Wednesday, 19 June 2013

"That Cursed Banner" - The Vendetta Picture in 16th Century Scotland (Part 3)

The Darnley Banner

If Darnley in life had been seen as impulsive and vain, his murder at the age of 21 made these traits seem understandable and forgivable. Whatever Queen Mary's role had been in the murder, the perception of the public was that she had, at the very least, neglected the usual mourning duties  that followed the death of a King, had hastily remarried (and married the prime suspect in the murder of Darnley) and had failed to seek justice against the King's murderers.

The Diurnal of Occurents, a text probably written by an Edinburgh spectator outside of the Royal court (viewable here:, gives a vivid impression of the mood in the city. The murder took place in February 1567 and by that April public feeling against Mary and her new partner, The Earl of Bothwell had given rise to pamphlets and prints circulated among the city's occupants and displayed at the Tolbooth, so that Mary made a proclamation that "nane suld set thaim [the 'tickettis and wreittingis'] up, write nor dight thame, or gif they saw thame, they should destroy thame, and na copyse to be tane thairof" on pain of punishment. Even a pro-Marian source, the French History of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587), which assumes the Queen's innocence, reports that she "was forced, by sounde of trumpet, to publishe the goode will shee had to rewenge the death of her husband".

Throughout the historical sources it is clear that the inhabitants of the capital viewed Mary's actions and motives with a great deal of scepticism. When news spread that Mary's attachment to Bothwell was not by choice but through his kidnapping and 'ravishment' of her, the author of the Diurnal states that "the mater, as is reportit, wes devisit by hir Hienes awne consent, to caus the rumour pas that he had ravist her." This rumour was spread by the Queen in an effort to quell the public opinion that the affair with Bothwell had been going on for some time, as the Diurnal's author says was "weill proven." In this atmosphere, sympathy for the dead King, as well as opposition to Bothwell and Mary, grew rapidly.
A group of nobles, known as the 'confederate lords', rallied around the young Prince James and, cynically taking Mary at her word regarding Bothwell's kidnapping and ravishment, set out to dissolve the marriage and 'free' the Queen. The group was (not surprisingly) mainly motivated by self-interest and their real aim was to establish James, a young child, on the throne in order to rule in his name.
                   The Battle Of Carberry Hill, drawing, 1567

That they did not have the Queen's interests at heart became obvious after the farcical and bloodless 'battle' of Carberry Hill in June 1567 at which Mary was taken prisoner. Indeed, the confederate lords included several individuals who had been implicated in the plot against Darnley as well as Mary's half-brother the Earl of Moray, who had almost certainly been aware of the plot to kill the King, but had turned a blind eye to it until it benefitted him to take sides.

According to contemporary sources on both sides, the Darnley Banner played a key role in the victory of the confederate lords at Carberry. The two armies arrived at Carberry Hill, near Musselburgh, on the 15th of June and, after an attempt to arrange a single combat between Bothwell and a delegate from the confederates failed when Bothwell fled the field (apparently with Mary's blessing), the Queen's army disbanded and she was taken captive. The 16th century Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland gives a typical account of the banner as it was used: "There was ane certain standart borne by twa sudderties [soldiers] bendit betwixt twa speiris, quhairin wes payntit the pictour of hir husband the King, with his sone on his knees, saying 'JUDGE AND REVENGE MY CAUS O LORD.' This standart wes ever borne befoir hir, quhair ever scho went, at the sicht whairof scho wes so mowit that scho had to be cherreischit to be hadine on horseback;, bot that nycht thay brocht hit to Edinburgh, quhar scho remainitt twa dayis." A 17th century author, sympathetic to Mary but evidently drawing on a similar source tells much the same story but adds that "They thrust her into an Inne, where if she look'd but out at window...she was sure to have that cursed banner a fresh presented."
                           The confederate lords with the Darnley Banner at Carberry Hill, from tan etched copy of the Darnley Memorial

A drawing, representing the design of the banner (which is also seen in miniature in the drawing of the battle of Carberry, and in an inset scene on the Darnley Memorial (more on that later) still exists in the Public Record Office Archives (SP/52/13). The design of the banner seems to have been adapted from the drawing of the murder scene, suggesting perhaps that the same artist may have been responsible for both the Kirk O' Field drawing and the painting of the banner itself. In the design, the setting is distilled to a few significant details - the tree, the wall with the gate through which the murderers entered, and the grass on which the body lay. 

Darley is pictured as he was found, his shirt around his middle and his hand covering his genitals. The partial nudity of the body would have presented a shocking spectacle to those used to the ornamental grandeur of courtly portraiture, and accurately conveys the nature of the crime while heightening the emotional impact of the design. This emotional quality is made even more explicit by the inclusion of the figure of the young Prince, kneeling at his dead father's feet and calling upon god to avenge his murder.

The divinely-sanctioned nature of the young boy is heightened by the Christogram IHS which appears in a mandorla-like border at the top-centre of the banner. Although stopping short of including an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, this is still a surprisingly overt religious motif, reflecting the fact that the split between Marian/Jamesian factions was not a straightforward Catholic/Protestant one. The production of banners was a routine task of the Scottish craftsman/painter of the day, and the design, with the framing device of the tree is elegant rather than stark, suggesting that the artist probably belonged to this class, with its decorative ideals.

At a distance of more than 400 years it is difficult as well as pointless to try to determine the extent to which Mary was involved in the murder of Lord Darnley. But it is fair to say that her actions in the aftermath of the murder led to her downfall. The period of indecision in which the murderers went unpunished provided a perfect opportunity for Mary's enemies to rally around a figurehead who was both credible and malleable. With Mary's surrender at Carberry Hill, the potency of the confederate lords' gruesome and affecting banner seems to have been confirmed, and it was a success that was to be remembered.

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