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Gowrie conspiracy

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Gowrie conspiracy

The Earl of Gowrie
Born 1577
Perth, Scotland
Died 5 August 1600
Perth, Scotland
Nationality Scottish
Education University of Edinburgh
Parents William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie
Dorothea Stewart

John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie (c. 1577 – 5 August 1600) was a Scottish nobleman who died while attempting to kidnap King James VI in August 1600, during an event later known as the Gowrie conspiracy.

Early life

John Ruthven was the second son of William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie and his wife Dorothea Stewart. His brother James, 2nd Earl died in 1586, therefore John succeeded his brother as the Earl of Gowrie while still a child.[1]

Gowrie inherited along with his vast estates family traditions of treason and intrigue.[lower-alpha 1] Like his father and grandfather before him, Gowrie attached himself to the party of the reforming preachers, who procured his election in 1592 as Provost of Perth, a post that was almost hereditary in the Ruthven family. He received an excellent education at the grammar school of Perth and the University of Edinburgh, where he was in the summer of 1593, about the time when his mother, and his sister the Countess of Atholl, aided the Earl of Bothwell in forcing himself sword in hand into the king's bedchamber in Holyrood Palace.[1]

A few months later Gowrie joined with earls of Atholl and Montrose in offering to serve Queen Elizabeth I of England, then almost openly hostile to the Scottish king; and it is probable that he had also relations with the rebellious Bothwell. Gowrie had thus been already deeply engaged in treasonable conspiracy when, in August 1594, he proceeded to Italy with his tutor, William Rhynd, to study at the University of Padua. On his way home in 1599 he remained for some months at Geneva with the reformer Theodore Beza.[1]

At Paris he made acquaintance with the English ambassador, Henry Neville,[1] who reported him to Robert Cecil as devoted to Elizabeth's service on 27 February 1599. Neville wrote that Gowrie would like to kiss Queen Elizabeth's hand, and said the Earl was well-affected to the Protestant religion and the English queen. Gowrie would be able to give Cecil useful information regarding potential feared "alterations" in the political state of Scotland.[2] In London he was received very favourably by Queen Elizabeth and her ministers.[1]

These circumstances owe their importance to the light they throw on the obscurity of the celebrated “Gowrie conspiracy,” which resulted in the killing of the earl and his brother by attendants of King James at Gowrie House, Perth, a few weeks after Gowrie's return to Scotland in May 1600.[1]

Gowrie conspiracy

The Gowrie conspiracy is shrouded in mystery, caused by the improbabilities inherent in any of the alternative hypotheses suggested to account for the unquestionable facts of the occurrence; the discrepancies in the evidence produced at the time; the apparent lack of forethought or plan on the part of the chief actors, whichever hypothesis be adopted, as well as the thoughtlessness of their procedure; and the insufficiency of motive, whoever the guilty parties may have been. Three scenarios have been proposed to explain the events:[3]

  1. that Gowrie and his brother, Alexander Ruthven, concocted a plot to murder, or more probably to kidnap King James, and that they lured him to Gowrie House for this purpose;
  2. that James paid a surprise visit to Gowrie House with the intention, which he carried out, of killing the two Ruthvens;
  3. that the tragedy was the outcome of an unpremeditated brawl following high words between the King and Gowrie, or his brother.

To understand the relative probabilities of these hypotheses, regard must be had to the condition of Scotland in 1600.[4]

  • Plots to capture the sovereign for the purpose of coercing his actions were frequent, more than one had been successful, and the Ruthven family had taken an active part in several of them.[4]
  • Relations between England and Scotland were more than usually strained, and the Earl of Gowrie was reckoned in London among the adherents of Elizabeth. The Kirk party, being at variance with James, looked upon Gowrie as a hereditary partisan of their cause, and had recently sent an agent to Paris to recall him to Scotland as their leader.[4]
  • Gowrie was believed to be James's rival for the succession to the English crown. As regards the question of motive the Ruthvens believed Gowrie's father to have been treacherously done to death, and his widow insulted by the king's favourite minister.[4]
  • James owed a large sum of money to the earl of Gowrie's estate, and popular gossip credited either Gowrie or his brother, Alexander, with being the lover of the queen.[4]

Although the evidence on these points, and on every circumstance connected with the event itself, has been examined by historians of the Gowrie conspiracy, the mystery has not been entirely dispelled.[4] The two most recent studies subscribe to the kidnap theory. W. F. Arbuckle's study of 1957 favours the kidnap theory that went wrong, while Maurice Lee jun. proposes that James went to Gowrie House believing that Gowrie was a conduit for political intelligence from London (that the pot of gold was a flimsy cover story), and when he arrived with an unexpectedly large retinue, Alexander realised that a successful kidnapping was not possible and attempted to take the King life to avenge his father's death.[5]

Most modern research in the light of materials inaccessible or overlooked till the 20th century, points to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy by Gowrie and his brother to kidnap the king. If this is true, it follows that King James was innocent of the blood of the Ruthvens; and it raises the presumption that his own account of the occurrence was, in spite of the glaring improbabilities which it involved, substantially true.[4]

The facts as related by James and other witnesses were, in outline, as follows. On 5 August 1600, the King rose early to hunt in the neighbourhood of Falkland Palace, about 14 miles (23 km) from Perth. As he set out, accompanied by the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Mar, Thomas Erskine and others, he was approached by the twenty-year-old Alexander Ruthven, a younger brother of John Ruthven. Alexander advised the king that he and his brother had detained a foreigner carrying a large quantity of money at Gowrie House in Perth, and urged James to interrogate the man himself. The king hesitated initially, but ultimately agreed to ride to Perth after the hunt was over. Alexander Ruthven dispatched a servant, Henderson, to inform his brother that the king would be arriving at Gowrie House later in the day. Alexander Ruthven then urged the king to lose no time, demanding that he keep the matter secret from his courtiers, and that he bring to Gowrie House as small a retinue as possible.[4]

James, in the company of ten to fifteen retainers, arrived at Gowrie House at about one o'clock in the afternoon. Despite having received word earlier that the king would be arriving, John Ruthven had made no preparations, thus giving the impression of having been taken by surprise. After a small meal, for which he was kept waiting an hour, King James, forbidding most of his retainers to follow him, went with Alexander Ruthven up the main staircase and passed through two chambers and two doors, both of which Ruthven locked behind them, into a turret-room at the angle of the house, with windows looking on the courtyard and the street. Here James expected to find the mysterious prisoner with the foreign gold, but was instead was threatened with bodily harm. He found instead an armed man, who, as appeared later, was Gowrie's servant, Henderson. Alexander Ruthven immediately put on his hat, and drawing Henderson's dagger, presented it to the king's breast with threats of instant death if James opened a window or called for help. An allusion by Ruthven to the execution of his father, the 1st Earl of Gowrie, drew from James a reproof of Ruthven's ingratitude for various benefits conferred on his family. Ruthven then uncovered his head, declaring that James's life should be safe if he remained quiet; then, committing the king to the custody of Henderson, he left the turret—ostensibly to consult Gowrie—and locked the door behind him.[4]

While Ruthven was absent the king questioned Henderson, who professed ignorance of any plot and of the purpose for which he had been placed in the turret; he also at James's request opened one of the windows, and was about to open the other when Ruthven returned. Whether or not Alexander had seen his brother is uncertain. Gowrie had meantime spread the report below that the king had taken horse and had ridden away, and the royal retinue were seeking their horses to follow him.[4]

Alexander, on re-entering the turret, attempted to bind James's hands; a struggle ensued, in the course of which the king was seen at the window by some of his followers below in the street, who also heard him cry "treason" and call for help to the earl of Mar. Gowrie affected not to hear these cries, but kept asking what was the matter. Lennox, Mar and most of the other lords and gentlemen ran up the main staircase to help the King, but were stopped by the locked door, which they spent some time trying to batter down.[4]

John Ramsay (afterwards the Earl of Holdernesse), noticing a small dark stairway leading directly to the inner chamber adjoining the turret, ran up it and the door was then unlocked by the servant. There he found the king struggling with Ruthven. Drawing his dagger, Ramsay wounded Ruthven, who was then pushed down the stairway past the king. Thomas Erskine, summoned by Ramsay, now followed up the small stairs with Dr Hugh Herries, and these two killed Ruthven with their swords. John Ruthven, entering the courtyard with his stabler Thomas Cranstoun and seeing his brother's body, rushed up the staircase after Erskine and Herries, followed by Cranstoun; in the melée he was also killed. Some commotion was caused in the town by the noise of these proceedings; but it quickly subsided, though the king did not deem it safe to return to Falkland for some hours.[4]


The events at Gowrie House caused intense excitement throughout Scotland, and the investigation of the circumstances was followed with much interest in England also, where all the details were reported to Elizabeth's ministers. The ministers of the Kirk, whose influence in Scotland was too extensive for the king to neglect, were only with the greatest difficulty persuaded to, accept James's account of the occurrence, although he, voluntarily submitted himself to cross-examination by one of their number.[4]

The ministers belief, and that of their partisans, influenced no doubt by political hostility to James, was that the king had invented the story of a conspiracy by Gowrie to cover his own design to extirpate the Ruthven family. James gave some colour to this belief, which has not been entirely abandoned, by the relentless severity with which he pursued the two younger, and unquestionably innocent, brothers of the earl.[4] It was also believed that James owed John Ruthven a considerable amount of money (perhaps as much as ₤80,000), and that this may have provided impetus for eliminating the Ruthven family.[6]

Great efforts were made by the government to prove the complicity of others in the plot. One noted and dissolute conspirator, Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, was posthumously convicted of having been privy to the Gowrie conspiracy on the evidence of certain letters produced by a notary, George Sprot, who swore they had been written by Logan to Gowrie and others. These letters, which are still in existence, were in fact forged by Sprot in imitation of Logan's handwriting; but the researches of Andrew Lang have shown cause for suspecting that the most important of them was either copied by Sprot from a genuine original by Logan, or that it embodied the substance of such a letter. If this be correct, it would appear that the conveyance of the king to Fast Castle, Logan's impregnable fortress on the coast of Berwickshire, was part of the plot; and it supplies, at all events, an additional piece of evidence to prove the genuineness of the Gowrie conspiracy.[4]

On 7 August 1600 the James's Privy Council ordered that the corpses of Gowrie and his brother should remain unburied until further order were taken with the matter, and also that no person of the name of Ruthven should approach within ten miles of the court.[7] Orders were also sent for the apprehension of the Earl's brothers William and Patrick, but they fled to England. The bodies of Gowrie and his brother Robert were embowelled and preserved by one James Melville, who, however, was paid for his services, not by the magistrates of Perth, but by the Privy Council; and on 30 October they were sent to Edinburgh to be produced at the bar of Parliament. On 20 November the estates of the Ruthvens were discerned by Parliament to be forfeited and their family name and honours extinct. The corpses of the Earl and his brother were hanged and quartered at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh,[8] their heads were put on spikes at Edinburgh's Old Tolbooth and their arms and legs upon spikes at various locations around Perth.[5]

An act was further passed abolishing for ever the name of Ruthven, ordering that the house wherein the tragedy happened should be levelled with the ground, and decreeing that the barony of Ruthven should henceforth be known as the barony of Huntingtower.[9]


Gowrie's two younger brothers, William and Patrick Ruthven, fled to England. After the accession of James to the English throne, William allegedly escaped to Virginia and changed his name to Ruffin. Patrick was captured and imprisoned for nineteen years in the Tower of London.[4]

Patrick Ruthven resided first at Cambridge and afterwards in Somersetshire, being granted a small pension by the crown. He married Elizabeth Woodford, widow of Lord Gerrard, by whom he had two sons and a daughter, Mary; the latter entered the service of Queen Henrietta Maria, and married the famous painter van Dyck, who painted several portraits of her. Patrick died in poverty in a cell in the King's Bench in 1652, being buried as "Lord Ruthven". His son, Patrick, presented a petition to Oliver Cromwell in 1656, in which, after reciting that the parliament of Scotland in 1641 had restored his father to the barony of Ruthven, he prayed that his "extreme poverty" might be relieved by the bounty of the Protector.[4]



  • public domain: 
  • public domain:  Endnotes:
    • , and the authorities there cited.

External links

  • The Gowrie Conspiracy, by Samuel Cowan, available through Google Books
  • [unreliable source]
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
James Ruthven
Earl of Gowrie
Succeeded by

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