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Chapter 9 Lord Nithsdale’s Escape

THE first of the great Jacobite rebellions, that of 1715, was grossly mismanaged from the start. The invasion of England by the Scottish Catholic lords and the Northumbrian Jacobites came to a dismal close at Preston, and the Tower of London was soon full of exalted personages the English Earl of Derwentwater, who was a grandson of Charles II., and the Scottish Earls of Wintoun, Nithsdale, and Carnwath, and Lord Kenmure, who was head of the Galloway Gordons. The trial of the Jacobite lords was not a masterpiece of English justice. The method followed was impeachment, and it was clear from the start that with a Protestant House of Commons Catholic rebels had no kind of chance. Without proper proof they were condemned a political, rather than a legal verdict. They were advised to plead guilty, which as it turned out was an unwise course, for thereby they trusted their lives to the Crown and not to the English law, and King George’s Government were determined to make an example of them as a matter of policy. Wintoun alone refused to plead.

But the people of England were more merciful than their Government, and the popular feeling in favour of leniency was so strong that Walpole was unable to send all the lords to the scaffold. For Derwentwater there could be no mercy; he was too near in blood to the royal house. Mthsdale and Kenmure were also marked for death, partly because they were devouter Catholics than the others, and partly because of their great power in the Lowlands. On Thursday, February 23, 1716, the Lord Chancellor signed the warrants for their execution on the Saturday.

Derwentwater and Kenmure duly lost their heads, and two famous houses were brought to ruin. But when the guards arrived to summon Mthsdale to the scaffold they found that he was gone. This is the story of his escape.

The Countess of Mthsdale had been Lady Winifred Herbert, the youngest daughter of the first Marquis of Powis. At the time she was twenty-six years of age, a slim young woman with reddish hair and pale blue eyes. Her family had always been Catholic and Royalist, and she had shown herself one of the most ardent of Jacobite ladies.

When the news came of the rout at Preston she was at Terregles, the home of the Maxwells in Nithsdale. She realized at once that her husband could expect no mercy, and that his death must follow his imprisonment as certainly as night follows day. It was a bitter January, with snowdrifts on every road. Without wasting an hour she set off for the south after burning incriminating papers. Her only attendant was a Welsh girl called Evans, from the Powis estates, who had been her maid since childhood.

The two women and a groom rode through the wintry country to Newcastle, where they took the coach for York. Presently the coach stuck in the snow and word came that all the roads were blocked. But by offering a large sum Lady Nithsdale managed to hire horses, and pushed on into the Midlands. The little company suffered every kind of disaster, but the lady’s resolute spirit overcame them all, and after some days of weary travel they reached London.

Lady Mthsdale went straight to some of the Scottish great ladies, such as the Duchess of Buccleuch and the Duchess of Montrose, and heard from them that the worst might be expected. She realized that no appeal could save the prisoner, and that, unless he could break bar and bolt, in a week she would be a widow. The first step was to get admission to the Tower. Walpole refused to let her see her husband unless she was prepared to share his captivity to the end. She declined the condition, for she understood that if she was to do anything she must be free. At last she succeeded in bribing the keepers, and found herself in her husband’s chamber. As she looked round she saw that there was no chance of an ordinary escape. One high barred window gave on the ramparts and Water Lane, and a sentry was on guard in front. If Lord Nithsdale were to leave the Tower he must leave it by the door. That in turn was strongly guarded. A halberdier stood outside and two sentries with fixed bayonets, and the stairs and the outer door were equally well held. Force was out of the question. The only hope lay in ingenuity.

The weak part of any prison is to be found in. the human warders, more especially in a place so strong as the Tower, where the ordinary avenues of escape are few and difficult. The Lieutenant, trusting in his walls, was inclined to be negligent. The prison rules were often disregarded, and the wives and children of the officials wandered about the passages at will. TMs gave Lady Nithsdale her plan. — She proposed to her husband to dress him up in cap and skirt and false curls and pass him as a woman through the soldiers. Very soon she had worked out the details. She had women friends who would assist: a Miss Hilton, and the landlady, Mrs. Mills, at her lodging in Drury Lane. The latter was tall and inclined to be stout, and a riding-hood that fitted her would fit Lord Nithsdale, while a red wig would counterfeit Mrs. Mills’s hair. The prisoner’s black eyebrows could be painted out, his chin shaved and his skin rouged.

Lord Nithsdale stubbornly refused. The scheme seemed to him crazy. How could a stalwart soldier with a rugged face and a martial stride imitate any woman? He might do something with a sword in his hand, but, raddled and painted, he would only be a laughing-stock. Far better let his wife get a petition from him placed in the royal hands. There might be some hope in that.

Lady Nithsdale pretended to agree, though she knew well that the Bong’s clemency was a broken reed. For George had given strict orders that no petition from Lord Nithsdale should be received, and she found her friends very unwilling to disobey the King and act as intermediary. Her only hope was to see George himself; so she dressed herself in deep black, and, accompanied “by Miss Hilton, who knew the King by sight, went to Court. They reached the room “between the King’s apartment and the main drawing-room, and when George appeared she flung herself before him. “ I am the wretched Countess of Nithsdale,” she cried. The King stepped back, refusing to take the petition; but she caught him by the skirt of Ms coat and poured out her story in French. George lost his temper, but she would not let go, and suffered herself to be dragged along the floor to the drawing-room door. There the officials unclasped her fingers and released his angry Majesty.

Lord Nithsdale now turned his hopes to the House of Lords. The Countess went from peer to peer; but once again she failed. Lord Pembroke, indeed, who was a kinsman, spoke in favour of the prisoner, but the thing was hopeless from the start. Nithsdale was utterly intractable and impenite............

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