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Murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley of Scotland
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, lay murdered in the orchard at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, wearing only his nightclothes. Moments later, the house from which he fled exploded with the force of two barrels of gunpowder. That event in February 1567 began the fall of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the beginning of the end for the Scottish monarchy. Those responsible for killing the King Consort of Scotland remain a mystery to this day.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was the great-grandson of King Henry VII of England and descendant of King James II of Scotland, c 1564. Public domain.
Groomed for the crown since childhood by his devious mother, the reviled Lord Darnley was no stranger to intrigue. Suspicion, violence, and a ruthless power struggle marked his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Throughout history, secrets and rumors cast long shadows on the death of Lord Darnley.
Lord Darnley’s Death
Historians believe Lord Darnley and his lifelong valet William Taylor discovered the plot against Darnley’s life. Just moments before the gunpowder exploded, the two men escaped out a window of Provost House. But they didn’t make it far. A group of men discovered Lord Darnley and William Taylor slipping away. Quickly, they captured and strangled them to death. Then they left their bodies in the neighboring orchard. The gunpowder ignited, blowing the house apart with a second valet still inside. Witnesses described seeing a dozen men fleeing Kirk o’ Field.
Drawing of Kirk o’ Field showing murder scene of Lord Darnley, his body being carried away, the burial, and churchyard. 1567, Public domain.
When Mary met Darnley
When a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was arranged in February 1565, the couple were not strangers. Mary had met Darnley once or twice before. As a boy, he had visited the French court where she grew up.
The venue for the reunion was Wemyss Castle, East Wemyss. This location was some distance from regular royal haunts, perhaps to avoid court gossip. Love and marriage were most definitely on the agenda.
‘The properest and best proportioned long man’
Mary, 22, was tall, rich, powerful and famously beautiful. She was the reigning queen of Scotland, the dowager queen of France and the aspiring queen of England. She had been widowed for more than four years and was in need of an heir – not to mention a bit of passion in her life.
Darnley, 19, was vain, ambitious, arrogant and louche, with a reputation for sexual impropriety. On the plus side, he was tall, elegant, strikingly handsome and rather good at playing the lute. Mary considered him ‘the properest and best proportioned long man that she had seen’.
Darnley had also been admired by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, during his years at the English court. More importantly, he was directly descended from King Henry VII of England, as was Mary herself.
Their collective gene pool secured their Tudor credentials – and their son James would eventually succeed to the English throne.
A fiery love affair
The courtship that began in Wemyss that day soon turned into a fiery love affair. Mary even nursed Darnley when he fell ill (possibly with syphilis). They married in Edinburgh a few months later, on 29 July 1565.
But the marriage soon proved disastrous. Darnley was nominally a Catholic, which alarmed Scotland’s Protestant lords. Elizabeth too was uneasy about the match.
Darnley’s childish behaviour and naked ambition soon irked Mary and her court. Before long, her enchantment with him waned. He conspired against her, notably in the murder of her secretary, David Riccio, in her private chambers at Holyroodhouse.
Their stormy relationship was played out at many places, including several Historic Scotland properties.
A son – and a plot
They spent a night at Huntingtower Castle during the Chaseabout Raid of September 1565, when the royal couple enjoyed their finest hour, jointly leading an army against Protestant rebels.
In June 1566, Mary gave birth to their only child, the future James VI and I in Edinburgh Castle. Darnley was not present to witness his son’s arrival.
At Hermitage Castle in October 1566, Mary visited the wounded Earl of Bothwell, almost certainly on state business, though this was later produced as evidence of adultery. (She would later marry Bothwell.)
In November and December of 1566 Mary moved to Craigmillar Castle (pictured above) to recuperate from a life-threatening illness. It was here that Mary’s entourage plotted against Darnley.
At Stirling Castle in December 1566, Darnley skulked in the shadows while his son Prince James was baptised, amid lavish festivities. Bothwell wore a fine suit of clothes bought for him by Mary.
A murderous end
The plot against Darnley is known as the Craigmillar Bond. It came to fruition on the night of 9 February 1567.
While Mary attended the wedding of her servant Bastian Pagez, Darnley was recuperating from illness at the Provost House. This building was located in Kirk o’Field, Edinburgh, close to where Chambers Street stands today.
The story of the Craigmillar Bond was told through projections onto the walls of Craigmillar Castle at Historic Scotland’s ‘Spotlight on Mary’ event
At around 2 o’clock in the morning, two barrels of gunpowder which had been placed in the room beneath Darnley’s exploded.
Darnley was either taken from his bed before the explosion or had staggered from the ruined house. He didn’t get very far. His body and that of his valet were discovered – smothered – in a nearby orchard.
Mary was a widow again. Darnley had been murdered and her reign was beginning to unravel…
Take a trip to Lochleven Castle to find out what happened next.
Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Jack Lowden as Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.
6. Correct: Although not believed to have been intimately involved with David Rizzio, Mary&rsquos second husband, Lord Darnley, is suspected of having relationships with other men
Departing London on February 3, 1565, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, presented himself before Mary on February 17 at Wemyss Castle. Instantly besotted with the Englishman, the pair were within days inseparable from one another&rsquos company. Mary&rsquos half-first-cousin via two different marriages by their grandmother, Margaret Tudor, consequently placing both Darnley and Mary prominently in the line of succession for the English crown, the couple were married on July 29, 1565. In advance of the wedding, Elizabeth commanded in vain Darnely, one of her subjects, to return to England in an attempt to prevent the union against her.
As accurately portrayed in Mary, Queen of Scots, Darnley and Mary&rsquos relationship quickly soured following their nuptials. Arrogant and prone to excessive drinking, Darnley was an unpleasant husband who grew immensely jealous of his wife&rsquos companions, especially David Rizzio. Despite his own extramarital relations with women, habitual chasing after others even once married, historical evidence suggests Darnley equally engaged in same-sex relations. Of particular note, and overlooked by the film in favor of a fictional relationship with Rizzio himself, Darnley&rsquos close friendship with Don Francisco de Alava has come under modern scrutiny, with the pair described as &ldquointimate&rdquo and enjoyed prolonged overseas trips together.
Mary Queen of Scotsand the murder of Lord Darnley
In February, Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, had been lodging at a house, Kirk o'Field, in the Old Town of Edinburgh, about half a mile from Mary at Holyrood Palace.
At 2 o'clock in the morning the night air was torn by an enormous gunpowder explosion, and Kirk o'Field was reduced to rubble. Darnley must have suspected something as he lay that night in his bedroom, for in the alarm that was raised after the explosion his body was found in the garden.
Had he heard suspicious sounds under his room where large amounts of gunpowder had been secretly hidden? Perhaps he had heard the sound of the torch lighting the fuse. A chair and a length of rope were also found in the garden Darnley and his groom had used the rope to climb out of the first floor window. They both lay dead, clad only in nightgowns, one dagger between them. Were they killed by the explosion while trying to escape? Or were they intercepted and strangled in the garden?
No hard evidence about precisely what occurred has ever been found.
The illustration above is from a contemporary drawing. At the top left is the infant James VI who sits up in his crib praying: "Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord". To the right Darnley and his groom lie dead in the garden.
Below, the townspeople of Edinburgh gather round and four soldiers carry a body away for burial
Did Mary, Queen of Scots&rsquo Husband Have a Gay Affair?
One of the most shocking scenes in the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots movie comes when Mary Stuart, played by Saoirse Ronan, walks in on her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in bed with her gay male courtesan, David Rizzio, on her wedding night in 1565.
The movie takes some liberties with historical accuracy — Mary and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) never met as their faceoff scene suggests — but historian John Guy, whose book Queen of Scots: The True Story of Mary Stuart serves as the historical basis for the film, assures the Henry (Jack Lowden) and Rizzio (Ismal Cruz Cordova) connection isn’t one of them.
rnley and Rizzio having a sexual relationship is definitely true to history,” Guy tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
In the historical drama, Mary, who hoped to take the English throne and bring both countries under one rule again, wasn’t concerned with her husband’s relationships with men because he helped her produce a male heir, their son James.
“It was a very smart match in terms of making her claim to the English throne even stronger,” director Josie Rourke says. “There is a reason that James I was the first monarch to rule both kingdoms and that’s because Mary Queen of Scots was smart enough to have a child with Henry, Lord Darnley. Darnley also had a claim to the English throne, so that massively strengthened Mary’s own plan and the plan of any children that she bore by him.”
Mary, Queen of Scots beheaded
After 19 years of imprisonment, Mary, Queen of Scots is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in England for her complicity in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1542, while just six days old, Mary ascended to the Scottish throne upon the death of her father, King James V. Her mother sent her to be raised in the French court, and in 1558 she married the French dauphin, who became King Francis II of France in 1559 but died the following year. After Francis’ death, Mary returned to Scotland to assume her designated role as the country’s monarch.
In 1565, she married her English cousin Lord Darnley in order to reinforce her claim of succession to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death. In 1567, Darnley was mysteriously killed in an explosion at Kirk o’ Field, and Mary’s lover, the Earl of Bothwell, was the key suspect. Although Bothwell was acquitted of the charge, his marriage to Mary in the same year enraged the nobility. Mary brought an army against the nobles, but was defeated and imprisoned at Lochleven, Scotland, and forced to abdicate in favor of her son by Darnley, James.
In 1568, Mary escaped from captivity and raised a substantial army but was defeated and fled to England. Queen Elizabeth initially welcomed Mary but was soon forced to put her friend under house arrest after Mary became the focus of various English Catholic and Spanish plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Nineteen years later, in 1586, a major plot to murder Elizabeth was reported, and Mary was brought to trial. She was convicted for complicity and sentenced to death.
On February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded for treason. Her son, King James VI of Scotland, calmly accepted his mother’s execution, and upon Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he became king of England, Scotland and Ireland.
The Gay Stuff in “Mary Queen of Scots” Is Actually Pretty Accurate
A queer historian assesses the historical accuracy of the gay stuff in the Mary Queen of Scots movie.
The sensational life of Mary Stuart is on the silver screen again, with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie at the helm in the latest retelling of the Scottish queen’s life. Mary’s is a story more than worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Dominated by queenly rivalry, sibling-sparked civil war, gravity defying feats of escape, and so, so much death — everything about this sixteenth-century monarch screams out for soap opera-style attention. But in Josie Rourke’s highly anticipated Mary, Queen of Scots, there’s an added dimension that transforms her story into something all the more interesting for a modern audience: queer romance. The best part? It’s (mostly) historically accurate.
First we have Henry Stewart aka Lord Darnley (played by Jack Lowden) who enters the story as the second cousin, but also prospective second husband for the Queen of Scots.
“Mary was certainly sexually attracted to Darnley,” Dr. John Guy, whose biography of Mary inspired the film, tells OUT. “She believed she was in love with him. But it was a brief infatuation, brought on by Darnley’s sexual magnetism rather than true love.”
While her feelings for him quickly dissipated, his utility as a husband was enough for her to see the wedding through. His claim to the English throne was strongest after Mary’s own (they were cousins), and his father the Earl of Lennox could provide powerful domestic support to the crown. Politically, their union was a wise move. As time went on, however, his less than desirable personal traits would increasingly come to the fore — including that sexual magnetism, which proved strong enough to attract his wife’s closest advisor, David Rizzio, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova.
“[At the time,] Rizzio was being described as Darnley’s ‘only governor,’” Guy explains, referring to more intimate dynamics of their relationship. “A brief sexual relationship between Darnley and Rizzio is real history, not speculation,” Guy says simply. Furthermore, he argues that this wouldn’t have been all too surprising. “Darnley, who spent adolescent years in France, was effeminate and bisexual as was the vogue of young hedonistic courtiers in France.”
We know of course that same-sex attraction and romance goes back to time immemorial, but the term “homosexual” is a modern phenomenon. Queer historians by and large see the Victorian trial of Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency,” and the way it played out in the media and public sphere, as the transformative moment whereby a person who engaged in homosexual acts became a homosexual person — and that wasn’t until three hundred years later after Mary. For that reason, in addition to the difficulty of “proving” feelings or sexual acts of the past, and society’s long-entrenched culture of homophobia, historians have largely shied away from identifying historical figures as anything other than heterosexual.
This makes Guy’s clear description of Darnley striking, but records reveal a number of his detractors resorted to thinly-veiled homophobia to discredit him. Elizabeth I's ambassador, Sir Randolph wrote to his mistress informing her that Rizzio and Darnley has been found in bed together. Furthermore, contemporary descriptions of Darnley as a “great cock chick” would have been understood then as it is today, Guy says. James Melville of Halhill, a close advisor and frequent emissary of Mary, once described Darnley as wholly inappropriate for his queen, characterizing him as “more like a woman than a man, for he was very lusty, beardless, and lady-faced.”
When discussing the relationship between Darnley and Rizzio, Guy says that “Beau Willimon’s screenplay adaptation follows the book fairly closely.” Mary was also known to have been very close to Rizzio, and their relationship did spark talk, but the rumors were never taken very seriously. In an attempt to convey the depth of their non-romantic intimacy, one of the film’s most shocking scenes shows Rizzio tell Mary that he feels more like “a sister.” “In my view,” Guy says, such a take is “more dramatically creative than historical.”
(Spoiler!) Brief artistic liberties aside, Mary, Queen of Scots largely remains true to the larger-than-life story of Mary Stuart. Darnley really did drunkenly burst into her private chambers with a group of his supporters when she was six months pregnant — one of them held a weapon to her stomach and the others proceeded to stab his ex-lover Rizzio 56 times right in front of her.
About a year later, Darnley, who was recovering from an STI, died when his house got blown up. In the film, Darnley seems to have a boyfriend who he’s happily sharing a life with, and while there’s no historical basis for such a development, it did lend a sort of tragic beauty.
And Mary did actually turn that final look before she was beheaded. Showing up to her execution, she stunned with her sartorial choice of a blood-red dress — the color of martyrs — which helped birth the myth of Mary as a Catholic saint. A true queen to the end, she know how to make a point.
As society advances, historians grow bolder in their approaches. Just as women were largely ignored in historical documents, so too were same-sex attractions and acts, with the exception, of course, of criminal records. In lieu or concrete primary sources, therefore, it becomes necessary to read into the gaps and silences of history.
This time period, perhaps more than any prior to the modern era, presented unprecedented challenges to the established order. Catholic hegemony was under attack, Christianity was fracturing and, perhaps equally alarming, queens reigned and ruled in Scotland, England, and France for generations. Gender roles were turned on their heads, and the reactions were varied, innovative, and transgressive. Under Mary Tudor in England, Parliament attempted to legally recast the queen as a man. Elizabeth Tudor spoke of having “the heart and stomach of a king.” And like her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France, Mary, Queen of Scots was known to don drag and sneak out into the streets of Edinburgh for fun — and at just under six feet tall, Guy says she could be pretty convincing! Mary even attended a formal banquet dressed as a man, shocking her nobility.
And there is far more contemporary queer history that the film couldn’t capture: Mary and Darnley’s own son, James VI who became James I of England in 1603, was very notably queer himself. James was known to prefer the company of attractive men so much that the nobility is reported to have adapted by sending attractive sons to court to gain the king’s favor, rather than attractive daughters as was typically the case. This pattern was noted throughout James’ long reign. At the age of just 17, he wrote a long, angsty poem dedicated to his first male favorite, his uncle (yes his uncle) Esmé Stewart. The poem, Ane Tragedie of the Phoenix, used the metaphor of a phoenix was to represent his uncle who had died. The poem includes such illuminating lines as: “[the phoenix] fled at last to me … yet they followed fast, till she betwixt my legs her selfe did cast.”
And so, while the film may give into excess at times, banish any question of truth from your minds, for queers have always been present, of all kinds — sometimes you just have to read between the lines.
Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan, and James McArdle in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.
4. Correct: Mary&rsquos second husband and royal consort, Lord Darnley, was murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his body discovered outdoors after an explosion hit Kirk O&rsquo Field in 1567
Approximately eight months after the birth of Mary&rsquos son James, on February 10, 1567, his father, Lord Darnley, suddenly died at Kirk o&rsquo Field, Edinburgh, where the royal consort had been staying. Brought back by Mary after a period of estrangement to recover from an illness, claimed at the time to be smallpox but more recently speculated to have been syphilis, around two in the morning on the night of the tenth an explosion rocked the foundations of Kirk o&rsquo Field. The product of two barrels of gunpowder placed in a room beneath Darnley&rsquos sleeping quarters, the assassination failed to immediately claim the life of Darnley.
Miraculously surviving by reasons unknown, lying in just a nightshirt Darnley&rsquos body, alongside that of his valet, William Taylor, were found in a nearby orchard. Although official post-mortems claimed the explosion had taken his life, speculation circulated, including by surgeons who examined the body, that the consort had been strangled. Depicting the latter cause of death explicitly, Mary, Queen of Scots carefully treads the line of historical accuracy by strongly implying, but never explicitly stating, whether or not Mary herself was responsible for the murder. Never admitting wrongdoing, and denying it throughout her life, either way, Mary mourned little for her husband&rsquos death.
The list of suspects read like a who’s who of the Scots nobility of the time, with Mary and her rough and ready borderer/trusted councillor Bothwell at the very top several months later they would be married and that would basically mark the end of Mary’s brief and turbulent reign. Of course she had more reason to despise Darnley than anyone the good-looking, buff blond boy who’d first sashayed into sight at Weymss Castle turned out in the end to be a spiteful bisexual syphilitic with a penchant for calling her out when he’d had a few too many ales. Add in the fact that he’d developed a pathological jealousy for her Italian secretary Rizzio and then helped in the plot to slay the poor little papist in Mary’s presence only added to the reasons for wanting him gone. When she gave birth to their son James – the future James VI of Scotland and I of England – she was derisory enough of the boy’s father to inform her entire court that it would be much the worse for her son because of who his dad happened to be.
After Mary’s marriage to Bothwell broke down and she fled to England, Darnley’s death was the pretext that Elizabeth I used for holding her in captivity for 19 years until her eventual execution in 1587. But did Mary really have anything to do with her husband’s death or was she merely guilty of sticking her fingers in her ears and averting her eyes at the appropriate moment?
For the prosecution
1. Darnley had threatened to impugn their son’s legitimacy in order to save baby James’ title to the throne, he would therefore need to be silenced.
2. He couldn’t be bothered with state affairs, leaving Mary to have a stamp made bearing his signature lazy wasn’t quite the word.
3. She herself went to Glasgow to bring him back to Edinburgh when he fell ill to keep an eye on him, or to lure him to his death?
4. On the very night of the explosion she was meant to be staying with him at the house he was convalescing in – Kirk O’Field – but ‘remembered’ at the last minute that she had a wedding to attend.
5. Her first mother-in-law was that mistress of Machiavellian machinations, Catherine de Medici didn’t she teach her daughter-in-law anything during those long years at the French court?!
6. Mary had also been in attendance at a conference at Craigmillar Castle wherein her lords debated what to do about Darnley and had warned them not to undertake anything that might impugn her honour – that didn’t rule out doing away with him on the quiet, though.
7. Mary pardoned Darnley’s Rizzio co-plotters even though they were baying for his blood after he’d double-crossed them during the culmination of said plot she even gave them license to return to Scotland in the months leading up to Darnley’s death.
For the defence
1. Mary may have been suffering from postnatal depression during the plotting that led to Darnley’s death, significantly swaying her judgement if she was aware of the plot.
2. Apart from having her royal reputation to consider, it seems unlikely Mary would have undertaken anything so preposterous when she wanted to keep her cousin Elizabeth Tudor sweet and hopefully be named as her eventual heir.
3. The whole thing might in fact have been in some way engineered by Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, in attempt to further destabilise Mary’s rule and get rid of her (he’d known about the assassination plot against Rizzio beforehand, for instance).
4. It’s unclear to what extent Bothwell had a hold over Mary. How much is romance imagined by centuries of swooning female writers, and how much might in fact be the brutality of a real-life abusive relationship, with Mary powerless to stop him clearing a path to the throne as her consort.
And let’s not even get started on the convoluted controversy that is the Casket Letters…
All in all Darnley’s demise was a spectacular point in Scottish history, one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments, when you factor in the whole Bothwell business and series of calamities that Mary herself was soon to endure. But at the heart was a spoilt, politically naïve 21-year old – pretty much a child still today – but back then a grown man, thrust into the backstabbing heart of sixteenth century Scottish politics. Even if he was a brat, he didn’t deserve to die like that.
Biography of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots is perhaps the best known figure in Scotland’s royal history. Her life provided tragedy and romance, more dramatic than any legend.
She was born in 1542 a week before her father, King James V of Scotland, died prematurely.
It was initially arranged for Mary to marry the English King Henry VIII’s son Prince Edward however the Scots refused to ratify the agreement. None too pleased by this, Henry sought to change their mind through a show of force, a war between Scotland and England… the so called ‘Rough Wooing’. In the middle of this, Mary was sent to France in 1548 to be the bride of the Dauphin, the young French prince, in order to secure a Catholic alliance against Protestant England. In 1561, after the Dauphin, still in his teens, died, Mary reluctantly returned to Scotland, a young and beautiful widow.
Scotland at this time was in the throes of the Reformation and a widening Protestant – Catholic split. A Protestant husband for Mary seemed the best chance for stability. Mary fell passionately in love with Henry, Lord Darnley, but it was not a success. Darnley was a weak man and soon became a drunkard as Mary ruled entirely alone and gave him no real authority in the country.
Darnley became jealous of Mary’s secretary and favourite, David Riccio. He, together with others, murdered Riccio in front of Mary in Holyrood House. She was six months pregnant at the time.
Her son, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England, was baptised in the Catholic faith in Stirling Castle. This caused alarm amongst the Protestants.
Lord Darnley, Mary’s husband, later died in mysterious circumstances in Edinburgh, when the house he was lodging in was blown up one night in February 1567. His body was found in the garden of the house after the explosion, but he had been strangled!
Mary Stuart and Lord Darnley
Mary had now become attracted to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and rumours abounded at Court that she was pregnant by him. Bothwell was accused of Darnley’s murder but was found not guilty. Shortly after he was acquitted, Mary and Bothwell were married. The Lords of Congregation did not approve of Mary’s liaison with Bothwell and she was imprisoned in Leven Castle where she gave birth to still-born twins.
Bothwell meanwhile had bid Mary goodbye and fled to Dunbar. She never saw him again. He died in Denmark, insane, in 1578.
In May 1568 Mary escaped from Leven Castle. She gathered together a small army but was defeated at Langside by the Protestant faction. Mary then fled to England.
The abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in 1568
In England she became a political pawn in the hands of Queen Elizabeth I and was imprisoned for 19 years in various castles in England. Mary was found to be plotting against Elizabeth letters in code, from her to others, were found and she was deemed guilty of treason.
She was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and executed in 1587. It is said that after her execution, when the executioner raised the head for the crowd to see, it fell and he was left holding only Mary’s wig. Mary was intially buried at nearby Peterborough Cathedral.
Mary’s son became James I of England and VI of Scotland after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Although James would have had no personal memories of his mother, in 1612 he had Mary’s body exhumed from Peterborough and reburied in a place of honour at Westminster Abbey. At the same time he rehoused Queen Elizabeth to a rather less prominent tomb nearby.
Mary with her son, later James I
Did the recent film, Mary Queen of Scot (2018) peak your interest in Queen Elizabeth’s archrival? Why not find out more in the ‘Mary Queen of Scots: Film Tie-In’ audiobook? Available for free via the Audible trial