The Gowrie Conspiracy

The Gowrie Conspiracy and Its Official Narrative (1902) by Samuel Cowan

There are two accounts of the Gowrie Conspiracy, the events of the fifth of August 1600 that resulted in the deaths of the third Earl Gowrie, John Ruthven, and his brother, Alexander Ruthven. The ‘orthodox’ version, essentially as presented here first of all, is written by Robert Chambers (1802-1871), and based primarily on the testimony of King James VI of Scotland, whose life was allegedly threatened, and the alternative, here summarized by Rev. Alexander Duff of Tibbermore, in Memorabilia of the City of Perth (1802) , and presented in Samuel Cowan’s book, along with three other papers,  believed by many, especially in Perth,  that the king himself conceived the circumstances of the plot for his own ends. To hold such a view at the time was to invite an accusation of treason, punishable by death, hence all the more remarkable that the alternative accounts persisted from the start. Compare these accounts for yourself..

KING JAMES VI: THE GOWRIE CONSPIRACY (essentially the official narrative)

“It is little known that the fifth of August was once observed in England as a holiday, exactly in the same manner as the fifth of November, and for a cause of the same nature. On that day, in the year 1600, King James (aged 33), then ruling Scotland alone, narrowly escaped death at the hands of two conspirators of his own people—the Earl of Gowrie (aged 24), and his brother Alexander Ruthven (aged 19). It was a strange confused affair, which the death of the two conspirators prevented from being thoroughly cleared up; and there have not been wanting individuals, both at the time and since, to doubt the reality of the alleged design against the king. It is, however, not difficult for an unprejudiced person to accept the conspiracy as real, and to comprehend even its scope and drift.

The king, on that August morning, was mounting his horse at Falkland, to go out a-hunting—his almost daily practice—when Alexander Ruthven, who was a youth barely twenty, came up and entered into private conversation with him. The young man told a wild-looking story, about a vagrant Highlander who knew of a secret treasure, and who might be conversed with at Gowrie House, in Perth. The king’s curiosity and love of money were excited, and he agreed to go to Perth after the hunt. He then rode from the field in company with Ruthven, followed by some of his courtiers, to one of whom (the Duke of Lennox) he imparted the object in view. It appears that Lennox did not like the expedition, and he told the king so; but the king, nevertheless, proceeded, only asking the duke to have an eye upon Alexander Ruthven, to keep close, and be ready to give assistance, if needful.

The king and his followers, about a dozen in number, came to Gowrie House in time for the early dinner of that age, and, after the meal was concluded, he allowed himself to be conducted by Alexander Ruthven through a series of chambers, the doors of which the young man locked behind him, till they came to a small turret closet, connected with an upper room at the end of the house, where James found, instead of the man with the ‘pois‘ he had expected, one completely armed, a servant of the earl. Ruthven now clapped his hat upon his head, and snatching a dagger from the armed man, said to the king: ‘Sir, ye maun be my prisoner! Remember on my father’s deid [death]!‘  alluding to the execution of his father for a similar treason to this (?), sixteen years before.

The king remonstrated, showing that he, as a minor at the time (as was Ruthven in 1600), was not concerned in his father’s death, and had of his own accord restored the family to its rank and estates; and he asked meekly of the young man what he aimed at by his present proceedings. Ruthven said he would bring his brother to tell what they wanted: meanwhile the king must promise to stay quietly there till he returned.

During his brief absence, the king induced the armed man to open one of the windows, looking to the neighbouring street; and while the man was proceeding to open the other, which looked to the courtyard below, Ruthven rushed in, crying there was no remedy, and attempted to bind the king’s hands with a garter. A struggle ensued, in which the armed servant gave the king some useful help, and James was just able to get near the window, and call out ‘Treason!’ It appeared from the deposition of the servant, that he had been placed there by his master, without any attempt to prepare him for the part he was to play, or to ascertain if he could be depended upon. In point of fact, the sight of the king and of Alexander Ruthven’s acts filled him with terror. He opened the door, and let in Sir John Ramsay, one of the royal attendants, who immediately relieved his struggling master by stabbing Ruthven, and thrusting him down the stair. As the conspirator descended, wounded and bleeding, he was met by two or three others of the king’s attendants coming up upon the alarm, and by them was despatched, saying as he fell: ‘Alas! I had not the wyte [blame] of it!’

Immediately after the king left the dining-room, an officer or friend of the Earl of Gowrie had raised a sudden report among the royal attendants, that their master was gone home—was by this time past the Mid Inch (an adjacent public green)—so that they all rushed forth to follow him. The porter, on being asked by some of them if the king had gone forth, denied it; but the earl called him liar, and insisted that his highness had departed. It was while they were hurrying to mount and follow, that the king was heard to cry ‘Treason!’ from the turret-window. The earl now drew his sword, and, summoning his retinue, about eighty (seven, as later stated) in number, to follow him, he entered the house, and appeared in the room where his brother had just received his first wound. The four gentlemen (three?) of the royal train, having first thrust the king for his safety into the little closet, encountered the earl and the seven attendants who entered with him, and in brief space Gowrie was pierced through the heart by Ramsay, and his servants sent wounded and discomfited down stairs. Soon after, the Earl of Mar and other friends of the king, who had been trying for some time to force an entrance by the locked-up gallery, came in, and then James knelt down on the bloody floor, with his friends about him, and returned thanks to God for his deliverance.

It was a wild and hardly intelligible scene. Gowrie and his brother were accomplished young men, in good favour at court, and popular in Perth; they had the best prospects for their future life; it seemed unaccountable that, without giving any previous hint of such a design, they should have plunged suddenly into a murderous conspiracy against their sovereign, and yet been so ill provided with the means of carrying it out successfully. Yet the facts were clear and palpable, that the king had been trained, first to their own town of Perth, and then into a remote part of their house, and there murderously assaulted. Evidence afterwards came out, to show that they had been led to frame a plan for the seizure of the royal person, though whether for the sake of the influence they could thereby exercise in the government, or with some hazy design of taking vengeance for their father’s death, cannot be ascertained. It also appeared that, at Padua University, whence they were only of late returned, they had studied necromancy, which they continued to practise in Scotland.  Their ruination, nay, the ruination of the whole family—followed.

The people generally rejoiced in the king’s deliverance, and his popularity was manifestly increased by the dangers he had passed. Yet a few of the clergy professed to entertain doubts about the transaction; and one of eminence, named Robert Bruce, underwent a banishment of thirty years rather than give these up. His spirit has reappeared in a few modern writers, of the kind who habitually feel a preference for the side of a question which has least to say for itself. That a king, constitutionally devoid of physical courage, should have gone with only a hunting-horn hanging from his neck, and a handful of attendants in the guise of the chase, to attack the life of a powerful noble in his own house, and in the midst of armed retainers and an attached civil populace; that he should have adventured solitarily into a retired part of his intended victim’s house, to effect this object, while none of his courtiers knew where he was or what he was going to do; meets an easy faith with this party; while in the fact of Alexander Ruthven, by a ruse, conducting the king to Perth, in the glaring attempt of the Earl, by false reports and lies, to send away the royal train from his house; in the fact that the two brothers and their retainers were armed, while the king was not; and in the clear evidence which the armed man of the turret-chamber gave in support of the king’s statements; they can see no manner of force. Minds of this kind are governed by prejudices, and not by the love of truth, and it is vain to reason with them”. 

Editor: Much of the foregoing paragraph especially is simply untrue, as the following account largely demonstrates:


“In the year 1584, when James VI of Scotland was 17, William, first earl of Gowrie, was executed at Stirling. After the king attained majority, he found John, the third earl of Gowrie, a younger son of William, possessed of wealth and power beyond the other Scottish nobility, and also growing apprehensive that this Earl Gowrie might at some time seek revenge for the death of his father, it was firmly believed by those well informed about the matter, that on the fifth of August 1600, King James set off from Falkland for Perth with the express design to destroy Earl Gowrie and his family.

On the road, he gave the following account of his journey to some of those who accompanied him. That Alexander Ruthven, Gowrie’s brother, had met with him privately that morning, and told him that the Earl and he had apprehended a foreign monk in the neighbourhood of Perth, with a great quantity of Gold in an earthenware pot, and that they suspected he had been sent from overseas to support Catholicism and to sow discord.

The king resolved to delay the affair until after the day’s hunt, and that Alexander Ruthven, acting with great secrecy, returned to Perth, and James inquired with those present if Ruthven was altogether solid in his judgement; to which it was answered that he always behaved himself as a man of prudence and worth (Alexander was also the inheritor of an £80,000 debt still owed by the king to the first earl).

About dinner-time, word was brought to the Earl, who was that day attending the marriage of a young man of the name Lamb, that the king and a company with him had come to his house, upon which his countenance changed, and being asked by the bride’s father, in whose house he was, what ailed him, he said he was distressed for a dinner for the king and his retinue, who had come upon him unexpectedly. He was urged to accept the dinner prepared for the wedding, which he did.

The Earl then went to meet the king, and to see the royal party fed. The king dined in a room by himself, and having eaten, chided Gowrie for not following etiquette with the company. After Gowrie left the room for the purpose, the king said that Alexander Ruthven then suggested it was time to interrogate the imprisoned monk. In passing the room the party were dining, the king said: “Sit ye, merry gentlemen, and much good it may do you.” The two then went through three other rooms, the doors of which Ruthven locked behind them, and came at last to the fatal closet, where the tragedy that day was performed. The king’s testimony was clear; instead of discovering the monk, there was a man in armour, at which Ruthven made the king swear in his absence he would neither move or call for assistance, he then went to advise the Earl, his brother, and telling the king on his return that there was no help, and he was to die, in revenge of the death of his father.

The king’s later testimony was vague as to the identity of the man in armour. There were three persons the king was certain one of whom was the man, which later proved impossible, but when Andrew Henderson affirmed he was that man, the king deemed him a liar and great contempt was cast upon him.

After the kings party had finished dining, a servant told them the king had already left for Falkland; on which they ran to get their horses, when they heard the king’s voice from a window, crying: “Treason! Treason!” They immediately returned, and tried to get into the turret from which the voice had come, but the doors were barred, and it took some time to break them open with hammers. Earl Gowrie, being alarmed at the uproar, ran by a private stair to a smaller entrance, accompanied by servants, and armed with a sword in each hand. He found the king in the closet, along with his surgeon, Herries, his page Ramsay, and his groom Murray, the three of whom had got into the closet without the knowledge of the other company who had come with the king. Earl Gowrie stuck his swords in the floor, and desired to know the cause of the disturbance. He was answered by Ramsay, that there was a design to kill the king, and immediately he and the other two fell on the Earl and despatched him, as they had done his brother Alexander a moment before. At this time, the rest of the party, having forced their way in by the principal entry, were told by the king what a danger he had been in, and they congratulated him on his deliverance from it.

The news quickly spread across Perth, and the inhabitants, even the magistrates, were exasperated beyond measure to learn of the death of their beloved Provost, and while the royal party was yet in the building, ran to Gowrie’s house, and threated to kill the king and all his attendants. Every means were employed to appease them; in vain did the king speak of the danger he had so narrowly escaped. They could not allay the fury of the enraged multitude, and were forced to remain inside the house until nightfall, when they slipped away privately, returning to Falkland.

When the king was asked about the man in armour who had been there, in the closet, he was positive he was one of the three persons he named. Two being at hand, gave full proof that neither was he the man in armour, thus the king affirmed it must have been the third man, a servant of Gowrie’s, by the name of Younger. This man also being able to prove he could not have been the man in armour, as he was in Dundee at the time, travelled to Falkland to disprove it, but was found next morning with his throat cut.

The king appointed a day of thanksgiving, to be observed in every church throughout the nation. Several clergymen, particularly in Edinburgh, refused to observe it. Mr Robert Bruce, very eminent for integrity and spirit (and knew Gowrie well), submitted to perpetual banishment, for he openly stated he was convinced Gowrie had not conspired against the life of his sovereign.

Two younger brothers of Earl Gowrie and Alexander, William and Patrick Ruthven, were at Dirleton when the events at Perth occurred. When the king got back to Falkland, he despatched Murray to kill them, that in surviving the misfortune of their family, they might perhaps be the avenger of it. On a secret warning, however, they made their escape, one going abroad, the other eventually being imprisoned for nineteen years by James in the Tower of London.

That the conspiracy was on the king’s side, is an opinion that has greatly gained ground, but it appears to be the general opinion at Perth from the day that melancholy affair was transacted there. The circumstance of three armed men being privately admitted into the closet before the king and Alexander Ruthven came there, presupposes the king being in no danger by going there with Ruthven. A number of Gowrie’s servants were later retained by Lord Scone, formerly David Murray, a considerable sharer in the division of Gowrie’s property, appears a part of a reward for betraying their former master. Several other of Earl Gowrie’s servants however, solemnly declaring they knew of no conspiracy, were executed.

Do the facts support the king’s assertions that he was innocent of conspiring to destroy the Gowrie’s, whilst forcing it appear the conspiracy was that of the Gowrie’s, and others, against his person? By his own account, he arrives with a considerable retinue, to the very house, the doors shut about it, being occupied by his attendants, with Gowrie attending a wedding elsewhere!

If the king had been killed, it would surely have ruined the Gowrie family, as the king had publicly gone into the Earl’s house, and it must have occurred to Gowrie that the utter extirpation of himself and family would be the unavoidable consequence of the king’s death, injury or disappearance. The fate of his own father was a forceful example of the dangers in meddling with the person of a king.

On the 15th of November, that same year 1600, the king gifted a charter to Perth, confirming all their ancient rights and privileges, the very day sentence of forfeiture was pronounced against Earl Gowrie and his brother; the family disinherited, even the very surname Ruthven prohibited forever. Suppose for a moment that the king was conscious of his innocence, that there was a real plot to take away his life, was the town where the assassination had been attempted a proper object of favour? What of the townspeople? They certainly insulted and threatened him on this trying occasion, were they entitled so soon to such extraordinary attention and good offices from him? One might imagine that the dread and resentment of it would have induced him to keep a distance from such a place, and to banish all thoughts of it for years to come, but instead he heaps honours and riches upon it. To no other burgh did James show so much respect, and all within a compass of one year after Gowrie’s death. Rather, was it not an employment of wisdom and policy, to soften the sentiments of men, and put to silence their ill-natured conjectures and reflections. A long and violently contended preference to a rival burgh (Dundee) must have been extremely flattering; a donation to the poor is always a popular deed; did it at least keep silence about the king’s conduct in the matter of Earl Gowrie and his brother’s death? These circumstances of the king’s conduct are not the features of innocence; neither do they express either a suspicion or resentment of evil having been contrived there.

Though justice may be perverted, it cannot be easily extirpated; the sentiments of humanity may for a time be bribed or drowned in uproar, but they will recur in this matter. I do not doubt that future ages will consider this episode of history, which power and cunning have studied to clothe with obscurity, and will wonder that this ancient and honourable family, extirpated by the cruelty of their king, should not excite the strongest and most generous sympathy which their country could bestow”.