Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 23: The Gowrie Conspiracy

James, in reducing the Kirk, relied as much on his cunning and "kingcraft" as on his prerogative. He summoned a Convention of preachers and of the Estates to Perth at the end of February 1597, and thither he brought many ministers from the north, men unlike the zealots of Lothian and the Lowlands. He persuaded them to vote themselves a General Assembly; and they admitted his right to propose modifications in Church government, to forbid unusual convocations (as in Edinburgh during the autumn of 1596); they were not to preach against Acts of Parliament or of Council, nor appoint preachers in the great towns without the Royal assent, and were not to attack individuals from the pulpit. An attempt was to be made to convert the Catholic lords. A General Assembly at Dundee in May ratified these decisions, to the wrath of Andrew Melville, and the Catholic earls were more or less reconciled to the Kirk, which at this period had not one supporter among the nobility. James had made large grants of Church lands among the noblesse, and they abstained from their wonted conspiracies for a while. The king occupied himself much in encouraging the persecution of witches, but even that did not endear him to the preachers.

In the Assembly of March 1598 certain ministers were allowed to sit and vote in Parliament. In 1598-1599 a privately printed book by James, the 'Basilicon Doron,' came to the knowledge of the clergy: it revealed his opinions on the right of kings to rule the Church, and on the tendency of the preachers to introduce a democracy "with themselves as Tribunes of the People," a very fair definition of their policy. It was to stop them that he gradually introduced a bastard kind of bishops, police to keep the pulpiteers in order. They were refusing, in face of the king's licence, to permit a company of English players to act in Edinburgh, for they took various powers into their hands.

Meanwhile James's relations with England, where Elizabeth saw with dismay his victory over her allies, his clergy, were unfriendly. Plots were encouraged against him, but it is not probable that England was aware of the famous and mysterious conspiracy of the young Earl of Gowrie, who was warmly welcomed by Elizabeth on his return from Padua, by way of Paris. He had been summoned by Bruce, James's chief clerical adversary, and the Kirk had high hopes of the son of the man of the Raid of Ruthven. He led the opposition to taxation for national defence in a convention of June-July 1600. On August 5, in his own house at Perth, where James, summoned thither by Gowrie's younger brother, had dined with him, Gowrie and his brother were slain by John Ramsay, a page to the king.

This affair was mysterious. The preachers, and especially Bruce, refused to accept James's own account of the events, at first, and this was not surprising. Gowrie was their one hope among the peers, and the story which James told is so strange that nothing could be stranger or less credible except the various and manifestly mendacious versions of the Gowrie party. {156}

James's version of the occurrences must be as much as possible condensed, and there is no room for the corroborating evidence of Lennox and others. As the king was leaving Falkland to hunt a buck early on August 5, the Master of Ruthven, who had ridden over from his brother's house in Perth, accosted him. The Master declared that he had on the previous evening arrested a man carrying a pot of gold; had said nothing to Gowrie; had locked up the man and his gold in a room, and now wished James to come instantly and examine the fellow. The king's curiosity and cupidity were less powerful than his love of sport: he would first kill his buck. During the chase James told the story to Lennox, who corroborated. Ruthven sent a companion to inform his brother; none the less, when the king, with a considerable following, did appear at Gowrie's house, no preparation for his reception had been made.

The Master was now in a quandary: he had no prisoner and no pot of gold. During dinner Gowrie was very nervous; after it James and the Master slipped upstairs together while Gowrie took the gentlemen into the garden to eat cherries. Ruthven finally led James into a turret off the long gallery; he locked the door, and pointing to a man in armour with a dagger, said that he "had the king at his will." The man, however, fell a-trembling, James made a speech, and the Master went to seek Gowrie, locking the door behind him. At or about this moment, as was fully attested, Cranstoun, a retainer of Gowrie, reported to him and the gentlemen that the king had ridden away. They all rushed to the gate, where the porter, to whom Gowrie gave the lie, swore that the king had not left the place. The gentlemen going to the stables passed under the turret-window, whence appeared the king, red in the face, bellowing "treason!" The gentlemen, with Lennox, rushed upstairs, and through the gallery, but could not force open the door giving on the turret. But young Ramsay had run up a narrow stair in the tower, burst open the turret-door opening on the stair, found James struggling with the Master, wounded the Master, and pushed him downstairs. In the confusion, while the king's falcon flew wildly about the turret till James set his foot on its chain, the man with the dagger vanished. The Master was slain by two of James's attendants; the Earl, rushing with four or five men up the turret-stair, fell in fight by Ramsay's rapier.

Lennox and his company now broke through the door between the gallery and the turret, and all was over except a riotous assemblage of the town's folk. The man with the dagger had fled: he later came in and gave himself up; he was Gowrie's steward; his name was Henderson; it was he who rode with the Master to Falkland and back to Perth to warn Gowrie of James's approach. He confessed that Gowrie had then bidden him put on armour, on a false pretence, and the Master had stationed him in the turret. The fact that Henderson had arrived (from Falkland) at Gowrie's house by half-past ten was amply proved, yet Gowrie had made no preparations for the royal visit. If Henderson was not the man in the turret, his sudden and secret flight from Perth is unexplained. Moreover, Robert Oliphant, M.A., said, in private talk, that the part of the man in the turret had, some time earlier, been offered to him by Gowrie; he refused and left the Earl's service. It is manifest that James could not have arranged this set of circumstances: the thing is impossible. Therefore the two Ruthvens plotted to get him into their hands early in the day; and, when he arrived late, with a considerable train, they endeavoured to send these gentlemen after the king, by averring that he had ridden homewards. The dead Ruthvens with their house were forfeited.

Among the preachers who refused publicly to accept James's account of the events in Gowrie's house on August 5, Mr Bruce was the most eminent and the most obstinate. He had, on the day after the famous riot of December 1596, written to Hamilton asking him to countenance, as a chief nobleman, "the godly barons and others who had convened themselves," at that time, in the cause of the Kirk. Bruce admitted that he knew Hamilton to be ambitious, but Hamilton's ambition did not induce him to appear as captain of a new congregation. The chief need of the ministers' party was a leader among the great nobles. Now, in 1593, the young Earl of Gowrie had leagued himself with the madcap Bothwell. In April 1594, Gowrie, Bothwell, and Atholl had addressed the Kirk, asking her to favour and direct their enterprise. Bothwell made an armed demonstration and failed; Gowrie then went abroad, to Padua and Rome, and, apparently in 1600, Mr Bruce sailed to France, "for the calling," he says, "of the Master of Gowrie"--he clearly means "the Earl of Gowrie." The Earl came, wove his plot, and perished. Mr Bruce, therefore, was averse to accepting James's account of the affair at Gowrie House. After a long series of negotiations Bruce was exiled north of Tay.


In 1600 James imposed three bishops on the Kirk. Early in 1601 broke out Essex's rebellion of one day against Elizabeth, a futile attempt to imitate Scottish methods as exhibited in the many raids against James. Essex had been intriguing with the Scottish king, but to what extent James knew of and encouraged his enterprise is unknown. He was on ill terms with Cecil, who, in 1601, was dealing with several men that intended no good to James. Cecil is said to have received a sufficient warning as to how James, on ascending the English throne, would treat him; and he came to terms, secretly, with Mar and Kinloss, the king's envoys to Elizabeth. Their correspondence is extant, and proves that Cecil, at last, was "running the Scottish course," and making smooth the way for James's accession. (The correspondence begins in June 1601.)

Very early on Thursday, March 24, 1603, Elizabeth went to her account, and James received the news from Sir Robert Carey, who reached Holyrood on the Saturday night, March 26. James entered London on May 6, and England was free from the fear of many years concerning a war for the succession. The Catholics hoped for lenient usage: disappointment led some desperate men to engage in the Gunpowder Plot. James was not more satisfactory to the Puritans.

Encouraged by the fulsome adulation which grew up under the Tudor dynasty, and free from dread of personal danger, James henceforth governed Scotland "with the pen," as he said, through the Privy Council. This method of ruling the ancient kingdom endured till the Union of 1707, and was fraught with many dangers. The king was no longer in touch with his subjects. His best action was the establishment of a small force of mounted constabulary which did more to put down the eternal homicides, robberies, and family feuds than all the sermons could achieve.

The persons most notable in the Privy Council were Seton (later Lord Dunfermline), Hume, created Earl of Dunbar, and the king's advocate, Thomas Hamilton, later Earl of Haddington. Bishops, with Spottiswoode, the historian, Archbishop of Glasgow, sat in the Privy Council, and their progressive elevation, as hateful to the nobles as to the Kirk, was among the causes of the civil war under Charles I. By craft and by illegal measures James continued to depress the Kirk. A General Assembly, proclaimed by James for July 1604 in Aberdeen, was prorogued; again, unconstitutionally, it was prorogued in July 1605. Nineteen ministers, disobeying a royal order, appeared and constituted the Assembly. Joined by ten others, they kept open the right of way. James insisted that the Council should prosecute them: they, by fixing a new date for an Assembly, without royal consent; and James, by letting years pass without an Assembly, broke the charter of the Kirk of 1592.

The preachers, when summoned to the trial, declined the jurisdiction. This was violently construed as treason, and a jury, threatened by the legal officers with secular, and by the preachers with future spiritual punishment, by a small majority condemned some of the ministers (January 1606). This roused the wrath of all classes. James wished for more prosecutions; the Council, in terror, prevailed on him to desist. He continued to grant no Assemblies till 1608, and would not allow "caveats" (limiting the powers of Bishops) to be enforced. He summoned (1606) the two Melvilles, Andrew and his nephew James, to London, where Andrew bullied in his own violent style, and was, quite illegally, first imprisoned and then banished to France.

In December 1606 a convention of preachers was persuaded to allow the appointment of "constant Moderators" to keep the presbyteries in order; and then James recognised the convention as a General Assembly. Suspected ministers were confined to their parishes or locked up in Blackness Castle. In 1608 a General Assembly was permitted the pleasure of excommunicating Huntly. In 1610 an Assembly established Episcopacy, and no excommunications not ratified by the Bishop were allowed: the only comfort of the godly was the violent persecution of Catholics, who were nosed out by the "constant Moderators," excommunicated if they refused to conform, confiscated, and banished.

James could succeed in these measures, but his plan for uniting the two kingdoms into one, Great Britain, though supported by the wisdom and eloquence of Bacon, was frustrated by the jealousies of both peoples. Persons born after James's accession (the post nati) were, however, admitted to equal privileges in either kingdom (1608). In 1610 James had two of his bishops, and Spottiswoode, consecrated by three English bishops, but he did not yet venture to interfere with the forms of Presbyterian public worship.

In 1610 James established two Courts of High Commission (in 1615 united in one Court) to try offences in morals and religion. The Archbishops presided, laity and clergy formed the body of the Court, and it was regarded as vexatious and tyrannical. The same terms, to be sure, would now be applied to the interference of preachers and presbyteries with private life and opinion. By 1612 the king had established Episcopacy, which, for one reason or another, became equally hateful to the nobles, the gentry, and the populace. James's motives were motives of police. Long experience had taught him the inconveniences of presbyterial government as it then existed in Scotland.

To a Church organised in the presbyterian manner, as it has been practised since 1689, James had, originally at least, no objection. But the combination of "presbyterian Hildebrandism" with factions of the turbulent noblesse; the alliance of the Power of the Keys with the sword and lance, was inconsistent with the freedom of the State and of the individual. "The absolutism of James," says Professor Hume Brown, "was forced upon him in large degree by the excessive claims of the Presbyterian clergy."

Meanwhile the thievish Border clans, especially the Armstrongs, were assailed by hangings and banishments, and Ulster was planted by Scottish settlers, willing or reluctant, attracted by promise of lands, or planted out, that they might not give trouble on the Border.

Persecution of Catholics was violent, and in spring 1615 Father Ogilvie was hanged after very cruel treatment directed by Archbishop Spottiswoode. In this year the two ecclesiastical Courts of High Commission were fused into one, and an Assembly was coerced into passing what James called "Hotch-potch resolutions" about changes in public worship. James wanted greater changes, but deferred them till he visited Scotland in 1617, when he was attended by the luckless figure of Laud, who went to a funeral--in a surplice! James had many personal bickerings with preachers, but his five main points, "The Articles of Perth" (of these the most detested were: (1) Communicants must kneel, not sit, at the Communion; (4) Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost must be observed; and (5) Confirmation must be introduced), were accepted by an Assembly in 1618. They could not be enforced, but were sanctioned by Parliament in 1621. The day was called Black Saturday, and omens were drawn by both parties from a thunderstorm which occurred at the time of the ratification of the Articles of Perth by Parliament in Edinburgh (August 4, 1621).

By enforcing these Articles James passed the limit of his subjects' endurance. In their opinion, as in Knox's, to kneel at the celebration of the Holy Communion was an act of idolatry, was "Baal worship," and no pressure could compel them to kneel. The three great festivals of the Christian Church, whether Roman, Genevan, or Lutheran, had no certain warrant in Holy Scripture, but were rather repugnant to the Word of God. The king did not live to see the bloodshed and misery caused by his reckless assault on the liberties and consciences of his subjects; he died on March 27, 1625, just before the Easter season in which it was intended to enforce his decrees.

The ungainliness of James's person, his lack of courage on certain occasions (he was by no means a constant coward), and the feebleness of his limbs might be attributed to pre-natal influences; he was injured before he was born by the sufferings of his mother at the time of Riccio's murder. His deep dissimulation he learnt in his bitter childhood and harassed youth. His ingenious mind was trained to pedantry; he did nothing worse, and nothing more congenial to the cruel superstitions of his age, than in his encouragement of witch trials and witch burnings promoted by the Scottish clergy down to the early part of the eighteenth century.

His plantation of Ulster by Scottish settlers has greatly affected history down to our own times, while the most permanent result of the awards by which he stimulated the colonisation of Nova Scotia has been the creation of hereditary knighthoods or baronetcies.

His encouragement of learning left its mark in the foundation of the Town's College of Edinburgh, on the site of Kirk-o'-Field, the scene of his father's murder.

The south-western Highlands, from Lochaber to Islay and Cantyre, were, in his reign, the scene of constant clan feuds and repressions, resulting in the fall of the Macdonalds, and the rise of the Campbell chief, Argyll, to the perilous power later wielded by the Marquis against Charles I. Many of the sons of the dispossessed Macdonalds, driven into Ireland, were to constitute the nucleus of the army of Montrose. In the Orkneys and Shetlands the constant turbulence of Earl Patrick and his family ended in the annexation of the islands to the Crown (1612), and the Earl's execution (1615).

Andrew Lang