William and Winifred Maxwell’s Escape from the Tower of London

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (where Protestant William and Mary replaced the Catholic James II as joint monarchs of England, Wales and Scotland) tensions rose within the nobility and people at large, depending on which monarch they supported. At this time large pockets of Scotland in particular were Catholic, meaning they had a natural leaning towards King James. They, alongside others supporting James, became known as Jacobites, so named because it was similar to the Latin for James. This period in history is fascinating to me, not just because I love the Stuarts, but a few years ago during researching our family history, my dad discovered that my mum’s family are descended from James II’s first wife, Anne Hyde. The Glorious Revolution is literally my ancestors having a family fall out.

The tensions finally began to come to a head in late 1715 when forces mustered in the name of James’ son, James Francis Edward Stuart, known as the ‘Old Pretender’. It wasn’t well supported as Louis XIV of France, a previous supporter of the Jacobite cause, had died in September. The Duke of Orleans, who became the Regent took a rather different approach, choosing to instead become friends with the Hanoverians, the Protestant line that had been invited to the English throne following the end of the remaining Protestant Stuarts.[1] Despite this, the forces marched through Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire, until they eventually surrendered in Preston.[2] Amongst them was William Maxwell, the 5th Earl of Nithsdale. He and others were taken to London as prisoners and placed either in the Newgate Prison or the Tower of London. William was taken to the Tower, awaiting execution.

The BL King’s Topographical Collection: “THE TOWER OF LONDON”, British Library

William would probably be forgotten to history if it wasn’t for his wife, Winifred, who’s family had been closely linked to the exiled Jacobite court[3]. She was full of dedication, love and loyalty for her husband. Once news of his capture reached her at the family home in Terregles House, just outside Dumfries. Winifred bravely decided to take the month-long ride down to London through terrible winter weather, including deep snow, alone, other than for her maid.[4] After taking lodgings in the city, she wrote a petition to King George I, asking for clemency, after there was no forthcoming help from other Jacobite supporters. When none of this worked, she even visited the King in person, some sources saying she clung to his robes with her begging.[5] Still none of this worked, and Winifred knew she could only rely on herself and a few close friends to help William escape.

W. B. Blaikie, William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale, National Library of Scotland

Planning to escape from the Tower of London was a dangerous thing to do and was fraught with danger. Many had attempted it, but few had successfully managed it. Winifred was willing to play the long game though, and purposefully built up trust with the guards so that she was allowed to visit William regularly. This was a good way to lay the ground for the escape attempt which was scheduled for the day before William’s execution.

Winifred, along with her maid and two friends, were granted a last visit to say goodbye to William when they offered the guards drinking money and began friendly conversation with the wives of the guards.[6] Each of the women had the cloaks of their hoods up and were crying into handkerchiefs every time they left the cell, creating a confusing situation for the guards. It also gave Winifred the time to dress William up in spare women’s clothing that had been smuggled in under the clothing of her friends, and place make up on his face.[7] The funny thing is that William hadn’t had time to shave, so the make up didn’t stick to his face well. However, he was able to leave his cell and get past the guards pretending to be another of the grieving entourage. This was only made possible because Winifred stayed in the cell, pretending to have a conversation with William, and later telling the guards to leave him to his prayers.[8]

Illustration of William Maxwell’s Escape from the Tower of London from T. Archer’s Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History … With descriptive … sketches (1878), British Library

The alarm wasn’t raised until much later after the party had managed to leave the Tower without suspicion. The pair were never caught as William was smuggled out of the country using a carriage with the Venetian ambassador’s coat of arms on, whilst Winifred made the journey back to Scotland to organise family papers and how the estate would be run whilst they were in exile.[9] By the time Winifred made the journey back to Scotland, she was pregnant and sadly after all her hard work, miscarried on the boat over to France to find her husband.[10] They did reunite and moved to Rome, where the rest of the exiled Jacobite court was living. However, despite happily being reunited, their life was still filled with varying degrees of poverty. They were helped with money and things did improve when Winifred became governess to Henry Stuart, the younger brother of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.[11]

Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale (née Winifred Herbert) from a drawing by C. Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Wikimedia Commons

William and Winifred did continue to be in love, and it is lovely to know that love never wavered, despite imprisonment, rebellion, and poverty. The pair did have two children, William, and Anne, but it is thought there were further miscarriages.[12] William Junior did return to the family home following his father’s death in 1744 and reconciled himself with the Hanoverian regime and continued to tell the tale of his parents’ escape from the Tower of London. This was especially important as his mother continued to live in exile until her own death in 1749.

This story of love is perhaps a rather bizarre one, but I must admit there is something endearing that Winifred was so instrumental in saving her husband’s live, despite the obvious risks she was taking. It’s certainly one I hadn’t heard of until recently and I hope it will continue to live on as one of the stranger parts of the Jacobite Rebellions and the history of the Tower of London. Thank you to Lauren Johnson’s talk on women and the Tower of London for bringing it to my attention. The story of the Maxwells certainly shows that whilst the Jacobite Rebellions is often told from the male perspective, just like Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape following his rebellion, women played an important, if forgotten role during that time.


[1] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, The Rose, Shamrock, and the Thistle, 5.25 (1864), p. 50.

[2] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[3] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[4] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[5] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[6] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[7] Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/; ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[8] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/

[9] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/; ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[10] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749

[11] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[12] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749

The Yorkist Cause under Henry VII

The Battle of Bosworth on the 22nd of August 1485 has been seen as the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. However, this is not technically true. The Battle of Stoke Field on the 16th of June 1487 was the last serious military attempt by those wishing for the Yorkist cause to be on the throne. It was led by many prominent Yorkist figures, such as John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln and Richard III’s loyal best friend, Francis Lovell. This battle all aimed to install Lambert Simnel, a boy who had been classed as Edward, the Earl of Warwick, despite Warwick being incarcerated in the Tower of London on the orders of Henry VII.

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Illustration for Chatterbox (1899), Crowning Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth, © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

Simnel is believed to have been trained into the role of pretending to be a person of high social status. There is much debate over who the person responsible for this training actually was. Theories have ranged from Margaret of Burgundy, the one I believe to be the most likely, Francis Lovell and even a clergyman under the instruction of Elizabeth Woodville.[1] Despite Simnel eventually, being given employment as a kitchen servant, he was a key indicator to see whether Henry VII’s rule was to be worth its mettle.

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Dovaston, M., Lambert Simnel in the Kitchen (c.1923), The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

Around five years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the battle site of Stoke as I live fairly local. The atmosphere of the place was somewhat eerie, but this was a start of a fascination for me. The Wars of the Roses has long been something in my life, but I before that trip I never really thought much about the legacy of the House of York and its affect on the reign of Henry VII. Upon that battlefield, I thought of the men who had died and how or why they would have continued to feel loyalty to a cause that the history books tell us finished at Bosworth.

Henry VII was in fear that he would be replaced by force, just as he had done to Richard III.[2] It was a genuine enough fear as the Wars of the Roses had raged on for around fifty years and there were still those who sought to manipulate Yorkist sentiment. Most people of a reasonable age remembered well the violence as “none hath escaped but at one time or another his part has been therein”.[3] What may also have resulted in thoughts of rebellion is that Henry’s reign was not as popular as he had wished, especially in the North where the Tudor regime had “few firm friends”.[4]

Whilst most of the rebellions during the reign of Henry had financial reasons behind them, there was always rumours of Yorkist sentiment behind them. Bennett argues that Henry’s harshness more than likely kindled hope and rumours of Yorkist rebellion.[5] This may have had some nostalgic hindsight linked to it but whilst there was the rumour surrounding it, Henry had reason to be paranoid. Henry VII had dismantled the Plantagenet state and dismembered Plantagenet society, most of all by centralising his own power. This in turn shows his lack of respect for tradition and disassociated himself with what had come before. By creating such antipathy towards the Tudor regime, a culture of spies and spying became central to maintaining his control, thus forming a reign of terror that would later epitomise the rest of the Tudor monarchs.[6] The threat that the Yorkists posed was significant enough to create and fuel this, even well into the reign of Henry VIII in the form of his executing of the Duke of Buckingham.[7]

Warbeck is the main reason for this as he had much more of the country behind him. He claimed to be Richard of York, the youngest of the Princes in the Tower. Many were quick to question whether he really was who he claimed. This pretender was by far the most dangerous for this very reason. he was able to gather support from many foreign rulers, such as Margaret of Burgundy, Charles VIII of France and James IV of Scotland.[8] In this way, Warbeck was able to play on Henry VII’s fears of deposition, which derived from his own life experiences of being a puppet for others in international policies just because of being a challenge to an existing king.[9]

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Portrait of Perkin Warbeck (c.1474-99), Bibliotheque Municipale, Arras, France / Bridgeman Images

Eventually Warbeck was executed due to the continuing threat he posed to the Tudor regime. In order to maintain loyalty to Henry VII, Warbeck was made to confess in front of the crowd at his execution that he had been forced by John Atwater to pretend to be Richard of York.[10] However, it is to be taken into account that Warbeck might have been forced to confess to this through previous torture.

It is clear that whether Simnel and Warbeck were who they claimed to be or not, they were still able to play on Henry VII’s natural fears and general vulnerability of his reign. For this very reason, it is easy to see why Henry did take the Yorkist sympathies seriously. Henry had proved just how easy it was to win by conquest, as he had done at the Battle of Bosworth against Richard III.[11] His fear and paranoia worsened after the death of his wife Elizabeth of York and his son Prince Arthur, but as with any monarch who won the crown by force, he was always looking over his shoulder. In the early years of his reign his treatment of the Northern Rebellion of 1489 was seen as a gross overreaction.[12] Whilst in hindsight the Yorkist cause clearly did not come to fruition, Henry did take it seriously at the time and saw it as the main threat to his reign.

All in all, Henry VII was perhaps not quite as popular as time seems to have suggested. For those who saw the Yorkist regime with nostalgia, Henry had definitely been weighed, measured and found wanting.

[1] Ellis, S. G., Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447-1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule (Harlow: Pearson, 1998), p. 84; Ricca, J. A., Francis, Viscount Lovell: Time Reveals All Things (Richard III Foundation Inc, 2005), pp. 95 and 97; Bacon, F., The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (London: Hesperus Press, 2007), p. 17.

[2] Anderson, A. and Imperato, T., Tudor England, 1485-1603 (London: Hodder Murray, 2001), p. 38.

[3] Lit Cant VIII cited in Keen, M., England in the Later Middle Ages, Second edition (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 408.

[4] Bennett, M.J., ‘Henry VII and the Northern Rising of 1489’, English Historical Review, 105.414 (1990), p. 50.

[5] Bennett, M.J., ‘Henry VII and the Northern Rising of 1489’, pp. 35-36.

[6]  Bacon, F., The History of the Reign of King Henry VII, p. 98; Cunningham, S., Henry VII, p. 84; Grant, A., Henry VII: The Importance of His Reign, p. 5.

[7] Lipscomb, S., 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2009), p. 192.

[8] Anderson, A. and Imperato, T., Tudor England, p. 47 and 49; Crowson, P.S., Tudor Foreign Policy (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1973), p. 50.

[9] Cunningham, S., Henry VII (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 42; Anderson, A. and Imperato, T., Tudor England, p. 38

[10] Cited in Key, N. and Bucholz, R. (eds), Sources and Debates in English History, 1485-1714 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 36

[11] Anderson, A. and Imperato, T., Tudor England, p. 46.

[12] Bennett, M.J., ‘Henry VII and the Northern Rising of 1489’, p. 44; Grummitt, D., ‘The Establishment of the Tudor Dynasty’, p. 24.