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CHAPTER XXIII. 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.

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