"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gowrie Conspiracy and the Casket Letters

James VI and I

On August 5, 1600, His Royal Majesty King James VI of Scotland (otherwise known, in the memorable words of England‘s Queen Elizabeth, as "that false Scotch urchin,") embarked on a hunting trip in the park of Falkland. On this particular day, however, he wound up making a strange and lethal detour.

Early that morning, as the king and his party were setting out, twenty-year-old Alexander Ruthven, younger brother of the Earl of Gowrie, visited the monarch, evidently at James' private behest.  A few days before, James had secretly written to each of the Ruthven brothers. These letters subsequently disappeared.  By the time the messages became of great possible relevance, the Ruthvens were unable, and James unwilling, to describe them, so their contents have remained forever unknown.

There were no witnesses to this meeting between Ruthven and the king, so we only have James' later account of what was said between them.  According to the king, Alexander told him a very curious story.  The evening before, as he was going for a stroll through the woods, he met an odd, suspicious-looking man with a cloak wrapped around his face.  When Alexander examined him, he discovered the man was carrying an urn filled with foreign pieces of gold. Ruthven imprisoned the unnamed man in a remote chamber in Ruthven's home, Gowrie House.  When James showed little interest in Ruthven's tale, Alexander pointed out that as the mystery man informed him he meant to bury the gold, the hoard could technically be considered buried treasure, and thus the property of the Crown.  He also dropped ominous hints about how the gold was undoubtedly funds being smuggled into Scotland to aid Catholic plotters.

James, as a loyal Presbyterian, proposed to send word for local magistrates to detain the stranger.  Ruthven disagreed, asserting that the magistrates would pocket the riches themselves, thus depriving James of his fair share of the loot.  This was a matter that could be looked into only by James himself.

According to James' later testimony, he ignored Ruthven's peculiar tale and went out hunting.  Midway through the hunt, however, James claimed he had a change of heart.  He informed Ruthven that once the chase was over, he and his companions would ride to Gowrie House to investigate.

Later that day, when James and his entourage arrived at the Gowrie mansion, they discovered that their arrival seemed to be completely unexpected.  There was not even sufficient food on the premises to provide dinner for the Royal party, forcing the cook to hurriedly borrow provisions from the neighbors.

When Gowrie's steward asked Alexander the reason for the king's visit, he said that Robert Abercromby (the court saddler) had brought James to discuss the debt he owed the Ruthvens--a statement that James later had suppressed.  After dinner, the king took Alexander upstairs alone with him, where they went into a turreted room at the far corner of the gallery chamber.  There they remained quietly for some two and a half hours.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party went outside to idly lounge in the garden.  After a while, a servant of the earl's appeared, informing them that the king had left.  The startled group went to ask the porter at the gate if this was true, and received a negative response.  Gowrie announced he would go investigate the matter, soon returning to assure the group that James had indeed departed.  The Duke of Lennox, a member of James’ entourage, later testified that at this moment he saw James frantically leaning out a turret window yelling, “I am murdered! Treason! My lord Mar, help! help!” By the time Lennox, and others in the party, reached the prison chamber, they found that it was not James who was murdered; instead, Alexander Ruthven lay dead.

James' explanation was that he and Ruthven went up to the turret chamber to see the supposed gold.  On arrival, he found a man in armor waiting for them.  Ruthven suddenly took James prisoner, and announced that he meant to avenge James' 1584 execution of his father.

According to James, the king replied mildly, “Mr. Alexander, ye and I were very great together; and as touching your father’s death, man, I was but a minor. My Council might have done anything they pleased. And farther, man, albeit ye bereave me of my life, ye will not be King of Scotland; for I have both sons and daughters; and there are men in this town and friends that will not leave it unrevenged.”  Ruthven claimed he was not seeking James' life, but only wished for a promise from the king.  When asked what it was, he said his brother the earl would tell him.  James urged Ruthven to fetch him.  Before leaving, Ruthven made James promise not to cry for help while he was gone.

After Ruthven left, the armored man, who all this while had been standing docilely in a corner, told James that he himself was a prisoner there, and that he knew nothing of what was going on.

James urged his companion to open a window.  As he was doing so, Ruthven entered, and upon viewing the scene, exclaimed, "By God!  There is no remedy!"  He tried to bind James' hands.  The king managed to stick his head outside the window and shriek for help.

John Ramsay, one of James’ companions, ran up a small spiral staircase leading to the turret chamber, where--so he later said--he saw the king and Ruthven fighting. Ramsay came to his monarch’s defense by stabbing Ruthven and throwing the young man down the stairs. Hugh Herries and Thomas Erskine, two more of the king’s friends, finished Alexander off.  The dying young man managed to gasp out a declaration that he was not to blame for what had happened.

Meanwhile, Lord Gowrie wandered around in utter bewilderment, wailing, “What is the matter, I ken [know] nothing. Oh my God what can all this mean? What is wrong? I go to defend the king.” In a state of horror and confusion, he ran up the stairs to the turret room. There he was met by his brother’s murderers, who promptly killed him as well.  The alleged man in armor had mysteriously vanished, and was therefore unable to provide eyewitness testimony.  (A servant of Gowrie's named Andrew Henderson later claimed to have been this mystery man, but most contemporaries--as well as quite a few historians--believed he was lying, by order of the king.)

Jan Luyken's depiction of the Gowrie killings

Meanwhile, local residents were becoming more and more alarmed. Sensing that harm had come to their hereditary masters, the Ruthvens, a crowd of townspeople angrily surrounded Gowrie House, demanding to know what was happening. Instinctively feeling that whatever dirty business was afoot, their king was inevitably the culprit, they insisted that he show himself to them.

In their fury, some recalled the persistent stories alleging that Lord Darnley, the second husband of James' mother, Mary Queen of Scots, did not father James--that his sire was Mary's Italian secretary, David Rizzio. "Come down, thou son of Seigneur Davie!" voices from the crowd shouted. "Thou hast slain an honester man than thyself!"

Sensing that the crowd was not with him, James wisely opted to sneak out a back entrance, making his exit by boat via a river that ran behind the house. However, he left a number of his men behind with orders to search the castle from top to bottom. What he was looking for was never fully specified.

With his departure, the curtain descended on the highly confusing and very bloody incident known to history as the Gowrie Conspiracy. Nearly everything we "know" about this alleged kidnapping/attempted murder of the king and the subsequent killing of the Ruthvens comes from either James himself or his two main cohorts, Lennox and Ramsay, who were widely suspected of merely parroting a tale taught by their master. No matter. This was James' story of how the two Ruthvens wound up dead, patently bizarre though it may have been, and he was sticking to it. Possibly it was the only explanation he could think of that incorporated a number of disparate facts known to too many people to be covered up altogether.

The king soon realized that he was facing disconcerting skepticism about the account he gave detailing his providential escape from traitorous assassins. He responded by attempting to force his subjects to show a loyal (and unquestioning) gratitude for their monarch's survival. Upon returning to Edinburgh, he ordered his ministers to perform sermons giving thanks for his deliverance. Unfortunately, most of the men of God flatly refused to participate in the planned national rejoicing. They, along with all of Scotland, instead persisted in asking uncomfortable questions, most of them focused on their doubts about James' veracity, despite the king's increasingly peevish pleas for a bit more faith in the Royal word.

The strange affair at Gowrie House was quickly followed by an equally inexplicable persecution of the entire Ruthven clan.  The two dead Ruthvens were posthumously tried and convicted of treason.  The family's vast wealth was then seized by the Crown.  James, swearing that he would kill every male member of the family, chased the Ruthvens' two young brothers, Patrick and William, into England where the justifiably terrified boys went into hiding. When James became King of England three years later, his first act was to seize Patrick Ruthven and without formal charges or a trial, throw him into the Tower of London, where he was left to rot for nearly twenty years. The youngest boy, William, was more fortunate. He managed to flee abroad, where he changed his name and managed to live out his life in nervous obscurity.

As a final blow, James literally outlawed the use of the very name of Ruthven, an ordinance that was not revoked until many years after his death.

We know there was murder done that summer day in 1600. What continues to be debated is why it happened. If, as some historians accept, this was indeed some obscure plot of the Ruthvens to avenge the long-ago execution of their father by kidnapping or killing James, nothing except familial insanity could provide a good explanation for their methods.

An alternative explanation is that the Gowrie Conspiracy was an elaborate trap that James himself set for the Ruthvens--a lethal playlet with James himself as author, producer, stage manager, and male lead. The question remains: why?

Some have pointed out that the Earl of Gowrie had recently led the successful opposition to a tax meant to fund James' negotiations to obtain the English succession. (Reportedly, Gowrie himself felt he had a claim to the English crown.) While James was no doubt unhappy with this disobedience, that seems inadequate motivation to kill Gowrie and destroy his entire family. Other stories suggest a revenge motive straight from a paperback romance novel--that Alexander Ruthven may have been the lover of James' wife, Anne of Denmark. Not only is there no particle of evidence for such an allegation, but once Anne had fulfilled her duty as queen by giving James an heir, he promptly lost all interest in her and her activities.

Still other attempts to explain the downfall of the Ruthvens involve the reputation that the clan had long enjoyed for being deeply involved in sorcery. It was even said that their grandfather had employed a "necromantical jewel" in an effort to gain a mystical influence over Queen Mary.

It is at least interesting, and perhaps important, that James owed Gowrie some 80,000 pounds. The earl's father, at the time of his execution, had been Scotland's Treasurer. As the government was then in an even more chaotic and financially-strapped condition than was usual for the Scots, the Treasurer was compelled to meet the most basic State expenses out of his own pocket. Did James simply take a bloody way out of repaying this debt?

Or could the Gowrie Conspiracy somehow be connected to another of the era's great mysteries, the Casket Letters allegedly written by Mary Queen of Scots to the Earl of Bothwell?

During Mary's long captivity in Scotland and England, those controversial documents were kept in the possession of the successive Scottish regents (it was said that none of them ever left the precious letters out of his sight.) After the last of the regents, the Earl of Morton, was executed in 1581, the letters somehow landed in the possession of the Earl of Gowrie. (The father of the two Ruthvens killed in the Gowrie Conspiracy.)  When the English government heard Gowrie had the letters, Elizabeth's envoy, Robert Bowes, was given the job of obtaining the letters from him. Elizabeth desperately wanted them in her own possession, for, in Bowes' supremely enigmatic phrase, "the secrecy and benefit of the cause."

Bowes tried to steal the letters, but as that proved unsuccessful, he appealed directly to the earl. At first, Gowrie refused to even admit he had the letters. Bowes persisted--this was obviously something the English found of extreme importance--pointing out to Gowrie the jeopardy in his ownership of the letters. Mary herself, Bowes noted, was making determined efforts to get the letters into her own possession, "and that the means which she will make in this behalf shall be so great and effectual as these writings cannot be safely kept in that realm without dangerous offense to him that hath the custody thereof; neither shall he that is once known to have them be suffered to hold them in his hands."

Gowrie remained uncooperative, apparently undeterred by the uncomfortable fact that all previous owners of the letters had come to a bad end. He told Bowes that, "after he had found and seen the writings, that he might not make delivery of them without the privity of the king." This reply displeased the envoy, who commented that consulting James "should adventure great danger to the cause." Gowrie later confided to Bowes that James' friends had also made efforts to retrieve the letters, adding that he could do nothing with the papers without the king's consent. (It is not explained why he refused to simply give the letters to James.) Elizabeth's representative finally had no choice but to return to England empty-handed.

Just before Bowes' unsuccessful mission to obtain the letters, "for the secrecy and benefit of the cause," Gowrie and his political allies kidnapped the king. James was brought to one of Gowrie's residences, and remained virtually his prisoner for a year. This odd episode--known to history as the "Raid of Ruthven"--was apparently a coup aimed at ensuring James was controlled by Scottish Protestants, rather than French Catholics. It also indicates the hold Gowrie felt he had over the king. James eventually escaped, but was still sufficiently cowed by Gowrie to feel compelled to "forgive" him. The next year, 1584, however, James had Gowrie arrested and quickly executed.

The trail of clear, undisputed ownership of the letters ends with Gowrie. It has often been stated as fact by historians that after Gowrie's execution, James got possession of the letters and destroyed them. There is no evidence whatever for this supposition. Although it's possible James executed Gowrie in an effort to get the letters, he does not seem to have been successful. Although the letters have not been seen publicly since Gowrie's death, they apparently still existed for at least some time afterward, but more secretly. People had learned by then just how lethal their ownership could be.

The letters may have remained in possession of the Ruthven family until at least 1600. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton speculated that they were stored in Gowrie House. After James had Gowrie House searched--without, it seems, discovering the mysterious papers he had hoped to find--and had driven the surviving Ruthvens into ruin and exile, the whereabouts of the Casket Letters became impossible to document with any certainty.

Despite four hundred years of trying, no one has been able to find a universally satisfactory explanation, not only of the events at Gowrie House, but of James' seemingly inexplicable, unnecessary, and extremely unpopular savagery against all who bore the name of Ruthven. One can only echo the words of the elderly Scottish woman who once exclaimed, "It is a great comfort to think that at the Day of Judgment we shall know the whole truth about the Gowrie Conspiracy at last!"


  1. None of the explanations for James's eradication of the Ruthvens seems to make sense. Even owing them 80,000 pounds isn't a good motive: the Stuarts were chronically in debt to someone, and, knowing that he would be King of England in a few years' time, James would have looked forward to much more wealth than he had as King of the Scots. Perhaps he felt that the desire for power in the Ruthvens was too widespread for them to live. Very strange, indeed.

  2. I find anything on the casket letters absolutely fascinating because James Hepburn 4th Earl if Bothwell is my ancestor. I even have the nose to prove it! Thank you for writing about him.

  3. "Reportedly, Gowrie himself felt he had a claim to the English crown" Would be interesting to understand more about this. Was it through Dorthea Stuart's line? If a royal line existed, did Elizabeth favor the Ruthven's succession over James? Maybe, maybe not, but if James had any thought that she did, getting rid of the Ruthven line would have made a great deal of sense.


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