Bothwell’s Afterimages

Bothwell’s Afterimages

Amelia Hester briefly explores what did, or didn’t, happen to the infamous James Hepburn

When we think of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, most of us don’t think about a mummy. (For the purposes of this post, although he was also the Duke of Orkney, he’s referred to as “Bothwell.”)

Most of us think of Mary, Queen of Scots. Some of us might remember Bothwell’s eventual incarceration in Dragsholm Castle.

In any case, once Bothwell reaches Denmark, there are recorded histories, all of which seem well-crafted to serve as everything from a cautionary tale to a full drama. The era loved to see villains get their comeuppance in fiction, just like the Victorians, who later re-chronicled Mary’s story. There is speculation that King Fredrick II might have wanted a ransom from Scotland, and in some respects, that makes sense within the political landscape between Scotland and Denmark.  

Still, the Danish accounts don’t always agree with the English, or the French, or the Scottish. They’re complex and sprinkled with significant names we know. Books, articles, and blogs all paint slightly different pictures of the truth. At least one writer has tried to clear what she believes is Bothwell’s maligned reputation. Whatever happened, Denmark proved a suitably dramatic backdrop for Bothwell’s end, which is interspersed with things that don’t quite add up.

Kings, after all, aren’t the most reliable of narrators, and Bothwell was such a charged figure that it seems unwise for us to make obvious assumptions. History is written by victors, which he wasn’t. The truth is, nobody can quite verify what happened at the end of his infamous exploits. The man who was directly party to murder (most likely), rose in the echelons of Scottish government (via privilege and dubious methods), and was cunning enough for some contemporaries to speculate he was a witch (or, in the day’s parlance, a warlock) is now legendary for two classic horror elements: a mummy and a ghost.

Popularly, it’s believed that Bothwell was locked up in Dragsholm after a stint in Malmö — that he became a sniveling, filthy creature after being chained to a post for years, kept in a position that left him unable to stand upright. When he died after such ill treatment, he was buried in the nearby Fårevejle Church. His official date of death is recorded as April 14, 1578, and as several have pointed out: it’s not well-corroborated.

Two things about Bothwell have enthralled imaginations for years.

First, his body was, apparently, mummified by natural conditions.

Second, he’s rumored to haunt Dragsholm, which is now a hotel and probably benefits somewhat from tales of hauntings. The way the accounts read, Hell might have been better than his confinement. But with a noted Scottish mercenary imprisoned in the castle at roughly the same time Bothwell was supposed to be present… wouldn’t more people have remarked on the other infamous, and debatably more important, Scotsman? They didn’t seem to. Perhaps they wouldn’t have. Maybe Captain John Clark truly did steal the focus.

One does wonder.

Otto Bache’s 1861 painting of Bothwell’s mummified head suits the lurid afterimages its subject has left on history. It’s macabre, a study that seems to owe more to a tenuously attributed portrait than it does to the mummy itself. Bache would be disappointed to discover that those remains, which were on display during the nineteenth century, might not have been Bothwell’s after all.

In the end, it is still seductively poetic to think that he was met with such a fate — that he became a vulnerable thing in a coffin for us to ogle. But pondering the tangle of what truly happened to him (or his body, at the least), is possibly more alluring than the mummy.

And as it so often is, the truth might be stranger than fiction.

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For further reading, consider this selected bibliography, especially, “Where In the World Is the Earl of Bothwell?”