Andrew Bisset.

Essays on historical truth online

. (page 22 of 40)
Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 22 of 40)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

notary and very expert in the art of forging hand-writing.
Of the particulars of the career of an obscure man like
Sprot, it would be almost impossible to obtain evidence of
the best kind. But the contemporary historians, such as
they are, describe him as so skilful in imitating hand-
writing as to render it almost impossible to say whether

accurate and obliging antiquary, Mr. David Laing, I am indebted for an

exact transcript of the confirmed testament of Logan of Eestalrig, who died
in the mouth of July, IGOG. The confirmation is dated zdti)»o Janucrii, 1(507
[that is, 1007-8], not long before the commencement of the process against
the notary Sprot.'


274 ass ATS on historical truth.

it was a forgery or not. The concurrent testimony ^ of
conteraporary writers leads to the conckision that Sprot
would have suffered death at any rate for having forged
deeds, and tliat he was partly bribed by the Earl of
Dunbar, by promises of benefit to his wife and children,
partly tortured into his fabricated story in regard to
Logan's correspondence with the Euthvens.

About two months after the date of the despatches of
the French ambassador last quoted, namely in April
1608,'^ Sprot was seized and brought before the Scottish
Privy Council. The unfortunate man had fallen into evil
hands when he fell into those of the barbarians and
slaves who then, under the name of a Privv Council, mis-
governed Scotland. Sprot was examined before the
Privy Council on the 5t.h, 15th, and IGtli of July 1608 ;^
but as no record of these examinations has been pre-
served, and as the total want of publicity in those trials
in all the systems of law borrowed from the Eoman,
whether French, German or Scotch, rendered a judicial
procedure a most apt instrument for executing the pur-
poses of despotism under the colour of law, all that we
know is that Sprot was subjected to the extremity of
torture in the form of that Scottish political institution,
the ' buittis,' under the effect of which he was induced to
make certain depositions ' to the satisfaction of the

Sprot's examination on the 10th of August, in the
presence of the Earl of Dunbar, the Earl of Lothian, the
Bishop of Ploss, the Lord Scone, the Lord Holyroodhouse,

^ See Mr. Mark Napier's notes to Spottiswood's History, a'oI. iii.
pp. 281, 286.

"^ MS. in the Advocates' Library, given in Pitcairn, ii. 275.

2 So it is stated in the indictment of August 12th, 1608, Pitcairn, ii. 259.


tlie Lord Blantyre, Sir William Hart his Mcijesty's Justice,
Mr. John Hall, Mr. Patrick Galloway, Mr. Peter Hevvart,
ministers of the kirks of Eclinburifh, has been preserved
' written and set forth by Sir William Ilairt (or Hart)
Knight, Lord Justice of Scotland.' Li his deposition made
on this occasion, Sprot professed to narrate what he knew,
and how he came to know, of the alleged correspondence
between Logan and Gowrie ; and he also professed to re-
]:)eatfrom memory certain portions of that correspondence ;
lirst a letter from Gowrie to Eestalrig ; and secondly
Piestalrig s answer to that letter. lie also alleged that he
stole that letter from Eestalrig to Gowrie ; and ' that he left
the above written letter in his chest aniono- his writings,
when he was taken and brought away, and that it is
closed and folded within a piece of paper.^ Now it is of
the first importance to ascertain how far this alleged letter
which is set forth in Sprot's indictment^ agrees with the
corresponding letter afterwards produced by the Lord
Advocate : because if it does not agree, its disagreement
l)roves that there was no such letter in existence ; since
tliough Sprot, repeating the letter from memory, might
state it inaccurately, if such a letter existed in his reposi-
tories as he is made to allege, there \vould have been
no difficulty whatever in procuring the letter and setting
it forth accurately in the indictment.

The account of this business, which may be truly
characterised as one of the most elaborate pieces of villany
and cruelty ever perpetrated by man, combining the
cruelty of the Kalir and Eed Indian with the servile
subtlety of the semi-civilised cl•o^vn lawyer and the servile

^ Examinations, &c. of George Sprot, Pitcairn, ii. 273.
■■* Pitcairu, ii. 257.

276 i:ssArs on historical truth.

hypocrisy of the semi-civilised court priest, would be in-
complete without the addition of the appeal to the rehgious
sanction by which this conclave of inquisitors adjured
the unhappy wretch to die with a lie in his mouth.

'And also the 11th day of the foresaid month and
year, the said George Sprot being re-examined in the
presence of a number of the Council and ministers afore-
said, and it being declared to him that the time of his
death now very near approached, and that therefore they
desired him to clear his conscience with an upricrht decla-
ration of the truth ; and that he would not abuse the holy
name of God, to make him as it were a witness to untruths :
and specially, being desired that he would not take upon
him the innocent blood of any person, dead or quick, by
making and forging lies and untruths against them :
Deponeth, that he acknowledgeth his grievous offences to
God (who hath made him a reasonable creature) in abusing
his holy name with many untruths, since the beginning
of this process : but now being resolved to die, and
attending the hour and time when it shall please God to
call him, he deponeth, with many attestations, and as he
wisheth to be participant of the kingdom of heaven,
where he may be countable and answerable, upon the
salvation and condemnation of his soul, for all his doings
and speeches on this earth ; that all that he hath deponed
since the 5th day of July last, in all his several depositions,
were true, in every point and circumstance of the same ;
and there is no untruth in any point thereof. And
having desired Mr. Patrick Galloway to make a prayer
whereby he might be comforted now in his trouble ;
which was done : The said deponer, with many tears,
after the prayer, affirmed this his deposition to be true :


and for the confirmation thereof declared, that he would
seal the same with his blood.' ^

As we only possess such fragments of the trial of Sprot
as it suited the purpose of those who tried him to make
public, it is vain to attempt to give a complete or even a
consistent account of it. A MS. fragment, preserved in
the Advocates' Library, and printed by Mr. Pitcairn,^
which being anonymous cannot be accepted as good
authority, says, that after his first examination and after
having received some strokes in the boots, ' the said
George being urged to depone what further he knew in
the said matter, to the further satisfaction of the Council,
and beino^ booted to that effect, he then with great and
solemn oaths declared that all was false that he had
written or said in the said matter ; and willed them that
were his auditors, that if ever at any time thereafter he
should say or write otherwise, that there should be no
credit given thereto. And so, the matter lying over till
my lord of Dunbar's coming into this country ' [that is,
coming down from court, w^here he had been to take the
king's instructions as to making the Gowrie story hang
more handsomely together], ' he then caused take the
said George Sprot forth of ward, and caused cure his
legs, which were very evil wounded with the boots ; and
thereafter caused present him before the Council ; when
he ratified all that ever he had said first in the said
matter.' This is strange. Mr. Pitcairn, in his note, at-
tempts to explain it thus : ' It seems clear that this
retraction of his former voluntary confessions was only
extorted from Sprot by the extremity of the torture

^ Examinations, kc, of George Sprot, Titcairn, ii. 273, 274.

"^ I'itcairn, ii. 275, 276. This MS., from the alhision to Dunbar's not
bei ng then in Scotland, evidently has reference to the examinations of Sprot
in July.

278 ass AYS o^' historical truth.

suffered by him in ' the buittis.' For no sooner is he
rid of them, and patiently examined on oath before the
Privy Council, than he exphcitly declares the truth of his
previous declarations.' ^ Mr. Pitcairn then adds that ' the
administration of the torture to so exquisite a degree
proves the extreme anxiety of his examinators to draw
out the truth.'' Mr. Pitcairn seems to differ from Cicero,
Beccaria, Blackstone, and other antliorities of some name,
as to the effect of torture, though if the account quoted
above be correct the effect of torture in this case,
contrary to its effect generally, according to Beccaria,
really was to ' draw out the truth.' For I shall show
that the alleged letters were forgeries. But I think it not
improbable that the anonymous writer's account is only
correct so far that the Privy Council had considerable
difficulty in making Sprot depose entirely to their satis-
faction. It is indeed possible that the extremity of
torture may on some occasion have produced the same
effect on Sprot that an excess of wine is said to do on
many men, and have made him speak the truth for once
in his life. For as Sprot was a fradulent notary and a
forger of writings, it may be very fairly inferred that he
was also generally and habitually a liar.

Sprot having, as has been seen, on August 11, been
made to adhere to his deposition of the day before, was
convicted^ on the 12th in terms of that confession; and
he was hanged in the afternoon of the same day. Cal-
derwood says, ' The people wondered wherefore Dunbar
should attend upon the execution of such a mean man ;
and surmised, that it was only to give a sign when his

^ Pitcairn, ii. 276, note.

'^ See the indictment in Pitcairn, ii. 250-259.


spcecli i-hould be iiitcrriiptcd, and Avlieii he was to be
cast over tlie ladder.' ^ The effect of this proceeding of
stopping a witness, in such a manner, will at once be seen
to be that what he has said being taken witliout what he
was proceeding, but was not allowed to say, would convey
an impression of his meaning the direct opposite of the

As Mr. Mark Napier has observed, all our modern
historians have assumed that tlie letters were produced
on the trial, and that upon them the king's advocate pro-
ceeded, or, in the language of the Scots law, libelled
against Sprot.

In Mr. Pitcairn's laborious and valuable publication of
the Criminal Eecords of Scotland, the indictment itself is
printed from the original record. It is there set forth
that Sprot acquired his knowledge of the treason by
knowing that divers letters and messages had passed
between the late Earl of Gowrie and Logan the laird of
Eestalrig ; that this had liappened by means of Logan's
confidential messenger ' laird Bom',' who had given Sprot
those letters to read, he (Bour) not being able to read
one syllable. The indictment further sets forth that,
besides having seen several of the said letters, Sprot had
stolen one and kept it in his own possession. This is the
only letter the contents of which the king's advocate
pretends to have any exact knowledge of. And this
letter is so set forth in the indictment as to appear, not
an alstract, as Mr. Pitcairn (ii. 257, note 1) loosely
assumes it to be, but a verbatim extract (the words of the
indictment being ' of the tenour following ') of all that

^ Caldoiwoocl, printed bv the Wodrow Society,' vol. \i. p 780


is material to the cause. It is important, in reference to
a comparison of Archbishop Spottiswood's notice of the
subject (see post^ p. 282) with the dissertations of modern
liistorians, to bear in mind that the indictment proceeds
only upon one letter, and only charges the accused of
having obtained possession of that one, though he is also
accused of having seen others in the hands of this Bour.
Moreover the public prosecutor does not pretend to
libel or proceed upon the letter itself as a production}
He does not say that, in consequence of Sprot's alleged
confession, this letter was sought for and recovered either
from Sprot or his repositories, a most important point in
the prosecutor's case, and one which, had the fact been so,
he would not have failed to introduce specially. And
yet when a letter, assumed to be the same as this, is pro-
duced about a twelvemonth afterwards on the trial of
Logans bones, that letter turns out to be essentially
different from the extracts, not abstracts, in the indictment
against Sprot. If any one of the alleged letters had
reaUy existed in Sprot's repositories, it would of course
have been recovered and used in his trial.

' On comparing these two important records,' says Mr.
Mark Napier, ' the deposition and the indictment, it will
be seen that the only letter libelled is the very same as
that which had been taken down from Sprot's own lips.
That he then had given it [or had professed to give it]
from memory, and had not produced it, is manifest from
the conclusion of his examination, where he depones,
' That he left the above written letter in his chest among
his writings when he was taken and brought away, and

^ The word 'production ' is, I apprehend, the Scots law term con-espond-
ing nearly to the term ' exhibit ' in English law.

sill WALTER SCOTT. 281

tliat it was closed and folded ^vithin a piece of paper.'
The king's advocate, for reasons best known to himself,
did not libel upon the alleged letter from Gowrie ' to
Logan, which Sprot in his confession also repeated [pro-
fessed to repeat] from memory. That letter was never
pretended to be produced at all ; nor was it heard of
more. Neither does it appear that the king's advocate,
upon this deposition of Sjjrot, recovered out of his
[Sprot's] chest the letter from Logan to Gowrie ' [which
he would surely have done had such a letter existed].
' Had he done so, he would have stated the fact, and
libelled upon the production of it. Instead of which, as
is manifest from the terms of the indictment itself, he
libels entirely from Sprot's deposition,^ and upon the letter
he repeated from memory therein, ipsissimis verbis.
Throughout the whole of the records of the trial, so well
collected by Mr. Pitcairn, there is not a circumstance or
expression to warrant any other idea than this, that not
one of the treasonable letters about which so much was
heard some time aftewards, and no letter at all., was pro-
duced throughout the proceedings that brought Sprot to
the gallows.' ^

' I have substituted here the word * deposition ' for the word ' confession '
used by Mr. Napier, for this reason, that 'confession' is rather a misleading
term, being usually understood to imply a true statement.

^ Spottiswood's History, Bannatyne Club edition, vol. iii. pp. 274, 275.
In regard to Mr. Pitcairn's inference that the public prosecutor at Sprot's
trial, about a year before Logan's forfeiture, had in his possession * the
treasonable letters ' (five in number) afterwards produced in the process
against I>ogan's bones, Mr. Napier very justly remarks : — ' With the highest
respect for that intelligent collector's valuable researches, we must say, that
loose and partial notes, and ill-digested views of evidence, deteriorate the
value of such an undertaking, and are detrimental to the cause of historical
truth in which he labours. Even the best historians will think it a suffi-
cient fullilment of the task of research, upon a particular incident, to tura
over the groaning pages of Mr. Pitcairn's voluminous collection, which may

232 i:ssAYS on historical thutil

III the following page of liis elaborate note, Mr. Napier
thus continues : ' For the first time, then, in the strange
proceedings against the bones of tlie unconscious Eestalrig,
were those treasonable letters, said to be in his hand-
writing, produced. Where they had been found, during
the interval between those two processes, the public
prosecutor does not vouchsafe to disclose. His Summons
of Treason, and the whole record, are silent upon that

The name of Spottiswood, who was then Archbishop of
Glasgow, stands third in the list of those who sat upon
the trial of George Sprot. He was also one of those who
were on the scaffold at Sprot's execution, and his name
stands first in the list of those who subscribed Sprot's final
deposition there made. Archbishop Spottiswood dis-
tinctly confirms what has been stated from the records,
that no letter was produced at Sprot's trial. In his history,
after mentioning that Sprot had deponed ' That he knew
Eobert Logan of Eestalrig, who was dead two years be-
fore, to have been privy to Gowrie's conspiracy, and that
he understood so much by a letter [not letters] that fell in
his hand, \mtten by Eestalrig to Gowrie, bearing that he
would take part with him in the revenge of his father's
death, and that his best course should be to bring; the
king by sea to Fast Castle, where he might be safely kept
till advertisement came from those with whom the earl
kept intelligence,' he adds the following sentence : ' It
seemed a very fiction, and to be a mere conceit of the

be termed the Book of Sighs, and to hasten for assistance and relief to his
guiding notes ; and thus error enters history, from authentic roxmds.^ A remark-
able confirmation of the truth of this prediction of Mr. Napier, as to the
effect of Mr. Pitcairn's note?, afibrded by Mr. Buckle's History of Civilisation^
has been mentioned in the first of these essays.


man's own bniiii ; for neither did he s-how the letter, nor
could any wise man think that Gowrie, wlio went about
that treason so secretly, would have communicated tlie
matter with such a man as this Kestalrig was known to
be.' 1

Sir Walter Scott says, ' The fote of Sprot, tlie notaiy,
was singular enouuli. lie was condemned to be han^^ed
for keeping these treasonable letters in his possession
without communicating them to the government ; and he
suffered death accordingly, asserting to the last that the
letters were genuine, and that he liad only preserved
them from curiosity. This fact he testified even in the
agonies of death ; for, being desired to give a sign of the
truth and sincerity of his confession, after lie was thrown
off' from the ladder, he is said to have clapped his hands
three times.' ^ Such is Scott's account of what Calder-
wood represents as the trick by which Dunbar gave a
sign when Sprot's dying speech should be interrupted by
his being cast off the ladder so as to give to his ^vords a
sense the reverse of that which they seemed intended to

It is certainly a strange phenomenon to see modern
historians assuming King James's story of what he called
the Gowrie Conspiracy to have been confirmed by the
' confessions ' and other doings of the notary, George
Sprot, when a contemporary historian, a churchman of
the highest position in the kingdom, who sat as one of the
judges on the trial of Sprot, and attended on the scaffold
to attest the dying words of the wretched victim, should

^ The Histoiy of tlie Church of Scotland, hy John Spottiswood, archbishop
of St. Andrew's, vol iii. pp. 199, 200. Bannatyne Club edition, Edinburgh,

■■^ Sir Walter Scott's History of Scotland, vol. i. p. -VuT : Edinburgh, 1846.


himself have recorded his utter disbehef of Sprot's ' con-
fessions.' ' Archbishop Spottiswood,' observes Mr. Mark
Napier, ' did not, and dared not, at the time, announce his
disbehef, or even evince scepticism. Far less dared he,
in the lifetime of the monarch whom that strange story
so deeply concerned, have published such a paragraph as
his history contains. Yet his contempt for, and disbelief
of, the wild romance extracted per fas et nefas [per nefas
only he should say] from the notary Sprot, he deliber-
ately recorded for all posterity to read. This of itself is
no unimportant commentary upon that disgusting passage
in the history of James VI.' ^

The Earl of Dunbar brought down with him ' special,'
to act his part in the business of Sprot, George Abbot,
then Dean of Winchester, who wrote a narrative^ of
Sprot's execution, at which he was present. This narra-
tive being interspersed with much theological erudition
and many pious reflections, proved very edifying to those
who believed it, and very satisfactory to his Majesty, who
perhaps believed it himself. He at least evinced a high
appreciation of it ; for we find that George Abbot was
elected. May 27, 1609, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry,
was translated to London January 20, 1610, and to
Canterbury March 4, 1611.^ I think it will be generally
allowed that few literary productions have been better

^ See Mr. Mark Napier's valuable note in the Bannatyne Club edition of
Spottiswood's History of the Church of Scotland, vol. iii. p. 289 : Edin-
burgh, I80O.

''■ This narrative, which "was printed and published at the time(London,
1608) as a Preface to Sir William Hart's Report of the Trial and Examination,
is reprinted in Mr. Pitcairn's valuable collection of documents relating to the
trials. Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, vol. ii. pp. 202-272.

2 Succes.sion of Archbishops and Bishops. Sir Harris Nicolas's Synopsis
of the Peerage, vol. ii.


paid for than this narrative of Dean Abbot's of the exe-
cution of George Sprot, notary.

Everytliing in the shape of a defence of the Earl of
Gowrie and his brother was so cfTectually destroyed ^ that
not a single copy of a small tract written in vindication
of them, can now be met with.'^ Mr. Pitcairn, under the
head ' writing slanderous pasquils against the king,' says,
* Owing to the scrupulous care adopted by the Lord
Advocate to suppress these offensive papers, the precise
nature of the pasquils [lampoons] alluded to cannot now

^ As an example of the extent to which sucli an effect can be produced, it
may be mentioned that in December, 1851, the proclamation issued by the
French Assembly lor the dei)osition of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte wiis said
to be so completely destroyed that in tlie course of a few hours not one copy
was to be seen ; and yet tliat document has already become of historical im-
portance, though it may perhaps be sought for by the historian in vain.

- Mr. Pitcairn says: — ' Lord Ilailcs remarks that " it appears by a letter
from Sir John Carey, governor of Benvick to Cecil, September 4, IGOO,
State I'aper Office, that some treatise had been publi.shtd in Scotland in
vindication of Gowrie." This treatise must have been privately circulated
in MS. or, if printed, the impression had been seized at press. Not a vestige
of the tract remains. Even the title, or an abstract of tlie facts and argu-
ments, is unnoticed by any of the numerous contemporaneous writers who
profess to espouse the cause of the Earl of Gowrie. The Rev. James Scott,
in his History, 8vo. Edinburgh, 1818, p. o, quotes a MS. in the Library of
the Society of Antiquaries, Perth, which he terms " Stewart's Collections,"
in which it is stated that " after the Earl of Cowrie's death, a small treatise
was published in his vindication, but wa.s suppressed. Some copies of it were,
however, pr(!served ; and Sir Eobert Douglas has said that his brother Sir
"\\'illiam had seen one of those vindications, and that al-o several old gentle-
men in Perthshire had owned that they had seen it." On this subject it shall
only further be noticed that among the correspondence of the indefatigable
George Paton, one of the profoundest and most meritorious of our Scottish
collectors (a pretty large portion of which has fortunately been recovered
and preserved by the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh), a letter occurs ad-
dressed by Mr. I'aton to the eminent antiquary, Richard Gongh, Esquire;
May 27, 1782, from which the following passage is extracted : — "Did you
ever see the counterpart or answer to King James's account of Earl Cowrie's
Conspiracy, or that published by authority ? The answer, I am assured, was
printed, but supprest, altho' a copy or so may be preserved, which, if dis-
covered, might throw some light on that dark passage of our Scots history. —
rUcairns Criminal Trials, vol. ii. pp. 209, 210.

2SG i:ssArs ox historical truth.

be correctly determined. The likelihood however is, that,
besides ' detracting ' tlie king and his ' maist nobill
progeuitouris,' and publicly branding the king as the
' Son of Seniour Davie,' [a popular soubriquet for his
' sacred Majesty ' ], those oflensive squibs had contained
matter relative to the recent conspiracy of the Earl of

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 22 of 40)