The Earle of Gowries Conspiracie Against the Kings Maiestie.

London, Valentine Simmes, 1603


4to., 16 unnumbered ll. A-D4. Roman letter, printer’s woodcut device on title, large woodcut initial and headpiece. T-p fractionally dusty, general age yellowing, some very minor spotting, margins a bit short. A very good copy, crisp and clean in fine C19th crimson red morocco, very much in the style of Bedford, covers bordered with a triple gilt rule, fleurons to outer corners, spine with gilt ruled raised bands, richly worked in compartments with small gilt tools and pointillé, edges with gilt pointillé rule, inner dentelles richly gilt, combed marbled endpapers, a.e.g.

In August 1600 King James I of Scotland arrived with his retinue at the Castle of John Ruthven, third Earl of Gowrie. Although there appears to have been prior correspondence between Gowrie and the King the visit was unexpected. In circumstances never fully explained a melée took place between certain of the King’s retainers and Gowrie and a number his, in one of the towers of the castle, after Gowrie had been told that the King had left. The King had not, he was present at the fight, (if such it was) and both Gowrie and his brother were killed. Whatever the cause of their deaths, and whether intended by James or not, they were certainly turned by James to his advantage. Gowrie and his brother were posthumously accused of high treason, their bodies hanged and quartered, the whole family proscribed and all their assets and estates forfeited to the Crown; even the name Ruthven was abolished. It was probably not a coincidence that Gowrie was the King’s principal creditor, having inherited from his father Royal debts amounting to £80,000, a vast sum at the time, which of course James no longer had to repay. There must have been mutterings to that effect at the time, as the government very quickly published the present work accusing Gowrie of having conspired either to make an attempt on Jame’s life or to kidnap him and deliver him to the English. What Gowrie’s motive for such an attempt would have been or why the aged Elizabeth should have wished to have her heir-presumtive either dead, or her prisoner, is unclear. At the time Gowrie was about twenty two years old, a young man of parts, who had studied with distinction at Padua, expert in natural sciences especially chemistry, a friend of Beza with whom he had lodged in Geneva and highly thought of by Elizabeth and her chief minister Cecil. True, he was proud and arrogant but it may have been his virtues rather than his vices that which James was most afraid of. A rare and interesting work.

Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, performed a play ‘The Tragedy of Gowrie’ twice in December 1604. “We’ll never know how closely the Kings Men’s version of the story stuck to the Royal script, but despite its initial popularity the play was quickly banned and never printed. It may well be that even a faithful re-enactment of the King story raised too many unanswered questions. Chamberlain, our only source of information about the lost play, wasn’t able to learn why it was censored: “Whether the matter or manner be not well handled, or that it be thought unfit that princes should be put on stage in their lifetime, I hear that some great counsellors are much displeased with it.” There were a few unspoken rules in Shakespeare’s day. One was that you never portrayed a living Monarch on stage (the risk of seeming to mark Jameses gait or Scottish accent was far too great).” James Shapiro .’The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.’ Shakespeare’s company never performed the ‘The Tragedy of Gowrie’ again, however it was undoubtedly influential in his major Tragedy ‘Macbeth’. 

A very good copy of this rare work, sumptuously bound. 

ESTC S116289. [Lincoln Cathedral and Oxford only: Huntington in US.] STC 21466.7 The other editions or impressions between 1600-1603 are very scarce, two known only by single copies. Laing’s copy sold for over £6 in the C19. Lowndes III 923.


Print This Item Print This Item