Born c.1577 Died 1600
John Ruthven was the second son of William, 4th Lord Ruthven and 1st Earl of Gowrie (created 1581), by his wife Dorothea, daughter of Henry Stewart, 2nd Lord Methven.
The Ruthven family was of ancient Scottish descent, and had owned extensive estates in the time of William the Lion; the Ruthven peerage dated from the year 1488. The 1st Earl of Gowrie (?1541-1584), and his father, Patrick, 3rd Lord Ruthven (c. 1520-1566), had both been concerned in the murder of Rizzio in 1566; and both took an active part on the side of the Kirk in the constant intrigues and factions among the Scottish nobility of the period. The former had been the custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots, during her imprisonment in Loch Leven, where, according to the queen, he had pestered her with amorous attentions; he had also been the chief actor in the plot known as the 'Raid of Ruthven' when King James VI was treacherously seized while a guest at the castle of Ruthven in 1582, and kept under restraint for several months while the earl remained at the head of the government. Though pardoned for this conspiracy he continued to plot against the king in conjunction with the earls of Mar and Angus; and he was executed for high treason on the 2nd of May 1584; his friends complaining that the confession on which he was convicted of treason was obtained by a promise of pardon from the king. His eldest son, William, and Earl of Gowrie, only survived till 1588, the family dignities and estates, which had been forfeited, having been restored to him in 1586.
When, therefore, John Ruthven succeeded to the earldom while still a child, he inherited along with his vast estates family traditions of treason and intrigue. There was also a popular belief, though without foundation, that there was Tudor blood in his veins; and Burnet afterwards asserted that Gowrie stood next in succession to the crown of England after King James VI. Like his father and grandfather before him, the young earl 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 Bothwell in forcing himself sword in hand into the king's bedchamber in Holyrood Palace. A few months later Gowrie joined with Atholl and Montrose in offering to serve Queen Elizabeth, 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; and at Paris he made acquaintance with the English ambassador, who reported him to Cecil as devoted to Elizabeth's service, and a nobleman "of whom there may be exceeding use made". In Paris he may also at this time have had further communication with the exiled Bothwell; in London he was received with marked favour by Queen Elizabeth and her ministers.
These circumstances owe their importance to the light they throw on the obscurity of the celebrated 'Gowrie conspiracy',which resulted in the slaughter 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. This event ranks among the unsolved enigmas of history. The mystery is 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 thoughtless folly of their actual procedure; and the insufficiency of motive, whoever the guilty parties may have been.
The solutions of the mystery that have been suggested are three in number: first, that Gowrie and his brother had concocted a plot to murder, or more probably to kidnap King James, and that they lured him to Gowrie House for this purpose; secondly, that James paid a surprise visit to Gowrie House with the intention, which he carried out, of slaughtering the two Ruthvens; and thirdly, that the tragedy was the outcome of an unpremeditated brawl following high words between the king and the earl, or his brother.
To understand the relative probabilities of these hypotheses regard must be had to the condition of Scotland in the year 1600 (see Scotland: History). Here it can only be recalled that plots to capture the person of the sovereign for the purpose of coercing his actions were of frequent occurrence, more than one of which had been successful, and in several of which the Ruthven family had themselves taken an active part; that the relations between England and Scotland were at this time more than usually strained, and that the young earl of Gowrie was reckoned in London among the adherents of Elizabeth; that the Kirk party, being at variance with James, looked upon Gowrie as an hereditary partisan of their cause, and had recently sent an agent to Paris to recall him to Scotland as their leader; that Gowrie was believed to be James's rival for the succession to the English crown.
Moreover, as regards the question of motive it is to be observed, on the one hand, that the Ruthvens believed Gowrie's father to have been treacherously done to death, and his widow insulted by the king's favourite minister; while, on the other, James was indebted in a large sum of money to the earl of Gowrie's estate, and popular gossip credited either Gowrie or his brother, Alexander Ruthven, with being the lover of the queen. Although the evidence on these points, and on every minute circumstance connected with the tragedy itself, has been exhaustively examined by historians of the Gowrie conspiracy, it cannot be asserted that the mystery has been entirely dispelled; but, while it is improbable that complete certainty will ever be arrived at as to whether the guilt lay with James or with the Ruthven brothers, the most modern research in the light of materials inaccessible or overlooked till the loth century, points pretty clearly to the conclusion that there was a genuine conspiracy by Gowrie and his brother to kidnap the king. If this be the true solution, 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.
The facts as related by James and other witnesses were, in outline, as follows. On the 5th of August 1600 the king rose early to hunt in the neighbourhood of Falkland Palace, about 14 miles from Perth. Just as he was setting forth in company with the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Mar, Sir Thomas Erskine and others, he was accosted by Alexander Ruthven (known as the master of Ruthven), a younger brother of the Earl of Gowrie, who had ridden from Perth that morning to inform the king that he had met on the previous day a man in possession of a pitcher full of foreign gold coins, whom he had secretly locked up in a room at Gowrie House. Ruthven urged the king to ride to Perth to examine this man for himself and to take possession of the treasure. After some hesitation James gave credit to the story, suspecting that the possessor of the coins was one of the numerous Catholic agents at that time moving about Scotland in disguise. Without giving a positive reply to Alexander Ruthven, James started to hunt; but later in the morning he called Ruthven to him and said he would ride to Perth when the hunting was over. Ruthven then despatched a servant, Henderson, by whom he had been accompanied from Perth in the early morning, to tell Gowrie that the king was coming to Gowrie House. This messenger gave the information to Gowrie about ten o'clock in the morning. Meanwhile Alexander Ruthven was urging the king to lose no time, requesting him to keep the matter secret from his courtiers, and to bring to Gowrie House as small a retinue as possible.
James, with a train of some fifteen persons, arrived at Gowrie House about one o'clock, Alexander Ruthven having spurred forward for a mile or so to announce the king's approach. But notwithstanding Henderson's warning some three hours earlier, Gowrie had made no preparations for the king's entertainment, thus giving the impression of having been taken by surprise. After a meagre repast, for which he was kept waiting an hour, James, forbidding 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. He found instead an armed man, who, as appeared later, was none other than 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.
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. But 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. 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 The staircase to the king's help, but were stopped by the locked door, which they spent some time in trying to batter down. John Ramsay (afterwards Earl of Holdernesse), noticing a small dark stairway leading directly to the inner chamber adjoining the turret, ran up it and found the king struggling at grips with Ruthven. Drawing his dagger, Ramsay wounded Ruthven, who was then pushed down the stairway by the king. Sir Thomas Erskine, summoned by Ramsay, now followed up the small stairs with Dr Hugh Herries, and these two coming upon the wounded Ruthven despatched him with their swords. Gowrie, entering the court-yard with his stabler Thomas Cranstoun and seeing his brother's body, rushed up the staircase after Erskine and Herries, followed by Cranstoun and others of his retainers; and in the melee Gowrie was 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.
The tragedy 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 preachers 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. Their 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. 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.
Gowrie's two younger brothers, William
and Patrick Ruthven
, fled to England; and after the accession of James to the English throne William escaped abroad, but Patrick was taken and imprisoned for nineteen years in the Tower of London
. Released in 1622, Patrick Ruthven resided first at Cambridge
and afterwards in Somersetshire
, being granted a small pension by the crown. He married Elizabeth Woodford
, widow of the 1st 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.
See Andrew Lang, James VI and the Gowrie Mystery (London, 1902), and the authorities there cited; Robert Pitcairn, Criminal Trials in Scotland (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1833) ; David Moysie, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, 1577–1603 (Edinburgh, 1830) ; Louis A. Barbe, The Tragedy of Gowrie House (London, 1887) ; Andrew Bisset, Essays on Historical Truth (London, 1871) ; David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland (8 vols., Edinburgh, 1842–1849); P. F. Tytler, History of Scotland (9 vols., Edinburgh, 1828-1843); John Hill Burton, History of Scotland (7 vols., Edinburgh, 1867–1870). W. A. Craigie has edited as Skotlands Rimur some Icelandic ballads relating to the Gowrie conspiracy. He has also printed the Danish translation of the official account of the conspiracy, which was published at Copenhagen in 1601. (R.J.M.)
Being the entry for GOWRIE, JOHN RUTHVEN, 3RD EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.