“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason” – John Harington
Us living folks have always had an ambivalent attitude towards the dead. We certainly don’t want them wandering around making all sorts of unreasonable demands or feasting on our brains. Although, you do have to make room for all manner of fetishes. One must not be exclusionary. Such leads to an “airy” of exclusion. The one area in which we generally eschew the standard cultural taboos when it comes to screwing with the recently, or not so recently, deceased is in the courtroom. So what you’re dead? You still owe taxes. Your crimes in life still echo in eternity. And if you are perceived as having committed that most heinous of acts – treason – against the powers that be, are, or will be, well let’s just say the mere inconvenience of your death is unlikely to prevent you from being hauled before judges to answer for your crimes.
You can’t really answer, being a corpse and all, but people still remember who you are, and some people (in the eyes of the current monarch) deserve not only to be dead, which they already are, but to have a black mark against their name in history books, which presumably translates to demerits in Heaven.
I was perusing the records of those unfortunate defendants who had the misfortune of being brought to account posthumously, because that’s the sort of thing that I do for giggles. Actually, I figure that the more I know about the post-life legal process, the better prepared I will be to get my haunt on. Oh, and I intend to haunt. As far as I know I haven’t committed treason, but just in case, I’ll put it on my bucket list if it improves my spectral cred. Frankly, I can think of few accolades that are as heart-warming as having someone exhume my body and put it on trial. That’s how much of a badass I was in life, I’ll brag to the other spirits. Thankfully, I think I’ve found my phantasmagoric mentor in the Scotsman Robert Logan of Restalrig (1555-1606).
The big problem was that Robert Logan, while alive, seems to have gotten himself all tangled up in the Gowrie Conspiracy. The Gowrie Conspiracy remains to this day shrouded in mystery, but in order to understand the relative obscurity of the plot, one must also understand the end of the Elizabethan Era. Queen Elizabeth I was the last of Henry VIII’s descendants, and James was seen as her most likely heir through his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor, who was Henry VIII’s oldest sister. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots and he was the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland. This made him an ideal for succession to the throne after Elizabeth I, as he would serve to unite England, Scotland, and Ireland into a single realm. James was anointed “King of Scots” at thirteen-months old, which no doubt seriously cut into his naptime. A series of regents ruled in his stead, many of whom were assassinated by Mary’s supporters (although she was in exile). In August 1582, in what became known as the Ruthven Raid, the Protestant earls of Gowrie and Angus lured James into Ruthven Castle, imprisoned him and forced one of his influential favorites (and possible lover), the Earl of Lennox, to leave Scotland. The King was liberated in 1583, and at the tender age of sixteen began to truly assume the reins of government. Surprisingly, this earlier incident is not what is referred to as the “Gowrie Conspiracy”.
The Gowrie Conspiracy occurred in 1600. Again, James was lured to a Ruthven property at Gowrie House, and apparently assaulted by Alexander Ruthven, the Earl of Gowrie’s younger brother. Ruthven was run through by James’s page John Ramsay and the Earl of Gowrie was killed in the ensuing fracas; there were few surviving witnesses. The circumstances were all a little suspicious. James certainly had a grudge with the Ruthvens over his earlier imprisonment, not to mention the fact that he owed their family a great deal of money. It would be awfully convenient to dispatch the family. Historians disagree on the details. Either the Ruthvens plotted to kidnap and murder James; James dropped in at Gowrie House with the intention of murdering the whole family; or alternatively, there was an unpremeditated brawl that resulted in the deaths of the Ruthvens. As a little side note, the Earl of Gowrie was thought to be a contender for succession to the English crown. It certainly looks like James may have whacked the competition for the throne. Since James VI of Scotland went on to succeed Queen Elizabeth I and rule as King James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, he got the last laugh either way.
Robert Logan of Restalrig was a Scottish knight, implicated in the Gowrie Conspiracy by the dubious confession of George Sprot of Eyemouth before he was hanged (Sprot claimed to have seen letters from Gowrie to Logan offering him Dirleton Castle if James was successfully abducted). Not many people at the time believed that Logan would have conspired with Gowrie. Nonetheless, James was King, and kings are notoriously touchy, especially when people try to kidnap them. To Logan’s credit, he was now dead, and thus one would think that posthumously charging him with treason would be wasted breath.
Robert Logan, of Restalrig, had been nearly three years in his grave when it was given out that he had been a party to the alleged Gowrie conspiracy against King James. A process was at once taken in hand to proscribe his memory and escheat his property. As death was no excuse, neither was burial; and the ghastly form was gone through of exhuming the bones for presentation at the trial. It was a case plainly within the exception provided for in the act of 1542, for the man was not “notourly” a traitor, he had died in repute of loyalty: but the Crown was eager for a conviction. Much incredulity had been rife with regard to the Gowrie conspiracy. The evidences now adduced were — on the surface at any rate, although, perhaps, as many critics still think, on the surface only, — circumstantial and strong. The prosecution was therefore keenly pressed, and the reluctance of some of the judges overcome. A jocular jurist-commentator on these post-mortem trials, has remarked that the bones of a traitor could neither plead defences, nor cross-question witnesses. But in the dawn of the seventeenth century they could turn the sympathy of the court against the charge, as it appears they did in Logan’s case. The proofs, however, looked overwhelming, and the forfeiture was carried without a dissenting voice from the bench — from the bench, because it was, as all Scots treason-trials then were, a trial by judges only, not by judge and jury. Logan’s memory was declared extinct and abolished, and his possessions forfeited. The judgement, however, wreaked no vengeance on the exhumed remains. Humanity was asserting itself even in the trial of the dead, and that institution itself was doomed (Andrews, 1897, p234-236).
This is of course an object lesson in the maxim “you can’t take it with you”. Or perhaps it’s an all too literal interpretation of habeas corpus. And while a dead body generally cannot mount an adequate defense, one certainly has a hard time trying to solicit a confession or broker a plea agreement with it. As Alexander Herzen said, “There is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse: you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it”.
Andrews, William, 1848-1908. Legal Lore: Curiosities of Law and Lawyers. London: W. Andrews & Co., 1897.