Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 12 : The Rising of the Northern Earls

An infuriated Elizabeth ordered Norfolk to return to court. Instead, he sent a message saying he was too ill to travel – then added insult to injury by leaving London for his house at Kenninghall. Seriously alarmed that this action meant that Norfolk intended rebellion, Elizabeth went to Windsor, and sent further summonses. Meanwhile, Norfolk wrote to the Northern earls, who agreed that, if he could not marry Mary without Elizabeth’s consent, they would help him to do so by force of arms. Initially excited by the prospect of grasping the throne, Norfolk was soon discouraged – possibly because of lack of local support, or possibly because he had no real desire to commit treason.

He decided to give himself up to the queen, and sent a message north to urge the earls to remain at home, lest he lose his head. Elizabeth sent orders for him to be arrested before he reached her, and he was carried off to the Tower of London, where he was interrogated about his misdeeds. Arundel, Lumley and Pembroke were also questioned and Elizabeth announced that she wanted Norfolk charged with treason. Cecil intervened, pointing out that the duke’s activities, although foolish and perhaps disloyal, did not constitute treason. Incandescent, the queen was heard to shout that, if the law would not punish Norfolk, she herself would do it on her own authority, but she was eventually persuaded against such a course, and merely detained him in the Tower without a trial. Norfolk wrote letters of apology and swore he would meddle no more with Mary.

Smarting from what she saw as betrayal, Elizabeth ordered her lieutenant in the North, the Earl of Sussex, to send the earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland to her. He counselled against the command, suggesting that the earls would fear that they were to be sent after Norfolk, which might precipitate them into rebellion. Elizabeth was immediately suspicious of Sussex’ own motives, especially as he and Norfolk were good friends, but she wronged him. He reluctantly followed orders, but was proved right when the earls, strongly encouraged by the Countess of Northumberland, Anne Percy, née Somerset, who was reckoned to be ‘stouter’ than her husband in the matter, gave the signal to rise.

On 14 November, 1569, Northumberland, Westmoreland and the Sheriff of Yorkshire, Richard Norton led 300 armed men into Durham Cathedral, where a Catholic Mass was offered. Two days later, they headed south. Wherever they passed, the churches were packed with people eager to worship in the old way. Sussex was gravely alarmed, and sent word that he did not think he could command enough loyalty for the queen to raise an army against the earls. He recommended that she offer the earls mercy – especially since they had covered themselves with the old fiction of only wishing to remove the queen’s ‘evil counsellors’. Elizabeth rejected his advice out of hand – wherever she had shown herself to her people, she was acclaimed and adored, and it was hard for her to believe that in the North, where she had never actually ventured, things might be different. She also retained lingering suspicion of Sussex.

When Sir Ralph Sadler and her cousin, Lord Hunsdon, confirmed Sussex’ gloomy outlook, she determined to crush the rebels. Shrewsbury was commanded to take Mary to Coventry, out of reach of the rebels, and the Earl of Warwick and Lord Clinton had commissions to raise ten thousand soldiers from the South and Midlands. Northumberland and Westmoreland were now in a bind – although they had the support of the commons, the other great Northern magnates, the earls of Cumberland and Derby had refused to join them, and the gentry class was not well-represented either and an army of untrained countrymen was of little use, especially as the earls lacked ready cash and did not have a coherent plan. They withdrew, and when Sussex began a pursuit, the rebellion crumbled. The earls knew they could not win a battle against Sussex’ well-provisioned army with countrymen who had nothing but their faith to sustain them. They told their men to ‘make shift for themselves’ and fled over the border to Scotland.

Northumberland was unlucky enough to be captured by Moray, who held him for a while, before handing him over to Elizabeth for execution in June 1572. Westmoreland, Norton and Lady Northumberland managed to get away to Spanish territory but the reprisals against the commons were appalling. Whilst the gentlemen might stand trial, the commons were hanged under martial law and over five hundred, and perhaps as many as 800 were hanged, whilst Elizabeth urged Sussex on, seeking vengeance even on those who had not taken part in the rebellion, but had stayed at home, rather than answer Sussex’ call to arms. This compares with some two hundred and fifty dispatched after the Pilgrimage of Grace, and about one hundred after Wyatt’s Rebellion. A later instance of defiance, short of rebellion, by Lord Dacre resulted in a victory for Leicester and Hunsdon that saw Dacre also driven out of the land. Thus expired the last gasp of Catholic, feudal England.