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