Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






THE escape of the Earl of Nithisdale on the 23rd of February, 17 6, the evening before the day fixed for his execution, is one of the most interesting events of the dark history of the Tower. It is hard to say whether the wonderful ingenuity exercised by his heroic wife, in contriving his escape, or her presence of mind under circumstances of anxiety, sufficient to have shaken the most undaunted courage, are most to be admired. Winifred, Countess of Nithisdale, was the daughter of W. Marquis of Powis. She was born about 1690, and married early to Maxwell, Earl of Nithisdale.

This Earl was one of the noblemen who were first intrusted by the Earl of Mar, with the Pretender's intended attempt on the crown of England; and took a leading part in the assembly of the Jacobite nobles at Braemar, where the plans for the invasion were finally discussed and determined.

After the action at Preston, the Earl of Nithisdale was made prisoner, and conveyed on horseback with his arms tied, and other indignities, to London, where he arrived on the 9th December, 1715, and was committed


at once to the Tower, with several of his friends and associates.

Lady Nithisdale was residing with her two young children at the family seat of Terregles in Dumfriesshire, when the terrible news reached her of the defeat at Preston, and of her husband's captivity and imprisonment in the Tower. Instead of giving way to the terror and distress with which such news would have overwhelmed an ordinary mind, her first step was immediately to collect, and bury in the garden, all family papers, which regarded the estate; and then, attended only by her faithful maid Evans, and a groom in whom she could place trust, she set out on horseback (though she had never been much accustomed to riding) for Newcastle; from whence a public stage conveyed her to York. But here the snow was so deep, that it was found impossible for the stage to proceed. Nothing daunted, she betook herself again to the saddle, and made her way, exposed to all the inclemency of the winter, and through roads which, bad at all times, were then choked with snow, till she arrived in London. From her rank and connexions, she had many friends of rank and influence in the capital, among whom were the Duchesses of Buccleuch and Montrose, who at her request ascertained for her, through their friends at court, whether there was any chance of intercession for Lord Nithisdale succeeding with George I. The King had a great objection to him on account of his profession of the Roman Catholic faith, and the report of the two Duchesses was very unfavourable.

Lord Nithisdale, however, could not be persuaded


but that a petition to the King would have effect in his favour. To'use her own words, Lady Nithisdale says:- "I was convinced in my own mind that it would answer no purpose; but as I wished to please him, I desired him to have it drawn up, and I undertook that it should come to the King's hands, notwithstanding all the precautions he might take to avoid it. So the first day I heard there was to be a drawing-room, I dressed myself in black, as if in mourning, and sent for Mrs. Morgan, the same who afterwards accompanied me to the Tower, because, as I did not know his Majesty's person, I might have mistaken some other of the court for him. She stayed by me, and told me when he was coming. I had also another lady with me, and we all three remained in a room between the King's apartment and the drawing-room, so that he was obliged to go through it; and as there were three windows in it, we sat in the middle one, that I might have time enough to meet him before he could pass.

"I threw myself at his feet, and told him in French that I was the unfortunate Countess of Nithisdale, that he might not pretend to be ignorant of my person. But seeing that he wanted to go off, without taking my petition, I caught hold of the skirt of his coat, that he might stop and hear me; he endeavoured to escape out of my hands, but I kept such strong hold, that he dragged me, upon my knees, from the middle of the room to the very door of the drawing-room. At last one of the Blue Ribands who attended his Majesty, took me round the waist, while another wrested the coat from my hands. The petition,


which I had endeavoured to thrust into his pocket, fell to the ground in the scuffle, and I almost fainted away from grief and disappointment."

Although the Rebellion had been entirely suppressed, yet there were so many persons interested in the cause of the Stuarts, even among those whom the King believed most faithful to him, that already several prisoners had made their escape from prisons in the country, and some had even succeeded in London.

An escape from the Tower being the only chance now left for her husband's life, Lady Nithisdale bent the whole force of her mind to this object, resolving to have no confidant of her scheme, except the faithful maid, who had attended her on her venturous ride from Scotland. No time was to be lost, for the trial of the rebel lords had commenced on the 9th of February, and sentence having been passed on the 19th, they now lay in the Tower awaiting their execution, which was fixed for the 24th.

Numerous petitions were however prepared and presented to both Houses of Parliament, for intervention with his Majesty. The petition to the Commons was stopped, by a motion for adjournment, carried by the small majority of seven votes.

In the House of Lords, where some of the unfortunate nobles had many personal friends, the motion for reading the petitions was carried against the ministry by nine voices.

A question was then raised whether the King had power to reprieve in cases of impeachment ? This was


carried in the affirmative, and strong hopes were consequently entertained for the prisoners; but when it came to the wording of the Address to the King on behalf of the prisoners, the Whig Ministry prevailed (though only by five voices) for the adoption of terms, which, in point of fact, left the matter much as it stood before; for the Address only petitioned his Majesty to " reprieve such of. the condemned lords as deserved his mercy," the period of respite being also left to his Majesty's discretion.

The stern reply of the King to this Address left small hopes for the prisoners, for he merely answered that on this and all occasions he would do what he thought most consistent with the dignity of his Crown, and the safety of his people. Nor did he confine himself to this virtual rejection of the Address; for shortly afterwards he commanded several persons who had taken part in both Houses for the prisoners to be dismissed from offices which they held under the Crown. The issue of this debate, on the very eve of the day appointed for her husband's execution, would have overwhelmed a less bold and elastic spirit than that of Lady Nithisdale, but, with incredible presence of mind, she hastened to avail herself of the fact of the Address, even such as it was, having been carried at all; and taking coach directly for the Tower, presented herself at the gates, with a face of gladness, telling the warders, as she passed to Lord Nithisdale's apartment, that there was now no longer fear for the prisoners, since the motion to address the King had just passed in the House of Lords, giving them, at the same time, some money to drink to


its success. She remained with Lord Nithisdale no longer than was necessary to explain to him the real truth, and to instruct him as to the part he was to play in her plan for his escape, and then returned quickly to the lodgings which she had hired in Drury Lane.

It was not the least remarkable part of this lady's character, that, delicate and feminine in appearance as she is represented in the picture by Sir G. Kneller, in possession of the family, she possessed that power over the minds of others which belongs more usually to men early accustomed to command, and long versed in the vicissitudes of life. With that self-reliance so peculiar to her, she resolved on a step, which seemed as rash and imprudent at first sight, as it afterwards proved the contrary. Having observed pretty closely the character of a Mrs. Mills, of whom she had hired lodgings in Drury Lane, she sent for her to her own apartment, and informed her that, all hope of pardon being now lost, she had determined on a scheme to effect Lord Nithisdale's escape from the Tower. "This," she said, "is the last night before his execution;" and then passionately appealed to her feelings, to assist her in the attempt she meditated, by accompanying her at once to the Tower, in order that Lord Nithisdale might escape in one of her dresses, for which scheme she had arranged every detail, and had even secured the dress and carried it to the Tower.

Meantime she had sent for another person (who appears to have been of the same station in life as Mrs. Mills), a Mrs. Morgan, who presently was hurried into


a similar consent as the kindness of her feelings had extorted from Mrs. Mills. "Their surprise and astonishment," to use Lady Nithisdale's own words, " made them consent, without thinking of the consequences." A coach was called, and all three started for the Tower, Lady Nithisdale talking all the way, for fear they should have time for reflection, and change their minds. As they drove along she explained the details of her scheme, namely, that Mrs. Morgan was to wear over her own clothes a dress of Mrs. Mills's (who was a large woman), for Lord Nithisdale to put on, with other disguise, and so pass the Warders stationed in his outer room and at the gate.

Lady Nithisdale's own account, in a letter to her sister, of what now took place, shall be literally transcribed. " On our arrival, I first brought in Mrs. Morgan, as I was only allowed to introduce one at a time, calling her a friend of my lord's, come to take leave of him. When Mrs. Morgan had taken off the dress of Mrs. Mills's which she had brought for my purpose, I conducted her back to the staircase, and, in going, I begged her to send my maid to dress me, as I was afraid of being too late to present my last petition that night, if she did not come immediately. I despatched her safe, and went partly down stairs, to meet Mrs. Mills, who held her handkerchief to her face, as was natural for a person going to take a last leave of a friend before his execution; and I had desired her to do this, that my lord might go out in the same manner. Her eyebrows were inclined to be sandy, and as my lord's were dark, and thick, I had prepared some paint to disguise him.


I had also got an artificial head-dress, of the same coloured hair as hers, and rouged his face and cheeks, to conceal his beard, which he had not time to shave. All this provision I had before left in the Tower. The poor guards, whom my slight liberality the day before had endeared me to, let me go quietly out with my company, and were not so strictly on the watch as they usually had been; and the more so, as they were persuaded, from what I had told them the day before, that the prisoners would obtain their pardon. I made Mrs. Mills take off her own hood, and put on that which I had brought for her. I then took her by the hand, and led her out of my lord's chamber; and, in passing through the next room, in which were several people, with all the concern imaginable I said, 'My dear Mrs. Catherine, go in all haste, and send me my waitingmaid; she certainly cannot reflect how late it is. I am to present my petition to-night, and if I let slip this opportunity I am undone, for to-morrow is too late. Hasten her as much as possible, for I shall be on thorns till she comes.' Everybody in the room, who were chiefly the guards' wives and daughters, seemed to compassionate me exceedingly, and the sentinel officiously opened me the door. When I had seen her safe out I returned to my lord, and finished dressing him. I had taken care that Mrs. Mills did not go out crying, as she came in, that my lord might better pass for the lady who came in crying and afflicted; and the more so as he had the same dress that she wore. When I had almost finished dressing my lord, I perceived it was growing dark,


and was afraid that the light of the candles might betray us, so I resolved to set off. I went out leading him by the hand, whilst he held his handkerchief to his eyes. I spoke to him in the most piteous and afflicted tone, bewailing bitterly the negligence of my maid Evans, who had ruined me by her delay. Then I said, 'My dear Mrs. Betty, for the love of God, run quickly and bring her with you; you know my lodging, and if you ever made despatch in your life, do it at present; I am almost distracted with this disappointment.' The guards opened the door, and I went downstairs with him, still conjuring him to make all possible despatch. As soon as he had cleared the door, I made him walk before me, for fear the sentinel should take notice of his walk, but I continued to press him to make all the despatch he possibly could. At the bottom of the stairs I met my dear Evans, into whose hand I confided him. I had before engaged Mr. Mills to be in readiness before the Tower, to conduct him to some place of safety in case we succeeded. He looked upon the affair as so very improbable to succeed, that his astonishment, when he saw us, threw him into such a consternation that he was almost out of himself, which, Evans perceiving, with the greatest presence of mind, without telling Lord Nithisdale anything, lest he should mistrust them, conducted him to some of her own friends on whom she could rely, and so secured him, without which we certainly should have been undone. When she had conducted him, and left him with them, she returned to Mr. Mills, who had by this time recovered himself


from his astonishment. They went home together, and having found a place of security, brought Lord Nithisdale to it. In the mean time, as I had pretended to have sent the young lady on a message, I was obliged to return upstairs and go back to my lord's room in the same feigned anxiety of being too late, so that everybody seemed sincerely to sympathize in my distress. When I was in the room, I talked as if he had been really present. I answered my own questions in my lord's voice, as nearly as I could imitate it, and walked up and down, as if we were conversing together, till I thought they had time enough thoroughly to clear themselves of the guards. I then thought proper to make off also. I opened the door and stood half in it, that those in the outward chamber might hear what I said, but held it so close that they could not look in. I bade my lord formal farewell for the night, and added, that something more than usual must have happened to make Evans negligent, on this important occasion, who had always been so punctual in the smallest trifles; that I saw no other remedy than to go in person; that if the Tower was then open, when I had finished my business, I would return that night; but that he might be assured I would be with him, as early in the morning, as I could gain admittance into the Tower, and I flattered myself I should bring more favourable news. Then, before I shut the door, I pulled through the string of the latch, so that it could only be opened in the inside. I then shut it with some degree of force, that I might be sure of its being well shut. I said to the


servant, as I passed by (who was ignorant of the whole transaction), that he need not carry in candles to his master, till my lord sent for them, as he desired to finish some prayers first."

So far the courage and ingenuity of Lady Nithisdale had succeeded beyond expectation; it now remained for her and her husband to gain some safe retreat, as the deception must, within a few hours, be discovered, and an active search was sure to be set on foot.

Lady Nithisdale got the first coach she could find, and drove to her lodging in Drury Lane, where Mrs. Mills had already arrived.

It must be observed here, that one of the cleverest parts of Lady Nithisdale's scheme, was the employment of assistants totally unknown, and who, from the insignificance of their position, ran no real risk when once clear of the Tower Gates.

At Mrs. Mills's she found Mr. Mackenzie, a friend by whose hands she had intended originally to send her petition to the Lords-" There is no need," she joyfully exclaimed to him, " of a petition now; my lord is safe out of the Tower, and the hands of his enemies, though as yet I know not where he is."

She now took a chair, and proceeded to her faithful friend the Duchess of Buccleuch; but learning she had company with her, went on to the Duchess of Montrose, who had also company, but, being privately told who was arrived, quitted them instantly to see and console, as she supposed, her unhappy friend. The Duchess, to her astonishment, found Lady Nithisdale in a transport of


own room, till Wednesday (a period of three days), on which morning the Ambassador's coach and six was to set out for Dover, to fetch his brother to London.

Lord Nithisdale put on a livery, and went down in the retinue, without the least suspicion, to Dover, where Mr. Mickel, which was the name of the Ambassador's servant, hired a small vessel, in which, accompanied by Lord Nithisdale, he immediately sailed for Calais. The passage was so remarkably short, that the Captain made the remark "that the wind could not have served better, if the passengers had been flying for their lives," little thinking such to be really the case. To return to Lady Nithisdale: the solicitations of her friends, and the interest taken in her cause by persons on both sides of politics, prevailed no further with the hard nature of the King, than to obtain the assurance, that unless seen in England or Scotland, she should not be molested. But this concession would in no way protect her son's estate from waste and plunder. The family papers, as we have seen, she had buried in the garden at Terregles; and to get them safe out of the country was now her object. "As I had hazarded my life for the father," she wrote to her sister, "I could not do less than hazard it once more for the son."

Whether she adopted any disguise does not appear, but she bought three saddle-horses, and attended only by her faithful Evans and the trusty groom she had brought before from Scotland, she left London for the north, putting up at small roadside alehouses, for fear of recognition in the English towns. Could she once reach her


own county, she relied on the attachment and respect of her neighbours for not betraying her; nor was her ingenuity and resource ever at fault, for, on arriving in Traquhair, she announced that she had come home, with the leave of Government, and on arriving at her own house, she issued invitations to her neighbours to come and visit her. That same night however she dug up the buried papers, and despatched them by a trusty hand for London; and not a moment too soon; for the magistrates of Dumfries, beginning to doubt her story, had resolved to insist on her producing the passport which she pretended to possess. Before daybreak this indefatigable lady was again in the saddle, and made her way to London, with the same secrecy as she had left it.

" Spotless without, and innocent within, She feared no danger, for she knew no sin."

Rumours, however, of her journey had reached the ears of the King, who, to his shame, was only roused to greater anger than before against her. He declared " that Lady Nithisdale did whatever she pleased in spite of him; and that she had given him more trouble than any woman in Europe." A strict search for her retreat was, by his orders, again set on foot, and to have remained longer in London, would have been to tempt that Providence which had watched over her safety in so marvellous a manner. She accordingly made up her mind to abandon any further ideas of intercession, and to rejoin her husband abroad, with whom she lived a retired life at Rome till his death in 1744. His admirable wife did not long


survive him, and died also at Rome, but her remains were brought to England, and were buried at Arundel Castle.

Her picture, by Sir G. Kneller, in the bloom of youth, is still at Terregles, and has been thus described by a lady of the Maxwell family. " Her hair is light brown, slightly powdered, with large soft eyes, regular features, and a fair pale complexion. Her soft expression and delicate appearance give little indication of the strength of mind and courage she displayed. Her dress is blue silk with a border of cambric, and over it a cloak of brown silk."

As doubts have existed as to the locality in the Tower, from whence Lord Nithisdale's extraordinary escape was made, some pains have been taken to ascertain a point of such interest, by examination and comparison of the probable places of his confinement. It would appear from Lady Nithisdale's letter, that the chamber in which the Earl was imprisoned, opened into a sort of lobby, where the Warders in charge were stationed, and that from this lobby or antechamber, there was a staircase leading down to the outer door of the house, or prison, where Lord Nithisdale was confined.

Now this description would not apply at all to the State Prison, known as the Beauchamp Tower; nor indeed was it the custom at this period to confine noblemen in any of the ordinary prisons or dungeons of the Tower. They were usually given in charge to a Warder, and lived in his quarters, the windows and doors of which were barred securely with iron, as may still be


seen in the quarters of the Middle Tower, and other old residences of the Warders. The custom of giving prisoners in charge to individuals prevailed also in France, as appears by the Memoirs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where we read of persons of distinction being placed " aux arrets," in the custody of an Exempt of the Royal Guard (from which word Exempt that of Exon in the Queen's "Body Guard" is no doubt a corruption, the meaning being an under officer " exempt" from sentinel's duty).

But in the Tower, prisoners of rank were often received as inmates of the. Governor's own house, where, besides several upper rooms, from which escape would be difficult, there is in the Bell Tower connected with the upper story, a strong vaulted prison-room, known as the scene of the harsh confinement of Bishop Fisher in Henry VIII.'s reign. Now in this upper story of the Lieutenant's house, there are two rooms opening into a large apartment known as the Council Room, either of which rooms would answer the local description given by Lady Nithisdale in her narrative; supposing the Warders on duty to have been posted in the large Council Room, where she mentions that several of their wives and daughters had assembled from compassion, or curiosity, to see her, and her friends, pass into the inner chamber to visit Lord Nithisdale.

From the " Council Room," there is a lobby or passage about twenty-five feet long leading to the head of the stairs, which descend to the lobby of the first floor, and thence down into the Entrance Hall; every part of


which localities correspond, so closely, with the details of Lady Nithisdale's narrative, that there can be little doubt of the Governor's House having been the scene of this truly wonderful escape.

Lord Nithisdale's unfortunate friends, Lords Derwentwater, Widdrington, Wintoun, Carnwath, Kenmure, and Nairn, who had all pleaded guilty except Wintoun, were condemned to die as traitors. They had been brought into London on horseback with every degradation, their arms tied behind them, their horses led by soldiers and preceded by drums and music as a sort of triumph over their misfortunes. Lord Nairn was saved by the friendly efforts of Lord Stanhope, who had been his schoolfellow at Eton; but all the interest made for the rest was vain.

Steele, the friend of Addison, pleaded eloquently for mercy in the Commons; but Walpole, though naturally a humane man, held that example was indispensable, and declared " that he was moved with indignation to see that there should be such unworthy members of this great body, who can, without blushing, open their mouths in favour of rebels and parricides." The efforts made for the prisoners in the House of Lords have already been alluded to; and though the Minister would concede nothing as regarded the other noblemen, Lords Carnwath and Widdrington were respited in deference to the feelings expressed in the Commons.

Finally, none but Derwentwater and Kenmure were left for execution, and appointed to suffer on Tower Hill. Derwentwater, who was the first to suffer, behaved with


much composure and firmness. He declared that he died a sincere Catholic; that his intention had been what he believed best for his country; that he died in charity with all, even with those of the Government who had been most forward for his death.

It is recorded that on trying his neck upon the block he found a rough place which hurt his chin, and quietly asked the headsman to chip off the projection with his axe before he laid him down to receive the blow. He desired the man to strike when he should hear him say " Lord Jesus receive my soul ;" and taking off his coat and waistcoat, placed his neck carefully on the block, and then giving the signal, one blow caused his head to roll on the scaffold.

Lord Kenmure then ascended the platform, and, behaving with the same courage and resolution as his friend, made a declaration to the same purport; but added that he regretted having admitted himself guilty on his trial, and offered a short prayer for King James III. It was not till the second stroke that his head fell; but the first had probably extinguished all sensation.

Lord Wintoun contrived to retard his trial by various pretexts and delays; when at last these resources were exhausted, he declared that he had witnesses in his favour who were retarded by the badness of the roads from Scotland.

With the injustice usual in trials for treason at that time, no counsel was allowed him, against which hard rule he urgently but vainly remonstrated. Lord Cowper, the High Steward, having checked him with some harshness,


he said, " I hope, my Lord, you will give me justice, and not make use of Cowper-Law, as we used to say in Scotland-hang a man first and then judge him."

He was found guilty, and sent back to await his doom in the Tower; but the same cunning and shrewdness which had enabled him to stave off his trial, stood him in such good stead, that shortly before the day fixed for his execution he managed to escape from prison, and, being well seconded by friends of the cause in London, was conveyed safely to the Continent. There is no record, or tradition, of the manner of Lord Wintoun's escape; though it was probably even more difficult to accomplish than that of Lord Nithisdale, from the better precautions we may suppose to have been adopted in the Tower to prevent escape of State prisoners.