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  • Shakespeare and Terrorism
  • Robert Appelbaum (bio)

There are several extant contemporary accounts of the murder of David Riccio, the private secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1566. But one in particular stands out in that it tries to find a positive meaning in the gruesome murder. It comes in George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum historia, first published in 1582 and translated into English as The History of Scotland in 1690. On a winter’s night at Hollyrood Palace, according to Buchanan, while a pregnant Mary sat at dinner with her intimates, including Riccio, her husband Lord Darnley along with Lord Ruthven and a group of armed soldiers sent by the Earl of Mora rushed into the room, threatened Riccio and then killed him with over fifty stab wounds, throwing his body out of the room and down the stairs. Lord Ruthven then confronted the queen, who was trying to escape, and delivered a speech, which Buchanan reports indirectly:

That in managing the affairs of the kingdom, [the queen] would rather consult the nobility, who had a concern in the public, than vagrant rascals, who could give no pledge for their faithfulness, and who had nothing to lose, either in estate or credit; neither was the fact, then committed, without a precedent: That Scotland was a kingdom bounded by laws, and was never wont to be governed by the will and pleasure of one man, but by the rule of the law, and the consent of the nobility; and if any former king had done otherwise, he had smarted severely for it: Neither were the Scots at present so far degenerated from their ancestors, as to bear not only the government, but even the servitude of a stranger, who was scarce worthy to be their slave.1

Other accounts also have Ruthven confront the queen and say something to her, but in no other is he so articulate. He never elsewhere expresses what [End Page 23] amounts to a political program—a program very similar to Buchanan’s own theory of sovereignty and right in his major political work, De jure regni apud scotos (The Rights of the Crown in Scotland, 1579). According to De jure regni, the monarch of Scotland governs by virtue of the consent of the Scottish nobility and is answerable to the nobility under threat of deposition.

So whatever Ruthven actually said to the queen, and for whatever reason he actually said it, Buchanan makes Ruthven, in short, into a republican; and he makes the violent death of the hapless David Riccio into a symbolic assertion of republican values. As Buchanan continues the story, even as the conspiracy unwinds and eventually fails, the sequence of events still amounts to an attempt to assert an idea about the nature of government and who legitimately held the reins of power in Scotland; and Buchanan still focuses on the communicative nature of the violence, the commitment of the conspirators to send a message about governance. At first, the conspirators were in control of the palace and the court, and apparently able to dictate terms to Mary (for they had plans, albeit vague, about what to do next to cement their authority). Nevertheless, things began going awry, as Darnley, the uncrowned king, temporized and compromised, and as the local populace got wind of what was happening in the castle. “In the meantime,” Buchanan writes,

[T]he news was carried all over the town, and as every one’s disposition was, right or wrong, they took arms, and went to the palace. There the king showed himself to them out of a window, and told the multitude, that he and the queen were safe, and there was no cause for their tumultuous assembly; what was done was by his command, and what that was, they should know in time, and therefore, at present, everyone should go to his own house.2

But the command was not really obeyed. A state of emergency ensued and Mary’s faithful followers took control. The conspirators ended up as prisoners in the palace, begging Mary pardon “for their offence.” Eventually Mary and Darnley escaped the castle, only to return with an army that dealt with...


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