James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 7 : Escape

Despite James’ ability to dissemble in front of the Lords who held him captive, Melville notes that he took the matter very much to heart, he felt not just grief for the loss of his friend but also shame in front of other monarchs for his seeming powerlessness and anger that his Lords should treat an anointed King with such little respect.

But as often happens with Lords who kidnapped kings in the 15th and 16th centuries, they found themselves hoist with their own petard. They had to make a convincing show that they were acting in the King and country’s best interests and they needed the King’s authorisation for any acts they undertook. There was also the expense of maintaining His Majesty, and the money that they had been promised from England was not forthcoming in the kinds of quantities they had hoped.

Beginning to understand that James might not be so easily controlled as they had hoped, Gowrie and his colleagues retired from court to indicate that they had no intention of trying to control him. James, who had perhaps lulled them into a false sense of security by a show of compliant behaviour for several months, seized his opportunity and secretly sent messages to many of the nobility to convene at St Andrews. He did not include any of the Lords who had abducted him in the summons.

Amongst those summoned by James were the Earls of Huntly, Argyll, Montrose, Crawford, Rothes and March. He also requested the presence of Melville who, whilst complaining about being brought out of retirement, advised James that the best course of action that he could take on now attaining his majority and full control of the country would be to forgive and forget any past misdeeds.

James, who was at Falkland Palace, then informed his attendants that he would ride to St Andrews as he had received an invitation to dine from the Earl of March. Whilst these attendants, who were of course in position because of their support of James’s abduction, protested and suggested that he ought to wait for Gowrie and his colleagues, James insisted and they did not dare to prevent him leaving.

As soon as he was at St Andrew’s, it became apparent that James meant to take control. Accounts differ as to the role of Gowrie at this point – Melville claims that James summoned him personally, believing that the Earl was penitent for his role in the abduction. Other sources suggest that Gowrie was hurrying towards St Andrews in the hope of keeping the King under his control. Whichever is the truth, it was soon apparent to Gowrie that James would never be under his influence again. He fell to his knees and begged forgiveness. James graciously replied that the Raid of Ruthven would be forgiven.

James now declared to his assembled nobles that he was now King in fact as well as in name. He was 17 years old and intended to rule impartially and bring them all to ‘unity and concord’.

The English ambassador, Sir Robert Bowes, was disappointed that this announcement meant that James would keep all his personal papers himself and that there was little opportunity for getting hold of them.

James was not temperamentally suited to the day-to-day business of government. He was of a strategic, rather than a tactical, turn of mind. He could, at least in his own opinion, transact more business in an hour than other men could do in a day and could simultaneously write, think, listen and give orders. He therefore delegated a good deal of routine business to the Earl of Arran, a proceeding which was as unpopular as such actions often are – more through the envy of those who were not chosen than the belief that the King should do everything himself.

Arran himself was also personally unpopular and associated in many people’s minds with the pro-French, pro-Catholic policy that Lennox had been accused of. Sir James Melville is certainly scathing in his assessment of Arran as the underlying cause of the Ruthven Raid and a likely exacerbation to faction.

Whether it was Arran’s doing or James’ own long-term plan is debatable, but in May 1584 Gowrie was accused of a new act of treason and executed. Not only Gowrie but also the Earls of Angus and Mar were disgraced and forced into exile in England. This led Elizabeth to write a rather sententious letter admonishing James for having broken his word to forgive the Ruthven Raid. The reality was, of course, that the English were always happy to promote dissent at the Scottish court.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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