1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Casket Letters

CASKET LETTERS. This is the name generally given to eight letters, and a sequence of irregular sonnets, all described as originally in French, and said to have been addressed by Mary, queen of Scots, to the earl of Bothwell, between January and April 1566–1567. The nature of these documents—authentic, forged, or partly forged, partly genuine—has been the theme of much discussion. If authentic throughout, they afford perfect proof of Mary’s complicity in the murder of her husband, Henry, Lord Darnley. The topic is so perplexing, and possibilities are so delicately balanced, that inquirers may change their views, and modify or reverse their opinions, on the appearance of each fresh document that is brought to light; or even upon a new consideration of existing evidence. Controversy centres round a very long and singular undated epistle called “The Glasgow Letter” or “Letter II.” If Mary wrote all of this, or even wrote some compromising parts of it, she was certainly guilty. But two questions remain to be settled—(1) did her accusers at one time possess another version of this letter which if it existed was beyond doubt a forgery? and (2) is not part of Letter II. a forged interpolation, based on another document, not by Mary?

The whole affair has been obscured and almost inextricably entangled, as we shall see, by the behaviour of Mary’s accusers. Of these Maitland of Lethington was consenting to Darnley’s murder; the earl of Morton had, at least, guilty foreknowledge; the regent Moray (Mary’s natural brother) had “looked through his fingers” at the crime, and for months remained on intimate terms with the criminals. He also perjured himself when putting before Elizabeth’s commission of inquiry at Westminster (December 1568) a copy of the confession of Hepburn of Bowton (Cotton MSS. British Museum. Caligula C.I. fol. 325). This is attested as a “true copy,” 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 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. (See in Cambridge University Library, MS. Oo. 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.)

If Moray the righteous could act thus, much more might the murderer Morton perjure himself in his averment that there had been no tampering with the Casket Letters in his custody. We cannot, in short, believe Mary’s accusers on their oaths. 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 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 in May–June 1568 sent John Wood to England with Scots translations of the letters. Wood was to ask, “if the French originals are found to tally with the Scots translations, will that be reckoned good evidence?” It was as easy to send copies of the French, 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 (see T. F. Henderson, The Casket Letters, 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.

So much information unknown to older disputants such as Goodall, the elder Tytler, Chalmers, and Malcolm Laing, and in certain cases unknown even to Froude and Skelton, has accrued, that the question can now best be studied in The Casket Letters, by T. F. Henderson (1889; second issue, 1890, being the more accurate); in The Mystery of Mary Stuart, by Andrew Lang (4th edition, 1904), and in Henderson’s criticism of that book, in his Mary, Queen of Scots (1905) (Appendix A). The conclusion arrived at here is that of Henderson, but it is reached independently.

The history of the letters must be given in summary. Henderson, in The Casket Letters (1889), was the first to publish and use as evidence a document of which the existence was made known in the fifth report of the royal commission on historical manuscripts. It is a sworn statement of the earl of Morton, written in 1568. A silver casket (originally Mary’s property, but then in the possession of Bothwell) was placed in his hands on the 20th of June, and was inspected by several nobles and gentlemen on the 21st of June 1567. Morton denies that the 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.

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 read aloud. Mary’s party in September 1568 declared that they were garbled, and that the handwriting was not hers. In the end of July 1567 the earl of Moray, Mary’s brother, passing through London from France, told de Silva, as de Silva 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, Darnley’s 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 Darnley’s father, the earl of Lennox (Cambridge University Library MSS. Oo. 7. 47; f. 17 b.). 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 Darnley’s father, Lennox, then in or near London?

At this point comes in the evidence—unknown to Froude, Skelton, Hosack, and Henderson in his book The Casket Letters—of a number of documents, notes of information, and indictments of Mary, written for or by the earl of Lennox. These MSS are in the University Library of Cambridge, and were transcribed by Father Stevenson. His transcripts were brought to light by Father Pollen, S.J., who lent them, with his own notes on them, to Andrew Lang for use in his book, The Mystery of Mary Stuart (1900–1904).

Not one of the 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 some one who was writing against Mary. Among them (Cambridge University MSS. Oo. 7. 47. fol. 17 b.) is a long indictment of Mary, in which Lennox describes a wicked letter of hers. As has been said, he closely follows Moray’s 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 that Wood was likely to show these letters to Lennox; and that as Lennox follows Moray’s version of Mary’s 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 (Cambridge Oo. 7. 47. fol. 17 b.) is rife in “reports and sayings of Mary’s servants” about her cruel words to Darnley, and as Lennox had not 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 (Oo. 7. 47) 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 Muniment Room. Thus answers to his inquiries were delayed. (The letters of Lennox were published in Miscellany of the Maitland Club, vol. iv.)

Henderson, on the other side, believes that Wood “indubitably” 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, 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’s Mary Queen of Scots (vol. ii. p. 289) the statement that Lennox and his wife on that day presented to Elizabeth a “Bill of Supplication”; and (though he submits that the indictment [Oo. 7. 47] 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 till she was in England and in Elizabeth’s power. He could not hear of this fact—Mary’s arrival in England (May 16, 1568)—before, say, the 19th of May; and between the 19th of May 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 (Oo. 7. 47) is rich in them; 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 to Lennox Letter II. in Scots, 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 11, 1568) asked Crawford for his reminiscences, not of Darnley’s 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 (see Crawford’s Declaration of December 9, 1568, in Lang’s Mystery of Mary Stuart, pp. 428-431; from State Papers Scotland, Elizabeth vol. xiii. No. 14. Record Office) and the corresponding passages in Letter II. (Mystery of Mary Stuart, pp. 396-398). The verbal identities can only be explained in one of the following ways. Either Letter II. is here based on Crawford; or 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 the letter.” (Letter II., Mary Queen of Scots, p. 650.)

Mary did not need a particularly good memory; if she wrote, she wrote unchecked 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,” 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. Here is one of several examples. Letter II. has, and Crawford has not, 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. (paragraph 7, p. 398, in Lang’s Mystery of Mary Stuart, 1901) Mary writes, “I asked why he (Darnley) would pass away in the English ship. He denies it, and swears thereunto; 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 Darnley’s, 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 Darnley’s 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.

In The Mystery of Mary Stuart 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 Mary’s 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 (Oo. 7. 47. fol. 17 b.).

The letters are not known to have been seen by any man—they or 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.  (A. L.)