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Portrait of David Rizzio, in the Royal Collection

David Rizzio (c.1533-1566)

DAVID RIZZIO or RICCIO (1533?-1566), secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was the son of a musician at Pancalieri, near Turin, where he was born about 1533. He obtained a good musical education from his father, and began life in the service of the archbishop of Turin, whence he went to Nice to the court of the Duke of Savoy. In the autumn of 1561 he accompanied—it is said as secretary1—the Marquis of Moretto, ambassador of the Duke of Savoy, to Scotland. The queen being at this time in need of a bass singer to complete the quartette in her private chapel, Riccio was recommended to her by the marquis, and, giving special satisfaction, was retained in the queen's service as 'valet de chambre.' His salary in this capacity gradually rose from £65 to £80,2 and he also received other occasional sums.3

Unfinished miniature of David Rizzio For some years he remained at the Scottish court in this obscure position, until, on the dismissal of Mary's French secretary, Raulet, in December 1564, he was chosen to succeed him. The office was not necessarily an important one, and the selection of Riccio for it seems to have caused no remark. It is now known, however, to have been coincident with the beginnings of an important change in the queen's policy. She had now apparently taken the resolution to be the pilot of her own political destiny—uncontrolled by the Scottish lords, and even unadvised by her uncle of Lorraine. She was embarking on designs the secrets of which could not be safely confided to a secretary of French nationality; and that it was his trustworthiness rather than his knowledge of French that commended Riccio to her notice seems evident from the statement of Sir James Melville that he 'was not very skilful in dyting of French letters'4.

It has even been supposed that from the beginning Riccio was the secret agent of the pope, and that his employment as 'valet de chambre' and musician was a mere blind to conceal the real nature of his duties. Of this there is, however, no proof; and the supposition is irreconcileable with the fact that, while the pope was averse from the queen's marriage, Riccio, apparently at the instance of Mary, was the main negotiator of the marriage and on terms of special friendship with Darnley. According to one account, Riccio, shortly after Darnley's illness at Stirling, arranged for a clandestine marriage by introducing a priest into his own chamber, where the ceremony took place;5 and, although the statement is insufficiently corroborated, it is not impossible that some kind of betrothal or engagement was then entered into, since Mary from about this time began to treat Darnley as at least her accepted lover.

After the queen's public marriage to Damley on 29 July 1565, the influence of Riccio in her counsels became more marked than ever, and he practically superseded William Maitland (1528?-1573) of Lethington as secretary of state. Neither by Riccio nor by Mary was any attempt now made to conceal the high position he occupied, or the authority he wielded. His power, on the contrary, became more manifest after the sudden fall of Darnley from favour. He seemed virtually to have attained to the position in her counsels which her husband, had he not been morally and intellectually unfit, could alone have claimed: she publicly sought his advice on all high matters of state in the presence of her nobility;6 and it was soon recognised by all who needed favours that they could best be gained by an arrangement with the ci-devant 'valet de chambre'.7 If we are to credit Sir James Melville, even Moray, when in exile, did not disdain to seek to purchase the advocacy of Riccio for his recall by the present of a 'fair diamond' and the most humiliating promises.8

Riccio bore his new honours by no means meekly. He assumed a haughtiness of carriage towards the Scottish nobles greater than they would have brooked even from the most exalted prince of the blood; and his equipage and train, according to Knox, surpassed that of Darnley.9 There is direct evidence that he had a large stud of horses;10 and, according to Randolph and Bedford, 'the great substance he had' was, after his death, 'much spoken, some say in gold to the value of 11,000l. His apparel was very good, as it is said, twenty-eight pairs of velvet hose. His chamber well furnished, armour, dagger, pistolets, harquebusses, twenty-two swords.'11 The fact that his pride and ostentation were an eyesore to the fierce Scottish nobles gratified Mary more than it alarmed her.12 It was her deliberate purpose that they should accustom themselves to treat with due respect him whom she specially delighted to honour. His 'generous spirit and faithful heart' were not less valuable because he was 'of humble origin' and had been 'poor in goods;' and, being convinced that he possessed fit qualifications for the service required of him, she proposed to elevate him to the high estate of prime minister to an absolute sovereign, a sovereign independent of the nobility.13 To render herself and him secure against sudden surprise, she also resolved to form a bodyguard of Italians.14

Riccio thus owed his elevation primarily to the queen's political necessities or ambition. This, of course, does not disprove that he was also her lover; and some of the methods used to defend her from this suspicion tend rather to stimulate than to allay it. Riccio has been described not merely as ugly—after all, to some extent, a matter of opinion—but, by the indiscreet partisans of the queen, as old, which he certainly was not, his age when he arrived in Scotland being only twenty-eight.15 Since Riccio's elevation may be sufficiently accounted for on political grounds, distinct and independent proof of other motives must be forthcoming before they can be accepted. The theory is, moreover, supported by little more than insinuations. It rests chiefly on the jealousy of Darnley, who was persuaded by others, or succeeded in persuading himself, that he had 'a partaker in play and game with him.'16 He apparently supposed that he had discovered the queen with Riccio under suspicious circumstances,17 and immediately after the murder of Riccio taxed the queen with unfaithfulness.18

But Darnley's evidence is in itself absolutely worthless. He had sufficient reason to detest Riccio on mere political grounds. His exclusion from the crown matrimonial was a corollary of Riccio's elevation; and since Riccio practically held the political position which Darnley coveted, it was almost inevitable that Darnley should believe, or pretend to believe, that Riccio had also superseded him in the queen's affections. In addition to this, Darnley was in the hands of those who had resolved to utilise every semblance of evidence to fan the embers of his jealousy. It specially suited the conspirators against Riccio to make his undue familiarity with the queen one of the main pretexts for his murder, for by this means, besides securing the sanction and aid of Darnley, they gave to their violence a superficial aspect of legality.

Although the whole scope of the queen's purpose and ambition was possibly not suspected even by the astutest of her opponents, many of the nobles witnessed the remarkable and sudden ascendency of Riccio with alarm as well as indignation. Sooner or later his violent removal was inevitable, but what finally decided the conspirators to act was her refusal to pardon Moray and the other exiles in England, and the knowledge or suspicion that the former associates of Moray in Scotland would also be proceeded against. It has been supposed that Morton, who undertook the command of the conspirators, was induced to do so by the fact that Riccio had superseded, or was about to supersede, him in the chancellorship. This theory is supported by a report of Randolph that the seal was 'taken from Morton, and, as some say, given to David',19 and by a marginal note to Knox's 'History', 'to Davie was the great seal given';20 but the proper version of the story is probably that given by Lord Herries, who says: 'Lest the king should be persuaded to pass gifts or any such thing privately by himself, she appointed all things in that kind should be sealed with a seal which she gave her secretary, David Rizzio, in keeping with express order not to put the seal to any paper unless it be first signed with her own hand.'21

In any case Morton was bound by ties of blood to stand by Darnley in his feud. The main executors of the conspiracy were the relatives of Darnley, offended at the loss of his influence; behind them was Maitland of Lethington, who, exasperated at his fall from power, was probably the real contriver of the conspiracy in the form that it assumed; and in addition to him all the protestant leaders, including probably even Knox, were involved, while it was also perfectly understood that the English government would preserve an attitude of benevolent neutrality. The death of Riccio was, with the tacit sanction of the English government, intended to be the mere preliminary to a revolution by which the queen was virtually to be deprived of her sovereignty, the real authority being transferred to Moray, with Darnley as nominal sovereign.

The conspirators contrived to make it appear that they acted at the instigation of Darnley. With that object Darnley's uncle, George Douglas, after setting Darnley's jealousy aflame, undertook, on his giving his sanction and assistance in seizing Riccio, and consenting to the recall of Moray and the banished lords, that his fellow-conspirators would engage to secure him the crown matrimonial. With the connivance of Darnley and the aid of Lord Ruthven, the Earls of Morton and Lindsay, accompanied by a band of armed followers, contrived to gain access to Mary's supper-chamber in Holyrood Palace on Saturday evening, 9 March 1565-6. Thence they dragged Riccio to an antechamber, and, in spite of the original purpose of the leaders to have subjected him to a kind of trial, furiously fell upon him with their daggers, inflicting on him in their murderous rage no fewer than fifty-six wounds.

The Murder of David Rizzio by Sir William Allan

His mutilated corpse was then thrown out of the window into the courtyard, whence it was carried into the porter's lodge. Here the body was placed upon a chest until preparations could be made for its burial, an arrangement which caused the porter's assistant to thus moralise: 'This has been his destiny; for upon this chest was his first bed when he entered into the place, and now here he lieth again, a very ingrate and misknown knave.'

The body was at first buried before the door of the abbey; but the queen, when she returned to Edinburgh in power after her escape to Dunbar, ordered it to be taken up, and, according to Buchanan, caused it to be placed in the royal tomb, and almost 'into the arms of Queen Magdalene.' This is corroborated by Drury, who says that the corpse 'was laid in the tomb where the queen's father lies;' but adds that, to 'avoid such speech as has passed,' it was finally decided to 'place it in another part of the church'.22 Possibly the body was placed only temporarily in the royal tomb until a grave could be prepared for it. The supposed grave in the chapel royal is still pointed out.

T. F. Henderson

1. 'Mémoire' addressed to Cosmo, first grand duke of Tuscany, in Labanoff's Lettres de Marie Stuart, vii. 65.
2. Roughly equivalent to £22,000 and £27,000 in 2020 currency. Source: Measuring Worth.
3. 'Treasurer's Accounts,' quoted by Laing in Knox's Works, ii. 596.
4. Memoirs, p. 109.
5. 'Mémoire' addressed to the Duke of Tuscany in Labanoff, vii. 67.
6. Melville, Memoirs, p. 132.
7. ci-devant, erstwhile. Ibid.
8. ib. p. 147.
9. Works, ii. 521.
10. 'Treasurer's Accounts,' quoted by Laing, ib. ii. 597.
11. Quoted in Appendix xv. to Robertson's History of Scotland. £11,000 in 1561 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £3.75 million in 2020. Source: Measuring Worth.
12. Melville, Memoirs, p. 133.
13. 'Mémoire sur la Noblesse' in Labanoff, vii. 297.
14. Herries, Memoirs, p. 74.
15. Despatch addressed to Cosmo I in Labanoff, vii. 86.
16. Randolph, 13 Feb. 1565-6, quoted in Tytler, ed. 1864, iii. 215.
17. De Foix to Catherine de' Medicis, 20 May 1565, in Teulet, ii. 265.
18. Ruthven, Narrative.
19. 6 March 1566, in Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1566-8, No. 163.
20. Works, i. 446.
21. Memoirs, p. 74.
22. Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, 1566-8, Nos. 289, 297.

      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol XVI. Sidney Lee, Ed.
      New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 984-6.

Books for further study:

Moore, Mary C. David Rizzio.
            Da Capo Press, 1981.

Steuart, Francis A. Seigneur Davie: A Sketch Life of David Riccio.
            Sands & Co., 1922.

Tweedie, David. David Rizzio & Mary Queen of Scots: Murder at Holyrood.
            The History Press, 2007.

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Created by Anniina Jokinen on January 26, 2007. Last updated February 27, 2023.

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Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
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Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague
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Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot
John Knox

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William Camden
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Philip Henslowe
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The Cinque Ports
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Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
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Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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