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Heritage - 59: Northern Rising Crushed - a Young Queen Elizabeth Tudor's Resolve Is Sore-Tested

Updated on April 17, 2020

"From every side came noisy swarms...

The young Queen Elizabeth, from a painting created in the early days of her reign in 1558
The young Queen Elizabeth, from a painting created in the early days of her reign in 1558

In the autumn of 1569, ten full years into her reign the young queen was faced with a test of her resolve...

"From every side came noisy swarms

Of peasants in their homely gear;

And mixed with these to Brancepeth came

Grave gentry of estate and name

And captains known for worth in arms

And prayed the earls the earls in self defence

To rise and prove their innocence"

Four hundred and fifty years will have passed this November, 2019, since a far-off county in the North of England rose to a man, the poet William Wordsworth tells us.

The population of the county of Durham swarmed like angry wasps to Brancepeth Castle, south-west of the city of Durham. From there the army of people surged to the imposing Norman cathedral to burn the Anglican Protestant prayer books in a bid to restore the Old Faith, Roman Catholicism.

This rebellion, like that before it in the reign of the queen's father, would not only fail - and miserably so - but the stamp of authority would see an example made of the leaders as well as many followers. Queen Elizabeth I had a loyal following that saw to a grisly reminder being made, and men were hanged - it is said - along the Durham road. The trees bore a grim fruit that autumn, that dangled on ropes.

Elizabeth had ascended to the throne on the death of her intensely hated half sister, "Bloody Mary" in 1558. Mary had attempted to stamp out the Protestant following in England, that had taken root over much of the kingdom around two decades earlier. Henry's sickly young heir Edward VI had died leaving no heir and Mary saw the do or open to mark her - albeit short - reign with a bloody hand and Anglican bishops such as Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer were burnt publicly at the stake to underline her determination to stamp out the 'heretics' as she saw the adherents of the new faith.

Following her secret nuptials with King Philip of Spain and her phantom pregnancy, as she saw the swelling of her stomach, Mary died in 1558. Elizabeth on her release from the Tower of London was in no mood to brook rebellions from the 'other camp'. Elizabeth could be as brutal as Mary and she did not mind showing it.

The leading heads of the North East were disgruntled.

The county of Durham in Tudor times
The county of Durham in Tudor times | Source
Durham Castle and Cathedral from across the River Wear
Durham Castle and Cathedral from across the River Wear | Source

Henry VIII first forced the Protestant faith on them in the 1530s...

They had raised a force of 30,000 and marched to rally more. The cause was the Pilgrimage of Grace, to bring an end to the threat of demolition of the Priory of Grace near Northallerton. The 'error of their ways' was underlined when Henry had the leaders executed for high treason - that carried with it execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.

So this discontent manifested itself in the 1569 Rising of the North. Sir Thomas Percy had seen his father executed on Henry's order, but the desire to right wrongs outweighed any fears he might have harboured on his own fate. With him was Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, who owned Raby Castle near Staindrop and Brancepeth Castle near Durham.

Anger spilled over not only about the new faith, but over how Elizabeth gave senior positions of power to southern nobles. A plot was hatched to remove her from the throne and to hand the crown to her cousin Mary Stewart, Queen of the Scots, held hostage near Leyburn in the North Riding of Yorkshire at the castle of Lord Scrope (now Castle Bolton).

In early November Neville collected his Teesdale allies to assault Durham Cathedral. Sir George Bowes, resident at Barnard Castle to the west, and Streatlam Castle stayed loyal to the crown. By way of a network of loyal agents he passed information of the rebellion that was building to the queen. On November 10th she called the two earls to Windsor Castle to explain themselves. On receiving the summons Percy and Neville met on the 13th in the baron's hall at Raby Castle and debated the validity of their intended treason against Elizabeth. Lady Westmoreland tried to raise their spirits, "bratse owt agaynste them with great curses, as well for their unhappe counseling as now their cowerd flyghte".

Stirred on they marched the men to Brancepeth Castle, as Willliam Wordsworth 'painted' the scene in his epic poem, "The White Doe of Rylstone", as men from across the county massed, drawn by the unusual rfeverse-order clang of church bells. They were to stand up for the old faith, and to render the new queen. The 20th November marks the 450th anniversary of the muster -/ tickets to see the 2019 re-enactment were sold out well in advance - at Brancepeth Castle.

Many of the noted Durham families were represented, Markenfíeld, Tempest, Swínburne, Norton, Dacre and Brian Palmes - a name commemorated in the village name Morton Palms outside Darlington. They feasted well, girding their loins for what would be a forceful calling-out to the queen's lieutenants. And who knew when they would eat so well again?

The following day saw them march on Durham, take over the cathedral and destroy all the panoply of Protestantism. Will Cook of Bishop Auckland tore up "with hands and teeth" the new prayer books, burning the residue. Thomas Plumtree then led the Catholic mass.

Two days later the throng set out to take the county, by storm if necessary. During the following fortnight Catholic masses were held feverishly around the county, the last being at St Mary's church in Staindrop. November 16th, Darlington, where many secretly harboured Catholic sympathies. John Swinburn drove the citizens into St Cuthbert's church to hear the rebels' proclamations and hold mass.

The rebels seemed to go from strength to strength. Common folk had joined them, hoping to profit one way or another. Isolated at Barnard Castle George Bowes struggled to raise a force to halt them in their - to him - suicidal southward progress. He wrote to the queen for support, telling her Yorkshire men "never goeth to war but for wages".

Sure that the nation would rise with them the rebels advanced to Richmond's, Northallerton's and Ripon's churches, saying mass and burning prayer books on their way. East of Northellerton the rebels took sheep and oxen 'for the pot' worth £111.6s 8d (£111.34p in today's money, hardly enough to buy a couple or so lambs now) from fields at Whorlton near Stokesley.

The rebels' strength worried lawyer Thomas Layton of Sexhow near Stokesley. He had done well by Bishop Pilkington, who had made him attorney-general of Durham. On.November 17th Layton rode the western moor roads through the night to York, where the Earl of Sussex readied the queen's army to fight the rebels. [Layton's news, when he arrived in the early hours prompted the earl to send him back to raise 200 men from Langbaurgh to the south of the Tees, to defend Hartlepool and deny the rebels help from the Continent. Unfortunately for Layton the advancing force far outnumbered his, although as it was no help was forthcoming from that direction - see also below].

On November 29th they reached Bramham Moor near Wetherby. They took a head count. Around 4,000 men on foot, 1,700 mounted. The count disappointed. Word reached them at York, that Elizabeth's governor in the North, the Earl of Sussex headed their way with 7,000. The Earl of Warwick was on his way to make the number against them 19,000.

Lands and estates that stood to be lost to, or by the rebels...

Brancepeth Castle near Durham
Brancepeth Castle near Durham
Raby Castle
Raby Castle
The ruins of Barnard Castle - reduced during the Civil War against Charles I by Cromwell's cannon (another era of religious turmoil)
The ruins of Barnard Castle - reduced during the Civil War against Charles I by Cromwell's cannon (another era of religious turmoil) | Source

A return to Durham where they considered they were strongest was their best option...

Percy made for Northumberland for the safety of Alnwick Castle. A company of men made for the port of Hartlepool. Being un defended it was easily taken, and there they awaited help from the Continent. The Netherlands was held at the time by Spain and surely the Spaniards would help? King Philip may still have held hopes of making Elizabeth his queen consort.

The largest contingent, more than 3,000 marched west with Westmoreland into Upper Teesdale, to fight Sir George Bowes. After three days Streatlam Castle fell to them and Barney was next. They laid siege for eleven days when conditions within became desperate. Sir George's men changed sides, absconding when they thought no-one was watching them. Sir George wrote, "In one day and nyght, 226 men leapyd over the walles and opened the gaytes, and went to the enemy off which number thirty-five broke their necks, legges or arms in the leapíng".

Sir George was tougher. Westmoreland rained down fire from his stronger guns and taunted him with a children's rhyme,

"A coward. Coward of Barney Castle

Daren't come out to fight a battle"

By 14th December Sir George could take no more and yielded. He and Westmoreland had been friendly neighbours - in summer they had hunted and hawked together - and Westmoreland could not find it within himself to have Sir George executed. So he let Sir George leave with the remaining 300 supporters he had left, satisfied to taunt his erstwhile friend as he left through Westmoreland's ranks.

Sir Thomas Percy would meet his maker in grim fashion

Sir Thomas Percy fared little better than his father at the hands of Henry VIII's executioner
Sir Thomas Percy fared little better than his father at the hands of Henry VIII's executioner
The Northern rebellion of 1559, how opposing forces met
The Northern rebellion of 1559, how opposing forces met

At Croft Bridge on the Tees three days later Sir George met the Earl of Sussex, who had advanced from York...

They were now numerically stronger, and as they advanced on Darlington the rebels melted away back into the hills.

The Rising of the North, the most dangerous threat to Elizabeth in all the forty-five years of her reign, faded into insignificance. Through the Earl of Sussex and Sir George she was quick to vent her wrath on the insurgents, sentencing around 800 to death, although those well off enough to hand over large amounts of silver were absolved of blame. The property of others was seized.

Every borough and village between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Wetherby along the Great North Road had men put to death, the 'heartlands' of the rising suffered the most. Figures vary.but the North Riding of Yorkshire saw 231 of its men hanged, the diocese of Durham 172 from 120 communities. In the city eighty were hanged at , the head of Framwellgate, including the only priest to be executed, Thomas Plumtree on January 4th, 1570. At Barnard Castle twenty are said to have been hanged, in Darlington all twenty-three of the town's constables were sentenced for enforcing the law. Another account gives a number, ninety-nine hanged from trees along Coniscliffe Road..

A grim autumn harvest

The church of St Mary, Staindrop, where Catholic mass would be led by Thomas Plumtree in mid-November, 1559
The church of St Mary, Staindrop, where Catholic mass would be led by Thomas Plumtree in mid-November, 1559
The locations and numbers of the hangings in County Durham, 1569
The locations and numbers of the hangings in County Durham, 1569

Sir George Bowes took charge of the executions...

In his black book he calculated sixteen from the centre of Darlington were to be hanged, although no mention was made of them being strung up from roadside boughs. A Barnard Castle man by the name of Harrison was hanged in his orchard at Streatlam Castle, "The best fruit a tree can bear is a dead traitor", Sir George is reputed to have announced. Harrison's ghost haunts the remains of the castle, along with Sir George himself. He saw the rebels had "utterly defaced' Streatlam, carrying away anything that could be borne - forty feather beds included, and breaking up whatever could not be carried off, He was unable to afford the cost of rebuilding the castle and died there, inconsolable, in 1580.

The final executions are thought to have been at Northallerton. On January 16th, 1570 at the north end of the high street Sir George had six hanged. The two earls, ringleaders of the rising fared no better. Westmoreland had his castles at Raby and Brancepeth confiscated and he lived out his days, poverty-stricken in France.

Percy was caught by the Scots, who sold him in 1572 to Elizabeth. He was lewd through Durham, Raby and Topcliffe near Thirsk - where he held an estate - and hanged at York on August 22nd, 1572, his head stuck on a post atop Micklegate Bar, where it stayed until someone stole it two years later.

© 2019 Alan R Lancaster


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