Casket Letters

Casket Letters

Casket Letters: see Mary Queen of Scots.
Casket Letters is the name generally given to a group of eight letters and a sequence of irregular sonnets said to have been addressed by Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Bothwell, between January and April 1566 or 1567. If authentic throughout, they provide proof of Mary's complicity in the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. The nature of these documents - authentic, forged, or only partly forged - has been the subject of much discussion. It is important to bear in mind that although there is still debate on their authenticity, the majority of scholarly opinion is that the letters were forgeries concocted after the fact in order to lend some small justification for Mary's imprisonment and trial, both of which were illegal under English Law.

The topic is so perplexing, and the possibilities so delicately balanced, that inquirers often change their views or even reverse their opinions upon the appearance of each fresh document that is brought to light, or even upon repeat consideration of existing evidence. It is almost certain though, that if Mary wrote any of these documents she was guilty.

Two questions remain to be settled. First, did Mary's accusers at one time possess another version of this Glasgow letter, which if it existed was beyond doubt a forgery? Second, is part of Letter II a forged interpolation based on another document not written by Mary?

Outline History

For general background on the marriage of Mary I and Lord Darnley, see Mary's marriage to Darnley. The originals of these letters, written in French, were lost in 1584.

Evaluation

Henderson, in The Casket Letters (1889), was the first to publish and use as evidence a sworn statement, written in 1568, of the Earl of Morton. This document's existence was made known in the fifth report of the royal commission on historical manuscripts. According to Morton, a silver casket (originally Mary's property, but then in the possession of Bothwell) was placed in his hands on the 20th of June 1567, and was inspected by several nobles and gentlemen on the 21st of June. Morton denied that the casket's contents - the letters, sonnets, and some other papers - had been in any way tampered with. But if Moray could knowingly submit garbled evidence, Morton's oath is of no value if uncorroborated.

The whole affair has been obscured and almost inextricably entangled by the behaviour of Mary's accusers: William Maitland of Lethington consented to Darnley's murder; James Douglas, the Earl of Morton, had at the very least guilty foreknowledge; James Stewart, the Earl of Moray and Mary's natural brother, had looked through his fingers at the crime, for months remaining on intimate terms with the criminals. Moray also perjured himself when putting before Elizabeth's commission of inquiry at Westminster (in December 1568) a copy of the confession of Hepburn of Bowton. This document was attested to as being a true copy of Bowton's confession, but Moray, who had been present when Bowton was examined (December 8, 1567), knew that the copy presented at Westminster (December 1568) had been mutilated. He knew this because the excised passages were damning to Lethington and the earl of Morton, accomplices in the crime of Darnley's murder, and accomplices of Moray in his prosecution of his sister, Mary.

If Moray the righteous was able to perjure himself over this issue, then he would be even more likely to perjure himself in his averment that there had been no tampering with the Casket Letters in his custody. For this reason we cannot, in short, believe the oaths of Mary's accusers. When they all went, in October-December 1568, to York and London to accuse their Queen, and before that in their proclamations, they contradicted themselves freely and frequently; they put in a list of dates which made Mary's authorship of Letter II impossible; and they rang the changes on the Scots translations of the alleged French originals, and on the French itself.

For example, when Moray, after Mary was in Elizabeth's power (May 16, 1568), wished Elizabeth to have the matter tried, he sent John Wood to England with the Scots translations of the letters. Wood was to ask if the French originals tallied with these translations. If so, would that be reckoned good evidence? It was as easy to send copies of the French originals, and thus give no ground for the suspicion that the Scots letters were altered on the basis of information acquired between May and October 1568, and that the French versions were made to fit the new form of the Scots copies. Another source of confusion, now removed, was the later publication in France of the letters in French. This French did not correspond with French copies of some of the originals recently discovered in Cecil's MSS. and elsewhere. But that is no ground of suspicion, for the published French letters were not copies of the alleged originals, but translations of Latin translations of them, from the Scots (Henderson, 1890). German historians have not made matters more clear by treating the Letters on the principle of the higher criticism of Homer and the Bible. They find that the documents are of composite origin, partly notes from Mary to Darnley, partly a diary of Mary's, and so on, all combined and edited by some one who played the part of the legendary editorial committee of Peisistratus (see Homer), which compiled the Iliad and Odyssey out of fragmentary lays! From all these causes, and others, arise confusion and suspicion.

Mary was, on the 21st of June 1567, a prisoner in Loch Leven Castle. A messenger was at once sent from Edinburgh to London with a letter from Lethington and a verbal message. By the 12th of July, de Silva, the Spanish ambassador, reports on the authority of the French ambassador that du Croc, French envoy to Scotland, avers that Mary's Scottish enemies have autograph letters of hers proving her guilt, and himself possesses copies. Of these copies no more is heard, and they cannot be found. According to de Silva, Elizabeth said that she did not believe in the Letters, and that Lethington, who wrote to Cecil on the 21st of June, and sent a verbal message by the bearer, had behaved badly in the matter, whether that of the letters, or in general. On what evidence she based that opinion, if she really held it, is unknown. In December 1567 the Scottish parliament was informed that the letters were signed by Mary (they are unsigned), but the phrase is not used in the subsequent act of parliament. The letters were exhibited and apparently were read, probably aloud. Mary's party (in September 1568) declared that they were garbled, and that the handwriting was not hers. By the end of July 1567 the Earl of Moray, passing through London from France, told de Silva (as de Silva subsequently reported to his government) that there was proof of Mary's guilt in a letter of three double sheets of paper signed by her.

According to Moray's version of the letter, Mary was to try to poison Darnley in a house on the way between Glasgow and Edinburgh where he and she were to stop. Clearly Lord Livingstone's house, Callendar, where they did rest on their journey, is intended. If this failed, Mary would put Darnley in the house where the explosion was arranged for the night upon which one of the servants was to be married. No such arrangement had been made, as the confessions of the murderers, at which Moray was present, clearly prove. It may be said that de Silva means the house in which the explosion was afterwards arranged. But the Earl of Lennox, Darnleys father, understood Moray to mean that as early as January 21-22, 1567, the house of Kirk o' Field, where Darnley was slain, had already been mined. Moray's version of the letter made Mary tell Bothwell to poison or put away his wife. No such matters occur in Letter II. Moray spoke, he said, on the authority of a man who had read the letter. A similar account of this letter is given in a document of Darnleys father, the earl of Lennox. Can we suppose that the man who had read the letter invented much of its contents, and told them to Moray, who told de Silva, and told Darnleys father, Lennox, then in or near London?

Not one of the Earl of Lennox documents is dated; all but one are endorsed in an English hand of the period. It may be conjectured that they were selected by Lennox from his papers, and lent by him to someone who was writing against Mary. Among them is a long indictment of Mary, in which Lennox describes a wicked letter of hers. As has been said, he closely follows Morays version reported by de Silva in July 1567. Lennox also gives several stories of cruel words of Mary spoken to Darnley in the hearing of her servants.

Now, on the 11th of June 1568, Lennox was in the company of John Wood (a creature of Moray's), and Wood, as we saw, brought copies of the Scots renderings of the Letters into England in May/June 1568. It was argued by Andrew Lang (1904) that Wood was likely to show these letters to Lennox; and that as Lennox follows Moray's version of Marys long and murderous letter (and does not follow Letter II) the murderous letter (a forgery) was then part of the dossier of Mary's accusers. Again, as Lennox's indictment of Mary is rife with reports and sayings of Marys servants about her cruel words to Darnley, and as Lennox did not have these reports on the 11th of June 1568, for on that day he wrote to Scotland asking his friends to discover them and send them to him, the indictment must have been composed long after the 11th of June. This must be so, for Lennox's letters of the 11th of June were intercepted by his foes, the Hamiltons, and were found in the Hamilton Monument Room. Thus answers to his inquiries were delayed.

Henderson, on the other side, believes that Wood certainly showed to Lennox the Scots copies of the Casket Letters about the 11th of June 1568. But Lennox, he says, could not quote Letter II in his indictment against Mary, and had to rest on Moray's version of July 1567. This is because Lennox's indictment was completed, and even laid before Elizabeth, as early as the 28th of May 1568. Henderson seeks to prove that this is so by quoting from Chalmers' Mary Queen of Scots the statement that Lennox and his wife on that day presented to Elizabeth a Bill of Supplication. And (though he submits that the indictment 471 is a draft for the Bill) he strengthens his case by heading the indictment, which he publishes, Bill of Supplication. The document, in fact, is unendorsed and without a title, and there is not a word of supplication in it. It is a self-contradictory history of the relations between Mary and Darnley.

Henderson's contention therefore seems erroneous. Lennox could not begin to prepare an English indictment against Mary until she was in England and in Elizabeth's power. He could not hear of this Mary's arrival in England (on May 16, 1568) before, say, the I9th of May. Furthermore, between the 19th and the 28th of May he could not write for (and receive from Scotland) the reports and sayings of her servants. He did not possess them on the 11th of June, when he asked for them; he did not get them at once, for his letters were intercepted; the indictment (00. 7. 47) is rich in them. This all indicates therefore that paper is not the Bill of Supplication of the 28th of May.

Thus the question remains, why, if Wood about the 11th of June showed Letter II in Scots to Lennox, did Lennox follow Moray's erroneous version of July 1567? Because in June 1568 that version, forged, was in the Scots collection of the Casket Letters? If so, there was time for Lennox to lend to the accusers certain notes which a retainer of his, Thomas Crawford of Jordan Hill, swore (December 9, 1568) that he had made for Lennox (about January 22, 1567) of secret conversations between Darnley and Mary. Lennox (June II, 1568) asked Crawford for his reminiscences, not of Darnleys reports of his talks with Mary, but of Crawford's own interview with her as she entered Glasgow to visit Darnley, probably on the 21st of January 1567. It follows that Lennox possessed Crawford's written notes of the Darnley and Mary conversations. If he had not possessed them on the 11th of June 1568, he must have asked Crawford for his reminiscences of these talks. But he did not ask.

Crawford's evidence was all-important, because it corroborated Mary's own account of her interviews with Darnley in Letter II. That part of the letter then, it is argued by many, is a forged interpolation based on Crawford's notes and memories. The force of this contention lies in the close verbal identities between Crawford's account of the Darnley-Mary interviews and the corresponding passages in Letter II (Lang pp. 396-98). The verbal identities can only be explained in one of the following ways: either Letter II is here based on Crawford; Crawford has copied Letter II by way of corroborating it (a fatal step, if the case came before a modern English court of justice); or Darnley's memory of his conversation with Mary was so fresh, when he dictated his recollection of it to Crawford on 21st-22nd January 1567, that he reported speeches in almost the very same words as Mary used in writing Letter II. Henderson prefers the hypothesis that Lennox had lost Crawford's notes; and that the identities are explained by the remarkably good memories of Crawford and Mary, or by the more likely supposition that Crawford, before preparing his declaration for the conference (at Westminster, December 1568) refreshed his memory by reading the letter.

Mary did not need a particularly good memory; if she wrote, she wrote unchecked of her recollections of the day's talk. But no human memory of a conversation reported on the 22nd of January 1567, could be so nearly word perfect as Crawford's must have been two years later. If Crawford refreshed his memory by the letter then he exposed himself, and the entire case, by copying whole passages, often with few verbal changes. If he had access to his original notes of the 21st and 22nd of January 1567, then he was safe, that is if Darnley's memory of the conversations tallied so exactly with Mary's. Whether that could be, Darnley dictating while still hot from the exciting interchange of words which he meant to report, is a question for psychologists. Experiments made by a person who possesses a good memory seem to show that the thing is very possible, especially if Darnley revised Crawford's notes.

Thus the probabilities are delicately balanced. But if any one compares Crawford's whole declaration with Letter II in Scots, he will find that Crawford has sources of information not yielded by Letter II; while Letter II abounds in matter spoken by Mary and Darnley which could not be borrowed by the hypothetical forger from Crawford's Declaration, for it does not contain the facts. These facts, again, in Letter II, are worthless to a forger, because they concern matters never alluded to in any of the records; never employed in any indictment (though Lennox's are copious in private talk between Darnley and Mary, reports of her servants), and totally useless for the purposes of the accusers. One of several examples: Letter II has (but Crawford does not have) the statement that Darnley showed me, amongst other talk, that he knew well enough that my brother had revealed to me what he (Darnley) had spoken at, Stirling. Of this he (Darnley) denies half, and above all that he (the brother?) ever came to his (Darnley's) chamber.

Nothing is known about this matter. The Lennox papers are full of reports of bitter words that passed between Darnley and Mary at Stirling (December 1566), where Darnley was sulking apart while the festivities of the baptism of his son (later James VI) were being held. But nothing is said in the Lennox papers of words spoken by Darnley to Mary's brother (probably Lord Robert of Holyrood) and revealed by Lord Robert to Mary. Lord Robert was the only friend of Darnley in Mary's entourage, and he even, according to the accusers, warned him of his danger in Kirk o' Field, to which they said that a Casket Letter (III) referred. The reference is only to be seen by willing eyes.

Is it credible that a forger, using Crawford's Declaration, which is silent as to Mary's brother at Stirling, should have superfluously added what is not to any purpose? Could he have combined with Crawford's matter the passage, "he (Darnley) showed me almost all that is in name of the Bishop and Sutherland, and yet I have never touched a word of what you (Bothwell) showed me . . . and by complaining of the Bishop, I have drawn it all out of him." Who but Mary herself could have written about this unknown affair of the Bishop, and what had the supposed forger to gain by inventing and adding these references to affairs unconnected with the case? There remains what looks like absolute proof that, in essence, Crawford's Declaration and Letter II are independent documents.

We are not aware that this crucial point has been noticed by the earlier critics of the Letters.

In Letter II, Mary writes, "I asked why he (Darnley) would pass away in the English ship. He denies it, and swears there unto; but he grants that he spoke unto the men." Here Crawford's Declaration has, "She asked him why he would pass away in the English ship. He answered that he had spoken with the Englishman, but not of mind to go away with him. And, if he had, it had not been without cause, considering how he was used. For he had neither [means] to sustain himself nor his servants, and need not make further rehearsal thereof, seeing she knew it as well as he." (Mystery of Mary Stuart, p. 429.)

It may seem to the reader doubtful whether these complaints are words of Darnleys, or an indignant addition by his friend Crawford. But Mary, in Letter II, shows that the complaints and the self-defence are Darnley's own. It was in paragraph 7 that she wrote about the English ship; she did not then give Darnleys remonstrances, as Crawford does. But in paragraph 18 (Mystery, p. 406) Mary returns to the subject, and writes,

"He (Darnley) spoke very bravely at the beginning, as the bearer will show you, upon the subject of the Englishmen, and of his departing; but in the end he returned to his humility."

Thus it is certain that Darnley had reported to Crawford his brave words and reproaches of Mary, which Crawford gives in the proper place. But Letter II omits them in that place (paragraph 7); and only on her second day of writing, in paragraph 18, does Mary's mind recur to Darnley's first brave words he spoke very bravely at the beginning, about his wrongs, but in the end he returned again to his humility. Here is proof positive that Crawford does not copy Letter II, but gives Darnley's words as reported to him by Darnley, words that Darnley was proud of, while Mary, returning on the second day of writing to the topic, does not quote Darnley's brave words, but merely contrasts his speaking very bravely at the beginning with his pitiful and craven later submission. He has ever the tear in his eye, with what follows. (Mystery, paragraph 12, p. 402.)

When we add to these and other proofs the strange lists of memoranda in the middle of the pages of the letter, and the breach in internal chronology which was apparently caused by Mary's writing, on her second day, on the clean verso of a page on the other side of which she had written some lines during her first night in Glasgow; when we add the dramatic changes of her mood, and the heart-breaking evidence of a remorse not stifled by lawless love, we seem compelled to believe that she wrote the whole of Letter II; that none of it is forged.

For Lang, the evidence for an early forged letter was presented with confidence; the interpolation of forgeries based on Crawford's declaration was more dubiously suggested. That position the writer now abandons. It may be asked why, after being with Wood on the 11th of June, did Lennox still rely on Moray's version of Mary's letter? The reply may be that the Scots versions were regarded as a great secret; that Lennox was a married man; and that though Lennox in June knew about Mary's letters, doubtless from Wood, or from common report (Bishop Jewell in a letter of August 1567 mentions that he had heard of them), yet Wood did not show to him the Scots copies. Lennox quotes Letter II later, in an indictment to be read to the commission sitting at York (October 1568). But, on the other hand, as Lennox after meeting Wood wrote to Crawford for his reminiscences of his own interview with Mary (January 21, 1567), and as these reminiscences were only useful as corroborative of Marys account in Letter II, it seems that Wood had either shown Lennox the letters or had spoken of their contents. In that case, when Lennox later quotes Moray's version, not Letter II itself, he is only acting with the self-contradictory stupidity which pervades his whole indictment. The letters are not known to have been seen by any man, nor the silver casket after the death of the earl of Gowrie (who possessed them). In May 1584 Bowes, the English ambassador to Holyrood, had endeavoured to procure them for Elizabeth, for the secrecy and benefit of the cause. Conceivably the letters fell into the hands of James VI and were destroyed by his orders.

References

  1. See in Cambridge University Library, MS. 00. 47, fol. 5 et seq. Compare the MS. copy of the confession in the British Museum, Cotton MSS. Caligula, C.I. fol. 325, printed in Anderson's Collections, vol. ii. pp. 183-188.
  2. Cambridge University Library MSS. 00. 7. ~ f. 17 b.
  3. (Cambridge University MSS. 00. 7. ~7. fol. 7 b.
  4. (Cambridge 00. 7. 47. fol. 7 b.
  5. 00. 7. 47
  6. The letters of Lennox were published in Miscellany of the Maui and Club, vol. iv.
  7. Vol. II, p289.
  8. (see Crawford's Declaration of December 9, 1568, in Lang 1904, pp. 428-431; from State Papers Scotland, Elizabeth vol. xiii. No. 14. Record Office)
  9. 00. 7. 47. fol. 17 b.

See also

Bibliography

Original Documents

Commentary and Analysis

  • T. F. Henderson, The Casket Letters, (1889, with a second edition in 1890).
  • T. F. Henderson, Mary, Queen of Scots (1905) Appendix A, which criticizes Lang (1904).
  • Andrew Lang, The Mystery of Mary Stuart, (4th edition, 1904).

External links

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