"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 15, 2013

Where In the World Is the Earl of Bothwell?

The only accepted portrait of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and Duke of Orkney, although  this identification has sometimes been disputed.

Mary Queen of Scots married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, in May of 1567, only three months after the baffling, and still hotly-debated murder of her previous husband, Henry, Lord Darnley. One month after the wedding, Mary’s enemies captured the Queen and imprisoned her on Lochleven island, where she was eventually forced to abdicate. After a year, she escaped and fled across the border, only to trade her Scottish prison for an English one. Elizabeth I kept her in captivity for nearly twenty years until her execution in 1587.

Bothwell’s end is much more mysterious. After Mary was sent to Lochleven, he made desperate efforts to raise an army on her behalf, but, dogged by the allegations that he had been Darnley’s murderer, he had limited success. After a few months on the run, a storm drove him into the hands of the Danish authorities. Denmark’s King Frederick, in the hope that holding Bothwell in custody might prove useful, kept him in “honorable confinement” while debating how best to manage this international hot potato he had unexpectedly acquired. He proved surprisingly sympathetic to his controversial visitor. Frederick refused to agree to extradite him to England or Scotland until Bothwell could be guaranteed a fair and open trial—which was the last thing Bothwell’s enemies wanted. Whether the Queen’s new husband was guilty or innocent, he knew too much.

Frederick himself was left struggling to find a solution to the Bothwell controversy that he felt was consistent with his own sense of honor. He confided to the French Ambassador, Charles de Dancay (France, for its own mysterious reasons, had done everything in its power to block Bothwell’s extradition) that he would dearly love to have an end to the problem.  However, he did not believe it was right to simply turn Bothwell over to his enemies, particularly as he had consistently and vehemently denied "either killing Darnley or having had him killed nor having in any way consented to his death." Some time afterwards, Dancay, writing to France about the dilemma of what to do with Bothwell, advised that it would be best to simply play for time, adding a slightly cryptic comment to the effect that all parties involved, particularly Mary, might benefit most by news that her contentious husband had simply died. And Bothwell himself, as far as anyone can ascertain, was never directly heard from again after 1570.

At some time during that year, Scottish mercenaries, returning home after having fought for Denmark in the war against Sweden, carried with them the news that Frederick had given Bothwell his freedom. It was feared that the King planned to outfit ships and crews for Bothwell's use. When Danish warships were spotted off the northern Scottish coast, word spread through the country that it was Bothwell, returning to reclaim his wife and his kingdom. This was no trivial rumor. Elizabeth herself appears to have been informed, as a statement of fact, that Bothwell was free, as she was inspired to write Frederick a blistering letter excoriating him for releasing from custody an infamous villain who, if Frederick refused to execute him as he deserved, certainly was entitled to nothing better than chains and fetters!

Nothing more is heard about Bothwell until June 1573. This was an important time in Mary's history. Just days before, at the end of May, Edinburgh Castle, which had been held by the remnants of Mary's party in Scotland for the past several years, finally surrendered, ending whatever small chance remained of Mary being restored to her kingdom. Coincidentally or not, just two weeks after this event--immediately after the news reached Denmark, in fact--Dancay casually remarked in one of his dispatches that Frederick, for reasons unknown, had suddenly removed Bothwell to a "very bad" prison.

Dancay does not say where Bothwell was moved, or why the hitherto friendly King took such an odd and unexpected step. Some time later, a Danish chronicler gave Bothwell's new residence as Dragsholm Castle, which was then the state prison. There are, however, no strictly contemporary accounts of the prison being identified by name.

We have no first-person accounts of his removal to Dragsholm, no witnesses, no reliable records that this was done at all. From this point on, we have nothing but rumors and hearsay regarding Bothwell‘s fate.

We have no idea why Frederick would suddenly move Bothwell to a prison. It was a mystery to their contemporaries. Around this time, rumor spread through Europe that Bothwell had gone insane, and it has been suggested that this was the reason for the change in his treatment. However, Dancay, who had been deeply involved in the intrigues surrounding Bothwell's captivity, said nothing about insanity, and indeed there is no evidence Bothwell had gone mad, other than vague rumor. The story of his insanity seems to have been what is today called an "urban legend."

Soon after 1573, the insanity tales were followed by rumors that Bothwell was dead. His death was reported throughout Europe at various times between 1573 and 1578, which is more evidence of the lack of any reliable information about him. Remarkably, the Danish government itself was responsible for starting these fictitious rumors of Bothwell's death, and for one simple reason--so people would stop making troublesome inquiries about him. Frederick and his ministers were weary of the Scots continually pestering them for Bothwell's extradition, so, in an effort to be rid of the matter, instructions were given that the report should be spread, at home and abroad, that the bothersome Scot was dead. (The previous fables about Bothwell's insanity very possibly came from the same source, and for the same reason.)

This raises the obvious question: Why was Frederick so determined for the world to forget about Bothwell?

The tales of Bothwell's imprisonment lost nothing in the telling. Several contemporary and near-contemporary historians relate, with a rather distasteful relish, that the great villain Bothwell came to an appropriately hideous end in some loathsome Danish dungeon, hopelessly insane, left to wallow in filth, reduced to the level of a wild beast, and completely forgotten by the world.

There is no more evidence for these lurid stories than there is for anything else about Bothwell's end. Historians of that period dearly loved a good moral, and these tales of Bothwell's ghastly fate seem to have grown because the chroniclers felt this was the end he should have had--there is a definite "serves him right!" air to their descriptions. (In truth, many of Mary's modern biographers, relating these "insane in a dungeon" tales as unquestionable fact, do so in a similarly unpleasant tone of moral rejoicing.)

Even if Bothwell was at Dragsholm, there are no clear accounts of his condition. Other stories, which are just as credible (or, if you prefer, incredible,) depict him as living in comfort at Dragsholm, with no reference to dungeons or insanity. One report claims he was even allowed to go hunting!

It all comes down to this: If any of Bothwell's contemporaries, even in Denmark itself, had the least idea of what became of him, they left no record. Frederick, who must have known the truth, whatever it was, never revealed it.

During Bothwell's alleged stay at Dragsholm, a Scotsman, William Lummisden, came to the prison numerous times for the purpose of visiting John Clark, a Scottish mercenary who had managed to run afoul of Frederick--and Bothwell--and thus was incarcerated there in 1571. In the accounts of Lummisden's dealings with Clark, Bothwell is not even mentioned. Nothing is said about him, even though the Scots were still taking a great interest in him. (This is particularly relevant, as the Scots blamed Bothwell for Clark's incarceration. He had informed Frederick of the fact that Clark had, among other crimes, taken a troop of Danish mercenaries, hired to battle the Swedes, to Scotland to fight against Mary. As Lummisden had an interest in Clark, surely it would have been natural for him to show interest in Bothwell, as well.) This omission is inexplicable, unless there was nothing on Bothwell to report...because Bothwell was not there.

Virtually all modern reference books give the date of Bothwell's death as April 14, 1578. This is no more definite than any of the other reports of his death. The sole source for this date is the so-called "Calendar of Eiler Brockenhuus,” which records certain notable events of the period. This "Calendar" is of dubious authority, having been compiled at unknown times by contributors of unproven credibility. (An oddity in this so-called record is that under the year 1575, the same date, April 14, is given as the time of death for John Clark.) A number of contemporary authorities also give 1578 as the year of his death, but others, seemingly with equal certainty, give other years. Dancay, who had always closely monitored Bothwell's situation, reported his death in November 1575. All any of this proves is that all reports dealing with Bothwell seem to have been based on nothing but hearsay.

We are on stronger ground with the question of the body said to be that of Bothwell, which was exhumed from the church near Dragsholm in the 1850s, and that was publicly exhibited there for many years. These remains are not his.

In 1858, a coffin, reputed to be Bothwell's, was opened, apparently out of mere curiosity. There was nothing in or around the coffin to show the body's identity. As the spectators, of course, had no idea of what Bothwell looked like, no one could confirm that the body was his. The head of the corpse (which was found separated from the body,) was fancifully described as looking "like a Scotchman," but as Bothwell was not the only Scot said to be buried there, even that was no help. Everyone, however, liked the idea that they had found the last resting place of the notorious Earl of Bothwell. The fact that a number of people who saw the body could not help but notice that it was dressed in clothes that appeared to date from around 1700 was determinedly ignored.

The body was displayed for over one hundred years, turning Dragsholm, which later became a hotel, into something of a "tourist trap" for romantically-inclined history buffs. (Which is undoubtedly why the body's identity went largely unquestioned--anachronistic burial clothes and all.)

However, there were questions asked in the late 1930s. When certain prominent Scottish citizens vociferously decried what they considered the desecration of Bothwell's body in Denmark, and demanded its return so that the man who was so briefly their King could, at long last, rest in peace in his homeland, King George VI of England became involved. His secretary, Alexander Hardinge, engaged in extensive correspondence with interested parties and directed, in the King's behalf, that the matter be appropriately resolved.

On November 7, 1938, a member of the British legation in Copenhagen wrote representatives of King George that, "investigations have recently been carried out by an expert committee using modern methods, including X-ray photography, to decide definitely on the identity of the mummy hitherto shown as the remains of Lord Bothwell and, if not, whether these remains are to be found at all within the confines of Faarevejle Church."

The letter stated that the report of this investigation was published in the Sunday Illustrated Supplement of the Berlingske Tidende newspaper. "Put briefly," the correspondent, a Patrick Ramsay, went on, "the committee is of the opinion that the mummy generally accepted as that of Lord Bothwell (hereafter referred to as No. 1 mummy) is really that of a certain baliff by name of Chresten Pedersen Poder, who died in 1683..." It must, indeed, have been a proud moment for the Poder family, but a somewhat dark day for Denmark.

Ramsay explained that the crypt in which the No. 1 mummy--formerly known as Bothwell--lay, was not built until seventy-five years after Bothwell's death. Also, the cheap coffin had been carried by poles, a method "dating about 1700, but never earlier." The committee's findings were later affirmed by the Director of the Danish National Museum, Dr. Phil. P. Norlund, who stated that "...the so-called 'Bothwell's Burial' originates in the decades around 1700."

Ramsay's letter mentioned that "three coffins of people known to have been buried in Faarevejle Church about the 17th century could not be found." Obviously, one of those missing coffins had now been discovered: Within was the body that had been masquerading as James Hepburn, Fourth Earl of Bothwell. No trace of any burial that could possibly have been that of the Scottish Queen’s final consort was ever found.

It is strangely appropriate that Bothwell--who many contemporaries insisted was a warlock--vanished into legend just as suddenly and enigmatically as he appeared. This strange, compelling man, eulogized even by an enemy as "a man valiant and for magnanimous powers above all others," disappeared, trusting his legacy to, as he once wrote, "Time, mother of truth." (To which his 20th century biographer Robert Gore-Browne added tartly, "She has abused his confidence with four hundred years of full-throated execration.")

A 19th century defender of Bothwell's, J. Watts de Peyster, in pondering the unsolvable riddle of Bothwell's exact fate, wrote of him as being enveloped in "the opaque mists evoked by a magician, and in them this important personage again sinks into deep obscurity."

And perhaps he was more literally correct than he knew.


  1. Great story, but I hate that we will never know what became of him.

    1. Bothwell's one of my favorite figures in history. It's really a shame that his life--and death--are so poorly documented.

  2. Excellent write-up and summary of the fate of Bothwell after Mary's capture. I like to think he spent the rest of his days drinking and playing cards with the King of Denmark and thinking of ways to help Mary. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what really happened.

    1. Thank you. You know, there's a legend that one of the reasons King Frederick liked Bothwell was that he was the one man he ever met who could outdrink him.

      I'd like to believe that was true, myself.

  3. I just stumbled across this and was very surprised- it seems like so many accounts that I've read about him are predicated upon the belief that he was sent to Dragsholm. Though I know a bit of time has passed so you may miss this, if you DO see it: do you have any any recommended reading for more information about Bothwell? I'm quite curious.

    1. Robert Gore-Browne's book is still a bit dated (it was published in the 1930s,) but it's still the best overall source of information about Bothwell.

      I got most of my info about Bothwell's years in Denmark from, "Life of James Hepburn," an 1863 book written by a Danish historian, Frederik Schiern. He included everything he could find about Bothwell in the Danish archives, so he has a lot of details not found anywhere else. It's a very scarce book, but I believe it's available online for free now.

      Incidentally, the Public Record File with the information that the so-called "Bothwell mummy" is a ringer, is something that seems completely ignored. It was mentioned in a few Scandinavian historical journals, but so far as I know this blog post is the only place where it's been published in English.

    2. I'm really impressed, what an excellent critical summary! Maybe one day he'll be discovered under a Danish parking-lot, who knows? ;)

    3. Thank you for this wonderful piece! Yes, it's wonderful to picture him out riding in the woods and drinking the Danish king under the table. Much more what I believe he deserves. I also recommend "Lord James" by Hermary-Vieille, Catherine.

  4. This leaves room for my imagination to hope that Bothwell escaped and lived out the remainder of his life hidden but happy as much as he could be. I'm a romantic.


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