The Raid of Ruthven – Treason against the King

The Raid of Ruthven was a political conspiracy where several Presbyterian nobles, led by William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, abducted the young King James VI of Scotland. They wanted to reform the government of Scotland and limit the influence of French and pro-catholic policy, and to prevent or at least manage the return of Mary, Queen of Scots from England. Their very short lived rule was known as the Gowrie Regime.

In July 1582 the nobles who were discontent with the current governing leaders made a pact to support each other in getting rid of the Catholic influences around the young King. Their main opponents were the French Esme Stewart, and James Stewart who shared control of the government.

While the young King was hunting near the castle of Ruthven, in Perthshire on 22nd August 1582 he was invited by the Earl of Gowrie to stay in his Castle for an evening. He felt instantly threatened once in the castle, by the number of other nobles there; many of them strangers to him, including the Master of Glamis, Earl of Mar and Pittenweem, Lord Lindsay, and the Constable of Dundee among others. He had no idea however, 1000 men, well-armed, were dispersed throughout the neighbourhood. When King James tried to leave the next day, he was blocked from leaving, and his aides thrown out of the castle. He had been kidnapped – finding himself a prisoner he threatened and tried to talk his way out, and finally burst into tears; he was only 15 years old after all.

Now, this wasn’t exactly an exceptional thing to do as in the previous centuries, under the other five James’ reigns factions in the nobility were often warring, and the sovereign was often a prisoner in the hands of some powerful combination led by one or more of the influential nobility, and when he was freed from the domination of one faction it was only to fall into the snares of their rivals.

The King was held and controlled by the Ruthven Lords for almost a year, moved around a number of houses. Although they treated him well and with respect, they limited his movements and who he could speak to. The Earl of Gowrie was the head of this government, who forced their two main opponents the two Stewart’s into exile, and favoured an ultra-Protestant regime. Queen Elizabeth was pleased with these events, and, in September 1582, sent £1000 (a huge sum of money in those days) as wages for the King’s guard.

In response to all of this, opponents of the Ruthven Regime including the Earls of Huntly, Argyll, Crawford, Montrose and others wrote a letter to the town of Edinburgh telling them that their ‘auld enemies’ the English had funded an army to take away their King, and when they arrived in their town the people should take arms against them. No one in Edinburgh seemed to take up this suggestion.

After almost a year in captivity, the King managed to speak to some of the opponents of the Gowrie Regime, and they made plans to have armed men waiting at St Andrews where the King could escape. He managed to sneak away from his guards, and meet up with these opponents in St Andrews Castle. Finally having escaped, although it was common for there to be punishment after such a thing including banishment or arrests for treason, James was far more forgiving to his captors. They were pardoned, as long as they would ‘show themselves penitent, crave pardon in due time and not provoke him by any further unlawful actions’.

The Earl of Gowrie however, found that no matter how humbly he professed his sorrow for his, very significant, part in the capture of the King, he could not regain his favour with the King. He wrote to his past conspirators the Master of Glamis who had fled to Ireland, and the Earl of Mar who had left to England, trying to get them to return and make another attempt to seize and control the King.

This was a new conspiracy, of which the Earl of Gowrie was now the leader. He obtained permission to travel to France from King James, and headed to Dundee under the excuse of needing to find a ship to take him there. But he lurked about in Dundee for far longer than he should, and was gaining suspicion. Even 5 months after Glamis and Mar had left, he was still lingering in Dundee, saying he would be leaving ‘any day now’ for France. His permission to go to France ended in March 1584, and he was told if he was found after that date he would be punished as a rebel.

Gowrie had no intention of leaving Dundee, he was busy there preparing for his new conspiracy. James got word however that Gowrie was corresponding with Glamis and Mar. The plan was that Glamis and Mar would return to Scotland, and take control of Stirling Castle, while Gowrie and the Earl of Angus along with some of the other nobles were to send a force to the King.

Mar and Glamis made it back to Scotland, but just two days before they were due to take Stirling Castle, the Royal Guard stormed the house of William Drummond, a burgess of Dundee, where Gowrie was staying. Gowrie put up a fight but as the soldiers were assisted by people of the town of Dundee, he had no choice but to be taken in. Mar and Glamis had no idea this had happened and attacked Stirling on the 18th of April 1584, taking control of the town. But this all fell apart in a few days, as word spread Gowrie had been arrested, the expected money and support from other nobles failed to materialise, and James had raised his own army who marched to Stirling. It was impossible for Glamis and Mar to continue, and so they fled to England.

Gowrie, having been arrested, was not so fortunate. Put onto trial in Stirling, many of those nobles who had opposed him were more than happy to give evidence of his treasonable behaviour. He was sentenced to be executed, and after a long speech on the scaffold where he maintained that all his actions were for the benefit of the King, calmly laid his head on the block and it was severed in one stroke. His servants, sewed his head to his body and buried him whole.



The Scottish Wars

First History of Dundee

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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