Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 30 October 2017

Subtle traitors, part one

Part One of a series of articles about the little-known Rising of the Northern Earls against Elizabeth I in 1569, and the cruel aftermath...


In the winter of 1569 northern England exploded in revolt against Elizabeth I. The heart of rebellion lay on the Border where Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had the main strength of her support. Mary languished in prison at Tutbury in Derbyshire, but the leaders of the revolt meant to topple Elizabeth from her throne, liberate Mary and proclaim her Queen of England and Scotland. As ever in this period, religion was crucial. Many of the Borderers, English and Scottish, still held to the old Catholic faith, and for that reason wished to see the back of the Protestant Tudors.

The leading lights of the revolt on the English side made an unlikely triumvirate. They were Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the latest in a long line of rebels to stem from that troublesome family; Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and ‘crookback’ Leonard Dacre of Naworth, once deputy Warden of the English West March. All three of these men had savage character flaws. Percy was known as Simple Tom after his trusting and guileless nature - a polite way of saying he was a bit dim - while Westmoreland was reckless and hot-headed, with a habit of hurling his bonnet into the fire when in a rage (it must have cost him a fortune in bonnets). As for Crookback Dacre, so-called after a physical deformity, he was regarded as devious and treacherous: Queen Elizabeth referred to him as a ‘cankered, subtle traitor.’ He does seem to have been the most intelligent of the three, and was in London when trouble broke out in the north.

Word of the intended revolt had somehow reached Elizabeth, who summoned the two earls to London to explain themselves. Percy and Westmoreland didn’t dare go south: they had already been in treasonous correspondence with the Spanish, and had asked the Duke of Alva to land in northern England with an army. Still Percy dithered, reluctant to take the final step into armed rebellion. He was finally persuaded when Westmoreland held a loaded pistol to his head and threatened to blow out his brains (such as they were) unless he grew a spine. With this difficult conversation out of the way, the earls raised the standard of revolt and summoned their tenants to arms. At first their prospects seemed bright. They were joined by the English reivers of Tynedale and Redesdale, some of the best light cavalry in Europe. It was also feared that the riders of Cumberland and the reiver families on the Scottish side would also join in the revolt. In the event most of the Cumbrians stayed at home, and the Scots were held in place by the Regent Moray, Mary’s half-brother, who had recently cowed the Armstrongs with two murderous raids into Liddesdale.

Regardless, the rebel army swept south from Westmoreland’s seat at Brancepeth, picking up more supporters on the way, and marched into Durham. Here they sang a Mass in the cathedral, tore up the Bible and threw prayer books into a bonfire. At first the rebels took no spoil on the march and paid for all they took, but this changed as the need for money became acute. Those who aided them were left alone, but those who did not, especially Protestant gentlemen, were stripped and shaken down for all they had. One unfortunate nobleman, Lord Latimer, was literally stripped of most of his clothing and paraded about on horseback wearing nothing save his hose and doublet. The earls themselves had little ready money to hand. Northumberland, for instance, was obliged to pawn for £60 the golden collar he had receieved when invested with the Order of the Garter.

The rebels moved on into Yorkshire, where they took a string of towns and arrived at Boroughbridge on 20th November. So far they had met with no resistance. To the south, the Earl of Sussex was trying to raise an army at York and not having much success. Many of the citizens secretly sympathised with the Catholic rebels, or had friends and kin among them. Sussex himself was under suspicion, due to his kinship with the Catholic Duke of Norfolk and constant pleas that the rebels should be treated with mercy. Elizabeth was not in a merciful mood. She sent Lord Hunsdon, the hard-nosed Warden of the East March, up to York to kick Sussex into action and remind him of his duties. The Queen’s councillors then gave orders for two enormous armies to be mustered in the south: one, projected at 10,000 infantry and 800 horse to guard the Queen, while another of 20,000 foot and 2500 horse to be sent north to crush the rebels. Elizabeth’s commissions for these armies urged them to “invade, resist, subdue, slay, kill, and put to execution by all ways and means.” Gloriana could not have been more explicit.

The Queen’s knife-edge temper was not improved by the news that Hartlepool, on the East Yorkshire coast, had fallen to the rebels. She insisted on it being retaken immediately, and despatched ships and 500 soldiers to assist in the task. Sussex, who didn’t regard the loss of Hartlepool as terribly important, nevertheless sent a few ships under Sir Henry Percy (Simple Tom’s brother, who had chosen to remain loyal) to assault the town by sea. Bad weather drove Percy’s ships onto Flamborough Head, and poor Henry achieved nothing save the capture of a small fishing boat. Since the fishermen inside it were not rebels, even this was a dubious truimph.

While Elizabeth’s captains dithered and fumbled, the rebel earls were doing no better. Perhaps surprised by their own success, they hesitated before marching on York. The capture of the greatest city in the north would have been a great prize, but the earls doubted their scratch army was up to the task. Instead, after much arguing, they decided to attack Barnard Castle, a small fortress some 25 miles southwest of Durham on the River Tees. Barnard was held by a loyalist garrison under Sir George Bowes, and might have posed some threat to the rebels if they had continued south. Even so, the decision of the earls to abandon ‘the enterprise of York’ was sheer folly, and blew their only real chance of victory.

Elizabeth owed much to two men. The first was Moray, who prevented the Scottish reivers pouring over the border to overrun her flimsy northern defences. The second was Sir John Forster, the infamously corrupt Warden of the English Middle and a most unlikely hero. Forster was about 70 years old, and his name a byword along the March for shameless corruption and negligence. Yet, when push came to shove, he held true to the Queen. As soon as word reached Forster of the revolt, he raised his March riders and moved fast to seize the Percy castles at Alnwick and Warkworth. This done, he swung about to attack the rebels at Durham. En route he was joined by the loyalist Henry Percy, and on December 13th they engaged and routed the rebel advance guard.  

After taking Barnard Castle, Percy and Westmoreland had decided to make for Newcastle. Repulsed by Forster, they turned back towards Durham, only to receive news of the massive loyalist army coming up from York. Chivvied by Hunsdon, Sussex had finally got himself into gear, and set out from York at the head of 12,000 men. The army was large, but the troops of poor quality, and the rebels might have done well to stand their ground. Later Hunsdon himself sneered caustically at the southerners under Sussex’s command. He wrote:

“This lusty southern army would not have returned laden with much spoil, nor put their noses over Doncaster Bridge; but others beat the bush, and they have the birds.”

As it was, the fragile morale of the earls evaporated like dawn mist. They had already pleaded to Leonard Dacre, their erstwhile ally, for sanctuary, and met with a cold reception. Dacre had his own plans, and wanted nothing to do with this half-cocked rebellion. Leonard’s brother Edward was more amenable, and tried to take Carlisle Castle for the rebels. His attempt failed dismally when the Bishop of Carlisle got wind of it and strengthened the garrison. After this failure, the earls decided to cut and run. On the night of 20th December, with Westmoreland’s loyal wife in tow, they abandoned their army and rode hell-for-leather into Scotland.

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