John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie

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The Earl of Gowrie
Born 1577
Perth, Scotland
Died 5 August 1600
Perth, Scotland
Nationality Scottish
Education University of Edinburgh
Parent(s) William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie
Dorothea Stewart

John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie (c. 1577 – 5 August 1600) was a Scottish nobleman who succeeded his brother, James, the 2nd Earl, as Earl of Gowrie following James' death in 1586. John died in 1600 in mysterious circumstances, referred to as the "Gowrie Conspiracy."

Early life

John Ruthven was the second son of William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie and his wife Dorothea Stewart. His brother James, 2nd Earl died in 1586, therefore John succeeded his brother as the Earl of Gowrie while still a child.[1]

Along with his vast estates, Gowrie inherited the family traditions of treason and intrigue.[lower-alpha 1] Like his father and grandfather before him, Gowrie 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 the Earl of Bothwell in forcing himself, sword in hand, into the king's bedchamber in Holyrood Palace.[1]

A few months later Gowrie joined with earls of Atholl and Montrose in offering to serve Queen Elizabeth I of England, 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.[1]

At Paris he made acquaintance with the English ambassador, Henry Neville,[1] who reported him to Robert Cecil as devoted to Elizabeth's service on 27 February 1599. Neville wrote that Gowrie would like to kiss Queen Elizabeth's hand, and said the Earl was well-affected to the Protestant religion and the English queen. Gowrie would be able to give Cecil useful information regarding potential feared "alterations" in the political state of Scotland.[2] In London he was received very favourably by Queen Elizabeth and her ministers.[1]

These circumstances owe their importance to the light they throw on the obscurity of the celebrated “Gowrie conspiracy,” which resulted in the killing 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.[1]

Gowrie conspiracy

The Gowrie conspiracy is shrouded in mystery, 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 thoughtlessness of their procedure; and the insufficiency of motive, whoever the guilty parties may have been. Three scenarios have been proposed to explain the events:[3]

  1. that Gowrie and his brother, Alexander Ruthven, concocted a plot to murder or more probably to kidnap King James and that they lured him to Gowrie House for this purpose;
  2. that James paid a surprise visit to Gowrie House with the intention, which he carried out, of killing the two Ruthvens;
  3. that the tragedy was the outcome of an unpremeditated brawl following high words between the King and Gowrie, or his brother.

To understand the relative probabilities of these hypotheses, regard must be paid to the condition of Scotland in 1600.[4]

  • Plots to capture the sovereign for the purpose of coercing his actions were frequent, more than one had been successful, and the Ruthven family had taken an active part in several of them.[4]
  • Relations between England and Scotland were more than usually strained, and the Earl of Gowrie was reckoned in London among the adherents of Elizabeth. The Kirk party, being at variance with James, looked upon Gowrie as a hereditary partisan of their cause, and had recently sent an agent to Paris to recall him to Scotland as their leader.[4]
  • Gowrie was believed to be James's rival for the succession to the English crown. As regards the question of motive, the Ruthvens believed Gowrie's father to have been treacherously done to death, and his widow insulted by the king's favourite minister.[4]
  • James owed a large sum of money to the Earl of Gowrie's estate, and popular gossip credited either Gowrie or his brother, Alexander, with being the lover of the queen.[4]

Although the evidence on these points, and on every circumstance connected with the event itself, has been examined by historians of the Gowrie conspiracy, the mystery has never been entirely dispelled.[4] The two most recent studies subscribe to the kidnap theory. W. F. Arbuckle's study of 1957 favours the kidnap that went wrong, while Maurice Lee jun. proposes that James went to Gowrie House believing Gowrie was a conduit for political intelligence from London (that the pot of gold was a flimsy cover story), and when he arrived with an unexpectedly large retinue, Alexander realised that a successful kidnapping was not possible and attempted to take the King's life to avenge his father's death.[5]

Most modern research, in the light of materials inaccessible or overlooked till the 20th century, points to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy by Gowrie and his brother to kidnap the king. If this is true, 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, in spite of the glaring improbabilities which it involved, was substantially true.[4]

The facts as related by James and other witnesses were, in outline, as follows: On 5 August 1600, the King rose early to hunt in the neighbourhood of Falkland Palace, about 14 miles (23 km) from Perth. As he set out, accompanied by the Duke of Lennox, the Earl of Mar, Thomas Erskine and others, he was approached by twenty-year-old Alexander Ruthven, a younger brother of John Ruthven. Alexander advised the king that he and his brother had detained a foreigner carrying a large quantity of money at Gowrie House in Perth, and urged James to interrogate the man himself. The king initially hesitated but ultimately agreed to ride to Perth after the hunt ended. Alexander Ruthven dispatched a servant, Henderson, to inform his brother that the king would be arriving at Gowrie House later in the day. Alexander Ruthven then urged the king to lose no time, demanding that he keep the matter secret from his courtiers, and that he bring as small a retinue as possible to Gowrie House.[4]

James, in the company of ten to fifteen retainers, arrived at Gowrie House around one o'clock in the afternoon. Despite having received word earlier that the king would be arriving, John Ruthven had made no preparations, thus giving the impression of having been taken by surprise. After a small meal, for which he was kept waiting an hour, King James, forbidding most of 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, but was instead threatened with bodily harm. He found an armed man, who, it appears later, was 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.[4]

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. At James's request, he opened one of the windows and was about to open the other when Ruthven returned. Whether or not Alexander had actually been to see his brother is uncertain. Gowrie had meantime spread news below that the king had taken horse and ridden away, and the royal retinue were seeking their horses to follow him.[4]

The mayhem at Gowrie House imagined by the Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken

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 staircase to help the King, but were stopped by the locked door, which they spent some time trying to batter down.[4]

John Ramsay (afterwards the Earl of Holdernesse), noticing a small, dark stairway leading directly to the inner chamber adjoining the turret, ran up it and the door was then unlocked by the servant. There he found the king struggling with Ruthven. Drawing his dagger, Ramsay wounded Ruthven, who was then pushed down the stairway past the king. Thomas Erskine, summoned by Ramsay, now followed up the small stairs with Dr Hugh Herries, and the two killed Ruthven with their swords. John Ruthven, entering the courtyard with his stabler Thomas Cranstoun and seeing his brother's body, rushed up the staircase after Erskine and Herries, followed by Cranstoun. In the melée he was also 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 Palace for some hours.[4]


The events at Gowrie House caused intense excitement throughout Scotland. The investigation of the circumstances was also followed with much interest in England where all the details were reported to Elizabeth's ministers. The ministers of the Kirk, whose influence in Scotland was too extensive for the king to neglect, were persuaded, but with great difficulty, to accept James's account of the occurrence. He voluntarily submitted himself to cross-examination by one of their number.[4]

The ministers' belief, and that of their partisans, no doubt influenced by political hostility toward 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.[4] 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 £80,000 representing a sum of £48,063 due to his father while treasurer, with the interest at 10% per annum for the succeeding years.[6] 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.[7]

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 is 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, in all events, an additional piece of evidence to prove the genuineness of the Gowrie conspiracy.[4]

On 7 August 1600, James's Privy Council of Scotland ordered that the corpses of Gowrie and his brother should remain unburied until further decisions were made over the matter, and that no person with the name of Ruthven should approach within ten miles of the court.[8] Orders were also sent for the apprehension of the Earl's brothers William and Patrick, but they fled to England. The bodies of Gowrie and his brother Robert were disembowelled 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 October they were sent to Edinburgh to be produced at the bar of Parliament. On 15 November the estates of the Ruthvens were discerned by Parliament to be forfeited and their family name and honours extinct.[9] The corpses of the Earl and his brother were hanged and quartered at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh,[10] their heads were put on spikes at Edinburgh's Old Tolbooth and their arms and legs upon spikes at various locations around Perth.[5]

Another act was further passed abolishing the name of Ruthven, ordering that the house wherein the tragedy happened should be levelled to the ground, and decreeing that the barony of Ruthven should henceforth be known as the barony of Huntingtower.[11]


Gowrie's two younger brothers, William and Patrick Ruthven, fled to England. After the accession of James to the English throne, William allegedly escaped to Virginia and changed his name to Ruffin. Patrick was captured and imprisoned for nineteen years in the Tower of London.[4]

Patrick Ruthven resided first at Cambridge and afterwards in Somersetshire, being granted a small pension by the crown. He married Elizabeth Woodford, widow of 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; after Van Dyck's death, she married Sir Richard Pryse, 1st Baronet of Gogerddan.[12] 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.[4]


  1. 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 the 1st Earl continued to plot against the king in conjunction with the earls of Mar and Angus; and he was executed for high treason on 2 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, James, 2nd Earl of Gowrie, only survived till 1588, the family dignities and estates, which had been forfeited, having been restored to him in 1586 (McNeill 1911, p. 301; Juhala 2004).
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 McNeill 1911, p. 301.
  2. Sawyer 1725, p. 156: prints Neville to Robert Cecil, 27 February 1599.
  3. McNeill 1911, pp. 301–302.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 McNeill 1911, p. 302.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Juhala 2004.
  6. Goodare 2009, pp. 934-6, 949. James was chronically indebted; his two largest existing loans were for £75,000 and £160,000.
  7. Henderson 1897, p. 16
  8. Henderson 1897, p. 19 cites Reg. P. C. Scotl. vi. 145.
  9. Act regarding the disinheriting and inability of the brother and posterity of John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, 15 November 1600. Acta Parl. Scot. iv. 212–13, cc.1-2 The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al. eds (St Andrews, 2007-2015), RPS 1600/11/10. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  10. Henderson 1897, p. 19.
  11. Henderson 1897, p. 19, cites Acta Parl. Scot. iv. 212–13, cc.1-2. Act abolishing the surname of Ruthven, 15 November 1600. The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al. eds (St Andrews, 2007-2015), RPS 1600/11/11. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  12. Welsh Biography Online - Pryse Family of Gogerddan


  • Juhala, Amy L. (2004). "Ruthven, John, third earl of Gowrie (1577/8–1600)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24371.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Sawyer, Edmund, ed. (1725). Memorials of affairs in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. 1. London. p. 156.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Goodare, Julian (November 2009). "The debts of James VI of Scotland". The Economic History Review, New Series. Wiley, on behalf of the Economic History Society. 62 (4): 934–6, 949. JSTOR 27771527.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHenderson, Thomas Finlayson (1897). [ "Ruthven, John" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 50. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 15–20.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainMcNeill, Author:Ronald John (1911). [ "Gowrie, John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 301–302.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Endnotes:
    • Bisset, Andrew (1871), Essays on Historical Truth, London<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Burton, John Hill (1867–1870), History of Scotland (7 vols ed.), Edinburgh<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Calderwood, David (1842–1849), History of the Kirk of Scotland (8 vols ed.), Edinburgh<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Lang, Andrew (1902), James VI and the Gowrie Mystery, London<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>, and the authorities there cited.
    • Louis, A. Barb (1887), The Tragedy of Gowrie House, London<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Moysie, David (1830), Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, 1577-1603, Edinburgh<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Pitcairn, Robert (1833), Criminal Trials in Scotland (2 vols ed.), Edinburgh<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    • Tytler, P.F. (1828–1843), History of Scotland (9 vols ed.), Edinburgh<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
James Ruthven
Earl of Gowrie
Succeeded by