King James VI’s visit to Gowrie House in 1600 has provided conspiracy theorists with material for centuries. But what happened?
The Gunpowder Plot in 1605, whose aim was to blow the Houses of Parliament and King James VI and I to smithereens, never posed a moment’s serious threat to the monarch’s, or anyone else’s life. Long before the kegs were even stowed in the cellars, the state’s spies knew what was afoot, and were merely biding their time to arrest the traitors. Guy Fawkes and his conspirators’ murderous designs were thus turned against them, providing additional ammunition in the anti-Catholic cause, itself a keg that needed only the smallest spark to set alight.
The royal PR machine, however, has never let facts get in the way of a good story, and the king’s miraculous survival was trumpeted across the land, honoured ever since in annual bonfires and fireworks that give no hint of how damp a squib the plot actually was. What we should be doing, apparently, is honouring the date, five years earlier, when James only narrowly escaped death: a day, indeed, when he faced perdition not once, but three times. Quite what form a commemorative event would take is not clear, but at the very least it should involve suits of armour and battering rams.
It was August 5, 1600, when James VI found himself embroiled in one of the most peculiar series of events in royal history. Known as the “Gowrie Conspiracy”, it took place in Gowrie House, in Perth, home of the powerful and ambitious Ruthven family, one of whom had played a major role in ensuring Mary, Queen of Scots’s abdication, and later kidnapped young James, holding him for a year. That particular Ruthven was eventually executed. Relations between the Stuart and Ruthven families were thus not what one would call warm.
James was hunting in the royal grounds at Falkland when he was, allegedly, summoned by Alexander, the Master of Ruthven, to Gowrie House. Alexander, or Sandy, as he was known, purportedly span a story about having that morning found a man with a pot of gold, who was being held for questioning at Gowrie House, and who the king should meet.
Despite the urgency of Sandy’s message, James and his men finished their morning’s sport before making their way to Perth. There they found a decidedly strained atmosphere, the house unprepared for the monarch’s visit. Odder still, the king and Sandy left the company and made their way alone to a turret room. Shortly after, the turret window was flung open and the king was heard roaring for his life, crying ‘I am murdered! Treason!’ In the ensuing panic, first Sandy and then his outraged elder brother John, the Earl of Gowrie, were killed. On hearing this, the townsfolk of Perth besieged Gowrie House, intending to break their way in and do away with James for his heinous act. Eventually they were calmed, and the king was able to leave, unmolested.
Rumours that the king had murdered the brothers in a cold-blooded act of reprisal began immediately to circulate. As well as old grievances, there were new ones that could be seen as motive enough. Some thought James’s attractive Danish wife Anna had been having an affair with Sandy and the king sought to avenge himself; others believed it was the king himself who had bedded the strapping young aristocrat. James put out a garbled, unsatisfactory story about what had happened, so unconvincing and full of holes that few believed it. It included details such as a man in full armour who stood in the turret, doing nothing, while Sandy made to tie up and kill the king. When ordered to preach thanks for his safety from their pulpits, five clerics bravely refused to, declaring that the story did not ring true. Four of the five were eventually won round, but the fifth – the Reverend Robert Bruce, possessed of ‘a particularly tender Pres-byterian conscience’ – remained sceptical. That integrity may explain his death in near poverty years later, after several sojourns in Scottish prisons.
J. D. Davies is a Welsh teacher, novelist and historian, author of an acclaimed history of Pepys’ navy. He arms himself against any criticism of venturing into Scottish history by arguing the significance of that fateful day to the future of the whole British Isles. Among other things, had James died in Gowrie House, there might have been no civil war in the mid-17th century and, given that James was instrumental in the colonisation of Ireland by English and Scots, there might have been no 17th-century massacres in Ireland either, with all the ramifications that later led to.
Davies presents a swashbuckling account of this most mysterious day, replete with all the hokum that’s been attached to it. Although a little repetitive, with a tendency to give too much time to the more fanciful of theories, his approach is that of a natural teacher. Characters are brought to life with a well-judged sprinkling of period detail – James’s wife, for instance, shared her father’s love of beer – and his chapters end with cliffhangers, though sometimes almost comically so. Academics might rightly curl their lip at his over-heated style, and his fondness for italicising statements as if reading a proclamation from the battlements, yet what Davies loses in rigorous detachment and scholarly calm, he makes up for in the momentum and memorability of his style. He also deserves credit for tackling an episode that is treacherously complicated, bedevilled by myths and conspiracy theories. Out of a morass of speculation, he not only creates a most readable tale, but produces new evidence from previously untapped archives, which he believes supports a raft of radical theories.
James VI has had a poor press, and it’s not hard to see why. A man who believed his enemies were in cahoots with the devil, and who set the witch-hunt raging in Scot-land, he was a clever but unprepossessing individual, whose habit of scratching his codpiece was embarrassing, as were his table manners. Davies, however, has no truck with those who focus on his foibles. Midway through his account, after examining every angle of the possibility that James was the instigator of the Gowrie conspiracy rather than its victim, he concludes:
‘Modern historians have long seen him as a highly intelligent, tolerant, lenient monarch, determined to reconcile opposing factions in church, state, and Europe as a whole; not exactly the obvious personality traits one would expect from a man who committed murder at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600.
‘But among the rapidly dwindling percentage of the general population who know anything at all about him, perceptions of King James remain rooted in the school of dribbling, fiddling, slobbering and that lazy old soundbite, “the wisest fool in Christen-dom”. The only recent major portrayals of James on British television departed from this norm – only to replace it with a vision of the king as a devious bisexual psychopath. This King James could certainly have been the villain of the piece at Gowrie House. But the real King James could not have been, and was not.’
What follows is a series of almost gid-dying possibilities, most of which remain tantalisingly unanswered. They range from the idea that Elizabeth I’s right hand man Robert Cecil was involved in the conspiracy, to casting James’s own wife as plotter. Furious to have had their son Henry packed off to be brought up by the Erskine family (a common practice at the time), she might have believed that with James dead she would get her son back. She also happened to be on very friendly terms with the Ruthvens, despite her husband’s long-running enmity with the family, two of whom were her ladies in waiting.
Speculation over James’s paternity also dogs the story. Was he, as some believed, a changeling, an Erskine smuggled into the palace to replace a dead Stuart infant? Was he perhaps the bastard son of David Rizzio, Mary, Queen of Scots’ beloved musical friend? Or was his father the son of the man who murdered Rizzio?
The Italian’s killer, Patrick, Lord Ruthven, is one of the most sinister figures in a history filled with deadly players. Mortally unwell when he undertook to rid the realm of Mary’s companion, he turned up that day, haggard with illness, and ‘dressed in full armour, worn under a long nightgown’. It’s an image hard to erase. That he also seemed willing to see Mary dead – if she resisted Rizzio’s murder, he said, ‘We will throw her to them piecemeal, from the top of the terrace’ – shows not just what an implacable foe the Ruthvens were to the Stuarts, but what a knife-edge royals walked in those days, regardless of their power.
Despite the plethora of motives raised in this portrait of personal and dynastic turmoil, many of which are far-fetched, Blood of Kings is most valuable for demonstrating the fiendish layers of alliances and ambitions that lay beneath 17th-century politics. One’s respect for royalty – never strong in this reader’s case – is greatly enhanced by understanding the vast web of intrigues within which they were obliged to manoeuvre. Or which, indeed, they wove around themselves.
Davies contends that the issue of James’s paternity could easily be determined by DNA testing of the corpse of Rizzio and living Erskines. ‘Of course,’ he opines, ‘it might be a different matter to find a member of the royal family willing to undergo a DNA comparison that might effectively bastardise his or her entire bloodline, and to find politicians willing to sanction a test that might conceivably end the days of monarchy in Britain.’
One fears that, like so many of his predecessors, Davies has been infected by the feverish speculation that surrounded the Gowrie Plot. James VI and I showed the political acumen and private neurosis that more than qualify him as royal. Questions of his legitimacy are, in many ways, the least troubling of all the doubts cast by the ever-fascinating, and unresolved Gowrie Conspiracy. Davies’s exhaustive investigative work, far from bringing the hunt to an end, has set even more hares running.
BLOOD OF KINGS: THE STUARTS, THE RUTHVENS AND THE ‘GOWRIE CONSPIRACY’
J. D. Davies
IAN ALLAN PUBLISHING, £19.99 304PP