On August 5, 1600, the mysterious incident known as the Gowrie Conspiracy, involving the Ruthven brothers, John, the 3rd Earl of Gowrie, and Alexander, took place in Perth. In “The History of Scotland”, Walter Scott devotes a fair amount of acreage to this episode. The action of the story, per Scott, is below. There is more to enjoy in Scott's history.
‘The Earl of Gowrie's younger brother, Alexander Ruthven, was a young man of great hopes, and both were considered as possessing a share of the king's favour. Learned, handsome, young, and active, they belonged to the class of men which most readily attracted the king's notice; and, generous, brave, and religious to a degree not common with men so young, they were the darlings of the people. Alexander Ruthven was made a gentleman of the bed-chamber; one of his sisters advanced to be a chief attendant upon the queen; a considerable post in the government was designed for Gowrie himself; and no house in the kingdom appeared more flourishing, at the very time when a number of violent and mysterious circumstances brought on its total ruin.
On the 5 of August, 1600, as the king, then residing at Falkland, had taken horse at daybreak to follow his favourite exercise of stag-hunting, he was joined by Alexander Ruthven, who requested a private audience, and communicated to James, as they rode together, apart from the other huntsmen, a story of a most extraordinary kind. He had been, he said, walking near his brother's house at Perth, when, in a retired spot, he encountered a fellow of a down-looking aspect, and altogether suspicious in his appearance, who was wrapt in a cloak, and seemed desirous to escape observation. Ruthven continued, that, conceiving it his duty to lay hands on this man, he had, in doing so, discovered on this person a large pot full of gold pieces of foreign coinage. He then deemed it his duty, he said, to carry the stranger to his brother's castle, and privately imprison him, in a remote apartment, in order that his majesty might have the earliest information upon a subject so extraordinary; he urged the king, therefore, to ride with him instantly to his brother, the Earl of Gowrie's castle, in the town of Perth, examine the captive himself and secure the treasure for his own royal use. The king replied, that he saw no reason why the man should not be regularly examined by the magistrates of Perth, of whom the Earl of Gowrie was provost. This proceeding young Ruthven eagerly opposed : alleging the necessity that a matter so mysterious should be subjected to the king's own scrutiny, so much deeper than that of any subject, and stating eagerly the risk of the treasure being embezzled, if any inferior person was to be trusted with the examination. He, therefore, repeatedly urged James instantly to ride with him to Perth; and this in a manner so hurried and vehement, that the king was induced to ask some of his attendants whether Ruthven had ever been known to be affected with fits of insanity: they replied, that they had never known him, save as a sober and sensible young man. Reassured by this information, feeling, it may be supposed, the compliment paid to his superior wisdom, and desirous to secure a windfall which did not often come in his way, James agreed that as soon as he had seen the buck killed he would accompany Alexander Ruthven to Perth, and examine the prisoner.
During the whole chase, which was a short one, Ruthven hung upon the king, and at every opportunity which it afforded plied him with earnest importunity to set out upon his journey. It must be observed, that a person named Andrew Henderson, a dependant upon the Earl of Gowrie, and whose part in this affair is not the least extraordinary in the whole mystery, was then at a distance in attendance upon Alexander Ruthven, who, after his conferences with the king, ordered Henderson to ride back with the utmost speed to Perth, and announce to the Earl of Gowrie that the king was coming immediately to Gowrie House with a small company. Henderson reached Perth about ten o'clock in the morning. So soon as ever the earl saw him, he came apart from the persons with whom he was speaking, and inquired secretly what tidings he had brought him from his brother Alexander. Henderson delivered the message which he had received from Mr. Ruthven; adding, he had no letter to his brother, which the Earl of Gowrie seemed to have expected. Henderson then asked what service his lordship had for him to do, who, within an hour afterwards, bid him put on his armour, as he had a Highlander to take prisoner in the town of Perth. It does not appear that the Earl of Gowrie at this time made any preparation to receive the king, although apprised of his approach, nor did he even put off the service of his own dinner until that of his majesty should be provided. On the contrary, he proceeded to his own meal, with one or two chance guests who happened to be in the castle, at the usual hour of half past twelve o'clock. Their dinner was scarcely finished, when notice was given of the king's near approach.
Upon the death of the stag, the king fulfilled his promise of riding to Perth with Mr. Ruthven, but before this, which is material, by-the-bye, to the evidence of the case, he communicated to the Duke of Lennox the story of the treasure which had been found. The duke replied, he did not think the tale a likely one. In consequence, perhaps, of this communication, the- duke, the Earl of Mar, and a small train of gentlemen, followed the king to Perth. They were met by the Earl of Gowrie, who, although he appeared surprised at the visit, conducted him to his mansion, a large Gothic building; walled in and defended by towers, and having a garden or pleasure ground which extended straight down to the river Tay. The king, according to etiquette, dined by himself. Lord Lennox, the Earl of Mar, and his train, had their repast served in another apartment. The dinner was cold and ill-arranged; and everything had the air of haste and precipitation which need not have existed had the Earl of Gowrie been disposed to avail himself of the timely information which he had received from Henderson. The conduct of the entertainer himself was cold, abstracted, and unequal, unlike to that expected from a subject who is honoured with the presence of his sovereign as a guest. When the king had dined, he good-humouredly reminded the Earl of Gowrie that he ought to go into the next room and drink a cup of welcome to the lords and gentlemen of his train. Gowrie did so; and upon his leaving the room, his brother Alexander whispered to the king that this was the fitting time to inquire into the business of the prisoner and the money pot. The king was, apparently, not altogether void of suspicion, though probably it extended no farther than a floating idea that Ruthven, whose tale and conduct were so extraordinary, might possibly, after all, be distracted. He had, therefore, in the course of their journey to Perth, privately desired the Duke of Lennox to take notice where he should pass with Alexander Ruthven, and to follow him. But as they were in separate chambers, the duke had no opportunity to observe the charge given to him.
Alexander Ruthven conducted the king from chamber to chamber, until he introduced him into a large gallery, at the angles of which were two rounds or turrets, which gave room, as is usual in such buildings, the one to a small closet or cabinet, the other to a private passage called a turnpike stair. On Ruthyen's opening that which constituted a cabinet, the king discovered, to his surprise, a man not bound or captive, but armed and at liberty.
This was Henderson, already mentioned, whom the brothers had employed in their plan, though they had not deemed it safe to trust him with its purpose. His deposition bore, that after his return from Falkland, and his assuming his armour by the earl's orders, Gowrie had asked him for the key of the gallery-chamber. It was not at first to be found, so little were things prepared for an attempt so dangerous. Being at length-found, the earl commanded Henderson to go there, and to act as he should be directed by his brother Alexander. Henderson obeyed with the unresisting and ready submission of a vassal of the time; and Ruthven planted him in the little cabinet in which he was found, and locked him in. These preparations made, the man became afraid where all this might end. Left alone in the cabinet, he prayed to God to guard him from approaching evil; and after waiting about half an hour, Ruthven and the king appeared. The account of the extraordinary scene which followed rests upon the evidence of the king and Henderson. They agree in the main, but differ in several minute particulars. This is in n way surprising. Upon scarce any occasion do the witnesses of a perturbed, violent, and agitating scene agree minutely in narrating what has passed before for their eyes; and there often exist circumstances of discrepancy much more remarkable than any that occur in the present case, which, nevertheless, are not considered as affecting the general truth and consistency of the evidence. The truth is, that the surprise or shock which the mind receives when individual witnesses anything very extraordinary have an operation in preventing exact circumstantial recollection of what has passed, and the witness, insensibly on his own part, is, in the detail of minute particulars, extremely apt to substitute the suggestions of imagination for those of recollection. There may be also seen, in the varieties of the king's declaration and the evidence of Henderson, a desire on the part of each to set his own conduct in the best point of view; Henderson taking the merit of assisting the king in one or two instances, where James ascribes his safety to his own personal exertions.
The outline of the fact is this: So soon as Ruthven and the king entered the cabinet, the former exchanged the deference of a subject for the demeanor of an assassin: he threw his hat upon his head, snatched a dagger from the side of Andrew Henderson, and placing the point to the king's breast, said, "Sir, you must be my prisoner:—think on my father's death; Henderson pushed the weapon aside: as the king attempted to speak, Ruthven replied, "Hold your tongue, or, by heaven, you shall die:"—"Alexander," replied the king, "think upon our intimacy, and remember, that at the time of your father's death I was but a minor, and the council might have done any thing they pleased:—even should you slay me you cannot possess the crown: for I have both sons and daughters, and friends, and faithful subjects, who will not leave my death unavenged."—Ruthven replied, by swearing that he neither sought the king's life nor blood.— What, then, is it you demand?" said the king.—"It is but a promise," answered the conspirator, who seems to have been irresolute, or intimidated.—"What promise?" demanded James; and added, with becoming spirit, "What though you were to take off your hat."—" My brother will tell you,'' replied Ruthven, uncovering, in obedience to the king's command.—" Fetch him hither," said the king. And Ruthven, having first taken James's word that he would not open the window or raise any alarm, left him, in order, as he pretended, to seek his brother, although, as Henderson says, he thinks that Ruthven never stirred from the gallery. He retired, most probably, only with the purpose of fortifying his own failing resolution, or preparing the means of binding the king. During his absence, the king demanded of Henderson how he came there. “As I live," answered the poor man, much alarmed by all that had passed in his presence, "I was shut up here like a dog." The king then asked if the Ruthvens would do him any injury. "As I live," answered Henderson, "I will die ere I witness it." The king, finding this person at his command, desired him to open the window of the turret. It had two, one of which looked down towards the castle garden and the river side, the other to the court-yard in front of the castle. The king, with the presence of mind which he seems to have maintained during the whole transaction, seeing that Henderson opened the former of those windows, from which no alarm could be given, called out that he undid the wrong window. Henderson was going to the other, when Ruthven again entered, with a garter in his hand, and laid violent hands upon his majesty, declaring there was no remedy. James, replying with indignation that he was a free prince, and would not be bound, resisted Ruthven manfully, and, though much inferior to him in strength and stature, had rather the better of the struggle. Henderson, who appears to have been confounded with terror, and divided betwixt his respect for the king and for his feudal lord, took no part in the struggle, otherwise than by snatching the garter from Ruthven's hand, and, as he says, Alexander's hand from the king's mouth. Ruthven had expected his co-operation, for he exclaimed, "Wo worthy thee! is there no help in thee?" Mean time the king, by violent exertion, dragged the conspirator as far as the second window, which Henderson opened. The king then, still struggling with Ruthven, called out, "Treason!" and Help!" and was heard by his followers in the court-yard below.
We must here give some account how the royal train came to be so opportunely within hearing of their master's cries. After drinking the pledge which had been recommended by the king, the Duke of Lennox and the rest of the royal retinue arose from table; the former recollecting the charge which he had to follow his majesty, when he should see him go out with Ruthven. The Earl of Gowrie, however, alleged that the king desired to be private for a few minutes; and calling for the key of his garden, carried his visitors to walk there until James should descend. They had stayed there but a few minutes when John Cranstoun, a retainer or friend of the Earl, came into the garden, and said that the king was on horseback, and already past the middle of the South Inch, upon his return to Falkland. The Duke of Lennox and the other attendants of .James, conceiving them failing in their duty, instantly hastened out of the garden towards the court-yard, and called to horse. The porter at the gate informed them the king had not passed. As they stood in surprise, the Earl of Gowrie entreated them to stay till he should obtain sure information concerning the king's motions. He entered the house, and returning almost immediately, declared that the king was actually set forth. The porter still contradicted the report of his master, replying to the royal attendants that the king must be still in the mansion, since he could not have gone out without his having seen him. "Thou liest, knave!" exclaimed the earl; and to reconcile his own account with that of his servant, Gowrie alleged that the king was gone forth at a postern gate. "It is impossible, my lord, answered the porter, "for I am in possession of the key of that postern." During this dispute cries of treason and help were heard from the turret. "That is the king's voice," said the Duke of Lennox, "be he where he will." James's attendants looked up to the window from whence the noise was heard, and perceived the head of the king partly thrust out at the window, inflamed by struggling, and a hand grasping him by the throat. The greater part of the king's attendants reentered the mansion by the principal gate lo hasten to their master's assistance, while Sir Thomas Erskine and others threw themselves upon the Earl of Gowrie, accusing him of treason. Gowrie, with the assistance of Thomas Cranstoun and others his retainers and servants, extricated himself from their grasp, and at first fled a little way up the street; then halted, and drew two swords, which, according to a fashion of the time practised in Italy, he carried in the same scabbard. "What will you do, my lord?" said Cranstoun, who attended with the purpose of seconding him. "I will either make my way to my own house," said the earl, adopting, it would seem, a desperate resolution, "or I will die for it." He rushed on, followed by Cranstoun and other friends and domestics, who also drew their swords. A lackey, named Crookshanks. threw a steel headpiece upon the earl's head as he passed.
A dreadful scene in the mean while was taking place in Gowrie House. Lennox, Mar, and by far the greater part of the king's attendants, endeavoured to find their way to the place of the king's confinement by the public stair-case of the castle; but this only conducted them to the outer door of the gallery, within which, and from one of its extremities, opened the fatal cabinet in which the king and Alexander Ruthven were still grappling with each other.
It must be remembered, that a scene, the details of which take some time in narrating, passed in the course of two or three minutes. Sir John Ramsay, a page of James, who had in keeping his majesty's hawk, had heard James's cry of distress; and while the other attendants of the king ran up the main staircase, he lighted by accident upon a small turnpike or winding stair, which led to the cabinet in which the struggle was still taking place, alarmed by the noise and shuffling of feet, he exerted his whole strength in such a manner as to force open the door at the head of that turnpike, which introduced him into the fatal cabinet. The king and Ruthven were still wrestling together; and although James had forced his antagonist almost upon his knees, Ruthven had still his hand upon James's face and mouth. He also saw another form, that of the passive Andrew Henderson, who left the closet almost the instant he saw Ramsay enter.
The page, at the sight of his master's danger, cast the king’s hawk from his hand, and drew his whinger, or hunting sword. The king, at that moment of emergency, called out, "Fie! strike him low, for he has a pine doublet,"—meaning a secret shirt of mail under his garments. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven accordingly; and James lending his assistance, they thrust the wounded man down the turnpike by which Ramsay had ascended. Voices and steps were now heard advancing upwards: and Ramsay, knowing the accents called out to Sir Thomas Erskine to come up the turnpike stair, even to the head. Sir Thomas Erskine was accompanied by Sir Hugh Harris, the king's physician, a lame man, and unfit for fighting. Near the bottom of the turnpike Sir Thomas Erskine, in his ascent met Ruthven, bleeding in the face and neck and called out, "Fie! strike! this is the traitor on which Alexander Ruthven was run through the body, having only breath remaining to say, "Alas! I had no blame of it."
Sir Thomas Erskine pressed to the head of the staircase, where he found the king and Ramsay alone. "I thought." said Erskine, your majesty would have trusted me so much as at least to have commanded me to await at the door for your protection, if you had not thought it meet to take me with you. James replied, and the words first spoken in such a moment of agitation are always worthy of notice, "Alas! the traitor deceived me in that as he did in the rest; for I commanded him to bring you to me, but he only went out and locked the door."
At this point of the extraordinary transaction the Karl of Gowrie entered with a drawn sword in each hand, a steel bonnet on his head, and six servants following him in arms. In the chamber there were only three of the king's retinue, Sir Hugh Horns, Sir John Ramsay, and Sir Thomas Erskine, with one Wilson, a servant. Of these, Sir Hugh Harris might be considered as unfit for combat. They thrust the king back into the turret closet, and turned to encounter Gowrie and his servants, exasperated as they were by the death of Alexander Ruthven, whose body they had found at the bottom of the turnpike stair. The battle was for a short time fierce and unequal on the part of the king's retinue; hut Erskine having exclaimed to the Earl of Gowrie, "Traitor, you have slain our master, and now you would murder us!" the Earl, as if astonished, dropped the point of his sword, and Erskine in the same moment ran him through the body. The thrust was fatal, and the Earl fell dead, without a single word. His servants and assistants fled...’