Sixteenth century queens often faced a catch-22 regarding their courtiers. They were expected to surround themselves with talented gentry, artists, poets, and muscians – but those very same men could be used against them by accusations that the queen was letting one or more of them boink her. Why else would a woman spend so much time talking to a man? Just because they had something in common and were friends? Don’t be silly! Women were masters of illicit rumpy-pumpy and musicians were seductive temptations for naughty queens.
Take what happened to David Rizzo, for example.
Rizzio, or to use his birth name — David Riccio di Pancalieri in Piemonte – was a personal musician for Mary, Queen of Scots. Soon it became evident that the queen favored him, and chose him to spend time with her and her ladies-in-waiting. Mary was very musically inclined and had been raised in the refinement of the the French court, so she was probably happy to spend time with a talented European courtier who knew how to flatter in the Romanesque way. Her favoritism toward Rizzio became his doom.
Mary had become thoroughly disenchanted by her husband, Lord Darnley, and preferred to hang out with her ladies and musicians than the eejit she married. She was also into the third trimester of her pregnancy and wasn’t supposed to have sex with her husband for long stretches of time, even if she had wanted to. Darnley, who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer at the best of times, became convinced Mary was sleeping with Rizzio instead. The fact the courtiers, jealous of Mary’s favoritism toward someone who wasn’t Scots, poured lemon juice on Darnley’s petty paper cuts by implying the baby she carried was Rizzio’s bastard rather than Darnley’s offspring.
Stupidly, the king consort of Scotland joined a group of Protestant nobles, headed by Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven and containing Lord Lindsay, William Maitland of Lethington, and James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, as well as the Clerk Register James Balfour and the Justice Clerk John Bellenden, to help them plot Rizzio’s death. They decided to kill Rizzio in front of the queen, either uncaring or hopeful that the shock and distress might cause her to miscarry.
On 9 March 1566, Darnley and Ruthven and several other traitors burst into Queen Mary’s private chambers where she sat playing cards with Rizzio and some of her ladies. The wold-be murders overpowered the guards and – in spite of the queen’s attempts to save him – stabbed Rizzio dozens of times. The queen’s room must have looked like a slaughterhouse! They then stripped the body of any jewelry and threw it down the stairs.
Mary, quite naturally, never forgave her husband for his treachery, and after the birth of their son, James, on 19 June 1566 began to make plans to get rid of the oaf she married. She meet with her councilors about divorcing him, but he was murdered (probably in the same kind of conspiracy behind the queen’s back as the one that killed RIzzio) in February of 1567.
Naturally, the queen was blamed for Darnley’s death. Moreover, his death was given further ‘justification’ by the claim that Mary had his body interred in a place of honor near her father James V and Madeleine of France. In reality, he is probably buried in one of the unmarked graves in the cemetery next to Holyrood Abbey.
Another musician who was famously murdered for the postulated crime of tupping a queen was Mark Smeaton. He confessed, probably after being tortured, to having committed adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn and was beheaded on 17 May 1536. Anne asked if the poor young man had recanted his confession before his death, and when told he had not, she lamented that, “Alas! I fear his soul will suffer for it.”
Being a royal musician could be a cushy gig, but it also made you an easy target.