Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ruthven, John
RUTHVEN, JOHN, third Earl of Gowrie (1578?–1600), second son of William, fourth lord Ruthven and first earl of Gowrie, by Dorothea Stewart, was born either in 1577 or 1578, and succeeded to the earldom on the death of his elder brother, James, second earl, in 1588. After attending the grammar school of Perth, he entered in 1591 the university of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A. in 1593. He had as private tutor William Rind, a native of Perth, and his studies in Edinburgh were specially directed by Robert Rollock [q. v.], principal of the university, with whom he was afterwards on terms of special friendship. In 1592 he was elected provost of Perth, and the same year had a ratification to him by parliament of the earldom of Gowrie and abbacy of Scone (Acta Parl. Scot. iii. 591). But though restored to his dignities, his sympathies, if not directly hostile to the king, were with the extreme protestant party. It was by the connivance of the young earl's mother, Lady Gowrie, and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Atholl, that the unruly Earl of Bothwell [see Hepburn, Francis Stewart, fifth Earl] succeeded on 24 July 1593 in gaining admission to Holyrood Palace, where he had the strange interview with the king. In October of the same year Gowrie himself attended an armed convention summoned to meet the Earl of Atholl at the castle of Doune, Perthshire; but on the approach of the king with a large force, Atholl fled, and Gowrie and Montrose, having awaited the coming of the king, made their peace with him (David Moysie, Memoirs, p. 105). On the 8th of the same month Atholl informed Elizabeth that whatever Bothwell should conclude with her, he (Atholl), Gowrie, Montrose, and others would hold unto with the utmost of their power (Cal. State Papers, Scot. Ser. p. 636).
On 16 Aug. 1594 Gowrie gave notice to the town council of Perth of his intention to go to the continent to prosecute his studies, whereupon they agreed to elect him annually as their provost during his absence. Along with his tutor, William Rind, he proceeded to Padua, where he so greatly distinguished himself that, according to Calderwood, he was elected rector of the university during the last year of his stay there (History, vi. 67). The studies to which he particularly devoted himself were the natural sciences, especially chemistry. From Padua Gowrie, on 24 Nov. 1595, addressed a letter to King James, in which he expressed the prayerful hope that God would bless his majesty ‘with all felicity and satisfaction in health, with an increase of many prosperous days’ (Pitcairn, Criminal Trials, ii. 330). Gowrie concluded his education by a continental tour, and, after visiting Rome and Venice, arrived about the close of 1599 at Geneva on his way back to Scotland. At Geneva he stayed for about three months in the house of Theodore Beza, the successor of Calvin, to whom he had an introduction from Principal Rollock, and who, according to Calderwood, conceived for him, from his intercourse with him, such an affection ‘that he never heard nor made mention of his death but with tears’ (History, vi. 67). From Geneva Gowrie proceeded to Paris, where he was well received at the French court; he there made the acquaintance of the English ambassador, Sir Henry Neville, who ‘found him to be exceedingly well affected to the cause of religion, devoted to Elizabeth's service, and, in short, a nobleman of whom, for his good judgment, zeal, and ability, exceeding good use could be made on his return’ (Neville to Cecil, 27 Feb. 1599–1600, in Winwood's Memorials, i. 156). On arriving in London on 3 April 1600, Gowrie was consequently warmly welcomed by Elizabeth, with whom, and with Cecil, he had frequent conferences. The statement that he made a prolonged stay at the English court cannot, however, be admitted. On his return to Scotland, although he spent some time in attendance on the king at Holyrood, he reached Perth by 20 May. Nor can any faith be placed in the anonymous manuscript which states that Elizabeth ordered that ‘all honours should be paid to him that were due to a prince of Wales, and to her first cousin’ (quoted in Scott's Life and Death of the Earl of Gowrie, p. 118).
On his arrival at Edinburgh Gowrie was met by a large cavalcade of his friends, who had come to welcome him back to Scotland; and when the king heard of this half-triumphal entry into the city, he is said to have given vent to his chagrin in the sarcasm that ‘there were more with his father when he was convoyed to the scaffold’ (Calderwood, History, vi. 71). Other anecdotes have been related to show that the king was more or less ill-disposed towards him. A more tangible motive for mutual discontent is to be found in the fact that the king was Gowrie's debtor to the extent of no less than 80,000l., representing a sum of 48,036l. due to his father while treasurer, with the interest at 10 per cent. per annum for the succeeding years. With this sum the old Earl of Gowrie, when treasurer, was forced to burden himself in order to meet the current expenses of the government. It was probably his inability to meet the obligations incurred by his father that had compelled the young earl to remain abroad; and on his return he presented a petition to the court of session, stating that he was unfit to pay any more to his creditors than he had done already, and asking to be relieved of these royal debts. In answer to his application he on 20 June 1600 obtained a protection from debt for a year, ‘that in the meantime his highness may see the said lord satisfied of the said super expenses resting by his majesty to his said umquhile father.’
In attendance on the king at court, while Gowrie was in Edinburgh, was Colonel William Stewart, brother of Arran, who had arrested Gowrie's father in Dundee; and it was supposed that Gowrie would sooner or later take revenge on Stewart (Hudson to Cecil, Cal. State Papers, Scot. Ser. p. 784). It would appear, however, that Gowrie scorned to fly at such small game, for when, with some of his suite, he happened to meet Stewart with some of his servants in a corridor of Holyrood Palace, and a mêlée seemed imminent, he is said to have struck up the swords of his attendants and allowed Stewart to pass with the contemptuous remark, ‘Aquila non captat muscas’ (MS. quoted in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, ii. 293). But, apart from Colonel Stewart, Gowrie seems to have found his attendance at court unpleasant, if not even dangerous, on account of the antagonism of political parties, and he shortly retired to his estates, ‘to be a beholder of the issue of these many suspicions’ (Nicolson to Cecil, 22 May, in Tytler's History, iv. 282). He, however, not only attended the convention of estates on 20 June, summoned to consider the burning question as to the preparations which should be made by James to insure his succession to the throne of England in case of Elizabeth's death, but in a speech—in itself temperate and well reasoned—headed the opposition of the barons and burgesses to the proposal of the king to raise one hundred thousand crowns by taxation for the maintenance of an army. His opposition may have been partly dictated by the fact that the king was so deeply in his own debt; but since the protection to him for a year and the king's promise to pay the debt had probably been granted with a special view to obtain his agreement to the king's proposal, his interference was doubly irritating to the king, who did not hesitate to express his resentment. While listening to the speech of Gowrie, Sir David Murray of Gorthy is also reported to have said, pointing to Gowrie, ‘Yonder is an unhappy man; they are but seeking occasion of his death, which now he has given’ (Calderwood, vi. 71). After the convention Gowrie again retired to his estates, and about the beginning of July went from Ruthven to Strabran to engage in hunting. If, however, the letters of Robert Logan [q. v.] are accepted as genuine, Gowrie while at Strabran must have been chiefly occupied in the perfecting of a scheme to convey the king to Logan's stronghold of Fast Castle. This would also seem to imply that Gowrie either directly or indirectly had been induced by Elizabeth to undertake the ultimate conveyance of the Scottish king to England; and it is almost incredible that Elizabeth should have really desired this. Against the genuineness of the letters it has been urged that the proof that they were in Logan's handwriting is not conclusive; that they were not found in Gowrie's possession, but in Logan's, and that the supposition that Gowrie returned them is improbable; that no letters of Gowrie in reply were produced; and that even if the letters were written by Logan they may have been concocted by him and Sprott after the occurrences at Gowrie, for some special purpose now unknown. But if not in communication with Logan, Gowrie is stated to have been in communication with the king. According to Calderwood, ‘while the earl was in Strabran, fifteen days before the fact, the king wrote sundry letters to the earl, desiring him to come and hunt with him in the wood of Falkland, which letters were found in my lord's pocket at his death, as is reported, but destroyed’ (History, vi. 71). This rumour it was deemed of some importance to contradict, apparently in order to establish the fact that the sudden visit of Gowrie's brother, Alexander, master of Ruthven [q. v.], to the king at Falkland was entirely voluntary on his part. Consequently Craigenvelt, Gowrie's butler, was specially questioned on the matter, and denied that any messenger had come to Gowrie from the king, or that he had given any such messenger meat or drink. But whether seen by Craigenvelt or not, or whether they went to Perth or direct to Strabran, it is clearly established from entries of payments in the treasurer's accounts that in July messengers were sent from the king both to Gowrie and his brother.
Gowrie returned to Perth from his hunting expedition on 2 Aug. Calderwood states that he intended on 5 Aug. to set out to Lothian to see his mother at Dirleton, but delayed his journey until his brother should return from Falkland (History, vi. 72). If we are to accept the evidence of Gowrie's chamberlain, Andrew Henderson, Henderson in the early morning accompanied the master of Ruthven in his ride to Falkland, having orders to return speedily to Gowrie with any letter or message he might receive; but if Henderson did go to Falkland, he was not seen there by any one, nor is there any evidence that he was seen going or returning. In any case, he confessed that he received no message from Ruthven, although he informed Gowrie both that the master was well received and that not merely the king but all the hunting party would be at Perth incontinently. Thus Henderson must have been better informed than the master himself, who, according to the official statement, did not obtain a decisive answer to his request. If Gowrie from the information of Henderson expected such a party, he, from whatever motive, made no preparations to receive his guests; and it was while in the midst of dinner that the master of Ruthven, who had galloped on in advance, arrived to announce the approach of the king. Thereupon Gowrie rose, and, along with the master, went out to meet him at the Inch. Some time before the arrival of the king, Henderson, according to his own statement, had by Gowrie's orders put on his armour to arrest a highlandman; and after the arrival of the king, Gowrie, while the king was still at dinner, ordered Henderson to go up to the chamber to the master of Ruthven; and, following him as he went up, Gowrie informed him that he was to be at the master's orders and do anything he told him. According to the official account in the ‘Discourse of the Vile and Unnatural Conspiracy,’ Gowrie during the king's visit was very ill at ease; but this is as consistent with innocence as with guilt. That he had been previously in communication with the king is certain, but the nature of these communications is unknown. The master stated to a servant that the visit of the king had reference to the earl's debts; and as the earl by his speech on taxation had incurred the king's violent displeasure, he may have inferred that the visit boded to him no good.
When the king, accompanied by the master of Ruthven, left the dining table, Gowrie led Lennox and the other attendants into the garden to ‘eat cherries,’ stating, according to Lennox, who had proposed to follow the king, that the king had gone on ‘a quiet errand,’ and would not be disturbed (Pitcairne, Criminal Trials, ii. 172). While they were in the garden, Cranston, one of Gowrie's attendants, came with the message, given, he asserted, in perfect good faith, that the king had left the castle by the back way, and was riding to the Inch. Gowrie then called ‘to horse,’ but the porter affirmed that the king could not have left, as the gates were locked and he had the key. Gowrie, it is said, then went up to make inquiry, and, returning, asserted that the king had certainly left. It is supposed to have been the master who (when he left the chamber) spread the rumour that the king had left. But before they had time to decide as to the truth of the rumour, the voice of the king was heard shouting ‘Treason!’ and his face was seen for a moment at a window of the turret. Thereupon Sir Thomas Erskine seized Gowrie, with the words ‘Traitor, thou shalt die the death,’ but was immediately felled to the ground by a blow of the fist from Andrew Ruthven of Forgan. Thereupon Lennox, Mar, and others rushed towards the apartment whence proceeded the cries; and Gowrie, running up the street to the house of a citizen, drew two swords from a scabbard, and, returning, exclaimed that he ‘would gang into his own house or die by the way.’ According to the official account, he passed up the back stairs with seven of his servants, all with drawn swords, and, entering the chamber, ‘cried out with a great oath that they should all die as traitors;’ but Calderwood asserts that the only servant who accompanied him was Cranston (History, vi. 72). The result of the conflict tallies best with the latter supposition. There were only four of the king's followers in the chamber—Sir Thomas Erskine, Sir Hew Herries, Sir John Ramsay, and John Wilson—who would scarcely have been a match for eight. Moreover, the only servant hurt was Cranston, who was mortally wounded. Gowrie, an expert swordsman, and rendered desperate by the sight of his bleeding brother, whose body he had passed on the way up, attacked the king's friends with fury; but his attention having been suddenly diverted by an exclamation from some one that the king was killed, he either permitted Ramsay to get within his guard or else was stabbed from behind.
The deaths of Gowrie and his brother removed the only witnesses for the defence. Since both were killed by the king or his immediate attendants, it was almost inevitable that the judicial verdict should go against them. It must further be remembered that, while the king's attendants were naturally biassed in his favour, the servants of Gowrie gave their evidence—such as it was—under threat of torture or under actual torture, the boot and the lokman having been brought from Edinburgh to Falkland for this purpose; and that no evidence favourable to Gowrie would be accepted.
The fact that the earl had spent but a few months of his manhood in Scotland, and these chiefly in retirement, deprives us of materials for an adequate knowledge of his character. If he did concoct such a plot as that indicated in the letters—not then brought to light—of Robert Logan [q. v.], he must have been the weak victim of English diplomacy, for if Elizabeth did suggest such a plot, she cannot be credited with intending anything so foolish as to acknowledge it, or to accept the custody of the Scottish king. Moreover, on the supposition that there was a plot, the methods adopted by Gowrie and his brother to carry it out displayed a fantastic audacity, which, if consistent with sanity, indicates an amazing contempt for anything resembling precaution. As regards Gowrie himself, it must further be remembered that at first he was merely passive. Even supposing that the master intended to kill the king, the only suspicious circumstance in the conduct of Gowrie is his statement that the king had left the house; and, accepting the evidence against him as genuine, it does not show beyond doubt that the statement was not made in good faith. Before he entered his house with a drawn sword, he had been denounced and threatened by the king's attendants; and it was to revenge his brother's death, over whose bleeding body he had stepped, that he attacked his supposed murderers in the chamber. On the other hand, to exculpate Gowrie is not necessarily to inculpate the king. Indeed, all the weight of even circumstantial evidence is against the theory that the purpose of the king's visit to Perth was to effect the assassination of Gowrie or his brother. The question mainly turns on the character of the interview between the master of Ruthven and the king in the upper chamber; and unless the evidence of Henderson, the man in armour, be regarded as unimpeachable, it is impossible to decide conclusively as to the origin of the sudden quarrel which had such a tragic ending; for besides Henderson, who may or may not have been present, the only survivors of the interview were the king and Ramsay, to whom the master owed his death.
On 7 Aug. the privy council ordered that the corpses of Gowrie and the master of Ruthven 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 (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vi. 145). Orders were also sent for the apprehension of the earl's brothers William and Patrick [see under Ruthven, William, first Earl of Gowrie], but they made their escape to England. The bodies of Gowrie and the master 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 Oct. they were sent to Edinburgh to be produced at the bar of parliament. On 20 Nov. 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 master were also ordered to be hanged and quartered at the cross of Edinburgh, and the fragments to be put up on spike in Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee, and Stirling. 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 (Acta Parl. Scot. iv. 212–13).
It must be confessed that the severity of the acts against the Ruthvens, and especially the merciless prosecution of the two younger brothers, who were then mere children, was scarcely justified by the character of the evidence adduced against them. It is by no means certain, even if they were the aggressors, that they intended to do more than wring from the king a settlement of their debts; on the other hand, the relentless procedure of the king suggests the suspicion that he was at least anxious to utilise to the utmost a favourable opportunity to get rid of his debts, not merely by the confiscation of the earl's estates, but by placing the whole family under the ban of the law. It is characteristic of James that he should have directed a special inquiry into the reputed dealings of Gowrie in the black art. Some absurd evidence as to Ruthven's practice of carrying supposed magical charms upon his person was adduced, on the strength of which, and similar tales, Patrick Galloway, in his sermon at the cross of Edinburgh, pronounced Gowrie to have been ‘a deep dissimulate hypocrite, a profound atheist, and an incarnate devil in the coat of an angel;’ and also asserted that he had been plainly proved to be ‘a studier of magic, a conjuror of devils, and to have had so many at his command.’ It is worth noting that similar charges of sorcery were brought against both his grandfather and his father.[Cal. State Papers, Scot. Ser. and For. Ser. Reign of Elizabeth; Winwood's Memorials of State; Calderwood's History of the Kirk of Scotland; Pitcairn's Criminal Trials; Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. vi.; Acta Parl. Scot. vol. iv.; Moysie's Memoirs and History of James the Sext (Bannatyne Club); Spotiswood's History of Scotland; A Discourse of the Unnatural and Vile Conspiracy attempted against his Majesty's Person at St. Johnston's, 1600 (republished with additions by Lord Hailes, 1770, translated into Latin with addi- tions, under the title Ruvenorum Conjuratio, 1601); Vindication of the Earl of Gowrie, published in 1600, but immediately suppressed; Earl of Cromarty's Historical Account of the Conspiracy of Gowrie and Robert Logan of Restalrig against James VI, 1713; Historical Dissertation on the Gowrie Conspiracy in Malcolm Laing's History of Scotland, vol. i.; Cant's Notes to Adamson's Muses Threnodie, 1774; Panton's Gowrie Conspiracy, 1812; Scott's History of the Life and Death of John, Earl of Gowrie, 1818; Barbé's Tragedy of Gowrie House, 1887; Histories of Scotland by Tytler and Burton. The ‘conspiracy’ forms the subject of G. P. R. James's romance ‘Gowrie, or the King's Plot’ (1851).]