What is Blood of Kings about?
Blood of Kings, my first non-naval book, focuses on the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ of 1600. On 5 August of that year, John Ruthven, third Earl of Gowrie, and his brother Alexander, were killed in mysterious circumstances in front of King James VI of Scots, soon to be James I of England, at Gowrie House in Perth. King James alleged that he had been lured there under false pretences, which centred on a tale of a mysterious stranger carrying a pot of gold, and that the Ruthven brothers had then attempted to assassinate him. Apologists for the Ruthvens claimed that the family had been wiped out in a cynical royal pogrom, inspired perhaps by fear, jealousy or thwarted homosexual lust, which was then systematically covered up by the state. Shakespeare subsequently used the ‘official’ version of the events at Gowrie House as one of the principal inspirations for the plot of ‘Macbeth’.
Other themes central to the book include:
- The long association of the entire Ruthven family with magic, alchemy and witchcraft;
- The story of the alleged warlock Patrick, third Lord Ruthven, who played a key role in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, including leading the assassins of Rizzio, Mary’s alleged lover, into the Queen’s chamber and personally overseeing his murder in Mary’s presence;
- The career of William, fourth Lord Ruthven and later first Earl of Gowrie, the man who directly forced Mary to abdicate and later kidnapped her son, James, in a coup d’état. This was intended to rid Scotland of the sixteen-year-old king’s alleged first homosexual lover, the Duke of Lennox, James’s charismatic French cousin. Gowrie then held the king prisoner for a year and was the effective ruler of Scotland in that time, although his triumph proved short lived: he was executed for treason in 1584. Gowrie was also the last known owner of the ‘Casket letters’, the documents that allegedly proved Mary Queen of Scots’ complicity in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley.
- The roles of Queen Elizabeth I, her charismatic favourite the Earl of Essex and her devious chief minister Robert Cecil in determining the fate of the Ruthvens
Blood of Kings considers all of the possible explanations for what happened at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600 and presents a detailed and entirely new interpretation of the events of that day, based on many previously little known or unknown sources. It provides the most detailed account in print of the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ for over a century. It is also the first work ever to set the story of the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ fully in the contexts of the relationship between the Stuart and Ruthven families over a 50-year period, and of European and Anglo-Scots power politics during an age that many contemporaries regarded as the apocalyptic final conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. Blood of Kings also suggests that the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ was actually more significant for the future course of British history than the nearly contemporary ‘Gunpowder Plot’; for instance, King James was certainly in far more direct and immediate danger on 5 August 1600 than he was on 5 November 1605. Although relatively little known today, the ‘conspiracy’ remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of British history.
So why did a Welsh naval historian and author decide to write a book on Scottish history?
I’ve been working for many years on the history of the Stepney family, baronets of Llanelli in Carmarthenshire, my home town, with a view to ultimately producing a book about them. As I worked through the voluminous Stepney papers I came across more and more references to the Ruthven family, Earls of Gowrie, and to the strange events that took place in Perth, Scotland, on 5 August 1600. It transpired that the Stepneys were the only direct descendants of the senior surviving line of the Ruthvens, and by chance they were also the only descendants of the great portrait painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The Stepneys believed that they were rightfully entitled to the lost titles of the Ruthvens, and pursued the claim vigorously throughout most of the nineteenth century. I quickly realised that the Gowrie story demanded a book in its own right, despite my initial lack of grounding in many aspects of Scottish history, but it’s taken nearly ten years of research and extensive fieldwork in Scotland to bring that idea to fruition!