Denise Mina’s ‘Rizzio’: A bloody slice of Scottish history

In 2021, Polygon, an Edinburgh-based publisher, launched the Darkland Tales, a series of "dramatic fictional retellings of stories from history, myth and legend" written by Scotland's greatest contemporary writers. Denise Mina's novella Rizzio is the first in the series.

A tour de force of interwoven perspectives and psychological suspense, its action largely unfolding over the course of one fateful weekend, Rizzio dramatises the brutal assassination of David Rizzio, private secretary and friend to Mary, Queen of Scots, and its immediate aftermath.

On March 9, 1566, Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace, like the rest of Scotland, is replete with political intrigue and religious divisions. Parliament is in session, preparing to divest the heavily pregnant Queen's remaining rivals of their lands, powers, and titles. What Mary does not know is that there is a mob of conspirators, mainly Protestant nobles, who are brewing a murderous plot.

They plan to weaken Mary's power by murdering her right-hand man, Rizzio, on the premise that he is a papal spy. Even Lord Darnley, Mary's husband and king consort, sides with the treasonous nobles, hoping that his wife witnesses the bloody scene and miscarries her baby.

However, the coup does not go as smoothly as planned, and Mary must find a way to survive a treacherous political landscape.

Queen Mary's story, a story of murder, sex, religion, rivalries, and unsuitable lovers, has captured the imagination of numerous historians and writers. By focusing on Rizzio's assassination, an episode that is often overlooked in the queue of infamous events in Mary's life, Mina offers a new take on a bloodstained chapter of Scottish history. It is worth noting that Rizzio is written in current vernacular, attesting to the fact that we can only understand the past through the modern lens.

In the novella, Mina provides insights on themes such as misogyny, religious turmoil, and politics of power. In an era dominated by men, Mary wears the crown. However, since she is not respected by the Protestant lords due to her gender, religion, and background, she becomes the victim of their political machinations. Despite witnessing Rizzio's gruesome murder and becoming a prisoner in her own palace, Mary manages to turn things around for herself. With her political astuteness and with the help of her allies, she outsmarts the power-hungry men and becomes a survivor. It should be noted that not all of the men in the novella are greedy, dastardly, one-dimensional characters. Mina's portrayal of Mary's husband Darnley, for example, is at once contemptuous and sympathetic. On one hand, she describes him as a philanderer leading a life of debauchery despite his aspirations for the Crown Matrimonial. On the other hand, she recognizes his weaknesses—his gullibility and his fragile self-esteem—that initially cause him to betray Mary.

Mina also questions the belief that history is determined by men. Several times throughout the novella, the narrator refers to the major players in Rizzio's assassination–the Protestant nobles–as "The Great Men of History." These are the men "who fill history books with their squabbles and claims and resentments…These men know they are great. They feel confident that they have just changed the course of history with their forcefulness and righteous vigour. They haven't". These men are ultimately just self-important nobles, driven by personal gain rather than by higher motives they try to ascribe to their actions. As Mina thus demonstrates in the novella, sometimes it only takes a middle-aged woman with a piss pot to change the course of history.

Rizzio reads like a spare but searing historical account, drawing on the psychological riches and vivid details that only fiction can provide, yet creating a narrative so emotive and raw that it feels as if the author had lived through the events she presents. It is a must-read for those who are fond of historical fiction.

Jahin Kaiissar is a contributor. Reach her at [email protected]


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