Denise Mina

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Rizzio, by Denise Mina. On the night of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the personal secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was dragged from her chamber and stabbed fifty-six times to his death. Denise Mina visits this ghastly historical event, focusing on the shocking details that led to this outrageous historical crime.

David Rizzio Plays Tennis with His Assassins

Late Saturday afternoon · 9th March, 1566 Indoor tennis court · Palace of Holyrood · Edinburgh

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight. He wants his wife to witness the murder because David Rizzio is her closest friend, her personal secretary, and she’s very pregnant and Darnley hopes that if she sees him being horribly brutalised she might miscarry and die in the process. She’s the Queen; they’ve been battling over Darnley’s demand for equal status since their wedding night and if she dies and the baby dies then Darnley’s own claim to the throne would be undeniable.

They’re rivals for the crown. She knew that from the off. He wants it done in front of her.

Darnley serves to Rizzio, and Rizzio returns it with an elegant stroke.The cork ball soars across the court, reaches the far quarter and bounces high enough to land on the sloped wooden awning over the watchers’ benches.There’s a loud smack as it lands, rolls to the edge and falls onto the court—plop-plop-plop.

Point to Rizzio.

Underneath that sloping roof is a man called Henry Yair. He’s watching the game, sitting on a bench built into the wall of the indoor court. He’s Lord Ruthven’s retainer, here to keep an eye on Darnley for the boss.

Yair hates everyone here and he especially hates tennis. Tennis is what is wrong with people. Yair is very pale, his eyes rimmed red because he hasn’t been sleeping. He’s watchful, sees plots everywhere. He thinks in binaries: good/bad, man/woman, Calvinist/Catholic, for God/ against God. Once fervently Catholic, he is now ferociously Calvinist. When he saw the Truth, he embraced it, and he hates those who don’t, those Catholic hold-outs: how can they hold on to these broken old ideas? How can they defend a church so corrupt, so murderous, such a betrayal of the one true faith? They disgust him. He doesn’t know how they can live with themselves.

Other Calvinists congratulate him on his passion, overlook the implied violence of his fanaticism, because he’s on their side. The Reformation is recent, the issue undecided. It’s not yet safe. Everyone is afraid of a revival of the Roman religion, of being killed for their beliefs, of spies and foreign interventions. Men as hot and spirited as Yair are useful to the Protestant movement.

Rizzio doesn’t know they’re planning to kill him tonight.

Tomorrow morning, when fellow Calvinists hear that Yair was creeping around Edinburgh, when they learn what he did, who he killed, they’ll all feign surprise, but in the darkness of their hearts they’ll each remember his sallow face and wide watery eyes, his explosive reaction to any hint of dissent, and they’ll admit to themselves that this was inevitable, that they rewarded his disquieting fervour and they’ve long known this could happen. Could have been any one of them stabbed in their beds. Yair was always a killing spree looking for an excuse.

From the shadows under the timber roof Yair can see the players on the bright court very crisply, the flitting nuances in their gestures and glances.

Lord Darnley and David Rizzio don’t like each other but only one of them can afford to show it. Darnley sneers and looks Rizzio up and down. Rizzio keeps his expression neutral and ignores the slights. Darnley is married to the Queen and Rizzio is her servant. It’s not an equal match.

Rizzio dominates as the game goes on and Darnley has to mute his intense dislike of the man or risk looking as if he’s in a huff about losing. Yair watches and knows that these are courtly men. They dissemble and lie and flatter one another and, when they can’t convincingly mislead, they bow or turn away to hide their faces.They’re also both Catholic. They love power more than salvation. They dream of power and having power and martyring Calvinists. They serve the Pope and other foreign powers. Their loyalty is bought.

It’s perishing in the indoor court. Yair’s breath sparkles at his lips. He sits, arms crossed and hands tucked tight into his armpits, keeping the fingers from going numb. But thinking of Lord Ruthven’s plan to murder Rizzio warms him. It warms him as if he were washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Yair eyes David Rizzio at the far end of the court. He’s small and ugly and foreign. His skin looks dirty. He’s crafty and sly. He’s only a singer so what’s he doing giving the Queen advice? The rumour is that he’s a Papal spy. Yair maps every room with his sectarian dividers. He knows who is with us, who aga’n’. To justify the intensity of his disgust he suspects every Catholic of every crime he can think of. Yair was a priest, a confessor, and he, of all people, should know how obdurate Catholics think: sodomy, theft, lust, pederasty, child murder, treason both high and petty. High treason is an attack on the State; petty treason is an attack by a subordinate on a superior, usually a husband murdered by a wife. It’s worse than simple murder because of the element of betrayal. It upsets the natural order of things, how God wants the world to be ordered. And in denying her husband what he wants, the Queen has become a petty treasonist.

Darnley serves to Rizzio at the hazard end. Rizzio returns the ball to Darnley and back it goes to Rizzio who knocks it out. Rizzio wins the set and smirks, trying to press the delight from his lips. Darnley scowls, turns away to the wall and lifts a sweat rag to wipe his face and Yair sees him up close. Darnley’s twenty-one and handsome and arrogant. His lips are a furious tight little ‘o’. He holds the cloth over his face for a long time.

Yair loves the severity of Calvinism, the purity of it. He uses it as a hook for his prickly disapproval of everything: dancing, laughing, foolishness, blasphemy, singing, food, lechery, wine, jokes, even colours—and especially fucking tennis.

Rizzio doesn’t know they’re planning to kill him tonight. He hears rumours and sees the whispering, he knows something is going on, but something is always going on: that’s the essence of court life. The whispering has been intensifying for months, building up to the current session of Parliament, which will finally, irrevocably, divest the Queen’s rivals of their land and power and titles. This Parliament’s proclamations will take Scotland by the shoulders, turn her away from England to face Europe and concentrate power in the Queen’s hands.

They’re almost there.

Edinburgh is full to overflowing because Parliament is sitting. Anyone with a seat has been summoned to the capital and they’ve brought their households with them: families and servants, provisions, cheeses, linen, furniture, beds and their own best milking cows. All day long the ambient sound of the city is twice as loud as usual, almost deafening. At night, kitchen floors and draughty corridors are carpeted with sleeping servants and animals. Narrow streets are barely passable during the day. Everyone is on top of everyone else, watching, smiling, nodding, being seen.

Edinburgh is not short of things to whisper about.

Darnley resumes his position on the court line, holding his racquet with two hands.

Rizzio is winning this game but can’t let his delight show: an errant smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He likes to win, especially when he’s playing Darnley, because he knows very well how much his rival hates to lose. Their eyes meet. Darnley can’t disguise his fury; he looks away, waiting for his face to stop betraying his nature.

In fact, Rizzio has more to hide than Darnley. At one time Rizzio shared Darnley’s bed, lay at his feet and called him master. He loved Darnley then and he still loves him. This yearning is his great secret, the one thing he will never tell anyone. He can hardly admit it to himself because Darnley is handsome and rich and charismatic, but he’s also a braggart and a liar, a hoormaister, a weak, weeping, drunken fool who screams demands at the Queen in public. Once he hit her at a dinner, served her a smarting slap across the face as if she were a maid come late with the wine. But Rizzio loves him. He would have served him for ever but Darnley got used to him, came to trust him and grew disinhibited in front of him. He let Rizzio see who he really was. It pains Rizzio to admit it, but Darnley is a poor prince.

It wells from one spring: Darnley’s father, Lennox. A poisonous man, Lennox has turned the son against the wife, convincing Darnley that he should be on the throne instead of her. Now Darnley cannot forgive Mary denying him equal status. She promised him the crown when they married but is holding it back because of what she sees: Darnley disappearing on hunts for weeks at a time, drinking, carousing, Darnley refusing to counterseal his Queen’s official documents. It’s essential that he does this. None of her orders have authority without his seal added to hers and the business of government grinds to a halt when he’s off on a drinking binge or a hunting expedition. The business of government is paralysed without his cooperation. They fought a war of attrition over the seal: he disappearing, Mary following him, he demanding equal status, she insisting that he earn it, until Mary upended the table. She had a copy of Darnley’s seal made and gave it to her man Rizzio. Darnley seethes because of it, but the choice was never Rizzio’s. He’s just doing what he’s told. Darnley must be able to see that.

It is pleasantly cool in the tennis court but Rizzio is sweating. His clothes are damp and his heart is hitting a steady fast rhythm. He’s still fit and able and gives thanks to God for it. Good health is a rare gift at the age of thirty-two.

Darnley is slim and tall and, even at tennis, a bit pissed. He is handsome in a shallow way: his face is symmetrical, his cheeks have remarkably few craters from the pox, but he is a mealy man. The petty resentments, the bitterness, the self-pity—they all show in his eyes and pinch at his mouth. Darnley takes. No one ever leaves his company feeling better about anything. Darnley tries to make other people unhappy because he is unhappy. With a father like Lennox, who could be happy?

Rizzio sees Darnley narrow his eyes at him, raise his tennis racquet and mime serving the ball, then laugh mockingly as if he tricked Rizzio. But Rizzio wasn’t tricked and hasn’t moved. How can Rizzio parry this? If he mimics Darnley’s joyless laugh it might look insolent. He could play along, say, ‘Ha!You fooled me, sir!’, but that would be patronising and Darnley can’t overlook even the smallest hint of that. Rizzio could challenge him by shrugging it off, saying so what? But the moment passes, and Rizzio hasn’t done anything, and he sees that that was the right move.

Remain a blank. Let Darnley roll through his moods.

When the Queen says her husband is a drunk or a waste of space Rizzio doesn’t nod or roll his eyes the way other servants do. He’s experienced, a professional. He knows that those he serves may deign to treat him as a friend or an equal, but he isn’t. He’s here because he’s useful, not because he’s welcome. David Rizzio makes himself incredibly useful.

He translates to and from four languages. He gives advice on drafting legislation and proclamations; he liaises with the lesser courts of Europe. He sings and makes diverting conversation. He dresses to please the eye. Mary knows how effortful this affected neutrality is: she had to learn that trick herself while she was growing up. She appreciates him for it and she trusts him.

Rizzio knows his life is threatened. Of course it is, he’s a proxy for a queen. They resent her power, her sex, her religious devotion, her pregnancy which has the potential to carry on her Catholic line. They resent the compromise she represents, that there may not be a Protestant Europe, now and for ever. More than that, they hate her love match with Darnley because he’s Catholic and, almost worse, a Lennox.

Darnley’s family are a rare point of general agreement in Scotland: everyone hates them.There are not many things a rich and powerful man could do that would make everyone in the land hate them but Lennox found one: when local lairds left the ranks of his army without permission he took their children hostage. The lairds came back but Lennox, angry at being defied, massacred eleven of the children. Noblemen’s children. It was a shocking show of petty pique and animal brutality. That was twenty years ago yet half the country has still to breathe out their gasp.

But Rizzio is from Milan. He has worked in the Court of Savoy – his father was a secretary to a grand court in Italy – and he’s seen far worse. ‘They’re all talk,’ he says when he hears the rumours of threats on his life.‘The Scots threaten all the time, but they never do anything.’ Nothing surprises him and, if it does, he doesn’t react.

But Rizzio has not fully understood the intricate disputational customs here. In Savonese courts a coup d’état is a hot fight, a charge and call to arms. It is not preceded by months spent drawing up legally binding contracts, negotiating the spoils, redrafting, getting their secretary to read over the proposals before they sign.

Rizzio thinks that, if Darnley wanted him dead, he could run him through right here. Rizzio knows something is going on, but something is always going on—that’s how it is in the orbit of regal power.

Across the court, Darnley lifts the ball and serves properly. Rizzio watches it come straight at him, a solid lump of cork that could knock his teeth out. He keeps his eye on it, steps nimbly to the side, swings his racquet back gracefully and meets the threat square on.

A sudden shaft of sunlight floods the court, casting a deep shadow beneath the wooden awning. Henry Yair’s face is cut in half. He is nothing but lips slowly parting, seeping frost into the late afternoon.


From Rizzio by Denise Mina. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus. Copyright © 2020 by Denise Mina.

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