Ruthven, Alexander (DNB00)
|←Rutherfurd, Andrew||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 50
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RUTHVEN, ALEXANDER (1580?–1600), master of Ruthven, third son of William, fourth lord Ruthven and first earl of Gowrie [q. v.], and Dorothea Stewart, was born probably in December 1580, and was baptised on 22 Jan. 1580–1. Like his brother John, third earl of Gowrie [q. v.], he was educated at the grammar school of Perth, and afterwards, under the special superintendence of Principal Robert Rollock [q. v.], at the university of Edinburgh. He became a gentleman of the bedchamber to James VI, and was a favourite and even the reputed lover of the queen. According to tradition, he received on one occasion from the queen a ribbon she had got from the king, and having gone into the garden at Falkland Palace on a sultry day, and fallen asleep, his breast became accidentally exposed, and the ribbon was seen by the king, in passing, about his neck below the cravat (Pinkerton's ‘Dissertation on the Gowrie Conspiracy’ in Malcolm Laing's Hist. of Scotland, 1st edit. i. 533). For whatever reason, Ruthven, either before or after the return of his brother to Scotland in May 1600, left the court, and he was present with his brother during the hunting in Strabran in the following July. If we accept the genuineness of the correspondence of the earl with Robert Logan [q. v.], the master was also at the time engaged in maturing a plot for the capture of the king. According to the official account of the conspiracy, the visit of Ruthven to the king at Falkland on the morning of 5 Aug. was totally unexpected; but the entries in the treasurer's accounts seem rather to bear out the statement that he went to Falkland on the summons of the king. Gowrie's chamberlain, Andrew Henderson, ‘the man in armour,’ stated that Ruthven set out for Perth after a conference on the previous evening with Gowrie, and took Henderson with him; but there is no other evidence as to this, and the king asserted that he was ignorant that ‘any man living had come’ with Ruthven. According to the official account, when the king, between six and seven in the morning of 5 Aug., was about to mount his horse to begin buck-hunting, he was suddenly accosted by Ruthven, who informed him that he had ridden in haste from Perth to bring him important news. This was that he had accidentally met outside the town of Perth a man unknown to him, who had (concealed below his arm) a large pot of coined gold in great pieces. This mysterious stranger he had left bound in a ‘privie derned [i.e. concealed] house,’ and his pot with him, and he now impetuously requested the king—if the king's testimony is to be accepted—‘with all diligence and secrecy’ to ‘take order therewith before any one knew thereof.’ The king became convinced of the truth of the strange story, and, after a long process of scholastic quibbling as to his duty in the matter, ultimately persuaded himself, although Ruthven apparently brought no information as to the mint of the great pieces, that ‘it was foreign coin brought in by practising Jesuits,’ and that the matter therefore demanded his personal inquiry. At first, however, he merely stated to Ruthven that he would give him a definite answer at the ‘end of the hunt;’ and—so the king asserted—it was only by the incessant importuning of Ruthven that he was induced to ride off with him to Perth as soon as the hunt ended. The king further asserted that Ruthven strongly urged him not to take any attendants with him, or, if he thought this necessary, not to take Lennox or Mar, but ‘only three or four of his own mean servants;’ but the king, struck—and justly so, if Ruthven did make this suspicious proviso—by his anxiety on this point, consulted Lennox, mentioning also the character of the errand on which he was bound. Lennox did not think that Ruthven could cherish any evil intentions, but the king nevertheless desired Lennox without fail to follow him. In any case Lennox and Mar, with a considerable number of attendants, did not fail to follow the king, and gradually came up with him. When they were about a mile from Perth, Ruthven rode forward to inform his brother of the king's approach. This is the one indisputable fact. The whole story of the pot of gold rests solely on the evidence of the king, and if Ruthven did manufacture the strange narrative, and conduct himself in his interview with the king in the fashion described, the king displayed a marvellous simplicity in allowing himself to be made Ruthven's dupe. When it is remembered also that the king was at this time greatly in Gowrie's debt, his belief in the earnest anxiety of Ruthven to deliver the pot of gold into the royal hands becomes more inexplicable.
After dinner in Gowrie's house the king left the table accompanied by Ruthven, but, instead of proceeding to the ‘privie derned house,’ passed into an upper chamber, which Ruthven locked on entering. What took place in that upper chamber between the king and Ruthven was witnessed by not more than two persons, Henderson, the ‘man in armour,’ who according to his own account had been stationed in the room by Gowrie, with orders to do whatever the master might require of him, and Sir John Ramsay (after- wards Earl of Holderness) [q. v.], to whom the master owed his death. It has, however, been argued that there never was a ‘man in armour’ in the chamber, but that he was invented by the king in order to obtain independent evidence regarding the death of the master. In support of this theory it has been urged that, although Henderson was well known to the king, and his being in armour—if he were in armour—must have been known to other servants of Gowrie, it was at first found impossible to identify the man in armour, notwithstanding that many persons were arrested on suspicion, until Henderson voluntarily came forward, and this through Patrick Galloway, with whom presumably he made some kind of bargain, and declared that he was the person sought for; and, secondly, that the story of Henderson is in itself strangely confused and contradictory, his passivity at certain stages of the struggle contrasting almost inexplicably with his occasional flashes of energetic decision. According to the official account, Ruthven, after locking the door of the chamber, drew a dagger from the girdle of the ‘man in armour,’ and holding it at the king's breast, swore that ‘he behoved to be at his will,’ and that if he opened the window or cried out, the dagger would be plunged into his heart. Henderson, however, asserts that but for his interposition the king would have been immediately despatched: that he threw the dagger out of Ruthven's hand as he was about to strike home. In further contradiction of the statement of Henderson, the official account affirms that while Ruthven continued standing with his drawn dagger in his hand and his sword by his side, the king made him a long harangue on his ungrateful and heinous conduct, which appeared so to move him that he went out professedly to consult his brother, the Earl of Gowrie, after causing the king to swear neither meanwhile to open the window nor to cry out. With scrupulous regard for the letter of his oath, the king prevailed on Henderson to do him the favour to open the window, but refrained from asking him to give an alarm, although from the situation of the room, strangely chosen as it was for a contemplated deed of violence, an alarm would at once have proved effectual. It has been supposed that one reason why the master went out was to spread the report that the king had left Gowrie House. On his return to the chamber he did not bring his brother with him, as he had promised, but affirmed that there was no help for it, but that the king must die. He, however, proceeded first to go through the unnecessary formality of binding him with a garter; but this Henderson affirms he prevented by snatching the garter from Ruthven's hands. Nevertheless Henderson, on his own confession, stood a passive spectator while the king and Ruthven were in grips, and took no part in the struggle except that he withdrew Ruthven's hands from the king's mouth, so as to permit the king to give the alarm at the window. In the course of the struggle the king, according to his own account, practically mastered Ruthven, dragging him first to the window, whence, holding out his hand, he called for help, and then dragging him back and out of the chamber through the door, which had been left open by Ruthven on his second entry, to the door of the ‘turnpike.’ Here the king was just drawing his sword to despatch Ruthven, when Sir John Ramsay, having heard the king's cries, rushed in, and the king exclaiming ‘Fy, strike him high, because he has a chayne doublet upon him,’ Ramsay struck him once or twice with his dagger. The king continued to hold him some time in his grip, until the ‘other man,’ who, accustomed though he was to act with decision in the apprehension of Highland desperadoes, had borne himself throughout as the veriest poltroon, ‘withdrew himself.’ Immediately on his withdrawal the king ‘took the said Master Alexander by the shoulders, and shot him down the stair, who was no sooner shot out at the door but he was met by Sir Thomas Erskine and Sir Hew Herries, who there upon the stairs ended him.’ As he was struck he exclaimed, ‘Alas! I had no wyte [blame] of it.’ One difficulty in accepting the king's version is that it represents him as playing a part for which to all appearance he was physically unfit, Ruthven being a hardy athletic youth, and, as was said, ‘thrice as strong as the king.’ Ruthven's own account of the reason of the king's visit was, as given by Cranstoun, Gowrie's servant, that ‘Robert Abercrombie, that false knave, had brought the king there to make his majesty take order for his debts.’ Gowrie's estates were then burdened with debts on account of money advanced out of his father's own pocket, while treasurer, on behalf of the government [see under Ruthven, John, third Earl]; but as Gowrie had no private interview with the king, it is unlikely that the king broached the subject of the earl's debts to Ruthven in the upper chamber. The general opinion at the time was that the discovery of some affection between the queen and the Earl of Gowrie's brother ‘was the truest motive of the tragedy’ (Winwood, Memorials, i. 274). On this supposition it is possible that the king taxed Ruthven with his intimacy with the queen, that in consequence they in some way or other ‘got into grips,’ and that Ruthven was slain by Ramsay somewhat in the manner described by the king. Another theory is that the king's account of Ruthven's procedure is substantially correct, but that Ruthven was labouring under insanity. Either of these theories seems at least as probable as that there was a conspiracy to carry off the king to Fort Castle, and subsequently to England. The legal processes against Ruthven were identical with those against his brother John, third earl of Gowrie [q. v.][For authorities see under Ruthven, John, third Earl of Gowrie.]