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Essays on historical truth online

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taken at the inquest.' On the contrary the publication of
the depositions taken at the inquest might have proved
that the death happened by mischance. These letters
assert that, but do not prove it. And why did not
Dudley publish a report of the inquest, if it was so
conclusive as to the death's having been by mischance ?
Dudley's agent Blount confirms, in the first of his two
letters to Dudley, the report that her servants had that
day been all at the fair at Abingdom, but differs in this
important point, that they had been commanded by her
to go to the fair, not sent thither by Varney and Forster ;
and on this point a properly conducted coroner's inquest
would have thrown light. But it must be noted that in
that age neither a trial by jury nor a coroner's inquest
was of any avail where the Crown or the Crown's
favourite was concerned. And though Dudley makes

' Queen Elizabeth and Her Times, a series of original letters. Edited by
Thomas "Wright, M.A. 2 vols. 8vo. : London, 1838, vol. i. p. 49.


those professions of love of truth and justice which are so
easy to make, saying in his second letter to Blount, ' I seek
chiefly truth in this case, which I pray you still to have
regard unto, without any favour to be showed either one
way or other ; ' what means his ' dealing with the jury? '
In his tliird letter he says : — ' I have received a letter
from one Smith, one that seemeth to be foreman of the
jury. I perceive by his letters that he and the rest have
and do travail very diligently and circumspectly for the
trial of the matter which they have charge of, and, for
anything that he or they by any search or examination
can make in the world hitherto, it doth plainly appear, he
saith, a very misfortune ; which, for mine own part,
Cousin Blount, doth much satisfy and quiet me. . . .
Appleyard, I hear, hath been there, as I appointed, and
Arthur Eobsart, her brother.' [From whom did he hear
this ? From Varney, whose name never occurs in these
letters, though Anthony Forster's does ?] ' If any more of
her friends had been to be had, I would also have caused
them to have seen and been privy to all the dealing
there. . . . Touching Smith and the rest, I mean no
more to deal with them, but let them proceed in the name
of God accordingly ; and I am right glad they be all
strangers to me.' But why did he deal With, them at all?
Blackstone says, 3 Com. 375 : ' If the jury speak with
either of the parties or their agents, after they are gone
from the bar ; or if they receive any fresh evidence in
private ; any of these circumstances will entirely vitiate
the verdict.' In his second letter Blount says : ' I have

done your lordship's message unto the jury

At Abingdom I shall meet with one or two of the jury,
and what I can I will bring. They be very secret ; and


yet do I hear fi whispering tliat they can find no pre-
sinnj)tions of evil. And, if I may say to your lordship
my conscience, I think some of them be sorry for it, God
forgive me.' These words 'sorry for it' express the
impression of the neighbourhood that the death was not
one of accident or mischance, as the jury found from the
evidence produced before them ; which, on the generally
received hypothesis, would be the testimony of tiie
persons who murdered her. On that hypothesis this
Kobert Dudley would be one of the most consummate and
also most inhuman jugglers and impostors recorded in
history. The suspicions entertained respecting Leicester's
assassinating propensities are somewhat strengthened by
the advice he gave, when consulted, that Mary Queen of
Scots should be put to death privately, by poison. If
Amy Eobsart was killed either in the manner described
by Ashmole or that described by Scott in ' Kenilworth,'
her dead body might present very much the same
appearances which ' a fall from a pair of stairs ' (this is
the expression in Dudley's first letter to Blount) would
produce. What, then, could the coroner's jury make of
it ? And Dudley might safely invite her brother-in-law
Appleyard and her brother Arthur Eobsart to be present
at the inquest. In fact, before the Great Eebellion in
England a royal favourite was above law. Every jury-
man knew that well enough — knew that he mifrht be
subjected, for daring to give a verdict distasteful to the
court, to such ruinous penalties as we have seen inflicted
on the jury in the case of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton.^
The verdict of the coroner's jury might satisfy Dudley
and Queen Elizabeth ; but it satisfied no other person, high

' See Essay I.


or low.^ So far was the verdict of the coroner's jury from
being satisfactory to the pubhc, that on September 17,
just after the coroner's inquest, Thomas Lever, the
eminent Puritan preacher, wrote from Coventry to Secre-
tary Cecil of the ' dangerous suspicion and muttering of
the death of her which was the wife of my Lord Eobert
Dudley,' earnestly urging that ' through the Queen's
Majesty's authority ' a searching inquiry be made of the
truth, ' with due punishment if any be found guilty in
this matter.' ^ We may safely conclude that there was
little chance of Cecil's moving in the matter, when we
recollect his ominous words to De Quadra only a few
weeks before : ' They are thinking of destroying Lord
Eobert's wife.' And the value of the coroner's inquest
upon Amy Eobsart may be inferred from the value of the
coroner's inquest upon Sir Thomas Overbury, more than
half a century, and that of the coroner's inquest upon
Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex, more than a century, after
the coroner's inquest upon Amy Eobsart, when a power
greater than the law was concerned, or had an interest in
the verdict of the coroner's jury.

Still it must be admitted that this correspondence is
opposed to the hypothesis of Dudley's murder of his first
wife ; and, assuming it to be not a forgery for the purpose
of defending Dudley (the papers in the Pepysian Library
are stated to be only copies), it bears considerable marks
of genuine surprise at the news of the death. Indeed, if it
be regarded merely as a work of art, it may vie with any
similar performances, even with the masterpieces of Pope
Alexander VI. and his son Cassar Borgia. Then, who was

' Hard wick State Papers, i. 12.3.

2 Ilaynes— State Papers, from 1542 to 1570, left by Lord Burghley, 3G2.


this T. Blount whom Dudley calls ' Cousin Blcjuut ? ' Mr.
Cmik has not been able to discover any such kinsman of
Dudley. And was he in the confidence of Dudley, or
only used as a tool? Blount mentions Anthony Forster
as hated by the people of the neighbourhood; but he
makes no mention of Varney. Was Varney a myth, or
was Blount a myth ? And if the correspondence really
was the genuine and sincere expression of the true state
of facts, and of Dudley's state of mind on learning those
facts, why was it not publislied at the time in vindication
of Dudley as the ' Discourse of the Gowrie Conspiracy '
was published in vindication of King James ? These are
questions to which we can never hope for an answer.

There is no liklihood that the facts — except the fact of
a sudden deatli — will ever be known of the manner of
the death of Leicester's first wife. But the version given
of the story by Sir Walter Scott in ' Kenilworth ' is
probably not very far from the truth, with the important
alteration, suggested by Sir Walter himself in the notes,
of substituting Leicester himself for his agent Varney. ' It
is unnecessary,' says Scott, 'to state the numerous reasons
why the earl is stated in the tale to be rather the dupe of
villains than the unprincipled author of their atrocities.
In the latter capacity, which a part at least of his
contemporaries imputed to him, he would have made a
character too disgustingly wicked to be useful for the
purposes of fiction.' As has been shown, in regard to the
marriage of Amy Robsart, Scott's version of the story is
at fault. Scott says : — ' Fame asserted of this zealous
retainer [Varney], that he had accommodated his lord in
former love intrigues ; and it occurred to Wayland
Smith that Leicester himself might be the party chiefly


interested.' That is, that Amy Eobsart had been married
to Dudley, not to Varney. Eobert Dudley was not made
Earl of Leicester till three years after Amy's death.
According to Scott's hypothesis, Dudley went about
debauching women by the help of Varney, partly by
folse show of marriage ; and in this case the lady had
insisted on a legal marriage. But Scott's hypothesis
might be correct that she was to be got rid of by means
of poison prepared by Dr. Julio or some one else repre-
sented by Alasco in Scott's romance. The attempts to
poison not being successful, another mode was resorted
to, and executed successfully, as in the murder of
Escovedo by Philip II. and Antonio Perez, his confi-
dential Secretary of State. There was some resemblance,
too, between the character of Leicester and that of
Antonio Perez, whom Mr. Motley designated as being
' on the whole the boldest, deepest, and most unscrupulous
villain in that pit of duphcity the Spanish court.' ^ If
the word ' boldest ' appear to be unfitted for Leicester
who was by no means bold in the sense of facing open
danger, he must be allowed to have shown a bold
defiance both of God and man if he executed one tenth
of the murders imputed to him by his contemporaries.
And if the words quoted in a former page from the letter

^ Motley's Eise of the Dutch Republic, vol. iii. p. 110 : London, 1861.
The reception Antonio Perez met with at the court of Elizabeth shows that
court to have differed little in its standard of morals from 'that pit of
duplicity the Spanish court.' The English court had its Princess of Eboli
as well as its Antonio Perez. It had also its Earl of Leicester, who enjoyed
the reputation of having murdered his first wife, of having debauched Lady
Sheffield and then murdered her husband, of having debauched the Countess
of Essex and then murdered her husband, of having committed sundry other
murders, and sundry other crimes besides his murders. Even Hume, who
has attempted to whitewash so many, has not attempted to whitewash


of De Quadra, the Spanish ambassador, liave any meaning,
Ehzabeth was an accompUce with Leicester in the murder
of Amy Robsart ; and since she dehberately countenanced
and specially favoured a man who entertained a poisoning
physician for the purpose of secret assassination, the in-
ference is irresistible that poisoning was countenanced
at the court of Elizabeth ; for it is incredible tluit
Elizabeth was ignorant of that principal feature of her
minion Leicester's character, comj)re]iended in tlie one
word assassi?!. Queen Elizabeth, tlierefore, was not by
any means so different as has been supposed from the two
contemporary royal ladies, Mary Stuart and Margaret of
Valois. They were all three women of loose morals ;
while Margaret of Valois has been pronounced the
superior of both the others in beauty, wit, learning, and
political talent ; possessing ' more beauty and wit than
Mary of Scotland, more learning and accomplishments
than Elizabeth of England.' ^

In estimating the value of Scott's hypothesis respecting
the story of the death of Eobert Dudley's first wife, it
must be remembered that Sir Walter Scott, besides being
a great poet — the greatest, using the term poet as appli-
cable to a writer of fiction in prose as well as in verse,
that Britain has produced since Shakespeare — was an
antiquary of great and varied information ; ^ and there-
fore that he knew all or nearly all that was to be known
at the time he wrote respecting the death of Amy
Robsart, where there was no complicated mass of evi-
dence to be carefully sifted and carefully weighed. But

' Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, vol. iii. p. 145.

'^ Besides the works already mentioned, Sir Walter Scott edited Memoirs
of bis Life by Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, and Fragments Regalia by
Sir Robert Nauntou, 8vo., Edinburgh, 1808.


a totally different result was to be expected in a case
where a vast and complicated body of evidence had to be
examined. Accordingly, in the matter which King James
called the Gowrie Conspiracy, Sir Walter Scott has not
shown himself a competent and impartial collector and
judge of historical evidence.

The principal difficulty which the writer has to con-
tend with, in attempting to convey to others the results
of his own investigation of the affair which King James
called the Gowrie Conspiracy, is the bulk of the evidence.
He is well aware that his argument would be much
more telling if it were more compact. But the argument
being grounded on depositions which cannot be given in
substance — the conclusion often turning on the very
words used by the witnesses— it is manifest that the
depositions must be given at some length. I will en-
deavour, however, by omitting all that seems not indis-
pensable, to render the argument as compact as I can.

Historical writers have described the affair called the
Gowrie Conspiracy as ' one of the darkest in history ; ^
as ' perhaps one of the most perplexing puzzles in history.' ^
The cause of this perplexing darkness is a simple one
enough. Historians have neglected to apply to this case
the principles of judicial evidence ; without which no
historical fact, as well as no fact in ordinary life, which is
involved in any degree of mystery, can ever be explained.
David Hume has carefully avoided all allusion to that
dark business. His acuteness probably indicated to him
pitfalls in it, which even his adroitness as an advocate

* Sir Walter Scott's History of Scotland, in Tales of a Grandfather, vol. i.
p. .^",0, Edinbiirirh, 1840.

'^ Pictorial History of England, vol. ii. p. 690.


miglit be unable to carry liim over in [jerfect safety ; pit-
falls which many historical writers, including Sir Walter
Scott, Mr. Patrick Fraser Tytler, and Mr. Buckle, have not

The means of testing the trutli of the statements of the
ancient historians in most cases do not exist, tlioiiL'^li
many, very many, of their statements have probably been
made on very insuHLcient evidence. But I know no case
in the whole range of modern history that affords so re-
markable an example of a statement gravely put forth as
history not only without, but against evidence, as Sir
Walter Scott's account in his history of Scotland ^ of the
affair which King James called ' the Gowrie Conspiracy.'
Sir Walter Scott has adopted, as if it were a proved and
incontrovertible series of truths. King James's narrative put
forth 'by authority ' at the time; and has thus given the sup •
port of his celebrated name to the decision of a dark his-
torical question on the single unsupported testimony of an
individual who was at once the principal witness and judge
in his own cause. And not content with turning a story
resting upon such evidence into history, Sir Walter Scott
has, in one of his romances, characterised the basest and
most cowardly act of a life of cowardice and baseness as one
in which King James ' showed the spirit of his ancestors.'

One of the strangest circumstances about that strange
business, commonly called the Gowrie Conspiracy, is that,
though nobody at the time either in Britain or out of it
believed the king's story ,^ writers who lived from one to
two hundred years after the time have treated the king's

* The History of Scotland, from the earliest peried to the close of the
Rebellion of 1745-46, contained in Tales of a Grandfather, by Sir Walter
Scott, Bart., 2 vols. : Robert Cadell, Edinburgli, 184G, vol. i. pp. 33.3-338.

■■* Of the king'3 version of the story, which he called the Gowrie Conspiracy,


Story as if it were a j^iece of authentic history. If it
may be said, in defence of Sir Walter Scott, that Mr-
Pi tcairn's ' Criminal Trials of Scotland,' in three large
quarto volumes, the second volume of which contains the
depositions in the Gowrie case, carefully compiled from the
original records, were not pubhshed till 1833, it is evi-
dent, from the authorities given in the note below,
that the view of the matter taken by Sir Walter
Scott is not supported by the evidence which was

Fi^aricis Osborne says : — ' No Scotchman you could meet beyond seas but
did laugh at it, and the peripatetique politicians said the relation in print
did murder all possibility of credit.' Osborne's Memorials of King James,
c. 41, Osborne's Works, p. 636 : London, 1673. Arthur Wilson and the
writer of the note in Kennett (Kennett, vol. ii. p. 667, note) take much the
same view of the ' Gowrie Conspiracy ' as Osborne and Weldon (Kennett,
vol. ii. p. 662, note). That the king's story was not believed at his own
court there is also the authority of La Boderie, the French ambassador in
England, whose dispatches were published in 1750. La Boderie, in several
dispatches to which I shall have occasion to refer subsequently, intimates
his disbelief of the king's story. And it is remarkable that while La
Boderie, who lived five years at James's court, and was on intimate terms
with Ramsay, who stabbed the Ruthvens, expresses his belief in James's
guilt, writers living two centuries after pronounce James innocent, and
the Ruthvens guilty of a conspiracy against him. If Dante had written his
poem within a few years of the event referred to, he would probably have
introduced Alexander Ruthven relating the manner and cause of his own
cruel and violent death in terms that would have embodied the opinion
prevalent throughout Europe at the time. In that case ' The Black Turn-
pike ' of Gowrie House might have become as famous or as infamous as
Dante's ' orribile torre,' the scene of the terrible fate of Count Ugolino and
his children. One of the most striking of the many strange things in Dante's
strange poem is the melancholy story of the details of many violent and un-
just deaths, given — as can never be done on any coroner's inquest — by the
murdered person. In this way Amy Robsart as well as Alexander Ruthven
might have found an avenger against those whom no human laws could at that
time reach. As it is, the same writer who has, as I have said, set the stamp
of immortality on the wrongs of Amy Robsart has, for want of the requisite
labour in examining the evidence, added the weight of his celebrated name
to the condemnation of the Ruthvens. A stronger proof could hardly be
found of the difficulties that beset the inquirer into historical truth — diffi-
culties that almost seem to justify Hume's words in his Treatise of Human
Nature, that ' if truth be at all within the reach of human capacity, it is
certain it must lie very deep and abstruse.'


clearly Avithin his reach. And Mr. Tytler and other
writers, who miglit have availed themselves of the evi-
dence published by Mr. Pitcairn, have followed the lead
of Sir Walter Scott, either from carelessness in examining
evidence or from inca])aeity to weigh it when ex-
amined. This does not so iiuich surprise us in wiiters
whose minds might not be very open to the reception of
any evidence that told against the Stuarts ; but it is a little
surprising to find a writer like Mr. Buckle accepting to
the full these conclusions ; a writer, who, on other points,
differed so widely from Sir Walter Scott as to affirm that
' there are few things more absurd than that lying spirit of
romance which represents the rising of the Highlanders
as the outburst of devoted loyalty.' ^

Sir Walter Scott has given, with his usual ability, a
summary of the king's narrative ; which summary, not
being in the form of a quotation, places the iminterrogated
unsifted evidence of a single and deeply interested
witness on the level of authentic history, and is well
calculated to throw the gravest doubts upon the whole
subject of historical truth. Sir Walter thus commences
his story : —

' But the strang-Gst adventure of James's reiun was the
event called the Gowrie Conspiracy, over which there
hangs a sort of mystery, which time has not even yet
completely dispelled. You must recollect that there was
an Earl of Gowrie condemned and executed when James
was but a boy. This nobleman left two ^ sons, bearing

' Buckle's History of Civilisation, vol. ii. pp. 200, 297.

^ lie loft thirteen children, five of whom were sons. 1. James, the second
earl, born in 1557, who died in 1588. 2. John, the third earl, horn about
1578; and 3. Alexander, born in January, 1580-1. (These two, Jolin and
Alexander, were tlie two brothers killed at Perth on the 5th of August,
IGOO). -1. William. 5. Patrick.



the family name of Eiithveii, wlio were well educated
abroad, and accounted hopeful young men. The king
restored to the eldest the title and estate of Gowrie, and
fiivoured them both very much.

' Now it chanced in the month of August, 1600,
that Alexander Euthven, the younger of the two
brothers, came early one morning to the king, who w^as
then hunting in the Park of Falkland, and told him a
story of his having seized a suspicious-looking man — a
Jesuit, as he supposed — with a large pot of gold under his
cloak. This man, Euthven said, he had detained prisoner
at his brother's house in Perth, till the king should
examine him, and take possession of the treasure. With
this story he decoyed James from the hunting-field, and
persuaded him to ride with him to Perth, without any
other company than a few noblemen and attendants, who
followed the king without orders. When they arrived at
Perth, they entered Gowrie House, the mansion of the
earl, a large massive building, having gardens which
stretched down to the river Tay. The Earl of Gowrie
was, or seemed surprised, to see the king arrive so
unexpectedly, and caused some entertainment to be
hastily prepared for his Majesty's refreshment.' ^

It will be observed that Sir Walter Scott, by the use of
the words ' with this story he decoyed James from the
hunting-field,' abdicates completely the character of a
judge — the proper character of an historian — for in the
first paragraph of liis narrative he prejudges the whole
question. I wall show, from the suppressed deposition of
a credible witness, that the whole story of the man with

' Sir Walter Scott's History of Scotliind, in Tjiles of a Grandfather, vol. i.
pp. 333, 334.


the pot of gold, l)y whicli Alexander Euthven was by tlie
king alleged to have decoyed him to Perth, is a false-
hood. Althougli T myself have a hypothesis, I will
carefully abstain from any obtrusion of it, and will
endeavour in the following pages to avoid mixing up
inference with matter of fact.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 5, IGOO, a
rumour suddenly spread among the citizens of Perth
that something extraordinary had happened at the house
of their provost, the Earl of Gowrie. Soon after tlie

* common bell,' as it is called in the depositions,^ was rung ;
and ' at the sound of the bell ' ^ the citizens ran to arms,
beset the entrance gate, and swarmed into the court-yard
of Gowrie House.

What first met the observation of those inhabitants of
Perth who assembled at the sound of the common bell,
on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 5, IGOO ? ^

' Pitcairn's Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol. ii. p. lOG (20).
^ See the depositions of the various ' indwellei-s of Perth ' in l*itcairn"s
Criminal Trials, vol. ii. pp. 194-208. In many cases the deponent says

* came with his armour at the sound of the bell.'

^ The first impressions of the citizens of Perth are thus given in the depo-
sition of Alexander Peblis, which is in accordance with many of the other
depositions : — ' Alexander Poblis deposed that during all the time of the
tumult he was locked in his own house, and looking out at the window-
heard James Bower and others crying up to the round [turret], 'Is mv lord
of Gowrie alive? If he be not alive, he should have amends of all that
were therein ! ' Would not depart till they saw my lord of Gowrie ; and
one of them cried up, ' Greencoats ! we shall have amends of you ! ' Wag-
ging their hands up, saying, 'Ye shall pay for it! ' Heard Thomas Elder
cry up for ' Ane sight of the Earl of Gowrie.' Heard Ifobert Tulyeour say,
' Traitors and thieves that has slain the Earl of Gowrie ! ' Heard Violet
Kuthven and other women cry, ' Tn.itors !. thieves ! The Earl of Gowrie

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 15 of 40)