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David Rizzio, private secretary of Mary I of Scotland

David Rizzio, sometimes written as David Riccio or David Rizzo (c. 1533 – 9 March 1566) was an Italian courtier, born in Turin, the son of a music teacher, who rose to become the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary's husband, Henry Stuart, 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.[1]

Rizzio went first from Turin to the Court of the Duke of Savoy, then at Nice. However, meeting no encouragement there, found means to get himself admitted into the train of the Count de Moretto in 1561, who was upon the point of setting out an embassy to Scotland. 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. Sir John Melvil, 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.[2] Ambitious, seeing himself as all but a Secretary of State, a Catholic, and a foreigner to boot, Rizzio had too much of the Queen's ear, it was felt. 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"[3]) 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. 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.

After this violent struggle, Rizzio was stabbed an alleged 56 times,[4] 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[5] state that shortly after 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).

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. 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 shocked and rambling, and is thought to have been a major factor in her nervous breakdown the following year.

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. However, Mary surprised her enemies by charming the rebel guard, before swinging out of her palace windows on knotted bedsheets and fleeing her capital on horseback in the middle of the night. 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 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.

Rizzio is buried at Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

Popular culture


  1. ^ Overview of David Rizzio
  2. ^ NAS E30/11 Account 1564, f15, f17
  3. ^ 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)
  4. ^ Daniel, William S. (1852), History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Pub. Edinburgh: Duncan Anderson. p. 75.
  5. ^ Daniel, William S. (1852), History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Pub. Edinburgh: Duncan Anderson. p. 76.
  • 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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