Today in 1600 James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) survived the Gowrie conspiracy thanks to the quick thinking of his page, John Ramsay. Our new research reveals that his heroics were even more impressive thanks to his young age, as Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-1660 section, reveals…
On the morning of 5 August, 1600, James VI of Scotland made preparations to go hunting. As the small royal party was about to leave Falkland Palace, James was approached by the nineteen-year old Alexander Ruthven, Master of Ruthven, who brought news that his elder brother, the 3rd Earl of Gowrie, had detained a foreigner carrying a pitcher full of gold coins at Perth. The tale was obviously far-fetched, but the curiosity and greed of the ever impecunious James had been aroused, and by early afternoon he and his small band of followers had arrived at Gowrie House, in Perth. Shortly after dining, James was escorted – alone – to a tower room by Ruthven, who, instead of producing the mysterious foreigner with a pot of gold, put a dagger to his breast and accused him of murdering his father, the 1st Earl of Gowrie. Leaving the King in the custody of a servant, Ruthven subsequently went to fetch his brother, who had been trying to convince the rest of the royal party that James had now left. During this brief interlude, James persuaded the terrified servant to open one of the windows. As James was about to open the other window, Ruthven returned. An angry Ruthven now attempted to bind the hands of the King, whereupon a struggle ensued.
The Gowrie Conspiracy; engraving by Jan Luyken (1649-1712), via Wikimedia Commons
From his position at the stables, where he had been left holding the royal falcon, the King’s page, John Ramsay, heard James’s desperate cries for help. While other members of the royal party found their passage to the main staircase barred by a locked door, Ramsay made his way up to the tower room by a narrow side entrance. There, in an adjacent chamber, he found James and Ruthven locked in a fierce struggle (the servant had fled). James had somehow managed to place Ruthven in a headlock, and was desperately trying to prevent his assailant from drawing his sword. On seeing his page, James shouted instructions, whereupon Ramsay threw down his falcon, rushed forward and repeatedly stabbed Ruthven about the face and neck with his short sword. Seriously wounded, Ruthven fell to the floor, and was pushed down the stairs by James, where he was finished off by another of the King’s servants, Thomas Erskine, who then proceeded to rush up the tower with the club-footed Dr Herris. No sooner had these welcome reinforcements arrived than Gowrie and seven of his servants appeared, but not before James had been bundled into the tower room out of sight. A fierce fight now ensued, and before long all three of James’s defenders had sustained wounds. It was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed. However, at the height of the mêlée, the quick-witted Ramsay demanded to know why they were still fighting when the King was already dead. Startled at this news, Gowrie lowered his sword, whereupon the resourceful Ramsay seized his chance, and ran the Earl through the heart.
In the aftermath of the so-called ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’, Ramsay, not surprisingly, was the hero of the hour. Knighted by James, probably on the spot, he was subsequently granted by the Scottish Parliament an estate near Dunbar, to be held of the King in return for a red rose, payable on 5 August every year. James, convinced that Ruthven had meant to murder him, never forgot the debt of gratitude he owed Ramsay. On 5 August each year, for the rest of his life, he held a feast in which Ramsay was the guest of honour. He also set about transforming Ramsay’s station in life. By 1604 at the latest (by which time James had ascended the throne of England), Ramsay was de facto keeper of the King’s Bedchamber; two years later he was created a member of the Scottish peerage, as Viscount of Haddington. In 1608 Ramsay was married into the English aristocracy, to the daughter of the 5th Earl of Sussex, and eventually became an English peer himself (as Earl of Holdernesse). Ramsay spent the rest of his life basking in the adulation of others – as late as 1623 one correspondent addressed him admiringly as ‘the sword of grace’ – and he quickly learned to milk the King’s undying gratitude. When his debts became so heavy that he was unable to pay them, he had James step in, even though the Crown was itself deeply indebted.
Ramsay has never received much attention from historians. He was a man of limited ability and, to many early modern Englishmen, was just one of several greedy Scots whose importunity helped to impoverish the King. Modern biographical dictionaries afford him only brief mention, and all declare that he was born in or about 1580, making him about twenty years old at the time of the Gowrie Conspiracy. Recent research by the History of Parliament, however, has not only shed light on his life following the Gowrie Conspiracy, but also revealed his true date of birth. Far from being a twenty year old man when he defended his king and killed Gowrie, Ramsay was, in fact, a twelve-year old boy (having been born on 1 May 1588). His extreme youth makes his feat of heroism all the more remarkable. It also helps to explain one of the most puzzling aspects of his life hitherto: why James did not admit him to the Scottish peerage until June 1606. The answer is that in May 1606 Ramsay turned eighteen – the earliest age at which James could reasonably bestow such a high honour.