main staircase and stripped of his jewels and fine clothes. He was buried within two hours in the cemetery of Holyrood. Buchanan and Daniel[8] state that shortly afterwards his body was removed by the Queen's orders and deposited in the sepulchre of the Kings of Scotland; a measure most impolitic, as it strengthened the previous reports of her familiarity with him (Ruthen 1815). Rumours were thrown around as to why this happened to Rizzio - most claim Darnley was jealous.


Rizzio's murder was only one incident in the larger campaign by Scottish nobles and Queen Elizabeth I, to destabilise the Scottish Queen, whose popularity and liberal policies threatened their preferred status quo in the British Isles. Elizabeth I is said to have funded the murder, and certainly provided sanctuary for Rizzio's killers.[citation needed] The fact that he was murdered in Mary's presence, when she was heavily pregnant, made it a particularly shocking event. The written account of the events by the Queen was naturally anxious and rambling, and is thought to have been a major factor in her nervous breakdown the following year.[citation needed]

It was hoped by the Scottish nobles and the English government that the result of his death would be the death of the Queen and/or her unborn child, allowing the factions to control power in Scotland[citation needed]. She returned to Edinburgh triumphant within the week, at the head of 8,000 troops, driving the rebels over the border to seek refuge from prosecution, and honouring her murdered friend with a lavish funeral.

Rizzio's brother, Joseph, arrived in Scotland with Michel de Castelnau and was appointed secretary in David's place by 25 April 1566. Joseph and an Italian colleague, Joseph Lutyni, had some trouble over coins taken from the queen's purse, and in April 1567 he was accused and acquitted with Bothwell of Darnley's murder.[9]

David Rizzio's career was remembered and referred to by Henry IV of France. Mocking the pretension of James VI of Scotland to be the "Scottish Solomon", he remarked that "he hoped he was not David the fiddler's son", alluding to the possibility that Rizzio, not Darnley, fathered King James.

Whilst it has been alleged that Rizzio is buried at Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh this is highly unlikely as this would have required reinterment of a Catholic with no living friends in a Protestant graveyard 120 years after his death. It is more likely and logical that he lies in an unmarked grave in the graveyard attaching Holyrood Abbey. The Protestant historian George Buchanan wrote in 1581 that David was first buried outside the door of the Abbey, and then Mary arranged for him to be buried in the tomb of her father James V and Madeleine of France within. As Buchanan described this circumstance as reflecting badly on the Queen, while his book was at the printers, a friend James Melville tried to get Buchanan to rewrite the passage, fearing that Mary's son James VI would suppress the whole book. Buchanan asked his cousin, Thomas Buchanan, a schoolmaster in Stirling, if he thought the story was true, and the cousin agreed. The story was published.[10]

Popular culture

  • Rizzio is played by John Carradine in the 1936 RKO picture Mary of Scotland, directed by John Ford; and by Ian Holm in Mary, Queen of Scots , the 1972 Universal picture directed by Charles Jarrot

The takers in hand

Thomas Randolph listed these men as participants in David's murder:[11]

with the preachers; John Knox and John Craig.


  1. ^ Portrait of a man known as David Rizzio, Royal Collection
  2. ^ Fraser, Antonia (1994) [1969]. Mary Queen of Scots. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 236. ISBN 0-297-17773-7.
  3. ^ Overview of David Rizzio
  4. ^ Labanoff, A., Lettres de Marie Stuart, vol. 7, London, Dolman (1862), 65, Letter to Cosme Ier, Duke of Tuscany 1566.
  5. ^ NAS E30/11 Account 1564, f15, f17
  6. ^ OED Cabinet - Quotation from a letter reporting to London by Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford then warden of the Scottish Marches (on the border)
  7. ^ Daniel, William S. (1852), History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Pub. Edinburgh: Duncan Anderson. p. 75.
  8. ^ Daniel, William S. (1852), History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Pub. Edinburgh: Duncan Anderson. p. 76.
  9. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), 276, 311, 320.
  10. ^ Buchanan, George, History of Scotland, book 17 chapter 65: Aikman James, translation, vol.2 (1827), p.483 & footnote: The Diary of Mr James Melville, Bannatyne Club (1829) p.86: Holyroodhouse is within the old Canongate jurisdiction, which pre-dated the Canongate Kirk and burying ground, thus Riccio's death is recorded in the Canongate registers.
  11. ^ Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. ii (1900), 269-270.
  • Lord Ruthen (1815). Some Particulars of the Life of David Riccio, chief favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. Pub. Triphook. London.
  • The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, edited by John Hill Burton, LL.D., vol.1. 1545-1569, Edinburgh, 1877, p. 437, lists all those charged with "the slauchter of David Riccio." Given the very many names shown, it presumably includes those in the wider conspiracy.
  • Sir John Hawkins (1778). History and Character of Scots Music, including Anecdotes of the Celebrated David Rizzio. Pub. Universal Magazine, October 1778.

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