The Tudor Society
The Tudor Society

The Casket Letters

MaryQueenofScotsOn 20th June 1567, a few days after Scottish rebels apprehended Mary, Queen of Scots, servants of James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, allegedly found a silver casket of eight letters, two marriage contracts (which apparently proved that Mary had agreed to marry Bothwell before his divorce) and twelve sonnets. The casket was found in the possession of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

What was important about these letters?

Well, the eight letters found in the casket were allegedly written by Mary to Bothwell and one was said to implicate the couple in the murder of Mary's second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in February 1567. Elizabeth I ordered a commission to investigate the matter of Mary's involvement in Darnley's murder and on the 14th December 1568 the letters were produced at the Royal Commission as proof against Mary.

In his excellent book on Mary Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own, historian John Guy writes:

"The sole evidence that she was a part to the murder plot comes from them [the Casket Letters]. There is no other proof. Her guilt or innocence depends on whether the letters are true or false."1

The Casket Letters no longer exist, so cannot be examined today, but we still have the transcripts and translations, complete with William Cecil's notes. It is these notes which Guy says give us a "glimpse" into Cecil's thoughts as he read letters that were "dynamite" in that if they were indeed genuine then "an anointed Queen could justifiably be deposed from her throne, Elizabeth's 'safety' would be guaranteed, and the threat of an international Guise conspiracy ended for ever"2. However, if they were forgeries then Mary would have to be released because it could not be proved that she was complicit in Darnley's murder.

The Sonnets

John Guy writes of how the sonnets found in the casket "were said to be Mary's own reflections on her adultery"3 with Bothwell and proof "that her consuming passion for Bothwell gave her a powerful motive for murder."4 However, Guy points out that they are highly unlikely to be genuine as "they are extremely clumsy and would pass only with the greatest difficulty as the work of a native French speaker"5 and they do not fit with the "genre of courtly love poetry"6 with which Mary was familiar. He also points out that they can be read as religious poetry.

The Marriage Contracts

One of the marriage contracts from the silver casket was said to be dated 5th April 1567 "at Seton", so over a month before Mary and Bothwell's marriage, but Guy points out that this is a "blatant forgery" because the wording of the contract included "extracts from the Ainslie's Tavern bond"7, a document which was produced after the gathering of the Lords at Ainslie's Tavern on the 19th April 1567. The other contract Guy describes as "innocuous" because "it is less a 'contract' than a written promise by Mary to marry Bothwell"8.

The Casket Letters

Letters 1 and 2, "the short Glasgow Letter" and "the long Glasgow letter" were the most damning and the second letter, if genuine, was proof that Mary was Bothwell's lover before their marriage and that she had been involved in Darnley's murder. Letter 2 contained "seemingly graphic allusions to the murder plot... interspersed with its author's protestations of longing and desire for her lover"9 and Guy explains that the case against Mary rested on seven key extracts from the letter. You can read Guy's full thoughts on the letter in "The Casket Letters" chapters of his book, but he argues that only the fifth extract, which said "Think also if you will not find some invention more secret by physick, for he is to take physick at Craigmillar and the baths also. And shall not come forth of a long time"10, can be connected to a murder plot. Guy explains that this extract was meant to prove that Mary wanted Darnley to be poisoned while he was at Craigmillar, but it is not evidence of the plot which actually killed Darnley at Kirk o'Field. Also, Guy argues that "it has to be regarded as a later forged interpolation"11 because it was missed in the material that was sent by George Buchanan to William Cecil in June 1568 and only used in the final accusations laid against Mary by the Confederate Lords to prove that Darnley's illness, which was in fact syphilis, was caused by poisoning. This charge does not make sense though as Darnley was already ill at this time.

After examination of the transcripts and translations, Guy concludes that, "in the absence of the original handwritten pages" of Letter 2, "around 1500-1800 words are likely to be genuine" and that 1000-1200 words are "likely to interpolations"12 from later letters or forgeries. It could well be that "old and new pages were spliced together to make up a composite document"13 to convince Cecil and Elizabeth of Mary's guilt.

The controversy and debate over these letters still continues today and I would recommend John Guy's book "My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots" to anyone interested in The Casket Letters or Mary, Queen of Scots in general.

(Originally published on The Elizabeth Files).

Notes and Sources

  1. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, John Guy, p396
  2. Ibid., p398
  3. Ibid., p399
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p400
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p404
  10. Ibid., p413
  11. Ibid., p415
  12. Ibid., p416
  13. Ibid., p417

There are 9 comments Go To Comment

  1. Lorna Wanstall /

    It’s such a shame that these letters no longer exist. Still it does give my vivid imagination free rein to write some very suggestable letters.
    8 Letters?…..You certainly like giving me a challenge don’t you Claire? LOL..

  2. Maddy /

    The original copies of the letters do not exist, but you can find the translated text of them.
    To find them go to
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011711507;view=1up;seq=160
    or
    https://archive.org/stream/casketlettersmar00henduoft/casketlettersmar00henduoft_djvu.txt
    I recommend the first one.

  3. Esther /

    I don’t think historian John Guy realizes that, in law (at least), circumstantial evidence is as valid as direct evidence — so his idea that proving the Casket Letters are fake means that there is no evidence that Mary was involved in Darnley’s murder is simply wrong. There is a very strong circumstantial case against Mary — motive; luring him away from Glasgow where he was safe to Edinburgh where he could be killed; not posting guards at the house where Darnley was staying; etc. — all of which are completely independent of the validity of the Casket letters. There have been cases where prosecutors have faked evidence to make a case stronger than it would otherwise be.

  4. Sandra Warfield /

    Did all of that apply at that time in history, such as the use of circumstantial evidence in law? I don’t know myself, but the circumstances of not being in Glasgow and being without guards seems to indicate some kind of plot of deliberately putting Darnley in danger of being killed.

  5. Esther /

    Don’t know about the rules back then; I would think there was at least an “unofficial” preference for direct evidence because that would create a motive to forge the letters, even if the circumstantial case indicates her guilt (especially since Queen Elizabeth would want something really strong). However, for a modern person, such as John Guy to say that, absent the Casket Letters, there is “no evidence” of Mary’s guilt or that the Casket letters are the “only evidence” is simply incorrect.

  6. BANDITQUEEN /

    The Casket Letters were fake, invented to attempt to prove Mary as a killer and whore. She was later cleared of Darnleys murder and Bothwell raped her.

  7. Thomas DiMaggio /

    I keep waiting for someone to refer to what is, for me, the most significant fact about Darnley’s murder — and nobody ever does. To wit: Darnley, through his participation in the Riccio murder plot, had already committed two capital offenses (unprovoked murder, and high treason, in that he not only knowingly endangered an anointed monarch’s life, but connived at holding her prisoner). Given his title (however empty of actual substance it may have been) of “king of Scotland”, it would have been impossible, according to 16th-century law, for him to be brought before any regular court and tried for these crimes. Therefore, even if Mary DID connive at his murder, Darnley’s death at Kirk o’ Field could plausibly be defined as an execution, not a homicide. (Elizabeth faced a comparable legal quandary twenty years later when she executed Mary; she did not address the relevant legal issues, but simply ignored them).

  8. Pingback: Part Four of the Murder of the Queen’s Consort: Lord Darnley: How dare you, didn’t you notice that I defied the queen of England for you!? From Reign/Season 3 – GREETINGS FROM THE DRAGON LAIR DIVA /

  9. Rachelle Anderson /

    Well, the eight letters found in the casket were allegedly written by Mary to Bothwell and one was said to implicate the couple in the murder of Mary’s second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in February 1567. Elizabeth I ordered a commission to investigate the matter of Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder and on the 14th December 1568 the letters were produced at the Royal Commission as proof against Mary.

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The Casket Letters